Unfinished Business

Winder 001

In an earlier blog, I related my aborted first attempt to climb to the summit of Winder, the lowest of the Howgill Fells above the town of Sedbergh. Apart from the myriad footpaths leading up onto the fells, the town is also home to several second-hand bookshops and so I needed little excuse for a return visit. However, for those who haven’t read my previous post, the nub of the matter was that last time I had got lost before I’d even managed to start climbing the fell and, when I finally found the right path, slipped and twisted my knee and had to return home.

I was back. And this time it was personal.

1. Sedbergh beneath the slopes of Winder (c) Kim Ralls

On this occasion, I had a little help in the form of Alfred Wainwright’s ‘Walks On The Howgill Fells.’ Like his Lake District guides, this book is full of his beautiful drawings and maps and although I had an OS map on my phone for backup, I used nothing but Wainwright’s own map and instructions as I began my second attempt to conquer Winder. For those of you without access to either Wainwright or a mobile-based reference, the best map for this walk is OS Explorer number OL19 ‘Howgill Fells & Upper Eden Valley.’

Roadworks on the highstreet meant that I had to park in the pay and display car park on Loftus Hill (the car park is behind me in the above picture). For those who just want to park up and start walking, a three hour ticket costs £3.00. On the other hand if, like me, you enjoy taking your time and want to have a look around the town, then it’s only £5.00 for a nine hour ticket (though I recommend checking prices before making the journey, just in case). In the absence of roadworks, there is also a pay and display car park on the high street which I have marked on the map.

Walking up past a small church on the left, I followed Howgill Lane (turn right next to the Golden Lion pub) and took a leisurely stroll along the road as a stiff breeze started to blow and I jammed my hat down on my head to stop it blowing away.

2. Lockbank Farm (c) Kim Ralls

At the end of a row of houses, I turned right onto a farm track that took me passed a sign advertising ice-cream for sale further down the road (I must be firm! I must be firm!) and followed it through Lockbank Farm and a trio of gates onto the slopes of the fell. Above the wall that skirts the bottom of the fells, the land is open access and you can choose any of the sheep tracks you fancy. In the interests of safety, however, I would advise against it; the fells are not difficult in terms of terrain, but with few distinctive landmarks, it would be easy to become lost, especially in bad weather. Wainwright himself recommends always going out with at least one companion in case of accidents or emergencies.

I pulled Wainwright’s book from my bag and checked the route. I turned left and followed the footpath along the wall, passing a flock of sheep enjoying the shade provided by a copse of trees and looking very annoyed at me for disturbing their rest.

I reached the point where I had slipped and twisted my knee on my last visit – the ground was thankfull dry and solid under my feet this time – and climbed up steadily. In his book ‘Walks in Limestone Country,’ Wainwright mentions the Three Peaks Challenge and ‘those whose main object in walking is pleasure and to climb hills for their intrinsic merit.’ As a walker, I most certainly fall under that description and I have no interest in flogging myself to death in order to conquer a hill or peak. With that in mind, Winder is the perfect hill for me. I like to take my time and stop for photographs (far more often than is healthy, I’m sure) and to enjoy the views. After the last time I attempted to climb this fell, I was perhaps overly mindful of my knees and every twinge had me worried that I was going to have to turn back yet again.

Not that I’m paranoid, or anything.

3. Looking across the flank of Winder (c) Kim Ralls

Reaching the top of the ridge that the the path follows to the summit, I stopped and stared for what could have been hours for all the notice I took of time.

The view of the further summits was beautiful. The slopes curved gracefully to rounded peaks covered in spring grass and tan patches where, come the autumn, bracken and gorse would sprout and provide food for the flocks of sheep left to roam freely as they please. These are not the sharp, limestone scars and crags of the Yorkshire Dales – beautiful in their own way – but rolling hills that look as if they had been hand-turned on a giant potter’s wheel and set upside down after being fired in the kiln.

4. The Howgill Fells (c) Kim Ralls

It was a long time before I even thought to take a picture, though even with my lens zoomed right out, the camera doesn’t quite do it justice. This is one of those views that you, dear reader, really must see for yourself.

It was at this point that I took a break to eat a packet of crisps. I needed the energy.

