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.

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Carl Wark: Prehistoric Ritual Enclosure or Dark Ages Battlefield?

Carl Wark rises out of the boggy centre of Hathersage Moor like a mini volcano. There is a hint of the primeval about it, especially when partially shrouded by mists or hill cloud, as it often is. It is an evocative and mysterious place, that even now holds its secrets closely. Only a single, small scale excavation has been conducted there and that proved to be inconclusive.

It has long been classified as an Iron Age hillfort and sits in a landscape dotted with prehistoric remains, such as a round house near Toad’s Mouth, a ring cairn and possible standing stone on the slopes of Winyard’s Nick, along with both burial and clearance cairns, and Bronze Age field systems. One cairn appears to have been a burial and excarnation complex and a furnerary urn was found there during the 1950s (1).

A small standing stone near Winyard's Nick.

A small standing stone near Winyard’s Nick.

Carl Wark is a conspicuous landmark from every angle and would almost certainly have been used in some manner during the prehistoric period. It seems highly likely that nearby Higger Tor would have also been a significant landmark. Towering over Carl Wark, it seems unthinkable that there would not be some manner of relationship between the two.

View of Carl Wark from Higger Tor

View of Carl Wark from Higger Tor

The flat-topped shape of Higger Tor is echoed in the shape of the largest stone in Wet Withens Stone Circe, on the northern edge of Eyam Moor, where the cairns and stone circe face towards Hathersage Moor, on the Summer Solstice sunrise/Winter Solstice sunset alignment. It is also worth noting that from the western end of Carl Wark, the midwinter sun sets over the pinnacle of Over Owler Tor, across Hathersage Moor to the south west. It seems highly likely that Carl Wark had its place in a ritual landscape, surrounded by significant landscape features.

Midwinter sunset over Over Owler Tor from Carl Wark

Midwinter sunset over Over Owler Tor from Carl Wark

To the south west of both Higger Tor and Carl Wark is the massive gritstone boulder, known as Mother Cap. Visible for miles around, it has been suggested that this was used as a marker for the nearby stone circles and cairn complexes and possibly illuminated at night by fire.

Mother Cap

Mother Cap

The northern, southern and eastern sides are defended by sheer rock faces, although the southern side is lined by a single course of undressed stone. It is the western facing side, where the land descends down a gentle slope, along which the great wall was built. What remains is about three meters high and about forty meters long, with the possibility that it may have once been higher and topped by a wooden palisade. The entrance at the northern end of the wall is modern and probably the result of the footsteps of decades worth of visitors.

The south facing entrance at the southern end of the wall is particularly interesting, as it is narrow enough to allow entry to the interior only in single file and then, due to a blocking boulder, anyone entering is guided to turn to their right. Meaning that with the majority of people bearing their shields on their left arm, their less defended right flank would be exposed.

The entrance at the southern end of the wall

The entrance at the southern end of the wall

The entrance at the southern end of the wall

The entrance at the southern end of the wall

The entrance at the southern end of the wall

The entrance at the southern end of the wall

It is often asked if Carl Wark is a fort, why wouldn’t the much loftier Higger Tor make a better site to place it? Higger Tor may well be higher and look steeper from the south, but once past the southern brow of the hill, the land extends into a plateaux which then gently slopes to the north towards Stanage Edge. This would mean a much larger area would need to be defended. Although Higger Tor overlooks Carl Wark, there is enough distance between the two to put the fort out of range of arrows that could be fired in its direction.

The interior of Carl Wark, looking towards Higger Tor, from near Caer's Chair

The interior of Carl Wark, looking towards Higger Tor, from near Caer’s Chair

Once inside, the interior of Carl Wark is unlike any other hillfort that I can think of. Compared to Mam Tor for example, the interior of Mam Tor contains a number of hut foundations. This is common among hillforts in that they defended some form of living quarters, be they permanent or temporary. No such space exists within Carl Wark for similar structures, being tightly packed with boulders. The best known boulder being the rock named Caer’s Chair, which overhangs the rock face on the northern edge of the site and was described by Major Hayman Rooke, following his visit in the mid eighteenth century as, “a seat of justice, where the principle Druid sat… this place must have been intended for holy uses, or as a court of justice”(2).

During a survey of Carl Wark in 1948 Stuart Piggott noted that the wall and earthen bank was very similar to structures dating from the Dark Ages at forts in Scotland. When FG Simpson dug trenches into the earth bank behind the wall during his excavation in 1950, little dating evidence was found. However, the turf sod construction led to placing a date of 5th or 6th century as its likely origin (3)

View along the wall on Carl Wark

View along the wall on Carl Wark

The name Carl Wark seems to have a number of possible derivations.  It is probable that the current name has come down to us from ‘Carl’s Work’, or ‘Charles’ Work’ according to Hayman. Karl being the old Germanic/Nordic version of Charles. It has also been suggested that Carl and Charles are old names for the god Odin, meaning ‘Old Man’ (4) and for the devil also. To the all conquering Christians of the Dark Ages or early Medieval period, Odin was probably cast as the Devil in order to dissuade pagan practises. Meaning that it is the place, work or fort of Odin and variously, the Devil (5).

