With only a little hindsight, this has been my hardest trip to date for The Wildlife Trusts. I set off with starry eyes – Wales, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall. Lovely places with lots of photographic potential, lots of wild places for the herbs and beasties, and a plan to make as much personal photography as possible in all my spare time once I had finished my commissioned work. Best laid plans!
A lot of the reserves and Living Landscape project areas were in that summer greens state which made photographing them really challenging. And the cycling route was, essentially, long and torturous which left me little time and energy and very homesick once I had finished the commissioned work. That’s all OK, despite the pain in my legs and the weather, I saw some really forward facing landscape scale Living Landscape areas, met some really motivated and inspirational Wildlife Trust staff and made some gorgeous photographs amidst the moody gloom. All against the backdrop of some of England and Wales most classically stunning scenery.
The trip started on Anglesey, in the rain. Having been a climber for many years I was looking forward to revisiting North Wales and Anglesey with their luminous white limestone cliffs in one area contrasting with the storm cloud grey slate valleys. It’s dramatic countryside, although somewhat gentler in profile on Anglesey. I was excited by the cycling, and really keen to meet the Wildlife Trust staff to find out about the conservation aspect of Wales. Wales is also a great example of working Living Landscapes. The country is very different with an ageing farming community working in a very marginal existence. I was intrigued to see how the farmers coped and how The Wildlife Trust staff effect the necessary changes by working with the farming community.
Cors Goch on the east side of Anglesey is a plethora of habitats in a tiny concentrated area. It’s almost bewildering. Fen, heath, an island, farmland, communities all crammed into a tiny shallow valley. Tiny as in about 1.5x1miles. Jon, the reserve warden, took me round this area explaining all the different habitat management methods that are required for such a varied area, before providing me with fresh eggs for my dinner. Despite the grey looming sky, a good start. Not so good photographically though. I try my best for all clients, try to make great photography that reflects their needs and makes them look great, but when the client is like Jon, super kind and passionate then I feel real disappointment when I can’t make photography that is the best it can be. Landscape photography is like that, we have to work with the weather, the light and a generous dose of luck, and often it defeats us. I can dream of moody mists over the fens with low golden light sweeping through the reeds, firing the heather into a psychedelic blaze, but if it’s grey, it’s grey. And it was. I would like to have done better. I got some nice grazing horses in shot though, and they sounded great for my sound recording!
And so the cycling began. I could perhaps have been a little more careful in measuring miles between locations rather than just roughly gauging them on my 1:250 000 scale map. Turns out my first ride was 90miles through North Wales. That’s 90miles of twisty, rough and exceptionally long steep hilly roads. My legs span, my mouth was constantly chewing calories or muttering curses about routes, my mind was a tableaux of mountainous imagery. Up Llanberris to a lovely wild camp overlooking the cloud shrouded mountains putting my tent up at 11pm, then an early 4am start to carry on through bleak mountains then round some flat golden coastline to mid Wales which I thought would be flatter having lower hills. The hills are lower, and also steeper! The final climb was 2000feet over 4miles which after 86miles (on a folding bike with a 30kg trailer) had me on my knees, literally. Guardian angel Liz from Wales WT came down the hill for the last steep mile in her 4×4 to shovel what was left of me into the back and drive me up to Glaslyn in the Pumlumon Living Landscape project area. Maybe it was because she was Canadian, maybe it was the subject, but Liz could really talk. She told a fascinating story about the area and the work that the Wildlife Trust were doing with local landowners and communities. I was so sorry to have been late as it meant I missed time listening to her. The thing about Glaslyn is that it isn’t that exciting on the surface. I’m a photographer and definite member of the ‘it must looking exciting to have value’ generation and a plain looking reserve like Glaslyn on first glance would do nothing for me. But as Liz explained it became apparent it was a perfect example of a Living Landscape. There isn’t much headline nature here. The lake is relatively barren due to it’s acidic nature and low nutrient levels. It’s mostly sheep and cattle grazing with lots of heather moorland. But it’s wild. A place that through improvement working with local landowners is improving the water quality of water flowing into lower water tables and locking in carbon. The quiet wildness hold immense economic and tourism value. Despite the continuing gloom there was a steady stream of walkers, cyclists and people just out relaxing in the quiet. We really need places like this. As a society and as part of the ecosystem they are critical to our survival and happiness.
I wild camped up there for two nights through a variety of weather moods. Misty, sunny, red skies, grey skies, blue skies, never ending rain skies. The quiet beauty really sank in and despite whooping with glee at the long downhill back down I was sad to go. Only about 60miles to my next location, but 60 long steep miles. Rough roads and cycling always into the prevailing wind was equally exhausting as the hills. I was really starting to suffer!
