Rock Follies

Some months ago I wrote a piece about Studley Royal water gardens, and how they were created by John Aislabie when he retired from government in disgrace at the end of the South Sea Bubble Affair.  As Chancellor of the Exchequer he was greatly responsible for the scheme which was intended to refinance public debt but lead to the financial ruin of many and enormous damage to the economy.  (As Britain faces Brexit we have a Chancellor who is luke warm about the process but seems powerless to prevent it – will he suffer a similar fate?)

Perhaps suffer is the wrong word to use in conjunction with Aislabie however because though his mansion no longer survives, it is clear from the expense he incurred developing the gardens at Studley that he was not financially ruined.  What I did not know was how much the reverse was true until I discovered recently that the 18th century leisure park developed by Aislabie and his son was far more extensive.

Continuing the down the watercourse from Fountains is the Seven Bridges Valley, where small stone structures criss-cross the stream running through a steep-sided gorge with more follies along the ridge.  It’s nowhere near as beautiful as Studley (which is perhaps why the National Trust don’t include it) but Aislabie’s guests would enjoy carriage rides across the little bridges as part of the whole experience.

But then I discovered Hackfall Woods, six miles away as the crow flies, but another steep valley populated by small stone structures which was also part of the Aislabie estate.

Arch Brexiter, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father published a book describing how influential individuals might prosper in a future world of financial chaos, and his son seems bent on bringing that to fruition.  Taking the long view, I can’t help but think that there’s nothing new in this world.

My own financial situation has changed for the worse of late when I was made redundant, but all of these sites had something that is still free to me and is far more beautiful.  The natural world.

I’ve nothing against the stone follies.  I do object to the political ones.  But I managed one of my own.

Studley is a deer park home to three herds; fallow, sika and red deer.  And visiting in the autumn means the deer are in rut.  The stags are pumped with testosterone, and far more aggressive than usual.  Recommendations are that you keep at least 100 metres away.

Walking along the Seven Bridges Valley the air resonated with that growling belch that stags make at this time of year, but I thought they were all up on the ridge above me.  Until I rounded this tree and got a bit of surprise.  I stopped dead and let him move away though I didn’t take my eyes of him for a second.  I was glad of the metal cages that protect some of the trees trunks as I figured they would give me a start if I needed to climb.  Luckily he didn’t see me as a threat.

 

Beningbrough Rule Bending Pt II

So back to this new fascination with macro photography that I mentioned in part one.

Though none of my nudes have ever been explicit, it seems far less controversial to shoot close-ups of sex organs when they belong to plants, and so I’ve spent a good many hours this summer getting up close and personal with flowers, whether growing wild or in gardens… or in a vase in my kitchen.  (I’ve been in and outdoors shooting nudes too, and have continued that discussion with the two models concerned, who both actively embrace the genre.)

As you may have gleaned from the first part of this post; the driver behind this interest in the small world (and now I have THAT SONG in my head) was that it didn’t require a huge investment in special lenses and that came as a huge surprise.  I’ve owned a macro lens for several years but none of the shots I’d taken with it ever seemed close enough, yet reading the captions of the photographs at the exhibition told me they were shot with similar equipment.  It was time for some serious research.

A bit of reading introduced me to some new equipment (macro tubes) and new techniques (focus stacking) which seemed easy to try.  The first are a set of different sized connectors that are placed between lens and camera which have the effect of enabling the lens to get closer to the subject and they are so cheap.

Now I was getting somewhere, but then the closer you get the more another difficulty becomes apparent; getting the subject in focus.  Without being overly technical, photographs are a compromise between how much of the space between lens and background is in focus and the time the shutter is open (I’m ignoring the use of ISO here to keep it simple) but basically if you want everything in shot to be pin sharp then you need a longer exposure.  Fine if you’re shooting a building or a landscape but add a gust of wind to a flower and you’ve lost it.  Go to the opposite extreme and you can shoot quicker but the depth of field can be so small that when the tip of a petal is in focus the rest of the flower is not;  focus stacking means shooting a range of images that focus on a range of points and then blending them in photoshop so that the whole subject is sharp.  I haven’t cracked it yet, but this image of a feather shows the potential for the technique.

I’ve also embraced some of that blur as any creative should.