Another explanation could also be that its modern name is derived from its possible Saxon name ‘Caelswark’, the fort of the Caels (Celts). Caer can also mean a fortified place in Celtic tongues (6).

The enigma of Carl Wark is that the possibilities for interpretation of its history are numerous. My personal view is that it is a multi-period site, that was adapted for different uses over long periods of time. We know that the area around Carl Wark saw human activity throughout prehistory, particularly during the Bronze Age, when the area to the south was cleared for use as farmland and the associated building of living areas and funerary enclosures took place. It seems highly unlikely that places so conspicuous as Higger Tor, Over Owler Tor and Carl Wark would not have been significant to some degree to the inhabitants of the time. Especially taking into account views of seasonal events, such as sunrises and sunsets in context of the surrounding landscape. Caer’s Chair could well be significant in this respect, along with the other odd rock forms that litter the higher places of the moor.

Summer view of Higger Tor and Carl Wark, from Over Owler Tor

Summer view of Higger Tor and Carl Wark, from Over Owler Tor

Winter view of Higger Tor and Carl Wark, from Over Owler Tor

Winter view of Higger Tor and Carl Wark, from Over Owler Tor

The nature of the wall and entrance strongly suggest a defensive purpose. It has been suggested that the wall could have been built to block the view of Mam Tor from the interior, as some kind of snub. Personally, I think that such a function could have been achieved much more easily with a wooden palisade, rather than going to the trouble of building a turf and stone wall. In my mind, there is little question that the wall and entrance was built with defence as its primary purpose.

When compared to other walls that have been dated to the prehistoric period, such as those nearby at Gardom’s Edge, which are thought to date from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, the method of construction is very different, being largely constructed of a rubble core. In my opinion, the wall at Carl Wark is not of the prehistoric period, but as Piggott suggests dates from the Dark Ages. It was not uncommon during this period for ancient places to be reused and refortified.

As outlined in my previous post, Britain divided into independent kingdoms following the withdrawal of the rule of Rome. Boarder squabbles were common amongst these kingdoms but it was the aggressive expansion of the Northumbrian Angles of Bernicia and Deira, during the 7th century that caused much stress, especially in the region of the Southern Pennines. Piggott’s estimated date for the construction of the wall at Carl Wark was 5th or 6th century, or possibly later. Within margins of error, this places the fortification of Carl Wark bang in this period of history.

Within easy walking distance of Carl Wark are Win Hill and Loose Hill, in Hope Valley. Local folklore says that they gained their names when opposing armies of Mercians and Northumbrians camped on their slopes prior to going into battle in 626AD.

In 626AD, Prince Cwichelm of the West Saxons (Wessex) sent an assassin to kill Edwin of Deira. The attempt was unsuccessful and resulted in Edwin marching south to take his revenge on the Saxons. Prince Cwichelm and his father, King Cynegils of Wessex marched north to meet him (possibly with King Penda of Mercia). It is reputed that they met in Hope Valley.

The army of Wessex and the Mercians was much larger than that of the Northumbrians and it seems that the battle began to go against them. According to legend, the Angles had built a wall on Win Hill on which they were camped, behind which they withdrew. The Saxons, sensing victory charged forward but were crushed when the Northumbrians rolled boulders down the hillside on to them.

As there is no known documentary evidence to support that this battle took place, it could all be pure speculation and folklore. Also, no archaeological remains of the wall on Win Hill have ever been found. However, it is not uncommon for folklore to be transplanted from one place to another and there is one place nearby where a wall, most probably dating from the right period definitely exists. At Carl Wark.

Higger Tor dominates the skyline, from the wall on Carl Wark

Higger Tor dominates the skyline, from the wall on Carl Wark

Could it be that the battle didn’t take place at Win Hill but on Hathersage Moor? The interior of Carl Wark is strewn with boulders that could certainly be levered off of the edges onto the enemy and there is a strong possibility that its name could link it with builders of Germanic origin. I must point out that there is no hard evidence to support this, it is a highly subjective personal theory that stands to be corrected. But it is tantalising non-the-less to think that what little evidence there is, points to the wall being built in association to the expansion of the Northumbrian Angles and that Hathersage Moor could well have played host to a bloody Dark Ages battle.

(1)    Sheffield’s Golden Frame: Bill Bevan (2007)

(2)    The Mystery of Carl Wark: (Mick Savage (1999)

(3)    Antiquity Publications Limited Antiquity 25 (1951)

(4)    The Hall of Waltheof: Sidney Addy (1893)

(5)    Addy also suggests that Higger Tor was named after the Norse word for fear, ‘yggr’. Personally, I’ve always thought of ‘Higger’ as being a corruption of ‘Higher’, due to its obvious higher aspect when seen from Carl Wark.

(6)    The Mystery of Carl Wark: (Mick Savage (1999)

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.