Normally the summer fills landscape photographers like myself with dread. Biting bugs or midges make waiting around for the light hell. Early sunrise and late sunset mean there is a lot of waiting around, being eaten. Really hot days which are no fun laden down with tonnes of camera gear as you sweat up a hill. And to top it all off, summer in the UK is a period of constant green. Not highlights and shades of green, just UK summertime green. Personally, from May to August, I never normally leave the house except to buy food or visit camera shops! I was going to be wrong on one of these points as it turned out, but sadly only one!
Trip 4 for The Wildlife Trusts was also a very unusual mix, starting in Hertfordshire, going down into London, before heading up to the Fens, back down to Bedfordshire, then up the road again to Coventry and then finish close to home with a couple of locations in County Durham. I was intrigued as to how I would fare photographically and personally on this trip.
Hertfordshire, all of it I think!
I like Hertfordshire. I used to live on the Herts/Essex border and I look back on my time there with fondness. There is always something going on, and the people are lively and friendly, so I was looking forward to returning for a few days with three locations to shoot. I arrived late so had to quickly find a wild camp in the dark near Stevenage. I ended up on a farm track just off a B road. As is so often the way with rushed night pitches I woke to find I was only a few metres from a soft pretty meadow which would have been so much more lovely for a campsite. Hey ho.
I met up with Tim from Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trusts who was going to show me round a number of their Living Landscapes with the choice being mine which I would shoot over the next three days. Too bloody enthusiastic by far was Tim. I was meant to shoot three locations, he showed me seven and made them all sound amazing, so I shot four. Too bloody enthusiastic by far was Mike. I remembered Essex and Herts as being very built up with some trees, but very few genuinely green spaces. I used to look at the map and despair before getting in the car and pointing it towards the Peak District for the weekend. Exploring by bike and getting a guided tour opened up many new green places. If you want to get a jump on these yourself, have a look at your local Wildlife Trust website and they will list many local reserves. Or go explore by foot or pedal like I did. I managed to wild camp too, not on reserves, without too much problem so there is plenty of green to find.
I met up with some old friends for lunch in Hertford which was good to sit around drinking coffee and catching up. Off to another reserves then, Balls Wood, which is managed to provide wide rides (tracks) which amongst other things are good for slow worms and grass snakes, of which I saw plenty. They were good to see as I hadn’t seen many before. The sunny rides are also great for butterflies which I enjoyed a lot as there were plenty species we don’t see in the North. But the evenings wild-camp infested my tent with earwigs which I was plagued with for the rest of the trip including some horrendous bites that started to go septic with poor camp hygiene. I also thought I had a tick on my neck, so had to accost a man walking his dog in the woods to have a look at my neck to see if it was a tick. All very shady. Just to complete the random horror show the weather managed to produce hail stones one day, in June!
The heat was a real problem for me. I was drinking 6-8 litres of water a day and eating lots of sodium and potassium rich foods, but it was just too bloody hot. Fortunately Tim provided me with two cooling locations. The first was the Mimram chalk stream near Tewinbury, which typically for chalk stream with clear water and white gravel beds is very striking and very good for a cooling paddle. In the name of my art after all. Just to repent, I got up at 1:30 in the morning and went back to the stream to make a night time panorama which involved me standing in the now chilly stream for an hour due to the long exposures. My feet were still cold the next morning!
I visited Broadwater Lake, an old gravel pit, on the edge of London where we tried to make a panorama from a boat which was a hilarious failure as the boat kept spinning and bobbing about. We made do with photographing from an island, then took a lovely swim in the lake to cool down. I still can’t believe I am getting paid to do this job! I am working hard, honest. It’s just very enjoyable with so many interesting places, and I am adoring making virtual tours.
The heat was also a problem for my bike with puncture repair patches regularly popping off as the rubber glue softened. Really scary as when this happens the tyre will go straight down. A bit like me in the heat, I get pretty deflated, so a week in as I headed down to London proper, I thought a campsite with showers would be just the thing. The showers were brilliant, I would have paid any amount for them, and the hot soapy water did wonders for my now yellow, green and red infected bites. It was all brilliant until I put on my clean t-shirt, which was also full of bitting earwigs from the tent infestation! Not happy, at all. (A few people have pointed out that they think earwigs don’t bite. I had an earwig infestation in my tent. I got septic bites. I’ll leave it there.)
I spent the next few nights on campsites as I was photographing Crane Park Island (London’s favourite park in a recent competition initiated by Boris Johnson) and I really couldn’t figure out the concept of wild camping in London. Plenty green, I was just scared. It is always interesting exploring London’s parks, they are such a reflection of the society and people there. With all the parakeets adding colour and sound it’s quite an exotic experience for a Northern lad like me! Packing up on my last night with no photography made of any real use due to the deep haze I was pretty annoyed. I hate it when a job goes wrong. I decided to make up for my disappointment by riding into central London the next day to catch a train north because I thought a ride in the London rush hour would be simply zingy. The tent was very brightly lit when I woke the next morning. The sun was out and my route into London was very close to Crane Park Island, so I made a quick detour for some photography which turned out just right. Then girded my loins and piloted Birdy and trailer through the honking cars, buses and taxis to get to Kings Cross. Very, good, fun.
