Sunrise on Stanage Edge

Winter's End

Sunrise over Stanage Moor

As summer approaches, sunrises are getting earlier and earlier. Not that I expect that this is news to anyone, as it happens every year. The Easter Bank Holiday weekend was beckoning and I was itching to get out for a sunrise.

I usually like to be in position about half an hour before sunrise, as sometimes the dawn colours can be better than the actual sunrise itself. This also allows the opportunity to scout out a few views and angles towards the point on the horizon where the sun will rise and I enjoy watching the landscape slowly awake. On this particular day (18th April 2014), that meant being in position by 5.15am, for sunrise at about 5.45am.

Choosing to head for the southern terminus of Stanage Edge meant that I was spared a long walk and climb in the dark, as I was feeling a tad on the lazy side. Walking towards the edge, I was reminded of the last time that I had been here for sunrise, one February morning a couple of years ago, when I arrived to find the edge encased in a verglas. Lethal underfoot without cleats or crampons, I lost count how many times I’d slipped and stumbled!

Besides a thin line of cloud on the horizon, the morning was looking almost entirely cloudless. Although this makes for a lovely day, in photographic terms it isn’t necessarily a good thing, as a bit of cloud catches the warm light and can add a lot of interest and atmosphere to an image. On cloudless mornings, sometimes you get a nice glow of colour around the horizon (depending on the amount of moisture in the atmosphere), but the light becomes harsh very quickly. This makes being in position early even more important, as you need to work quickly and make the most of any colour before the sun rises to any great degree.

Warm light at sunrise, on the rocks of Stanage Edge

Warm light at sunrise, on the rocks of Stanage Edge

The sky to the east lightened degree by degree and bands of pale pinks and orange began to form around me. A pin-point of light appeared eventually as the sun rose above the thin band of cloud on the horizon. It is remarkable how quickly the sun rises and soon it was too strong to shoot directly towards but was now casting a warm red light onto the rocks of Stanage Edge.

It is during this period that I am at my most frantic, scurrying around lining up views and angles, shooting a few frames (I always bracket my shots), change position slightly – maybe try a lower viewpoint, then dash on to the next view. The sun was gaining height in the sky quickly and was now lighting up the peaks of Over Owler Tor, Offerton Moor and Eyam Moor, clustered around Hathersage.

As I was lining up another shot, I caught sight of something moving behind me, reflected in the screen on the back of my camera. My first thought was that it was a large cat, but on turning around, as all I had was a view of its backside, couldn’t make out what kind of creature it was. It was bigger and broader than a cat, with much shorter back legs. It clambered onto a rock and turned slightly, I then realised that it was a badger. I have never seen badgers on moorland before and was more excited than I expected. In fact, I think that I exclaimed, “wow, it’s a badger” to no one in particular.

The badger disappeared down the edge and was soon lost from sight amongst the rocks. I moved on and took a few more shots but by now, the light was becoming too harsh and the colours had faded from the brightening sky. I found a spot that offered a little shelter from the wind (it is surprising how cold the wind can be at that time of day, even on a sunny morning) and sat for a while, taking in the sunlight hills and moorland around me.

I stopped by the famous (and most photographed) millstones. The light wasn’t reaching them yet and thin patches of frost lingered in the sheltered spots on the western facing slopes of the edge. I sat for a while watching a couple of Ringed Ouzels (I think) flitting around the rocks. It is always with a degree of reluctance that I head back to the car.

Light Across The land

Sunlight floods the peaks around Hathersage

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The many layers of landscape photography

What is it about landscape photography that makes me keep going back for more?

I spent much of one Sunday morning asking myself this question, as a ferocious wind did its damnedest to blast me off of Marsden Moor.

A wind blasted morning at Millstone Edge

A wind blasted morning at Millstone Edge

Crouched behind a large rock, which provided at least a little shelter from the grasping fingers of the Pennine wind, waiting for a break in the clouds, I began to ponder just what it was that had coaxed me out of bed at 4.00am and up on to the moor on a day like this. I spotted a jogger approaching, the only other living soul that I saw all morning. We waved at each other in grim solidarity, in recognition of each other’s battle with the elements.

