After the craziness of mucho, or is that macho, cycling in Wales and the South West of England, this trip was a relative holiday. Hardly any cycling as the locations were close together, or so far apart that I was on public transport. And as we go into autumn the days are shorter so I can lie in till 05:30 and still be up and about with a camera for sunrise!
And autumn it definitely is. The days were cooler and the landscape has started to change. Leaves yellowing, wildlife quieter, light more golden, heather blooming.
I began this trip at Ash Ranges, east of Aldershot. The military ranges are only open to the public two weeks in the year and people were making full use of that access. Walking, cycling, exercising dogs, watching the view, it was a steady stream of people passing through and enjoying the vibrant purple heather that covers much of the heathland. The short period of open access also makes the work of the Surrey Wildlife Trust difficult as they have to fit all their conservation work, such as scrub and bracken clearance, into that two weeks, often requiring the use of heavy machinery and aircraft to get everything done. Busy busy. I managed to find myself a quiet out of the way spot to wild camp and spent a couple of days photographing, watching the light dance over the landscape, being sung to sleep by a nearby nightjar and marvelling at the fact that all this was within naked eye viewing distance of The London Eye, The Gherkin, Canary Wharf and various other landmarks in central London.
The next location at Caesar’s Camp was just a few miles away on the west side of Aldershot and in sight of Farnborough Airfield. This military range is open to the public year round making the conservation work and public use of the area very different from the Ash Ranges. The range is used by the military for non-live round training. It felt a lot more urban too, houses were visible all around, and there were lots of people out. Even at 3am there was a steady stream of people making their way home across the range from the pub. That was a bit un-nerving as I thought my wild camp was out of the way in a quiet spot. And I woke one morning to find another tent not so far away with others folks who had come to enjoy the countryside, as well as maybe the odd beer.
Sadly there were no grazing cows to see as a recent case of lead poisoning has meant they have had to be removed from the land till the source is discovered. The grazing cows which serve as scrub control (and income for local graziers) were a topic of conversation that came up often with trust staff. Local communities are often resistant to their introduction into ‘wild’ locations, often because people are nervous around such large animals. However once communities have been convinced by conservationists of the benefits they come to realise that the cows are normally pretty placid, and often phone the trust to ask where the cows are when they are removed. Many parents like to take their children on a day out to see the cows in the countryside.
Isle of Wight
After five days away I finally got a chance to ride my bike further than the local coffee shop for lunch! I headed down from Aldershot to Portsmouth, often getting lost and punctures at bad times, to catch the passenger ferry over to the Isle of Wight. And arrived arrived on the Isle on a bank holiday. Bloody horrible. Loads of people, scooters all over the place, heaving beer gardens, not my cup of tea at all, so I pedalled as fast as I could out onto the quieter downs chalk ridge that runs from Newport to Culver. Like most islands land is at a premium and it is often intensively farmed so areas of un-improved grassland like the downs that run down the main ridge are important, and visually really stand out making for great photographic potential. Delightfully, maybe due to the mild climate, there were still a lot of flowers in bloom on the ridge and in the meadows alongs it’s edges. It’s a thriving island. I enjoyed watching all the different people going by when I went down to Newport for a coffee, and one night I decided to make a nighttime panorama hoping to shape the stars into a star trail, but there was as much light pollution from cars and passing ships as stars. Busy busy!
Feeling a bit cooped up from lack of cycling and wanting to see some of the Isle before I left I set off on a mini tour to find some hills and so stretch my legs out a bit. That was all going well, with various odd little villages full of collectibles shops, till I got carried away on a fast twisty road descent and rolled my trailer at 20-25mph. It was pretty scary for a few seconds with the trailer weaving around like a giant pendulum behind till friction slowed us down. There’s not much I could do, just keep pedalling and let instinct keep the bike upright whilst I contemplated how rough the road was and how much the gravel rash was going to be a problem in a tent! Luckily, bizarrely, the bike stayed upright, the only damage was to my adrenal gland and slight abrasion of my TNF duffel. Those duffels are built to take a pounding.
The next jump was up to Belfast, so it was ferry back to Portsmouth, train to Liverpool Lime Street, cycle to Birkenhead via one of the Mersey Tunnels. It was good riding the ‘hyper tunnel’, something I’ve always wanted to do, and I emerged into an apocalyptic sunset over Liverpool. Very cool. Then onto the ferry to Belfast which was slightly less salubrious than the ones I am used to taking to Shetland, but more of a problem was a lack of 3 pin power sockets which I had been relying on to charge my phone and spare batteries. Having not been cycling much it had been difficult to use the bike dynamo to charge them. Eventually I found some adaptors in the ships shop, so managed to get some things charged.
