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

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Winter in the Peaks

The snow capped, twin peaks of Crooke Hill near Ladybower Reservoir.

The snow capped, twin peaks of Crooke Hill near Ladybower Reservoir.

Here we are, seemingly in the depths of winter and with Christmas now long forgotten, it can be hard at this time of year to appreciate what pleasures winter can bring.

Although this winter has so far has mostly been wet compared to the last few years, when we have seen some quite monumental snow falls, occasional cold snaps have brought frosts and the odd dumping of snow.

I often think that the Peak District is seen at its best in winter. Obviously, it has its attractions all year round such as the new growth of spring, the heather blooms of late summer and the mists of autumn. But it is winter when the place really comes alive in a photographic sense. There is nothing quite like being caught in a snow flurry when out on the hills, or arriving at a destination to find the rocks,
heather and grasses covered in frost. The snow capped hills and atmospherics can be truly stunning.

I love the winter colours of the Peaks, the russet browns of dead bracken and sleeping heather, the pale yellow of the grasses and the white icing of frost. To my mind, the earthy colours of winter seem more intense than the greens and purples of summer and once the red light of sunrise is cast across such a landscape, the colours seem to almost burn.

A frozen sunrise on Higger Tor

A frozen sunrise on Higger Tor

Light through mist on Higger Tor

Light through mist on Higger Tor

Both of the above images were taken at sunrise on a frosty January morning on Higger Tor. The second image is one of my all time favourites, as it came out of what appeared to be nothing.

When I arrived at Higger Tor, although still dark I could see that the top of the hill was shrouded in cloud. It seemed unlikely that the morning would produce a great deal by the way of usable images but I climbed the path to the top and set up none-the-less.

As the first image shows, I caught a sneaking view of the sun rising between the horizon and the cloud base, which I expected would probably be the best that I would get that morning. However, it often pays to wait and after about half an hour, the sun rose high enough to clear the clouds which broke just enough to allow the light through. The result was that for about fifteen minutes the most wonderful, golden light illuminated the clouds.

Red morning light at Shelter Rock.

Red morning light at Shelter Rock.

This is another image that I am particularly fond of, as I had to wait a couple of years for the right conditions to capture the image that I had held in my mind’s eye.

Higger Tor is one of the more popular sunrise locations in the Peaks, as unlike many of the edges it has an eastern facing flank. It is also one of the more accessible hilltops, just a few minutes drive from Sheffield. Meaning that you can be in position without the daunting prospect of a lengthy drive or a long hike before sunrise.

During the winter, when the sun rises in its most southerly position is the best time to photograph Shelter Rock. As other large outcrops nearby cast less of a shadow across the rock’s most photogenic side. There is a window of only a few weeks either side of the winter solstice. After that, as the sun moves further north, the shadows of other rocks increasingly obscure the light falling on to the rock.

Approaching snow at Over Owler Tor

Approaching snow at Over Owler Tor

Light breaks through snow clouds on Hathersage Moor

Light breaks through snow clouds on Hathersage Moor

The two images above were shot just before Christmas 2011. I was originally heading for Higger Tor but as I reached Hollow Meadows, the snow started to fall, becoming a blizzard by the time I reached the top end of Stanage Edge. As Ringinglow Road, was covered in a layer of fresh snow, I decided against taking my puny Ford Focus up there and instead parked at Surprise View and headed for Over Owler Tor.

The snow rolled over the Peaks in waves, leaving behind dustings on the rocks and heather, with short live breaks in the clouds that allowed shafts of light to rake across Hathersage Moor. Then the next wave of snow would roll in and send me scurrying behind the rocks of the Tor for shelter. It is magical to watch a landscape transformed in a few short minutes, from a view so familiar to something quite alien, in the way that only snow can.

First Light on Stanage Edge

First Light on Stanage Edge

This image (above) was taken on Boxing Day 2010, at the northern end of Stanage Edge. Needless to say, there wasn’t another soul around. As the sun rose it cast the most wonderful line of pink light onto Derwent Edge and Win Hill opposite. The colour of first sunlight on snow is one of the real pleasures of winter.

A frosty dawn on Baslow Edge

A frosty dawn on Baslow Edge

Light breaks through on Baslow Edge

Light breaks through on Baslow Edge

Of all winter weather conditions, I think that frost has to be my favourite. Unlike snow, which covers and obliterates detail, frost clings and accentuates the textures of rock and vegetation. Combine that with a freezing mist plus the colours of dawn and it is a winning formula. This particular morning, from January last year saw some truly lovely pre-sunrise colour, followed by a long wait for the sun to rise above low cloud, which seemed to blow in and obscure the sun each time that it was about to break through. Once the light finally struggled above the cloud, it light up the frost covered hills beautifully.

Ice encased rocks on Stanage Edge

Ice encased rocks on Stanage Edge

Golden light reflected on ice at Stanage Edge

Golden light reflected on ice at Stanage Edge

Finally, two images from about a year ago. I arrived at Stanage Edge on a Saturday morning to find it completely encased in ice. Obviously, it is not unusual to find ice at Stanage Edge at this time of year, what was remarkable was that every single rock was coated in a thick glaze, making the edge absolutely lethal underfoot.

Although it made climbing onto the edge something of a task (and probably a source of amusement to the people behind me, as I slipped back the icy path), once the sun began to rise, the ice reflected the golden light with startling vividity. The only drawback was trying to work quickly and move around compositions in such potentially dangerous conditions, before the light became too harsh.

I particularly enjoy winter sunrises as you are never quite sure what you will find when you arrive at your location. There is always an element of the unknown at any time of year, in so much as it can be hard to predict what kind of light the sunrise will bring but in winter, you have the added element of ground conditions too. A coating of frost, dusting of snow or twisted ice formation can add a whole new level of interest to familiar locations. So it really is worth braving those bitingly cold mornings.

This article originally appeared on Peak District On-line.