It was this that made me realise that it was a question of motivation. I could have been happily snoozing in a warm bed, but it was the promise of possibilities that had lured me up to the moor. The prospect of capturing something unique and beautiful, that told a little of the story of this amazing and often overlooked corner of the British Isles.

In my mind, landscape photography is about much more than taking photographs. It isn’t about the amount of kit that you carry with you. All of the stuff that you read in photography magazines is about making you buy more products from their advertisers, not about making you a better photographer.

To me, landscape photography is about getting to know your locations inside out. Appreciating how  geology has formed the shape of the land, how human interaction has affected its appearance and the values that have been placed upon it. Going back time after time, experiencing locations in all seasons and weather conditions. After a while, you learn to read the landscape before you. Knowing where the sun will rise and set at any given time of year and which angles you can effectively photograph. How history has interacted with the landscape, building up layers of meaning and telling the story of the location.

Muddy moorland tracks

Muddy moorland tracks

Hidden beauty! It is surprising what beauty can be found in a bit of boggy moorland

Hidden beauty! It is surprising what beauty can be found in a bit of boggy moorland

I have already written about the history of Marsden Moor here and here. Also about the area’s greatest son, Ammon Wrigley here. As you walk (or on this occasion, stagger) across the moor, you are surrounded by history. Every hilltop around you has something on it. Fragments of flint left by Mesolithic hunters, or burials left by Bronze Age farmers. Down in the valley of Castleshaw, the Romans built two forts, driving their road northwards over the moor and around Pule Hill. Angles, Saxons and Vikings made their farmsteads in the area (one Viking losing a gold ring in Chew Valley, over the hill in Saddleworth). The Normans used much of the area around Huddersfield for hunting, building their castle at Castle Hill nearby.

The industrial revolution swept through the area, bringing textile manufacture and sowing the seeds of the early Labour Movement throughout the valleys, in the shape of Luddites, Plug Rioters and Chartists. History even passes under your feet here, in the shape of the Standedge Tunnels. Redbrook engine house was used to haul rock out of the tunnel and you can still even see the rows in which the rock was tipped from carts on the spoil heaps surrounding the building. As the narrowest point of the Pennines, Standedge has for millennia, been the place where transport routes cross the hills.

The drystone wall outlines of fields wrestled from the moor, now lie jumbled, as the moor once again takes back its own. The Pennine Way crosses the moor. A symbol of hard won victories by our forefathers (in this case particularly Tom Stephenson) in wrestling access to the land from the ownership of the privileged few, for the enjoyment of the many. A battle fought famously on Kinder Scout, just a couple of hilltops away from here.

A small section of the Pennine Way, as it crosses Marsden Moor
A small section of the Pennine Way, as it crosses Marsden Moor

 

Light breaking around the Pennine Way on Marsden Moor
Light breaking around the Pennine Way on Marsden Moor

I feel a deep connection with the Southern Pennines, particularly the areas around Huddersfield where I was born and where my father took me walking when I was as a child. The sense of wonder at the contrasts between the industrialised valleys, with dark mills and grim looking factories, clustering around the rivers and canals, and the wild hilltops has never left me. Once I left school and began work in those foreboding places, where daylight hardly penetrated through over a century of accumulated grime, those wild and airy hilltops became even more important as a means of escape. A liminal place to dream of better things. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the Chartists took their meetings on to the hills. Not just to evade the watchful eye of authority, but to take their ideas to a place where freedom is tangible and ideas are received by the expansive sky, rather than the stamping boot of oppression.

Most of those factories are now gone. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Milnsbridge, which once bristled with mill chimneys. I am just about old enough to remember the last few that rose out of Colne Valley. I would stand on the hillside above Manchester Road, where I played as a child and marvel at their height, the sense of space and depth that they created. But they have now passed into history and many of the mills have been scoured of that accumulated grime and turned into flats.

