Wow, what a trip! Mentally I just wasn’t ready for this trip, it required a huge amount of effort to resist cycling to the nearest train station and going home after a few days. I felt drained, threadbare, homesick and just overwhelmed by the enormity of the remaining number of locations still to shoot. (I wouldn’t finish till April 2012 with at least another 38 locations to shoot.)
Sympathetically, The Wildlife Trusts Living Landscape schemes that I saw also had required a huge amount of effort by the trusts to complete. I had, like a lot of people, thought that conservation usually was lightweight habitat shaping and creation, nothing too heavy duty. But the schemes I saw on this trip, whilst not literally moving mountains, often involved huge changes to the landscape to bring it back to a more natural state or to preserve areas against encroachment by natural succession (by woodland) or man.
I began in Norfolk, near King’s Lynn, at Roydon Common and Grimston Warren. The land was 70’s psychedelic purple from the mass of heather over the heath. The heath had been restored by clear felling a huge expanse of non-native trees to open up the landscape again. This work has just been completed on Grimston Warren so the land is still very bare, with just odd sprigs of heather starting to peek through the bare sandy earth. Like a lot of the places that I am visiting on this commission, the space is very much defined by it’s soundscape, the places I am visiting have a distinct wilder sound, and despite proximity to a major town and numerous major roads, once you are on Roydon Common and Grimston Warren they are mostly really quiet, noticeably quiet. It was quite eery to be in sight of King’s Lynn with the only sound that of pipets and curlews.
After a couple of lovely days with stunning autumn temperate inversions giving lovely morning mists (and cold shivery camps for me) I headed off down to Norwich on my way to the Bure Valley. Flat countryside to cycle, but visually overwhelming travelling through the old villages, the day before the Tour of Britain passed through, it made a welcome distraction from my mounting gloom and homesickness.
I stopped in the delightful Norwich to get an espresso and do some people watching, and was just about to tuck into some cake when my phone rang with a call from Ed at Norfolk WT (who had shown me round the last location) wondering if I was available for a photo-shoot with the local paper. Always fun, although I can only smile for so long! With that out the way, Ed and I went for a wander round Upton Fen in the Bure Valley, in advance of my proper tour with the reserve warden the following day. Ed is a real keen bird lover and it was a delight to wander round the reserve with him explaining tiny details and sounds. As always, peoples keenness rubs off on me, inspires me, and I photographed till darkness, forgetting that I hadn’t scoped out a wild camp spot for the night because we had been busy with the photo-shoot. Slight panic! Strange countryside, consisting of either ploughed fields, houses or very boggy fen. Yes, slight panic indeed. In the end, I just waited till it was pitch dark then hopped a gate into an empty horse paddock and camped there. Less than optimal.
Waking early, partly with fear of being shouted at by an early rising horsey landowner, partly with excitement to get back out onto the lovely fen to photograph, I quickly packed up and cycled over to Upton Fen. It was one of those quick cloud mornings, one minute solid grey sky, the next glorious light. My only interruption in three solid hours of photography was a dog out for a walk, who kindly put up a muntjack deer just as I was doing my sound recording, so I got a lovely recording of a deer barking in the swishy fen reeds.
Thinking I had achieved quite a lot, I met up with Kevin from Norfolk Wildlife Trust who was to give me my official tour. I thought that perhaps the rest of my day might be a bit slacker. No way. We talked, I learned, we explored for another three solid hours, although my admiration was for Kevin who was not only an amazing communicator of the fen life but a keen mountaineer so we had lots to chat about. He also had a two week old baby and knackered wife back home that he had taken time away from to come and show me round on a Saturday. It’s a joy to see people so passionate and committed to their job, and their life.
Armed with another passionate point of view, I set off to make even more photographs of Upton Fen and photographed till dark again. It’s such a fascinating place, with moody subtle coloured fen, through the grazing marshes out to the River Bure with it’s constant train of boats and pleasure cruisers. When I had passed by early in the morning I had spotted a number of large diggers and assumed they were something to do with the Broads Authority. Which they were, but in partnership with the Wildlife Trust they were using the silt and mud from river clearance work to create new riverside wetlands that will not only form new habitat, but also help to link up wild places for wildlife to travel through. Definitely a change to see such heavy plant used for conservation work.
The interesting thing to me about this, is that man is having to replace what nature would have done naturally. Especially around rivers, the land would have changed dramatically each year as rivers flooded and changed course. Those mythical oxbow lakes that we all learned about in geography, but never see in real life would have been an everyday occurrence. But with straightened rivers and other land management such as drainage, the land now exists mostly in a static state. I was a little shocked at first by the use of such heavy plant to change the land for conservation, but after thinking about things, it actually makes sense in a way.
Exhausted from such a long day, I crawled into my tent and promised myself a long lie the next day. With a lovely campsite by the river, I woke to sun on the tent, and spent the morning eating stewed ‘scrumped’ apples and waving to the boats going by.
Suffolk next, but having spent a few warm days cycling I was pretty sticky and grubby, so a quick detour to the beach at Gorelston (near Great Yarmouth) was in order. I was the only one in the sea that day, which was a shame because despite the cool wind, the sea was actually pretty warm having had the summer to heat up. Very pleasant indeed, always nice to be clean.
It was funny being back near the Broads, prompting many memories of childhood boating holidays. And with suitably dramatic autumn rainbow showery skies to accompany my gloom. The only places I could find to camp were fen and ploughed field, so I plumped for ploughed field. Another less than optimal campsite.
It’s fair to say I was pretty fed up at this point. The photography had been amazing, but apart from moments behind the camera all I really wanted to do was go home and see my wife. It felt like I had been on the road for ages and I had only photographed two locations, with another six to go. I often just felt like crying. Don’t get me wrong, I love the work and the adventure, but it is hard hard graft, one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.