And then I discovered something else.  Reversing lenses.  This is how some of those amazing images had been captured with what seemed like very ordinary glass.  Using a special adaptor you can fit a lens backwards to your camera, enabling a wide-angle lens to do the reverse; become so narrow that it enlarges the subject.  Combined with those extension tubes and a device to move a small flash up to the subject too and I’m ready to go (even if the camera does look like feel more cyborg than I’m used to.)

And so back to the riverside at Beninbrough, with a flash in the wrong place and a lens on backwards to make some new naked friends…

Beningbrough Rule Bending Pt I

Having moved home in the last year I have a new area to explore and of course that includes some new National Trust properties that I’ve visited before, and even despite my disagreement with their drone policy two of the houses in North Yorkshire won me over with some special exhibits.

The first was Nunnington Hall; a largely 17th Century country house which was hosting a display of work by the finalists in the British Wildlife Photography Awards – how could I resist?  The images are all copyright of course so I can’t show them here, but they gave me some impetus to explore a new area of photography which I shall expand upon in the second part of this post.

Many of the shots were captured by the intrepid “camp out all night to see hares in the dawn mist” type, who must surely be professionals with bottomless pockets to fund the long telephoto lenses used in most of these shots.  I’m not denigrating their skill or commitment, but as these are shots that I don’t envisage myself ever taking I was happy to admire them but not inspired to follow suit.

In contrast the category that really did impress me was macro photography with incredible close up shots of insects revealing incredible detail but seemingly achieved with quite ordinary equipment.  I went straight out into the ground to shoot close ups of their flowers!

My second “new” discovery was Beninbrough Hall; a much grander Georgian mansion set in sprawling ground where cattle and sheep graze freely.  Beningbrough has a close relationship with the National Portrait Gallery, and so continually displays pictures from that collection, though these change in line with important themes.  In timely fashion this year is focusing on creative women, and so there are paintings and photographs of the likes of Judi Dench, Darcey Bussell and Amy Winehouse, though my personal favourite had to be one of the smaller works; Neil Wilder’s photographic portrait of JK Rowling.

With no opportunity to take that inspiration outside and begin photographing famous authors I was off to the gardens in close up mode again, but with one exception and act of rebellion.

A walk along the River Ouse gives an opportunity to view the Hall in the context of it’s grounds, though even at some distance it is difficult to capture a truly representative shot because of the many trees that can obstruct the view.  Time to get airborne again!

 

TA & the NT. An Open Letter.

Dear National Trust

On my recent visit to Hardwick Hall I wanted to get a photograph that included both the shell of the old hall and the Elizabethan structure that superseded it, but of course the topography of the site, combined with the plentiful trees makes that virtually impossible from the ground. Which is why I found a space at the edge of the car park, away from both buildings and people to launch my drone.

Not long afterwards one of the Trust volunteers appeared to ask if I was flying a drone which of course I confirmed. Her response was to demand that I return it and land immediately, informing me that drone flight was not permitted on any Trust property and that it was stated as such on their website. I had broken the rules and was treated accordingly.

A subtle deterrent to getting comfortable

I explained to her that I was already returning to land but she stayed to make sure the transgressor kept to his word. As I’d already explored the halls and grounds on foot I packed and left. Though the Trust are good at indicating areas where photography is not permitted in buildings, or seating that must not be used to aid in its preservation, there had been nothing to alert me to this ruling, so that evening I visited your website. Again the message was clear that permission for drone flights over properties would not be granted and a list of reasons was given. Reasons which were exaggerated to justify your case, for example:

National Trust: “CAA regulations state that drones should not be flown above or near to people. As our properties often have staff living or working on site, visitors present or have open access, unauthorised drone flying is both illegal and potentially puts people at risk.”

CAA graphic

CAA: stay 150ft (50m) away from people and property.

Now I get it.  The Trust’s prime objective is “to promote and look after places of historic beauty permanently for the benefit of the nation across England, Wales and Northern Island. Our core purpose is to look after special places for ever, for everyone.”   You are concerned that a drone hitting one of your properties would cause irreparable damage or serious injury to an employee or visitor, yet risk assessments have found that the size and weight of drones generally used by the public make this extremely unlikely (especially when flying with rotor guards as I was doing).  Add in the fact that they aren’t cheap so the pilot is no more likely to want that to happen either.

But of course a small risk can be completely removed with a blanket ban, and it’s your right to do so.  I’d just like to think that in this day and age you may be a bit more polite and adult in the way you do so.   Perhaps you should read Eric Berne or Thomas Harris on Transactional Analysis.  The “Controlling Parent” attitude you display may well produce a “Rebellious Child”. 