Even though those old places of toil are now largely gone, the open spaces of the Pennines are still as important now as they ever were. Work in places of production may have been replaced with work in places of service. Job security has been replaced with fear of redundancy, our wages stagnated and our rights eroded by temporary or zero hour contracts. Where austerity has replaced hope of a better future for ordinary people, we once again need those open spaces to dream of better things. Places that allow the human spirit to soar and our ideas to take form, away from the suffocating grasp of an increasingly judgemental media and the authoritarian tone that is pervading society.

Fast moving clouds on a windy Millstone Edge

Fast moving clouds on a windy Millstone Edge

It is these layers of history, threads of intertwining meaning stretching back in to early human development and beyond, that fuel my passion for these hills. Over the course of thousands of years, people have come and gone, each using the landscape in different ways, each placing different meanings on the land.

Those layers remain, waiting for us to discover them. And that is the thing that motivates me out of bed and onto the hills, to take up the promise of discovery. Another chance to untangle those layers, using my viewfinder as a frame to tell those stories and the various screens that we place in front of ourselves to advertise the importance of these places. To remind people in the present, that those who went before us placed values on the landscape that transcend our modern interpretations.

Our landscapes and access to them must be protected, for they belong to us all. Including everyone who has been here before us, those of us who are here now and those who will follow us. The weight of custodianship is upon us and in order to protect them, we need to understand and appreciate our landscapes first.

As I crouched behind that stone on Marsden Moor, I could almost see Ammon Wrigley striding up onto the moor as he would have done 100 years ago. The Pennine wind pulling at his coat and scarf, past the Dinner Stone, where his ashes were scattered. It is his words that I think may be most pertinent to end this piece.

The strange wild people of the past
Have vanished race on race,
And we, like shadows on the grass,
Now pass before its face.

Ammon Wrigley, On a Yorkshire Moor

Sunrise at Northern Rotcher

Sunrise on Northern Rotcher

 

 

 

Rain and wind on Higger Tor

It was one of those mornings when the alarm goes off and you question your own sanity. The day after Boxing Day and the rest of the world is having a lie-in, as some of the strongest winds of the year batter against my bedroom window. Still, I decide that I have to live by my own first rule of landscape photography, “you have to be there.”

Once out of the warm comfort of my bed, the internal dialogue of deciding where to go begins. I had originally fancied Whinstone Lee Tor and the Hurkling Stones on Derwent Edge, but reason with myself that by the sound of the wind, it would be far too exposed and that an easier location would be better. I manage to talk myself into a nice easy walk up onto Higger Tor. If the wind is too bad, then I’m closer to the car, rather taking a long climb on a hiding to nothing. With the fact that I’m being sensible and not just lazy justified in my mind, off I go.

As I approach Grenoside on the A61 into Sheffield, I can see a faint light and clear horizon to the east. Perhaps it isn’t going to be too bad. By the time I reach Ecclesall Road it is raining, which turns into a downpour, lashing against the car as I leave the last bits of conurbation behind on Ringinglow Road.

I pulled into the parking spot behind Higger Tor and as I open the car door, the wind yanked it from my hand. It had stopped raining but the wind was savage. I allowed myself faint self-praise for not heading for Derwent Edge, as I made the short climb up onto the tor.

There was still more than half an hour to go until sunrise. Normally, these twilight moments of dawn are my favourite time of day. On some days, the rocks seem to glow from within, but today I can hardly stand in the fierce wind, blasting across the hilltop. Most of the eastern horizon was clear and beginning to colour-up in a pale gold, but the place where I would expect the sun to rise in the south east, was bound by a bank of low cloud. I set up my tripod to see how it fared in the wind. Usually sturdy (my tripod is made of steel tubing, not a lightweight carbon fibre affair), the wind blew it over in seconds. The rain started again and while adjusting my coat hood, it took one of my gloves and flung it over the edge. I decide to shelter for a while.