The ridge that I mentioned is like the backbone of Winder and I followed it, trying to ignore just how steep it looked. I’m not the fittest of people and, I will admit, looking at the path ahead I began to get that sinking feeling. Would I have the energy to make it to to the top or would I have to go back, defeated once again?

Well, the great news was that the steepness was deceptive. Once I started climbing, I found the ascent was relatively gentle and it wasn’t long before I could see the small white column of the OS beacon on the summit. It was only a short climb and I began to find fresh reserves of energy – perhaps I didn’t need that packet of crisps after all – as the wind fell away long enough for me to hear the impossible quiet up on the slopes. I was left with nothing but the sounds of distant sheep and my own boots crunching on dried grass and my steady breathing that now seemed unnaturally loud up on the slopes where there was little sign of life.

Wait, was that a horse?

Sure enough, looking at a distant slope I beheld a grey-black horse cropping grass at its leisure, apparently oblivious to the frustrated photographer who couldn’t zoom in close enough to take a decent picture.

5. Not a horse (c) Kim Ralls

The horse disappeared behind a ridge and I carried on walking, though somewhat bemused. What in the world was a horse doing half-way up Winder? As it happens, Wainwright mentions that ‘the peculiar joy of the Howgills is the fell ponies, which wander as they fancy: delightful creatures with flowing manes and tails, usually brown in colour but often piebald.’ Serves me right for buying a book and just looking at the pictures.

And so I plodded on, excitment growing as I neared the summit and the day’s goal. I don’t like leaving things unfinished, especially when I have no control over the circumstances that force me to abandon something I’ve started. Thankfully my knees were no trouble and I slapped my hand down in triumph on the top of the OS beacon that crowns the summit of Winder. There is a similar beacon on every peak in the Howgills, their distinctive white paint making them easy to spot from a distance. I couldn’t help noticing that the paint on the Winder beacon looked remarkably unweathered and, based on how long they’ve been up there, it’s obvious that someone actually climbs these fells on a regular basis to touch up the paint.

Everyone’s got to have a hobby, I suppose.

6. Winder OS Beacon (c) Kim Ralls
7. View from Winder #1 (c) Kim Ralls
8. View from Winder #2 (c) Kim Ralls

I sat in the shadow of the beacon and ate the egg and cress sandwiches I had bought in the town before starting my walk. It was about half-past twelve and the climb had taken a little over an hour. Not bad considering how often I had stopped to take photos and to catch my breath. From where I sat slapping at the flies that had begun to plague me (what did they eat when they couldn’t get photographer?) I looked across the slopes to the summit of Arant Haw. I would join Wainwright’s preferred path to that summit and follow it on my way down. For now, though, I thought about how close Arant Haw appeared and how tempting it was to extend my walk a little further and bag two summits in one day. That thought made up my mind for me. I’m not in the habit of climbing a peak just to brag about the achievement, but for the challenge of the undertaking and the enjoyment of the scenery. Arant Haw, tempting as it looked, would wait for another day.

9. Arant Haw seen from Winder (c) Kim Ralls

My lunch finished, I scrambled to my feet just as the roar of jet engines broke the tranquility and I jabbed my finger down on the shutter release of my camera as an RAF Typhoon flew low over the fells. I waved, though there was no chance the pilot would see me, and packed up the rubbish from my lunch.

10. Typhoon (c) Kim Ralls

From the summit there were three options for the descent. I could go back the way I had come (safe and boring); there was the route I had planned to take on my first attempt, though the shortness of this path was outweighed by the steepness of the descent; and finally there was the path indicated on Wainwright’s map. It was still a steep climb down, albeit nowhere near as steep as the second option, but the footing was easy and the views were most certainly worth it.

11. The path down (c) Kim Ralls

Following the path down, I felt a certain disappointment that I had not carried on towards Arant Haw, but weighing this up against how good I felt to have finally achieved my initial goal, my disappointment faded along with the few whisps of cloud blown by the wind across the sky. Afterall, Sedbergh is only an hour’s drive from home and now that I knew the paths a little better, a return trip would be all the more enjoyable for not being rushed.