Oh, and a final thought.  Perhaps an article on your magazine, or more prominent signposting on your vast website might have saved me from my ignorance.

The Second Elizabeth.

Portrait of Elizabeth I at Hardwick Hall

For centuries England had been ruled by kings, and then Henry VIII produced two daughters who would each sit on the throne. Mary’s rein was relatively short and largely forgotten by many but for her persecution of religious dissenters. Her sister Elizabeth’s era is legendary by comparison. She was an exceptional woman.  And yet there was another Elizabeth whose life overlapped the Virgin Queen’s and who also exercised a great deal of power.

Bess of Hardwick

Elizabeth Cavendish gained wealth and influence through a series of high-profile husbands becoming the richest woman in the country after her queen.   Amongst her many accomplishments she built is associated with not one, but three great houses.  Her final home, Chatsworth, is perhaps Britain’s best known stately home and continues to be inhabited by the Cavendish family to this day.

Old Hardwick Hall

She is better known as Bess of Hardwick, and it was at Hardwick Hall, in the same county as Chatsworth, that she was born, but there are two Hardwick Halls here.  The original is now an empty shell, but alongside it is the replacement that Bess had built as a more fitting statement of her power.

This is amply demonstrated by the number of windows in the structure, despite glass being an extravagance at the time.  The chimneys are built into internal walls to provide more glazing opportunity so that it was said of Hardwick:

Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall

The title she acquired from her fourth husband (Cavendish was the second) was Countess of Shrewsbury, and the exterior of the building leaves no doubt that this was Elizabeth Shrewsbury’s project.  Look closely at the roofline and the letters ES are far from subtly displayed.

Internally there are the usual furnishings of the period (though understandably of better quality than average) and a great number of tapestries, many of which it is believed she worked on herself.  (Mary, Queen of Scots, was at one time held at Chatsworth under house arrest and the two apparently sewed together.)  Most notable are the “fyve pieces of hangings” representing noble women who Bess perhaps saw as role models.

These are now part of an intricate restoration project which will hopefully see all back on display at Hardwick, though appropriately one of those already there is of Penelope, wife of Ulysses who refused to consider suitors until she had finished her own tapestry (which she unpicked every night until her husbands return, 10 years late, from the Trojan War).

The Cavendish arms feature three stags or bucks heads, and stag references are prominent throughout the building, though when you reach the Great Gallery, the deer are joined by elephants, camels and more in a stunning plaster frieze around the room.  There is little doubt that this was a room designed in hope of a visit from Bess’s namesake given the decoration over the fireplace.  Even the second richest woman in England had her betters!

Pennyman

When you visit a museum that incorporates items of military history such as Les Invalides in Paris, or less romantically the Royal Armouries in Leeds, then you’re likely to be overwhelmed by the sheer volumes of weaponry and armour on display there, and picture huge forces of well prepared men whose equipment glinted in the morning sunlight on the day of a great battle.

But think about this for a moment.

Many of the “landed gentry” of England were raised in status as thanks for their support in such conflicts, and whereas they may have had the wealth to furnish their men with purpose made armaments once they had achieved some status, when they first committed themselves to one side or another in say the English Civil War, they were probably farmers with a small force of labourers who had no choice but to fall in with their employer or face financial ruin. (Historians please correct me if I’ve got this wrong!)

One such family who lived in North Yorkshire were the Pennymans, and although they bet on the wrong side during the time of Henry VIII by supporting a Catholic protest against the reformation, they were firmly on the side of Royalty in the century that followed.  As reward for this, one branch of the family were given the status of Baronet by Charles II and took up residence in Ormesby, which is now part of Middlesbrough.
In the years since then the Baronetcy died out and the estate diminished (the stable block was given over to the horses of Cleveland Police) but members of the Pennyman family continued to live there so consequently the house feels like a family home to a large degree, albeit one with some rather splendid plasterwork.

There is a real surprise in store however, and one of the National Trust’s making rather than the Pennyman’s.

Faced with large unfurnished spaces in what had been servants quarters someone decided that the perfect solution would be to install some model railways.  Advertising for donations they were delighted when one of the country’s leading modellers was persuaded by his daughter to donate his entire layout, and so the house contains a miniature England in gentler times when milk was still delivered in churns and before Beeching savaged the rail network.
Model trains were never my thing, but you can’t help but be impressed by the craftsmanship that was put into this recreation over 35 years.  It seems there are easier ways of acquiring land than entering into a civil war.