I caught the train up to Huntingdon (only sixty miles but I was feeling like I needed a rest) and then proceeded to ride out into a sea of colour as I headed for the Great Fen. Gently rolling countryside covered in yellow, ochre, orange, a million shades of green, lovely blue tones, greys, reds. The Fens was a delight to my eyes and a real antidote to the flat green of summer in so many places. And mysterious. Morning fogs full of howls, grunts and barks. Deeply cut paths through the fen reed beds obscure wider views. And the Great Fen is also one of the homes of conservation in the UK, as it was here, under the guiding hand of one of the Rothschild family that the first Wildlife Trust was formed. I could quite happily have explored the area by myself for days, but Lorna from BCNP Wildlife Trust took me on a tour which added depth and character to the area. The scope of their vision for the area is outstanding. It can never be returned to how it was with meandering rivers and what was the biggest inland lake in Europe due to the pressures of farming, heavily controlled rivers and shrunken peat beds. However the Trust is buying up large areas of farmland that will be restored to wetlands, reed beds and other natural landscape features bringing a safe haven for wildlife to live and to travel through to other areas as well as bringing in tourism and the businesses that support that. It’s a beautiful landscape and a beautiful well thought out vision that I hope goes well. As it was I greatly enjoyed photographing there and would have loved a few more days in the mists and soft pastel tones.
Having travelled north on the train, it was time to get back on my bike and ride south again to Totternhoe near Luton to visit an old chalk quarry. It was a lovely ride through classic English villages with thatched cottages galore and with me fuelled by apple pies to satisfy a craving I had for apples. Pies are great cycling fuel.
Right on the edge of Dunstable the chalk quarry is a mix of nature reserve and arable farmland with views over the Chilterns past the Whipsnade White Lion (a chalk figure on the hill like a white horse) and out over the pretty English pastoral countryside of Bedfordshire. The quarry was delightful with it’s bright butterflies, colourful flowers including lots of poppies and the striking white chalk cliffs which glowed in the evening light. The area is crisscrossed by greenlanes and paths so many people venture out of Dunstable by foot, bike, horse and motorbike to enjoy the peace and quiet of the quarry bowl. Not so quiet when the motorbikes are there or the glider tug planes from the nearby airfield, but the rest of the time it is very sheltered and peaceful. I also managed to find a delightful campsite with panoramic views of the Chilterns. It was right on the edge of a greenlane, so quite a few dog walkers and a troop of Scouts went past my quiet little spot which led to some interesting conversations to go with the view. It’s always great to chat to people when they are passionate about an area, and they were definitely passionate and thankful to have a stunning green area like Totternhoe Quarry next to town.
The delights of such a stunning campsite made my next nights camping all the harder. I travelled up to Coventry and scoped out the locations for the next days shot, then tried to find a good wild camp spot on the edge of Coventry. Distinctly hampered by a torn rear tyre which meant I couldn’t cycle far or fast, it took me just over three hours to find a decent spot to pitch my tent. It’s all posh houses and horse paddocks for miles and I couldn’t imagine any of the landowners being that happy if they found me on their land. The first spot I tried was on the edge of an oilseed rape field but it was just too muggy and buggy to stop. Eventually, on the margin of an estate I found a little field where I was out of the way and could pitch up. At 10:30 at night it was a real effort to make and eat a meal, but missing a meal is just not a good idea for me.
The locations around Coventry were a real challenge photographically. Warwickshire Wildlife Trust had picked locations that were right on the urban fringe, and they are not too pretty if I am being honest. But they were fascinating to explore when I looked under the surface. Lovely butterflies, some amazing tunnel web spiders and a wide variety of people using the spaces. Sophie, from Warwickshire WT, and I herded some grazing cows into one of the scenes so we could show how the grazing cattle keep the meadows clear of scrub and thatched grasses. And I found another spot five metres up a partly fallen over tree which gave a great aerial view of the alder woodland which was planted when the area needed alder wood for clog making. Making a 360×180° panorama up a narrow tree was challenging and dirty work, but the result when I stitched it was worth the effort. Climbing trees and playing with cameras, it was like being ten years old again!
With a torn tyre, itchy septic insect bites and no desire to spend another night trying to camp around Coventry I decided it was time to head for home. I had two more locations to shoot in County Durham, but they are close to home. The first location is about ten miles from my home, ironic that I had to take my wife’s car to get there with my Birdy bike out of action! Nestled on the edge of the Pennines, near Tow Law, Hedleyhope Living Landscape is typical of this area with broad flat hill tops and deep valleys. It is easy to see why cattle rustlers and illegal alcohol still owners found the area so appealing, lots of hiding spaces in the deep heavily scrubbed valleys. It’s typical moorland, covered in heather, but I was a few weeks too early for any real colour.
Magical County Durham coast
The second location was Blackhall Rocks on the coast near Peterlee. If I had been lacking colour through most of this trip, then Blackhall Rocks provided colour in abundance to make up for any and all shortages. Moody coastal weather shot shafts of hard and soft light all over the multi-toned grasslands, the dene (little river valleys) sides were covered in bright purple mallow flowers and then there are the beaches. The beaches on much of the Co Durham coast were used to dump waste from the undersea coal mining and they have artefacts and colour palette all of their own. There is every colour and hue under the sun to be found in some bays. And a smell! But with time, many of the bays have been cleared by the sea, and some hard work on the part of locals and various keen volunteers, to restore some of the most beautiful beaches in the UK. With steep white limestone cliffs bordering the bays, deep sand, very few people and a crashing sea soundtrack the area is an assault on the senses. I think there is something for everyone here. Photographers, artists, dog walkers, sun worshippers, families, all can find a bit of beach for themselves. You heard it here first, County Durham coast the last quiet coastline in the UK.
This trip was certainly a mixed bag, challenging and interesting in equal measure. My next trip takes me down through Wales, Devon and Cornwall which are all very rural. The contrast between this last trip which was strongly centred around urban fringe areas and the upcoming trip certainly present an interesting contrast to the photographer in me. And they will also contrast and highlight the broad scope of The Wildlife Trusts Living Landscape scheme. Interesting times.