The usually reliable Shelter Rock was not fit for purpose, so I headed for a little spot I know on the southern-most side of the tor. A fortunately photogenic spot with jagged rocks, over-looking Carl Wark. I scrambled down off of the top of the tor a little and set my tripod up again. It was a bit more sheltered there, so I set my camera onto the tripod and took a few shots with black and white processing in mind.

The rain was now coming in bursts, so I put my gear into a fissure in the rock-face and took shelter in there myself. Once out of the main force of the wind, it was surprisingly pleasant to watch the sheets of rain lash against Carl Wark. I’ve always thought that in order to really understand the nature of a place, you have to experience and capture it in all weathers and not just the pleasant glow of a summer’s evening.

8.20am, the time for sunrise came and went with no sign of the sun, just rain clouds scudding across the moor a few metres above my head. I could see that if I waited a bit longer, the sun would climb above the bank of cloud on the horizon and maybe produce some usable light. So I waited, occasionally venturing out of my rocky shelter for a look around, quickly retreating when reaching a spot where the wind was stronger.

About an hour after sunrise, I noticed a slight change in the light, as if it had been turned up by a notch. The sun was finally climbing high enough to poke it’s fingers through the cloud and was beginning to produce fast moving beams of light, sweeping across the moor like some celestial searchlight. The biggest challenge now was to keep the rain off of the filters, which proved impossible. I ditched the filters and opted to just use the naked lens, as it offered a smaller target area for the rain drops. This proved largely successful, but still produced some wasted shots as I had to wipe the lens between every set of brackets, so smearing became a problem.

After a while, I had exhausted the compositions in my little sheltered area and decided it was time to brave the top of the tor again, to see if I could snatch a few alternative compositions. The wind had lost none of its ferocity and just holding the camera still proved to be difficult. It didn’t take long before it became obvious that it was time to make a stumbling, rain sodden retreat back to the car.

It had been both a frustrating and exhilarating morning in equal measures. Frustrating that the conditions made capturing more compositions impossible and many of those that I did capture, were rendered unusable by water smearing on the lens. But exhilarating in that I had been there to witness to moor in all of its wind and rain lashed drama. In my opinion, I thought that the shots captured made it worthwhile. I hope that you agree. On the way home, I stopped off at a garage and bought a new pair of gloves.

Driving Rain on Higger Tor

Driving Rain on Higger Tor

Light Through the Rain

Light Through the Rain

Rain Across Hathersage Moor

Rain Across Hathersage Moor

Rocky Paths

Rocky Paths

Making the best of ‘bad’ weather

Smoke from a grass fire lingers over Yeoman Hey,  Saddleworth Moor.

Smoke from a grass fire lingers over Yeoman Hey, Saddleworth Moor.

Someone once said that there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. But despite being dressed in the latest Gortex mountain gear, many photographers will pack away their equipment and head for home when the light doesn’t show. However, grey skies, hill cloud and conditions that are considered less than ideal, can still make for atmospheric photography.

Ask any landscape photographer what gets them out of bed and off into the hills, at all manner of un-godly hours and the reply will always be the same. To catch the light! That beautiful, fleeting light that only sunrise or sunset can throw across the rocks, turning them into hot coals and lighting up the sky in glorious pinks and oranges. When everything comes together, those mornings are a true joy.

More often than not however, an early start can be met by less than perfect conditions. Those photos of perfect mornings with raking light, dramatic skies, frosty rocks and misty valleys are hard won. They are the work of stubborn persistence, going back time and time again until you are rewarded by rare conditions of light and atmospherics.

Although it is obviously always good when the elements combine to present you with those valued shots, I am a great believer that all is not lost, when the conditions don’t play ball. Quite often, some of my favourite shots have come out of the worst of conditions.

Hill cloud, cloud-bound horizons or over-zealous mists can conspire to block out the light, right at the vital moment. It just means that sometimes you need to be adaptable and work a little harder, with the conditions that you are given.

