What for most of the year is a shallow grassy pond: a summertime nursery for thousands of tadpoles, transforms with the onset of winter and through the interaction of ice and organic decay, into an intensely complex time capsule. Over successive nights the water freezes from the surface down. At each freezing stage bubbles of gas rising from the decaying plant material below are trapped under the last ice layer as the water in the new layer freezes around them.
I listened to John Blakemore’s talk at last years Meeting of Minds†† conference recently (links at the bottom of this). It was the first opportunity that I have had to listen to one of the UK’s most idiosyncratic landscape photographers talk about what motivates him to make photographs and what interests him visually.
There is much to recommend an hour spent listening to Mr Blakemore talk through his photographs and I encourage you to do so. But the main reason why I mention him here is because of his experiments with multiple exposure and my problems photographing the bracken on the Begwns successfully. Firstly the bracken: pteridium aquilinum is a vigorous and aggressive fern, spreading rapidly by means of strong underground stems or “rhizomes”. It has a wide soil tolerance, doing particularly well on deep acidic soils, but it is intolerant of waterlogged soils. Bracken is a major weed in many upland and upland margin areas, causing management problems in agriculture, forestry, conservation, and recreation†††. It is everywhere around here, covering the lower slopes of mountains and, where heather has failed to establish, across hill and moorland top as well. It is in some ways a key species and one that, like no other, transforms the character of the landscape dramatically as the seasons progress; emerging in the spring as lime green shoots amongst the grass, giving the hills an odd sort of fuzz when viewed from a distance. By mid summer the young plants have matured into metre tall dark green fronds that blanket the hills hiding hare, skylark and ewe. As summer turns the bracken begins its transformation from a mostly uniform green to hues of yellow, gold and orange, which in turn change to shades of deepest sienna as autumn turns to winter. Some, but never all, of the bracken on the Begwns is harvested for livestock bedding every year. A job now done by tractor and flail but which once was done by children with scythes. But I digress.
I have been making photographs of parts of the Begwns for a couple of years now always with a loose plan to arrive, at some point, with a pictorial essay of this little known piece of the National Trust’s estate. The many other features of the Begwns have proven to be a lot easier to photograph and I have been busy making images of those whilst struggling with the bracken, which has remained obstinately difficult; on a still day, en masse, it can look like a field of cabbages and with about as much charm. But when the wind drives through the bracken it animates the individual fronds so that they rustle and dip; as a group they appear like an undulating green sea. There is a sound, a smell, and a texture like no other. John Blakemore experimented with multiple exposure to capture the wind energy through trees and it occurred to me that I might use a similar technique to catch the dynamic nature of the bracken which is so characteristic of the Begwns landscape through the summer months.
Mr Blakemore was using a 5×4 plate camera and made up to 45 separate exposures for each sheet of film, and of course he knew what he was doing. I used a hand held Nikon D800E which has an upper limit of 10 exposures per frame with absolutely no idea of how they would turn out. I do rather like them – some are more successful than others although I am not sure why that is. I may explore this some more using a tripod and combining several frames of multiple exposures to achieve the forty plus layers of exposure. I suspect that the transitions will become subtler – softer perhaps. That I think that is for another day.
Despite its effects on other habitats, bracken can be an important habitat in its own right. It is known to support over 40 species of invertebrate; for 27 species it forms an important part of the diet. 11 are found only on bracken. Bracken can be an important breeding habitat for moorland birds, in particular whinchat. Other species which may use bracken for breeding cover include ring ouzel, hen harrier and merlin. It may also be used as cover by warblers, tree-pipits and nightjars. Reptiles and mammals can benefit from the shelter provided by bracken. In some areas bluebells and other woodland plants grow under bracken.†††
† Source: Lens Culture. John Blakemore is a master photographer and printer from Great Britain, who has been practicing his art since 1956. Renowned for his richly detailed and nuanced landscapes and still-lifes, he has influenced generations of photographers through his classes at the University of Derby as well as countless workshops. Students and fellow photographers often acknowledge that Blakemore has “enriched their lives beyond compare.” https://www.lensculture.com/articles/john-blakemore-the-stilled-gaze
†† Source: On Landscape – Meeting of Minds conference 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oa8woJC-0lg
††† Source: Scottish National Heritage Information and Advisory Note Number 24. http://www.snh.org.uk/publications/on-line/advisorynotes/24/24.htm
As the land rises up from the valley of the Wye northwards from the Black Mountains; one modest step on its accent towards the high moorland tops is an elongated hump of bracken covered common land known as The Begwns. To the casual visitor it may appear to be a sheep infested, bracken covered, featureless piece of un-cultivated land suitable only for pony trekking and dog walking and therefore not worthy of any further investigation. A position that those of us who visit the Begwns every day with our dogs, or ponies, are happy to encourage; because you have to spend time with the Begwns to understand it richness and beauty. Groups of disgruntled tourists would only get in the way.
You have to get to know the Begwns over time to discover its qualities. The most obvious, if you walk up to its highest point, a dizzying 410 meters above sea level, to the circular dry stone wall that surrounds a plantation of conifers; is that you now have a panoramic view that takes in the Black Mountains in the south, the Brecon Beacons in the west, the high moors to the north that in turn lead, eventually, to the Cambrian Mountains and in the far distance to the east is England, or what used to be a bit more of Wales until it was stolen by William of Normandy.