12. Walking the lower slopes (c) Kim Ralls

The path curved round the side of the fell and followed along most of its length, running parallel with the high street until it finally met the path I had followed for the ascent. The full circle made, I descended into town to grab a drink and to browse in the various bookshops. The sun had shone all day and, despite the stiff breeze blowing, the temperature had been blissfully hot and it was the kind of day that no one could feel miserable on. Back on Howgill Lane, I had a chat with a man carrying a well-used strimmer.

“Been up on the fells?” he asked.

“Yes, I’ve just climbed Winder,” I said, making sure I pronounced the name correctly (Wainwright makes the point that it should be pronounced the way Eliza Doolittle would say window ‘pre-Higgins’).

“Ah, well, now then, now then, did y’see Blackpool Tower?”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“Ah, well, now then. If it’s a clear day, I been told y’can see all the way too Blackpool Tower.”

I don’t know about Blackpool Tower, but from The Calf, the highest point in the Howgills, it’s supposed to be possible to see all the way to Morcambe Bay on the West Coast. I’m sorry, dear reader, but I think you’re going to be coming back to these fells with me on more than one occasion.

13. Back at the beginning (c) Kim Ralls

I spent a little time in some of the book shops, bought a book by German photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt (the ‘father of photojournalism’ who took the famous photo of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on VJ Day) and made my weary way back to the car and singed my fingertips on the boiling hot steering wheel.

I headed for home with the windows down and the stereo blaring as Jimi Hendrix pleaded with the sheep of the Dales to let him stand next to their fire. Going by the expression on their faces, it wasn’t going to happen.

Out In The Streets

Whitby Goth Festival was my first foray into street photography and the bug had well and truly bitten. That said, I was nervous about going out and around my local towns with a camera. What if people recognised me; what if they wanted to know what I was doing; oh god, what if they wanted to – dare I say it – pose?

The answer was two-fold: go somewhere that wasn’t local and go on a market day.

Avoiding local places meant anonymity and going on a market day meant there would be plenty of people about and large crowds to hide in. Going to Ripon made even more sense because, with its cathedral, riverside walk and several museums, one more camera-toting pedestrain probably wasn’t going to catch anybody’s eye.

1. Sausage on a stick (c) Kim Ralls

The big difference between my trip to Whitby and my trip to Ripon was the interaction with my subjects. Or, rather, the lack of it.

At Whitby Goth Festival I had been surrounded by people dressed in outrageous and ornate costumes who had no problem with posing for photos (and the goths didn’t mind being photographed, either). In Ripon I was out among ordinary people who had no idea I was taking their picture. This is, in fact, one of the big controversies surrounding street photography: at what point does it cease to be an art form and, instead, become an invasion of a person’s privacy?

I will admit that, walking around and between the market stalls with my camera in hand, I was ever-concious of the people around me and the sound of my shutter every time I took a photo, not to mention the beep of the autofocus that I kept forgetting to switch off.

Crossword (c) Kim Ralls

It was in this situation that I was grateful for the zoom lens that came with my camera. It meant I could stand a little way back from my subject and avoid needing to get too close for the shot – this goes against the advice on countless YouTube videos stating that you should use a 35mm or 50mm lens for street photography and that the photos should be taken as close as possible to the subject.

I will admit that I simply wasn’t feeling brave enough to get in close, though with the photo of the gentleman considering his crossword above I think the extra space included in the photo helps to draw the eye to the subject. That and he looked like he was really concentrating on his clues and I didn’t want to interrupt his train of thought.

Ripon Cathedral (c) Kim Ralls

As I’ve stated in several previous posts, I love church architecture and Ripon Cathedral is a truly majestic building. Although my aim today had been to get out on the streets with my camera, I couldn’t resist stepping inside the cathedral’s cool confines (ooh, I love alliteration). There is also the bonus that Ripon Cathedral doesn’t charge an exhorbitant fee before you’re allowed inside. There is a box for donations and a little gift shop, but that is the limit of the cathedral staff’s commercial enterprise. Even for someone completely lacking in faith, such as myself, the building has a comforting feel to it when standing in the middle and looking up at the distant carvings of the roof or taking in the splendour of the great stained-glass windows.

The bonus for me on this day was that there were a few people admiring the cathedral and, as we were amidst some very photogenic architecture, I thought this was a great way to take photos without feeling self-concious.