Low cloud almost obscures sunrise on Higger Tor.

Low cloud almost obscures sunrise on Higger Tor.

The sun finally breaks through at Higger Tor.

The sun finally breaks through at Higger Tor.

One of the best morning’s work that I ever produced came from a morning when at first, all seemed very unpromising. I arrived at Higger Tor one frosty January morning to find low cloud skimming the hill top. It seemed that another early rise had been in vain! I took the path to the top of the tor, set up and managed to capture a couple of shots of the sun sneaking between the horizon and the cloud base. Both were fine shots but I thought that would be my lot.

One lesson that I have learned, is to stick with it. If you get nothing, at least it is nice to be out! After another  twenty minutes, the sun rose just enough to clear the cloud on the horizon and punched through the low level hill cloud, lighting up the frosty rocks with golden light. It was one of those jaw-dropping moments that stays with you for a lifetime.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out quite so well. But there is still plenty of promise during those times when the sun doesn’t struggle through.  Grey skies, hill cloud and mist can have their own beauty. The textures offered by  glowering skies and soft, diffused light can still introduce drama into photography and are ideal conditions to shoot for black and white.

Mono is a much over looked aspect of landscape photography and can be just as pleasing as an image saturated in colour.

Light punches through overcast skies at Derwent Edge, near the Wheel Stones.

Light punches through overcast skies at Derwent Edge, near the Wheel Stones.

Beams of light illuminate the hills around Derwent Valley, from Curbar Edge.

Beams of light illuminate the hills around Derwent Valley, from Curbar Edge.

Light over Alderman Hill, from Hollin Brown Knoll, Saddleworth Moor.

Light over Alderman Hill, from Hollin Brown Knoll, Saddleworth Moor.

On those cloudy days, it is worth a try at shooting during the middle of the day. All of those landscape photography rules-of-thumb advise against this, but it is often when the sun is higher that it stands a better chance of punching through the cloud, producing dramatic rays of distant light.

Low cloud skims the hill tops of William Clough, Kinder Scout.

Low cloud skims the hill tops of William Clough, Kinder Scout.

Low cloud blocks out the long distance views from Upper Burbage Brook.

Low cloud blocks out the long distance views from Upper Burbage Brook.

Low cloud can have a beauty of its own, even though it may well block out the views as well as the light. The trick is to find a foreground that can add interest in its own right. In the image above, the worn old stones at the crossing point of Burbage Brook and sweep of the middle distance draw the eye into the centre of the image. That you can only just make out the shape of the hill beyond, through the hill cloud adds atmosphere to the image. Those moments of perfect light are fleeting and our wild, upland places are more often to be found in cloud and rain. I think it is important to celebrate all of the moods that my beloved Pennines have to offer and the dark rocks coupled with the moody sky at William Clough on Kinder Scout (above), achieve that mood perfectly at this iconic location. It was here that the legendary Kinder Scout Trespass took place.

A layer of hill cloud lingers around Curbar Edge.

A layer of hill cloud lingers around Curbar Edge.

In the image above, a layer of cloud plays around the quarries of Curbar Edge. The cloud was thin enough to allow through the sunrise colours in the clouds above, but thick enough to block out the sun. However, what this image may lack in light, I think it makes up for in atmosphere. I remember that the morning was very still and cold, with a feeling akin to being underwater.

Mist rolling over Hathersage Moor, from Higger Tor.

Mist rolling over Hathersage Moor, from Higger Tor.

Hill cloud rolls in from Wessenden Head, from the slopes of West Nab.

Hill cloud rolls in from Wessenden Head, from the slopes of West Nab.

The windswept grasses on the summit of West Nab, Meltham Moor.

The windswept grasses on the summit of West Nab, Meltham Moor.

A cold winter wind whips the grasses of Buckstones, on Marsden Moor.

A cold winter wind whips the grasses of Buckstones, on Marsden Moor.