Wales has a habit of surprising me, and as I cycled into Powys with it’s pastoral hillsides I thought I knew what to expect from the next location, Cwm Marteg. But as I turned off the A470 it changed into a lost valley like place. Gone were the smooth billiard green hills, replaced by rough scrub, woodland and heath with the odd burial chamber and a deep river valley coursing through the bottom. It’s even got a lovely tea shop! I’m not the only one surprised. Despite it’s proximity to a major road and large towns, they only get about 30 visitors a day, on a busy day. So if you want to go somewhere quiet and unexplored in mid Wales then try Cwm Marteg. Zipping up A roads, single track roads and rough farm roads all at warp speed in a little old Peugeot I was given a tour by Daryll from Radnorshire WT. Her official title involves the words ‘un-charismatic species’ so she is responsible for things like lichens and mosses as well as cute ones like water voles. The water voles there seem a little crazy. Quite un-characteristically they are to be found as often on the higher moors as in the lower watercourses and ponds, despite the Trusts best efforts to create new ponds for them near the river. Maybe they are staying out the way of the numerous circling keening red kites that fill the lower valley! As ever I was made so welcome by Wildlife Trust staff and given a place to stay in the visitor centre rather than camp out with the evening midges. Brilliant. Hot water, mains power and a wi-fi connection. I’m not proud, lifts up hills and wi-fi are great with me on a long trip. The weather was still not desperately useful. I was super keen to be down in the deep river valley at first light to make some atmospheric shots of the river, but the only atmosphere was heavy rain! Anyway, thanks to Pip and Viv for a warm dry bug-free place to stay.
I normally have a days travel, then a days photography. But my friendly client had slipped in another location with no travel day! I swear she is trying to kill me! Only another 60 hilly miles to cycle on my wee bike to the next location. Those of you following my tweets will know that I was getting a bit thin by this point. Mentally and physically. I can’t complain, it’s a dream commission and each location is so different from the last I am inexorably pulled on. I was a bit late again because of a steep final hill, I hate being late to appointments, to be met by a smiling Ben from Brecknockshire Wildlife Trust and team of bracken clearing volunteers on the Alt Rhongur reserve. “Oh, we passed you in the cars on the way here, thought you would be about an hour!” Spot on, but a lift would have been ok too! Alt Rhongur is a quite a recently acquired area and the Trust are currently seeking funds to help improve it if you have any spare doobs to donate. It’s not a large reserve, but with stunning views out towards Swansea and a purple bettony strewn twisted hawthorn hillsides it is very pretty, which was helped immensely by the sun coming out at just the right time when I was making photographs. It was great to see the volunteers at work. Bracken clearing was obviously hard work, but when the results of clearing the bracken are so obvious in the nearby flowery hillsides it was easy to see why they were so motivated.
After a cheery farewell from them all I set off towards Swansea to catch a train out towards Cardigan. It was great to get a bit of a rest on the train, although the train doesn’t go all the way to Cardigan, so I would have a bit of a pedal to finish, about 30miles or so. I got off the train quite late and set off towards a likely campsite on the moors over Cardigan Bay. Up, up then some more up. I hoped the campsite would be worth the effort. Right at the top of the hills a bridleway appeared, looking good so far, so I followed it, into a bog, at the top of a steep hill! No idea how that works, but as it was now dark and the midges were vicious I just had to make the best of it. I woke the next morning to grey clouds. Grey clouds of midges that is, the sun was shining beyond them. I packed up quick without brekkie and set off for Cardigan for a midge free breakfast in a cafe. After some confusion over campsites I found a lovely little site on the coast, family oriented so quiet, and with showers and a washing machine. Simple things make all the difference on long trips. A washing machine and clean clothes are a luxury.
The Teifi Gateway Living Landscape is very much based on the community in lovely Cardigan, rather than farming based like other schemes. With a showcase family friendly visitor centre and reserve and easy access to the Pembroke coastline there is a lot of potential here to preserve, educate and link natural areas for wildlife movement.
With clean clothes and a clean body I set off back over the hills to catch the train. I was exhausted by now, there was literally nothing left of me, although my legs kept going round. They do that. They always do. Oddly tweeting kept me sane. One thing about long distance touring is the loneliness. Sometimes it is great to have someone to commiserate with or let off steam. Just me, so I let some angst out on Twitter. Thanks for all your support, it really meant a lot, keeping me sane. The next morning there was an email from my client at the Wildlife Trusts too, telling me to get on a train and rest or else! Maybe she isn’t trying to kill me. Also appreciated, it’s so much fun to have a client who I really get on with. The train down to Exeter was pretty good, although I did feel a little guilty, just a little.
Next up was Dorset’s Pastures New near Axminster. Gently rolling countryside, traditional small green fields and farming practices in many places. Lovely pink morning skies and golden light to highlight all the small field patterns with a super relaxed tour with Nick from Dorset Wildlife Trust. We basically sat on the hillside for a couple of hours talking and enjoying the views. Despite his really relaxed demeanour his knowledge and love for the area was in abundance and he really understood the needs of local communities and farmers as part of the conservation effort. The machinery pool was one idea that stuck in my head. Local farmers who are interested in conservation work can borrow machinery from the pool to help them improve their land to the benefit of both them and nature. It is just a really practical service to offer. With an ageing farming population living a very marginal existence it is measures like this that keep them afloat rather than having to sell their land to larger landowners who will in many cases want to maximise their yields which is done by pulling out all the hedges and ditches to form larger mono-cultural fields which significantly reduces bio-diversity and reduces the natural links for wildlife between wild areas.