Candles (c) Kim Ralls
Pulpit steps (c) Kim Ralls

Photographing inside a dimly lit cathedral was also a good learning experience. Trying to get a good exposure without using flash was very difficult and at one point I tried every trick I knew to take a photo of the 15th century stalls (I thought it made a nice composition), but even using flash I just couldn’t get it right.

The time came to move on, at least that’s what my grumbling stomach was thinking at this point. But as I walked down one of the side aisles, I caught sight of a gentleman sitting on his own looking thoughtful. I raised the camera without even thinking or checking the settings and took the shot just before he got up and walked away. I checked the photo on the monitor and was quite surprised that it had come out. My only change was to lighten it a little bit on the computer and convert it to black and white.

Thoughtful (c) Kim Ralls

Another photographer might have gone in close, but I prefer street photos where the subject isn’t aware of the camera. Granted, there are some great photos that go against this and some where it simply wouldn’t have been the same if the person hadn’t turned at just the right moment.

Beard (c) Kim Ralls

The great thing about today was the fact that no one approached me at any point to protest my taking photographs. Apart from the lone busker I saw outside a cafe who said it was free to take his photo, but that he’d charge me a fiver if I wanted him to smile.

Busker (c) Kim Ralls

I didn’t stay much longer in the market place, thinking that it might be nice to wonder along the river and see what I could see. I took a few nice photos, but nothing that I felt was on par with the photos in the market. Whilst I still enjoy landscape photography, photographing a stretch of river in a town, albeit one of the prettiest I know, just didn’t excite me in the same way.

Flowers (c) Kim Ralls


I came back to the market place and took another turn around the stalls, hoping to find more of the images I’d already shot. The problem, of course, is that these are the kind of photos that only happen once. I could not have planned to shoot that man sitting in the cathedral or the busker strumming his guitar – unlike other buskers I’ve seen, he refrained from playing Wonderwall or Wish You Were Here and I dropped a couple of coins in his case as a small thank you.

I didn’t find much more to photograph and the market looked like it was starting to wind down, so I wondered back to the cathedral and took a pleasant stroll round the oustide of the building, looking for any interesting gargoyles to photograph. There were plenty, but far too high for my lens.

I headed back to the car park, pausing only to take one last photo standing in Kirkgate with the sun beating down and a feeling of mission accomplished.

Kirkgate, Ripon (c) Kim Ralls



Consolation Prize

Butterfly in Black and White (c) Kim Ralls

Whenever I chat with holiday-makers in the Dales the talk inevitably turns to how I’ve adapted to living here compared with the South. It goes without saying that the pace of life in a little country village is not the same as it is in a crowded town, though I certainly don’t miss it, and of course the scenery is a marked improvement in the Dales.

“Still,” the holiday-makers often say, “I expect you’ve come to take it for granted.”

I always try to delay my answer to this statement so it doesn’t sound like I’m raising a hasty protest. The fact is, after nearly fifteen years of living in the Dales, I still find delight in the scenery and the various walks I’ve done. There are always new paths to explore and I think that even under leaden skies and torrential rain the Dales look beautiful.

That said, from a photographer’s point of view there are the frustrating days when I wish the weather would clear or that the wildlife would play ball and let me snap just one photo that wasn’t a sheep or cow.

Since I bought my camera, it’s been a rare occasion when I leave the house for a walk without it. There are days, however, when I find myself deleting almost all of the shots I’ve taken for the reason that they’re not as interesting as I thought when I took them or, in all honesty, they’re just not very good.

One day I’d been out for a short walk ‘around the block’ (i.e. a walk of less than two miles) under grey skies that kept threatening rain. I took plenty of photos of the clouds above the hills thinking that they might look suitably dramatic once I had loaded them onto the computer and converted them to black and white.

But I will admit I was feeling a little depressed. You can only take so many pictures of clouds before the monotony gets to you. Out of all the photos I took that day, only three have been kept and they have nothing to do with clouds.

In fact, I returned home, put the photos on the computer and did nothing with them for months. I just couldn’t face editing a bunch of cloud pictures that looked as though they had nothing to offer. I don’t know if anyone else has been in that situation, but I can tell you it nearly put me off photography for good, especially when I would go online and look at the photos in several FaceBook groups I’m a member of. The photos in these are nothing short of spectacular (despite the groups having names like Beginners Photography and UK Amateur Photography) and comparing my dull cloudscapes with awe-inspring shots of sunrises and sunsets and people out in the street can be fairly demoralising. Of course, the purpose of these groups isn’t to show off, but to chat to and learn from each other and if anybody is thinking of taking up photography then they can do worse than join one or more of these groups.