Another great way to add interest to images is with texture and movement. The wind-whipped grasses of the Pennines are particularly characteristic and a feature of the hill tops of the Meltham, Marsden and Saddleworth areas. I find the sweep of the grasses not only a useful device in the composition of the image, sweeping the eye into the frame, but something that is evocative of these wild places, drenched in history and folklore.

The Aiggin Stone at Blackstone Edge, near Rochdale.

The Aiggin Stone at Blackstone Edge, near Rochdale.

Black Dick’s Temple, near Kirkheaton, Huddersfield.

Black Dick’s Temple, near Kirkheaton, Huddersfield.

St John’s Church, Oulton near Leeds.

St John’s Church, Oulton near Leeds.

Places of historical or architectural interest often work well when framed against moody skies. Such as the spire of a church as above, or a place that is the subject of historical tales. A dark, moody background can be far more evocative of these legends, than a perfectly light scene ever can. The Aiggin Stone above, is a Medieval way-marker on the old packhorse route (which overlies a Roman Road) over the moors above Rochdale. It was a stopping point for travellers to say prayers for a safe passage on their journey. I think that the foreboding nature of the sky compliments the history of the place.

Black Dick’s Temple (see my earlier piece on this blog for more) is swathed in tales of dark doings, death and deception. A jolly sunset would be a bit inappropriate!

A small pool at Carhead Rocks.

A small pool at Carhead Rocks.

Ice and mist at Ladybower (left) and one of the waterfalls along Greenfield Brook, Saddleworth Moor.

Ice and mist at Ladybower (left) and one of the waterfalls along Greenfield Brook, Saddleworth Moor.

Puddles on Stanage Edge, reflecting the sky.

Puddles on Stanage Edge, reflecting the sky.

A slight chink in the murk, reflected in the still waters of Ladybower Reservoir.

A slight chink in the murk, reflected in the still waters of Ladybower Reservoir.

If you can, when the light isn’t playing nicely, try to get near water. Water works particularly well, reflecting surrounding scenery and available light, or by adding movement and contrast.

In the images above, a small pool at Carhead Rocks reflects the dramatic skies above. Ice at Ladybower adds both texture and perspective to the image. A waterfall at Greenfield Brook on Saddleworth Moor brings movement and contrast to the dark rocks of Ravenstones Brow, framing the image from above.  Even puddles are a great device to use to add interest.

The other shot of Ladybower was taken on a particularly murky morning. Stanage Edge was a white-out, so by dropping below the cloudbase and putting water into the frame, I was able to capture a slight chink in the clouds reflected in the still waters. The reeds provide good foreground interest too.

Snow clouds from Over Owler Tor, Hathersage Moor.

Snow clouds from Over Owler Tor, Hathersage Moor.

One November morning, while out on Over Owler Tor, I was caught in a fast moving snow storm. Of course, the moors look fantastic in snow anyway, but I particularly liked the image above as the contrast between the snow and the dark rocks make the image look almost mono, except the wedge of green to the left of the frame, of the fields below the snowline. I think it captures the foreboding mood of the darkening skies well.

Light streams through dark clouds over Uppermill, from Shaw Rocks on Saddleworth Moor.

Light streams through dark clouds over Uppermill, from Shaw Rocks on Saddleworth Moor.

An evening stroll on Stanage Edge, under dark skies.

An evening stroll on Stanage Edge, under dark skies.

So, I hope that I’ve managed to convince you that there is still much beauty to be found and plenty of great photographic opportunities, when the light doesn’t show. Don’t pack up your gear and head for breakfast. Stick with it and work a little harder to find subject matter that suits the conditions. You never know what will happen and unless you are there, you will not capture those great images when the opportunity presents itself. The bacon butties can always wait a little longer!

Pre-sunrise on Curbar Edge, Derbyshire.

Pre-sunrise on Curbar Edge, Derbyshire.

Waiting for the light to break at Curbar Edge.

Waiting for the light to break at Curbar Edge.