Adventures in Modern Photography Part I


Whenever one of my photographs has received any sort of special recognition on the site ViewBug, I am asked to complete a short biographical questionnaire about the image and my approach to photography, and one of the questions asked is:

What do you carry in your camera bag?

Staithes

I must confess that I find the question a bit of a pain to answer, because apart from my camera body and two “go to” lenses the answer to the rest is “it depends”.  If I’m shooting people I may opt shallow depth of field, whereas if I’m heading out doors a wide-angle could be handy.  Wildlife may need more zoom so time to pack a teleconverter.  Shooting on a beach?  Take the “snowshoes” that fit the tripod so it doesn’t sink into the surface or collapse, and so on.  I have what amounts to a plastic bag that would enable me to submerge the camera into the waves or rock pools.  Never used it.

Gisborough on a snowier day?

For my most recent shoot though, there were more important considerations.  My plan was to shoot a nearby abbey at sunrise, drive to Staithes where I would walk part of the Cleveland Way before a short detour down onto a beach and then back to my car via a cup of tea and a sandwich in the small town.  Nothing particularly challenging there yet I wish I’d been better equipped.

I arrived at Gisborough Priory at about 6.45am.  I knew that it adjoined the small church in the town of Guisborough (different spelling) and didn’t anticipate any difficulty in making my way to the one wall that still stands.  First mistake.  There was a wall around the ruin, for though only one wall still stands, enough remains at ground level for English Heritage to seek to maintain it and therefore you can only visit during opening hours.  Hardly conducive to shooting a sunrise when you can’t get onsite until 10.00am.  The solid metal doorway embedded in the wall was firmly locked too.  Further along there was an emergency entrance with a wooden gate and pointed wooden palings.  It was low enough to lift that camera bag and tripod over, but just too tall to step over without injury on those wooden points.  Would there be some purchase where the fence met the wall?  No, and besides which I’d be trespassing if I entered.  Did I find a way in despite my lack of ladders, ropes or crampons?  I couldn’t possibly comment.

The church clock chimed for 7.00 as I put my gear back in the car and left for Staithes.  But then church clocks are often inaccurate and this one seemed to be well adrift of reality.

And so onto my coastal stroll.  The profile of my walk shows it wasn’t a long one so I was wearing walking shoes rather than boots but being winter I had lots of layers.  Layers which I regretted as I ascended those steep climbs with 12kg of that camera bag, but was glad of when standing on wind blasted cliff tops.  All the same once again I was badly prepared for what faced me.

The paths along the route were muddy; and this wasn’t a problem as I began my walk because the ground was hardened by the sub-zero temperatures overnight.   The rains responsible for that mud were to through me a new challenge when I reached my objective at Port Mulgrave however. There was a sign across my path advising that the route was closed due to landslip.  No matter I knew from my map that there was an alternative so followed the road a little further and joined that.  Soon I encountered another of those signs, but at a point where the track diverged so naturally I followed the branch that bore no warnings.

There was still lots of mud here, but also patches of bracken which seemed to offer a firmer footing, though that was

undermined by the trip wires of briar that snagged feet and clothing.  Grabbing at bushes and small trees to stabilise myself when sliding or pitching forward from the long trailing bramble stems around my feet soon left me with torn gloves and flesh.  Most of them were thorns.  I’d neglected to include chain mail among my layers.

Part of the way down I wondered whether it was even possible to proceed further and stopped to shoot the bay from above, before carefully packing my gear way again in case of fall.  That was enough to convince that there was a way for there was smoke rising from one of the shacks in the small bay.  I recall from a brief dalliance with orienteering some decades ago that this sort of terrain is called “fight”.  I was participating without weaponry.
I eventually emerged from the undergrowth directly behind one of the shacks where no path existed, but as I worked my way around to a more open space its occupant emerged to hear me express my disbelief at a broad route upwards, roughly stepped with large stones.

“I wouldn’t bother with that on the way back up.” he told me.  “The mud’s so deep it’ll come over the top of your boots.”

He was right of course, but thanks to planks, fixed ropes and a point where the slope had an embedded wooden ladder of sorts I was glad that I ignored his advice on the way back.  As I reached the top I had to step over a small barrier.  It bore one of those signs that advised me of the path closure.

Were my trials and tribulations worth it?  I’ll share some images in my next post to help you decide.