Still feeling tired I got the train the 30miles to Exeter to a top of the world photoshoot. Well, the top of Exeter Cathedral anyway. I arrived in the evening just as the sun came out and I was super excited about a nice sunset over Exeter then some night shots as the light dimmed. Up the long long spiral staircase we went and through the Norman slit windows I could see the clouds returning. I wanted to rush up the rest of the stairs to catch it, but tired legs and the virger who was so proud of the cathedral and wanted to explain everything we saw slowed things down. Emerging finally onto the top, the rain started, the wind picked up, the light faded. I love those kind of conditions for photography. The sun can burst through suddenly like a searchlight, the stormy clouds are glorious shades of grey, yellow, purple, green. The air so clear from the rain with a million twinkly lights in the town below. Making 360×180 panoramic photographs on top of a cathedral tower in the rain and wind with low light levels creating long exposures and rapidly changing light as you pan the camera round is not so easy. In fact it is nearly impossible. But, you know, I’m ok with a camera so I managed. I made a selection of stormy moody shots including one as the rain poured down softening the view and making the wet rooftops all glisten. Rather pleasingly it was that one picked as the keeper shot by the Trust.
The next day day was a trip up the old Debenhams building which is presently being renovated. I could have gone up the internal stairs but there is a low risk of asbestos, so I opted for the external route up 15 sets of ladders through scaffolding! Fun stuff in the sun, the Health and Safety officer accompanying me was aghast at some of the places I wanted to photograph from at the top, but we managed to agree some good locations so all was well. A quick trip back to the cathedral in the still sunny afternoon gave me a spectrum of life in Exeter Wild City! A massive thanks to Emily from Devon Wildlife Trust for taking the time to organise such fab locations.
After a couple of sedentary days including a hotel I was ready to be on the move and back in my tent, although I missed the coffee and cakes. Up on the NW corner of Devon is a small area of old culm grassland. It’s a bit like Pumlumon, it’s not obvious why it matters, it takes a bit of getting your head around and a bit of background knowledge to understand. Understanding this, Mark from Devon Wildlife Trust brought along Les, one of the commoners who farms the land. Commons can be very difficult areas to manage with so many vested interests from the landowner, the commoners, legislation, subsidies and conservation. It seems like a real juggling act. But through sensible and passionate organisation by the commoners they manage to graze the land profitably and preserve it’s wild and rare nature.
And so into Cornwall with it’s stunning coast which made for some lovely wild camps once the surfing and sun worshipping hordes had departed for the night. I was still pretty tired at this point, but from Bude in Devon it is pretty hard to get trains or buses down to Truro that don’t take all day. If it is going to take all day I may as well ride it, but it was 60miles on a busy A road which was mentally tiring but I appreciated the wide and slow overtaking from all the considerate motorists out there. As for some large van and wagon drivers, you know which ones you are, cyclists are fragile and break easily, please pass wide and slow to avoid us being smeared down the side of your vehicle!
Now maybe I was thinking in stereotypes, but I thought Cornwall was meant to be sunny and warm. So what was with the heavy mist and rain that I encountered on Penwith? Normal apparently for Penwith! I met Liz from Cornwall Wildlife Trust at their HQ (a cluster of houses in a reserve kindly donated by someone in their will) and with my usual tact along the lines off “Hi, lovely to meet you, have you got a shower in here I can use?. Liz took it in good grace, probably because we had a long drive to do together and being stuck in a car with a stinky cyclist probably didn’t appeal! We toured around the Penwith area, with Liz alternately pointing out conservation areas and likely looking teashops. Due to the rain I didn’t get to visit any of the teashops as I was sat on location waiting for the sun to come out. Waist high heather and gorse was in full bloom on the heaths and looked stunning in the soft misty light, although with many thick mean looking adders around I was reluctant to explore too far. With a mix of people (locals, holiday makers, incomers and farmers) the subject of land management can get very contentious, very quickly. Change happens slowly, sometimes not at all, but sometimes very successfully. Wild Penwith really highlighted the balance that is required to juggle the needs of local communities, our need to grow food and our need to protect nature and provide links between wild areas.
We all want so much from the land, with many seemingly conflicting needs, that it is hard to see how we can satisfy all. Often we can’t. But when people are flexible, when passionate organisations like The Wildlife Trust work with with passionate communities and forward thinking landowners then the results are a real synergy. I saw so much of that on this trip, so many different areas, often not that exciting visually, but all so important and when managed well the results are obvious and of benefit to all.