About three months later I was looking through my old photos, opened a folder and saw the three photos that I had decided to keep from this walk. They hadn’t been edited and I was really surprised. I hadn’t forgotten about taking them, but I was really surprised that I hadn’t even processed them.

1. Feeding time (c) Kim Ralls

I may have mentioned before, but I find butterflies fascinating and I always try to photograph them. The problem, of course, is that they’re flighty little things and it can be very hard to get close to them if you don’t have a long enough lens (which I don’t). It was towards the end of my rather uninspiring walk that the sun broke through the clouds for just a few moments and I was able to photograph these red admirals feeding on the plants by the footpath.

2. My proudest moment as a photographer (c) Kim Ralls

The second photo ranks at the top of my favourite images that I’ve taken. Compared to pro wildlife photographers, it’s probably not that spectacular, but considering my equipment and its limitations (not to mention my own inexperience as a photographer), I’m very proud of this photo.

Obviously, like me, butterflies are best photographed when distracted by food.

Both images were cropped slightly (the second image was taken from about the same distance as the cover photo at the top of this entry). I wanted to focus on the butterfly and even getting as close as I did there was a lot of extra stuff in the photo that distracted the eye.

It just goes to show, however, that even on the days when nothing seems to go right and you feel down and depressed, there will come that one bright moment that makes it all worthwhile.

When Knights Were Bold

Preceptory 001
Map (c) Kim Ralls

With so many wayward farmers and villagers scattered over miles of difficult terrain, exposed to the full force of the English weather, it’s small wonder that there are so many medieval churches, chapels and abbeys in the area. In a time when religion played a dominant role in people’s lives, the farmers and villagers would have relied on the church to provide guidance and succour in hard times. As the centuries passed and religion’s role diminished, many of the chapels and churches fell into ruin and some, like Jervaulx Abbey near Middleham, have become stops for tourists looking for a bit of local history (and a decent cup of tea).

One of the lesser-known sites rests on a spur of Pen Hill and dates from the 12th Century. It is a Knight’s Templar preceptory, or chapel, the ruins of which were uncovered in the 19th Century. It is what gives the nearby Temple Farm its name and was, until recently, reflected in the name of the Palmer Flatt (now the Aysgarth Falls Hotel) – Palmer being a derogatory term for the Templars and Flatt referring to the local field system.

I’m a sucker for an old ruin and this walk was one of the first I went on after we moved here in the early 2000s. Starting on the village green in West Burton, I headed down to the corner of the village where the wooden sign pointed the way to Cauldron Falls, a small but pretty spot that I have photographed far too many times.

1. Cauldron Falls, West Burton (c) Kim Ralls

It’s a tranquil part of the world and I spent a little too long taking photos of the waterfalls and the little beck – I had a polarising filter on my camera to cut down the glare of the sun, but it also serves as a useful tool for getting rid of reflections on water. If you go into the village hall a little way up the road there are photos on the walls of the village through the years, including one fantastic image the falls and beck completely frozen – I’ve had some cold winters, but never one that severe.

Crossing the little bridge, it’s a steep climb up a set of well-worn steps and a rough track before entering a field below Pen Hill. The hill is criss-crossed by myriad paths and tracks and as I walked through a flock of nervous sheep, I saw a sign pointing out a footpath that followed the beck up above the waterfall and made a mental note to follow it on another day.

2. Looking across Wensleydale (c) Kim Ralls

On the other side of the field I passed through a gate and into Barrack Wood – the Dales are full of intriguing place-names – and followed the path to the left, breathing in the smell of wild garlic. You can insert your own vampire-related joke here as I’ve used mine in a previous blog post.

Following the path, it’s rewarding to stop every now and again to look through the gaps in the trees up Bishopdale. I was particularly fortunate with the weather on this day, the sun shining and the skies almost completely clear of clouds. The leaves were coming out and the flowers and bees and butterflies had returned, a welcome change from the drab dreariness of an overly-long winter.