One outstanding benefit of this elevated 360° platform is as a weather observatory. The Wye Valley with the Black Mountains behind can produce some spectacular temperature inversions, particularly in the autumn. Massive cloud fronts roll in over the Brecon Beacons and sit brooding over the Black Mountains sometimes for days. We have watched the rain fall in huge sweeps through the valley whilst the sun warms our backs from clear blue skies in the north east.
The Begwns acts as a huge sponge throughout the winter, absorbing massive amounts of water that percolates through its thin soil into the bed rock below. From here it emerges as spring fed ponds; winterbournes that may last for months or disappear within a few days; and the deep cut brooks and streams that manage to survive all year and have over centuries carved wide, deep, gullies that disappear into steep woodland dingles then on into the Afon Wye.
I will be posting more about the natural history of the Begwns and the dingles later. If you would like to see more photographs of my local area please visit my web site: haresonthehill.co.uk
A beautiful walk with the dogs this morning up through Clyro Dingle, which is a short walk from the house. There are five of these steep sided secret places within a mile or two of the village. Each has been cut to the bedrock by water and each still carries water from the hills down into the River Wye.
Much as I love our dogs they do not make good companions when I’m trying to make photographs, so I have learned to leave the gear behind and just enjoy the walk and their company. I do take my iPhone, which comes in handy when I see something interesting and want to record it for a later visit – without the dogs. Such was the case this morning: two excited dogs, water and the time to explore further up stream than we have been before. Sam our Labrador loves water and tends to charge on ahead and disappear; but in a confined space like the dingles I can generally tell where he is by the noise, and if he finds something scary: pile of rocks, odd shaped stick, a shadow, he is always back very quickly. Millie our 14 year old Terrier is, by comparison, stoic. She doesn’t see the point of water except for refreshment. She is a very agile, fit, little dog who enjoys a walk and exploring new territory, but prefers dry land to water. Having to follow me this morning produced a look of silent suffering as we trudged, splashed and slipped our way up stream. Her thought bubble clearly saying “I love him but he is a complete idiot”.
Millie has a habit of standing on anything small that you might be studying. I found what I thought was a Yellow Nettle and was kneeling to get a better view, when she comes trundling past and true to form tanked all across the poor plant, which was surprisingly robust considering it had just had 10 kilos of dog on it.
These places are unique and so important for the preservation of species. Fortunately our dingles still seem to be clean: the water smells fresh and there is no evidence of farm slurry or poisoning by pesticide run-off. Places like this will only remain safe if those responsible for the headlands above behave responsibly. Fortunately a large area of the hills above is owned by the National Trust (God bless’em) so no risk there. All the surrounding farms grow sheep and most seem to favour permanent pasture over the questionable benefits of the annual ploughing and resowing with rye grass regime favoured by so many lowland farmers. So hopefully we will be exploring and enjoying these wonderful little oases of wildness for a long time to come.
I last posted here on 28th June 2015, just after we had moved to Wales.
The time since then has been well spent. We ripped out much of the ornamental elements of the garden – roses on sticks particularly; dug in loads of well rotted organic manure and this summer our garden has rewarded us not just with fruit and vegetables but more importantly a huge increase in biodiversity. When we first arrived there we’re very few birds in the garden and hardly any insects. Removing yew hedges and replacing them with espaliered apples and pears (old varieties) and letting the herbs grow in the lawns so that the nectar loving insects could feed has transformed the place.
The time has also been well spent with a camera and I plan to post on that subject much more in the future months. In the meantime if you are interested some of my landscape work can be seen on the new web site also called, not surprisingly: Hares on the Hill
We walk our dogs on the Begwns, an area of moderately high grassland common that sits between the Black Mountains and the Wye Valley to the South and high moorland to the North. Some mornings when mist or rain obscures the view I do wonder why we are plodding across open grassland and bracken without any shelter from the howling winds or wandering about in thick mists trying to find: (a) the dogs and (b) the way off. But on every other morning we are treated to views like the one below.
Looking across the Wye Valley to Mynydd Troed early this morning with the sun rising over Hay Bluff.
Most of the snow and ice has disappeared now from the southern hillsides of the Begwns but not on the little ponds and streams that appear in the autumn and are gone again by summer. Jill and I have started to visit them every morning to see how the ice has changed overnight and I thought that I would share a few of them here. There seems to be no end to the variations in the ice formations or the patterns made by the frozen plants.
Finally one image of the Begwns as it was a week ago after the thaw had begun. No images of it under snow – there was nothing to see but snow.
It has been four and a half months since we moved to our new home in the Welsh Marches. I foolishly thought that once we had unpacked all the boxes and hung a few pictures on the walls that it would be back to normal and out of the door for a long walk with the camera. I had forgotten how long it can take to get a new home straight and an unfamiliar garden under control: four and a half months in our case.
By the time December arrived we had completed all of the urgent jobs and felt that the rest could wait until the new year, so it was time to get outdoors with the camera again. I’ve made several attempts in the last week to capture the clouds that have been sitting on top of the northern edge of the Black Mountains range. Last week a blizzard hid the tops and finally drove me off Hay Bluff, this week the weather has been kinder but is still very wet. Yesterday Hay Bluff was completely hidden by cloud but from about half way up the single track road that leads to the car park and the Gospel Path beyond it was possible to watch the clouds formations over Twmpa, or Lord Hereford’s Knob if you prefer, and what I think is Mynydd Bychan beyond. This was hand held into a howling gale and driving rain, so no opportunity for graduated filters, tripods and other luxuries.