As usual I was saved by the kindness of Wildlife Trust staff! After Steve from Suffolk Wildlife Trust had shown me round Carlton Marshes, and being a keen photographer himself with a lovely book just finished (A Living Landscape for Suffolk) we had chatted photography to the max, he then arranged for me to spend the next few night in various visitor centres and made sure I had access to the wi-fi. This was a real bonus, warm, dry, running water, toasters and wi-fi. Little things, but so appreciated and being able to spend the evenings on FaceTime with my wife made all the difference. The trip still felt long, but it was achievable now.
I spent the first couple of days in Suffolk on Carlton Marshes near Lowestoft, before moving on to Sandlings Heath near Ipswich. These sites felt somewhat tame compared to some of the wilder spaces I have visited, but their proximity to major conurbations provides welcome space for lots of people to escape to as well as good quality habitat for wildlife to live and move through on their way to other places.
Feeling calmer and refreshed after Steve’s helping hand, I left Suffolk and headed down to Sussex. I met up with Mark from Sussex WT to have a tour round Ebernoe Common. I expected open heath type common, but was delighted to find it was ancient old growth grazing woodland. It’s a fascinating wood with open managed (for shooting) beech woods, dark claustrophobic old growth oak woodland with magnificent stag head oaks, an old brickworks, ponds and a deep greenway from hundreds of years of people passing through, all just starting to turn to autumn greens and golds. There is also lots of hard shiny green in the form of holly which is threatening to take over vast areas of the woods, but because of the wide variety of bat species it is difficult to do much active woodland conservation work without disturbing the bats. Certainly the bats are important, but not at the expense of other species – flora or fauna. They are part of the larger jigsaw, but not the whole thing.
A magnificent wood, with much of the surround arable fields bought by Sussex WT and then left to see how succession happens naturally with minimal intervention by them. Interesting to compare to the approach in the Bure Valley with it’s heavy plant.
I felt a bit happier then, the trip was a bit further on and a couple of scenic wild camps eased my mood. I merrily pedalled down to Lewes, fascinated by the change in countryside and society. Definitely things got a bit more liberal and arty as I approached Brighton. It all felt very relaxed, especially with the heatwave that was just starting.
I was headed for Malling Down above Lewes. There is a lot I could probably say about Malling Down, but it was just so pretty, vast expanses of chalk down grassland surrounded by towns and a patchwork of arable fields, so I simply enjoyed the beauty of the location. Nights were cold and clear, with more autumn mists shrouding the valley and towns in the morn. Despite the lateness of the season there were still also a lot of small flowers amongst the chalk grass. Feeling pretty grubby from long hot days I retreated to the local swimming pool for a shower and a swim. We give our dog a bath sometimes and she normally emerges from this full of beans and spends ages tearing about, obviously delighted to be clean. I felt like that, after a week of dried on sweaty glaze, it was sheer delight to have clean fresh skin. I hope the swimming pool was OK. A bit of shopping in Lewes’s lovely shops for a pressie for my lady completed an idyllic couple of days.
Onto my last leg in Kent, I headed up to Maidstone which was a bit of a shock after the peaceful south coast. I met up with Allison and Steve from Kent Wildlife Trust and we went for a tour round Holborough Marshes with it’s industrial borders then onto Queendown Warren. It’s interesting to see such natural areas squeezed into very urban areas. I could have wondered before starting this commission how valuable areas like this are to nature, but having spent months working and living (camping) in areas like this I know from what I have seen and heard just how vibrant and alive they are. I spent the next day photographing a group of Kent WT volunteers as they cut and cleared scrub to keep the chalk grassland open. Hard, prickly work, especially in the 30degree heat!
However, wild camping was not on the cards here. No way. Too many stories of Kent wide boys in Range Rovers with sawn offs! We toured round a couple of campsite, only to find they no longer accommodated tents, so Allison kindly agreed to let me stay at her house. I do feel privileged constantly on this job by the kindness of people. We arrived at her house to be met by her neighbour whose chicken had fly-strike. Sadly there was nothing to be done for it, and none of the others knew how to ‘dispatch’ a chicken so it was down to farmer boy to wring it’s neck. It just felt a little surreal. Anyway, nice to have a comfy night in luxury.
I was heading down to Dover the following day and hoped to find a lovely wild-camp above Canterbury to watch the morning sunrise, but ended up in some woodland as night fell. At least it was quiet, and the dog walkers curious but friendly.
I arrived in Dover the next day after following the cycle route from hell. For the record I hate cycle routes as they wander around all over the place. I promptly headed to a hotel for my final night. The final shoot was at Dover Castle. Kent WT is working with English Heritage on a prototype grazing scheme. The moat and much of the grounds of the castle has been maintained by man and machine power, but the cost of this is becoming prohibitive. Notionally some of the areas could be left to nature, but the risk to the castle foundations by tree roots was a problem. So a small number of sheep are going to be used to graze the moat and stop new trees from growing. Low carbon, low cost maintenance. Surely a Good Thing™?
I have to admit at this point, on my last day, after all the deep gloom I was sad to be heading home. Ecstatic to be seeing my wife for sure, but it had been a real adventure with a deep sense of satisfaction that I had completed it. I had been transfixed by the stories and work of the various Wildlife Trusts and shown real kindness by their staff who were all so excited to be part of this project, and thoughtfully did all they could to help me. And I enjoyed seeing the breadth of work they were undertaking. Everything from heavy machinery earthworks, to traditionally grazed woodland, through manpower land clearance to innovative (in a way for our times but obviously traditional) low carbon land ‘maintenance’ schemes. Truly fascinating.
But it was great to get home for a hug.