3. Bishopdale (c) Kim Ralls

It’s only a short walk from one end of Barrack Wood to the other where I climbed through a gate onto a rough farm track that winds up towards the top of Pen Hill. It was here that I made a slight alteration to my usual way of doing things. Normally on a walk like this, I would do as much of the climbing early on when I’m fresh and then enjoy an easy decent for the rest of the walk. On this occasion, however, I decided to do things the other way around because, from a photographer’s point of view, it meant seeing things from a slightly different angle which would, hopefully, avoid my repeating photos that I’ve taken before. Trust me, it works.

Following the track up a little way, you come to a metal gate with a sign for Temple Farm. This is where, had I stuck to my normal route, the return leg would have come out. This part of the path is mostly on the flat, following a small plateau with a steep drop to one side.

4. Barn on Pen Hill (c) Kim Ralls

There was no livestock in the fields and I enjoyed the easy terrain and the glorious weather. The day’s big advantage was that it was the day after the bank holiday and so with no people in sight I felt as though I had the whole countryside to myself. I’m not unsociable, but there are times when it’s a nice change to get away from the hustle and bustle (what there is in the Dales) even if it’s only for a couple of hours.

The footpath stays close to the wall until, at last, you have to go through a gate into a small copse of trees and then over a stile into a field where a huge flock of sheep with lambs turned as one to look at me. It was almost like that scene in the pub in An American Werewolf in London.

5. Spying on the flock (c) Kim Ralls

Sheep have a tendency to follow me whenever I enter their field – I assume it’s to do with being farm animals and associating humans with feeding time or with being moved to a barn. Whatever the reason, I walked briskly through the field and through a metal gate outside Temple Farm.

I heard screams and laughter from the farm children playing in their garden as I turned right and walked up a muddy track shaded by trees with new leaves on their branches. This was probably the hardest part of the walk, my shoes slipping in mud whilst I tried to hold onto my camera and keep my balance – not an easy thing to do and I imagined the children laughing at the silly Southerner tumbling down the hill in a mess of mud and camera parts.

At last, at the top of the track I could see the low walls of the preceptory. Now I must emphasise that this is a very small site, so don’t expect something on the scale of Fountains Abbey near Ripon or Jervaulx near Middleham. That said, it’s a lovely spot and I can see why the Templars would have chosen it as a site for a place of worship. It sits on the flank of the hill with wide views all around and when the sun is out the scene is bright and peaceful. The site, according to the sign, included other buildings which have not been uncovered. I would love to see just how extensive the site was in its heyday, but unless the owner of the land gives permission for an archaeological dig, I’ll just have to rely on my imagination.

6. The Preceptory (c) Kim Ralls

Inside the walls you can see where the alter once stood and there is an open coffin with the head at the Eastern end along with three coffins with their covers intact. I’ve scoured the internet for any information on those who were buried in the chapel, but come up blank. If you’re interested in the history of the site, more information can be found here.

7. Inside the Preceptory (c) Kim Ralls

For the first time I had actually forgotten to bring my water bottle with me on a walk and with the sun beating down, I was starting to feel a desperate need for a drink. I left the ruins and crossed the track into another field. The last time I came through here this field had been full of cows and a single bullock that came a little too close for comfort. On this occasion, however, the field was empty save for a couple of curlews who soared into the air and out of range of my camera as soon as I tried to get near.

One day, I thought to myself, mentally shaking my fist at them for continuing to taunt me.

Not that I’m obsessed or anything.

Passing the thin stretch of trees to my right, I was greeted with the reason I had done this walk back to front. The whole of Bishopdale lay before me beneath a beautiful Spring sky with the trees and fields verdant under the sun. I snapped away with my camera, forgetting how thirsty I was and enjoying the view.

8. Looking across Bishopdale towards Addleborough (c) Kim Ralls

The clouds were starting to role in as I carried on and I had a quick look at my phone to check the weather forecast – there is a mobile phone mast on Pen Hill for those wondering how on Earth I could get 4G in the middle of nowhere. Sure enough, it was predicting rain later that evening. But at least the clouds added to the beauty of the scene and I knew I’d be home long before any rain fell.

I hoped.

Like the lower path, this one follows a small plateau and the going is very easy, although I did come across a couple of awkward stiles consisting of large slabs wedged into the dry stone wall. They looked distinctly unstable, but they bore my weight without showing any signs of collapsing. At last I passed through a final gate and back onto the track a little way up from where I had originally left it.