It was exciting to land in Belfast first thing as the city came to life. After having to get off the ship at 06:30, I found an early opening coffee shop and had some breakfast. Apparently the coffee wasn’t strong enough as I wandered off round central Belfast for 40minutes after locking my bike up, but leaving my camera bag just sat on top of my trailer. I only realised when I was shambling back to my bike and wondered what had been left on my trailer! Lucky.
Andrew from Ulster Wildlife Trust picked me up soon after and we had a brief tour round some of Belfast’s more ‘historic’ areas before heading up into the Belfast Hills to the Slievenacloy Reserve. Like a lot of Irishmen, Andrew had a lot to say, about conservation and life in general, and it was great to wander round the reserve having everything described in wonderful detail and just to gab away, good craic. It’s not a large reserve, but with the grasses and reeds starting to change colour, the mystical faeriethorns and all the devils bit scabious in bloom it is definitely a pretty one. I was allowed to camp in one corner of the reserve and Andrew said that he would probably get numerous calls during the next day to report someone camping. Which he did. I thought it was great that people cared enough about the areas around them to look after them.
After a couple of days I headed back into Belfast to meet up with Andrew again. I took my own tour round, going down the Shankhill Road to see all the murals, and went to look at the Peace Wall. How different it must have been 10, 20, 30 years ago. Although looking through one of the local papers there are still some tensions, some troubles, but thankfully so much less than they were.
We drove up to the Umbra reserve, near Downhill on the north coast, with me feeling only slightly guilty about not cycling. I was still pretty tired from the previous trip through Wales, so not that guilty.
The Umbra reserve is part of the Magellan Dune system and is formed of embryonic dunes through to stabilised dunes covered in a wide variety of grasses, grass of parnassus, roses, devils bit scabious, waxed cap mushrooms and a very out of place conifer plantation. After so much time inland I was excited to be out on the coast. The every changing landscape, the waves, clearer light all make it pretty exciting and so I practically burst out of my tent the next morning to catch the inky then brilliant sunrise. As the day progressed the beach backdrop filled up with people enjoying the beach, and my camera memory card filled up with panoramas and detail shots of these unique dunes.
After finishing all my Wildlife Trust work I wanted to visit the Giant’s Causeway before heading south to Belfast the next day, so I hot wheeled it the fifteen miles east and arrived to the expected scene of tourists and landscape photographers all over the causeway. I was pretty happy just to look, and with so many people/photographers and a grey dusk there was no chance of any landscape photography for me. So I scoped out some locations for the morning before finding a stunning campsite down by the sea and went to sleep with the sound of the sea in my ears. A call of nature at 2am brought the revelation that the sky was now clear and millions of stars were blazing down, so grabbing my camera gear and all my warm clothes I set off to make a star lit panorama of the Giant’s Causeway. It took over an hour and a half to make all the exposures and the cloud drifted in and out in this time creating a sense of movement through the skies echoed by the sea. Grinning inanely I went back to my tent for two hours sleep before sunrise. Hmmm, clear skies, no photographers! From last nights plethora of tripods, now there was no one. Possibly they knew the cloud was going to drift in at just the wrong time, so I headed up onto the cliff trail that contours round the middle of the cliffs onto a spur of rock I had spotted the night before. Nearly an hour after sunrise the sun appeared lighting up the cliffs and the causeway, onto which one or two photographers had now appeared. Lazy bones! I made a really good panorama of the cliffs and causeway from above, before heading down to my tent to pack up and ride down to Belfast.
A 80mile ride which did not go well. I had intended to ride down the coast to soak it all up, but the roads became rough and made of treacle, and a vicious coastal headwind sprang up that just sapped all my strength. After about 50miles as the rain really got going and I had a tantrum. A phone call to my lovely wife to find out where the nearest station was, the time of the next train, and just in case I really cracked, phone numbers for local taxi companies! I managed to make it to Ballymena station where I sat on the platform shivering for a couple of hours and making my dinner of noodles. I’m sure I looked like a proper hobo. Filthy, tanned, ripped clothes and hunched over my little stove. And people still came to talk to me! The Irish certainly are a friendly bunch.
So to the overnight ferry and back to Liverpool, to catch the ferry across the Mersey and home. All possible cliches complete and accounted for!