9. The barn from earlier (c) Kim Ralls

I walked down the track, a small stream that ran under it making my thirst seem all the more acute, and followed it to a small humpbacked bridge over the stream on the outskirts of West Burton as the clouds rolled in and I felt the first few drops of rain begin to fall.

10. The bridge (c) Kim Ralls

Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside

I had never been to Whitby Goth Weekend before and I will admit that I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect; besides people dressed in strange outfits, I mean.

On this outing I was accompanied by a couple of friends, Vanessa Barkley and Guy Carpenter, both of whom had been to the weekend before. Guy had, in fact, told me about his last visit when he saw people with cameras behaving in a most aggressive way in order to grab a shot and I had decided that I would try to avoid the places they hung out. As will be seen, this plan went out of the window fairly early on.

River Esk, Whitby (c) Kim Ralls

The weather started off beautifully and after parking the car in a side street (the old van, I am sorry to say, is no longer with us) we walked into town along the river. As Herman Melville once wrote, there really is something about streams and rivers that draws people to the sea and I am certainly no exception – odd, perhaps, for someone who never learnt how to swim in any direction other than down.

Of course, childhood holidays spent with my grandparents on the South Wales coast may have something to do with it.

Lobster pots, Whitby (c) Kim Ralls

It wasn’t long after we reached the town centre that we saw our first goths. Men and women were dressed head to toe in black and red and white with various adornments to their clothes and bodies. There were many who were obviously into steam-punk and the likes of Marvel’s Captain America (one man even had a Hydra symbol on his uniform, the insignia of the villains in the Captain America comic books). The three of us took a table outside a small cafe and talked about cameras and photography – Guy and Vanessa use Fuji gear, whilst I use Canon and the pair of them made a vow that by the end of the day I would be a convert.

They’re still trying.

Whilst we sat enjoying a drink in the sunshine, my eye was caught by a woman sitting outside the cafe with a hot chocolate. She was dressed in an Edwardian-style outfit and reminded me of the ghost in the 1989 film of The Woman In Black (a far superior version to the 2012 film, in my ‘umble etc). I felt that I had to take her picture, but my nerves kept getting in the way, despite Guy and Vanessa urging me on. Eventually I got up and walked over to her and asked ‘would you mind if I took your picture?’

I fully expected her to tell me where to go. Instead she smiled and said ‘yes. You don’t go out dressed like this without expecting people to take a photo.’

Woman In Black (c) Kim Ralls

Just one photograph suddenly shattered any concerns I had about photographing people, goths or otherwise, and the rest of the day passed amazingly quickly. We finished our drinks and decided to take a slow amble around the old part of the town below the Abbey. Almost straight away we came upon a man with a pair of macaws on his arms. We had a fascinating conversation whilst the red macaw, called Inca, seemed only too happy to have her photo taken.

“Who’s a pretty boy, then?” (c) Kim Ralls
Inca (c) Kim Ralls

Alas, Inca ignored all my attempts to get her to talk and we eventually moved on towards the East Pier and its small lighthouse. I don’t usually plan my photos in advance of going to a location, mainly because you can never be certain that the conditions will be as you hope, not to mention planned shots are almost never as good as the spur-of-the-moment photographs that creep up and surprise you at just the right (or wrong) moment.

In this case, I had hoped to take a long exposure of the crowds on the pier so I would have the pier and lighthouse in focus with the blur of people moving back and forth.

Except there weren’t any people on the pier.

Well, at least I could take a few shots without waiting for people to move out the way – I like photographing people, but there are times when you don’t want any distractions from the rest of the photo.

East Pier Lighthouse, Whitby (c) Kim Ralls

As you can see from the photo, the weather was starting to turn at this point in the day and it wasn’t long before the sky became overcast and we felt the occasional spot of rain. I will admit that I had not planned for the weather – something I’m normally quite good at – and I was to spend the rest of the day trying to keep my camera still despite shivering from the cold.

Despite my earlier plan to avoid the places frequented by the more aggressive photographers, we suddenly decided to head up the steps to Whitby Abbey, made famous by Bram Stoker in Dracula and something of a photographic cliche. This was evidenced by the sheer weight of camera-toting people trying to climb the steps.

Indeed, this is the sort of place I would normally avoid for the simple reason that the world doesn’t need yet another photo of the abbey taken with the nearby pond providing a mirror-like reflection in its still waters.

Whitby from the Abbey (c) Kim Ralls

That said, the afore-mentioned photos are usually taken at sunrise or sunset with a perfectly clear sky. We had the advantage of dark clouds hanging ominously above the ruins looking as though at any moment a storm might erupt with horror-movie timing.


Cliche #1 (c) Kim Ralls

I was surprised that there were no goths in the abbey, apart from one woman taking a goth-selfie with a remote-operated DSLR. Both Guy and I took photos of her, though I think Guy had the better angle.

Goth selfie (c) Kim Ralls

We stopped for a lunch of smoked kipper pate on oat cakes (the pate was from Fortune’s Smoke House below the Abbey) and then headed round the pond to the site of the afore-mentioned cliche. Although it’s a view that everybody and his dog has photographed, I was fairly pleased with the result. The wind was blowing steadily and so the water in the pond was rippling and distorting the reflection of the Abbey. With the grey skies, it makes the photo more stark than the usual fare and, whilst I’m not saying I’ve done a better job than others, at least I think mine is a little different.

Cliche #2 (c) Kim Ralls

We headed down at this point, and just in time as we passed large crowds coming up the steps. I was glad we hadn’t got stuck in with them. A gentleman with red eyes and a top hat stopped and graciously let me take his photo – I’m still not sure if the red eyes were contact lenses or just the result of a really great night out…

Red Eyes (c) Kim Ralls

Come to think of it, it reminds me of the old red-eye effect you used to get with film cameras when a flash went off (if people still remember those).

Looking at the elaborate nature of some of the costumes, I find it incredible how many goths there were. It must take some of them ages to get ready, not to mention there were quite a few accoutrements that had an expensive look to them. I saw men and women wearing all manner of outifts, from faux Victorian and Edwardian dress to Rocky Horror-inspired outfits to original creations that had the mind well and truly boggled. I had also never before seen so many men in drag.

Back in the town we decided to cross over the river and head to the West Pier for a final photo session before heading for home. Passing a fabulous-looking motorbike by the bridge, the owner was only too happy to let me photograph it.

A lot of videos and articles that I’ve read on street photography emphasise shooting with the camera on your hip for more candid photos as well as not interacting with your subject to avoid ‘posed’ photos. Had it not been the goth weekend, I might have gone for that approach, but I felt that the situation merited a bit of interaction on this occasion. I’m also not a fan of trying to disguise what you’re doing. I think people would be more inclined to feel suspicous of someone hiding the fact that they’re taking photos. But that is an argument that will, in all likelihood, never be resolved.

“Born to be wild!” (c) Kim Ralls

On the ‘New Town’ side of the river, Whitby looks like a lot of other seaside towns with arcades and ice-cream stalls and fish & chip shops (we stopped in one briefly so that I could warm my hands around a portion of chips). The gulls were out en masse, as was to be expected, and I shot quite a few photos of them both in flight and on the ground, though most of these were discarded as my kit lens simply isn’t long enough for that kind of photography.

The gathering storm (c) Kim Ralls

As we walked out onto the West Pier, the sky grew ever darker and the wind began to whip the waves into foaming white-caps that broke on the shore and provided a few good photo opportunities. I made a mental note to come back in the Autumn and Winter for some truly dramatic photos.

Breaking waves (c) Kim Ralls

This would have been a good time to try my shot of people on the pier with the brooding storm clouds and the waves growing in strength. Except that the sensible ones were taking shelter in the town and so I settled for some normal exposures trying to capture the drama of the weather. I actually began to hope for a little thunder and lightning to really spice up my photos, but was disappointed in that regard. Of course, with Whitby only an hour and half’s drive from home, it wasn’t as though it would require any great effort to return in better (worse) weather.

After a few shots on the end of the pier that didn’t come out very well, we headed back into town for a cup of tea and a slice of cake before heading for home. Vanessa’s other half had arranged to pick her up and so we said goodbye after what, for me, was one of the most rewarding photo outings yet.

Are you talking to me?! (c) Kim Ralls