Christmas Trees in May

It was our second Christmas in the house in Thoralby and the snow was on the ground. The parents and I decided to go for a short walk ‘over the top’ from Thoralby into Walden and back via West Burton. Back then the plantation that we walked through was a small forest of conifers and other trees and it was a delight to walk through – even if I did slip over on my backside on one or two occasions.

Twelve years later, my father and I decided to do the walk again and see what progress had been made since the trees had been chopped down and new saplings planted. The wind was quite strong, even low down, and I tightened the drawstrings on my new wide-brimmed hat and ignored Dad’s laughing derision.

I’ll admit, I have no fashion-sense.

We took the road from Thoralby to Newbiggin, passing the old Crosslanes School (now a bunkhouse) and where the Newbiggin road bends to the right to run through the village, we went left and climbed a stoney farm track towards the first gate.

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The top of the farm track. It eventually leads down to West Burton, but we went to the right of the picure (c) Kim Ralls

Through the gate, the ground rises in a steep climb over grass that offers a beautiful view of Thoralby and Bishopdale. We could, in fact, see our house from up there.

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Thoralby (c) Kim Ralls

Up on the tops the birds were out in force. We saw curlews, jackdaws, lapwings and pheasants (guess who got a book of British birds for his birthday) and Dad had brought his binoculars with him so we could look across two dales to Bolton Castle and spy out the path we were to take. It perhaps doesn’t come across through the photos, but the visibility was stupendous as we paused in our assent every now and then to admire the scenery.

We were heading for a gap in a dry stone wall that marked the start of the old plantation. Driving down the hill from Aysgarth the other day, I glanced across to Wasset Fell opposite Thoralby and saw the sun glinting off countless plastic tubes set around saplings on the hillside. It will be some years before they come into their growth, but I can already imagine a great expanse of woodland stretching the length of Bishopdale. They’re only grown to be chopped down and sold for timber, but it will be beautiful no matter how fleeting.

We climbed and pointed out birds or features in the landscape. Dad’s done this walk many times and I let him guide – he kept ribbing me about my hat and the fact that what I had thought was the path on the map was in fact a steep-sided ditch, one that we’d never have climbed out of.

Finally we reached the plantation. Even though they’re only saplings, it’s still a pretty place to walk. My only memory up to that point was of a deep wood with the snow on branches and the sweet smell of pine needles and rich soil in the air. Now it was open to the sky and the long grass weaved and rustled in the wind whilst birds flitted between the young branches.

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In the plantation, looking back the way we’d come (c) Kim Ralls

A track had been mown though the long grass. The soft surface wasn’t easy on the legs; like walking on deep snow and having to lift your feet higher so you can see where you’re putting them next. Dad told me he’d seen birds of prey on his walks up here and I eagerly looked for them, just in case. I’d never be able to photograph them with my equipment and I’ve seen hawks and the like in falconry centres, but to see them in the wild would be have been a treat. Of course, I didn’t see any, but I wasn’t dissappointed.

Over another stile Dad pointed out a path we could have taken to climb Wasset Fell where clouds were casting long shadows over dry stone walls. Then we found ourselves walking through an area thick with young conifers.

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Christmas trees – thousands of ’em! (c) Kim Ralls

Well, I assume they were young. They hadn’t yet reached the gargantuan heights of the ones we had walked through so many years ago, but the smell was fantastic. Even in the middle of Spring with the sun shining and the sounds of Summer birds overhead, I had to admit to feeling festive.

“That’s next Christmas’ tree sorted, then” I said to Dad.

He laughed. “They grow so close together, they’d be too thin.”

The path began to slope down, bordered on both sides by conifers, the plantation stretching across the hillside as far as I could see. Saplings wrapped in plastic had been planted in neat little rows looking like strip bulbs with one end stuck in the ground.

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(c) Kim Ralls

Where the conifers ended, the path became a track laid with hardcore that curved down to the Walden road that runs from the top of West Burton and up the length of Waldendale.

We could see across to Penhill and Harland Hill. Dad pointed out a track running up between the two hills that would, if we followed it, take us over into Coverdale. It would be a lovely walk to do, though as Dad pointed out you’d need to leave a car at the other end to get home.

“We could always drive over and leave the van at the pub,” he said. “Then drive back in mine and start the walk.”

He leant me his binoculars and I could trace the path winding its way up between the two hills before it rounded a spur and went out of sight. I could see a small stream running below it.

“Thupton Gill,” Dad said.

Yorkshire place names always have a warm, friendly sound to them, like Thupton Gill, Thoralby and Thornton-Le-Beans. If you do the research, you’ll find the majority of them have Norse origins from when this part of the country formed part of Danelaw and was ruled by the Danes.

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The Walden road heading for West Burton (c) Kim Ralls

We followed the road downhill, jumping onto the verge when a milk-wagon thundered along at a rediculously fast pace.

“They don’t care, do they?” said Dad.

“I hope he doesn’t meet anyone coming the other way.”

A moment later a hatchback past us going in the opposite direction at an even brisker pace. I don’t think they cared, either.

Walking along the road we could see some of the paths criss-crossing Penhill and we started hatching plans to follow some of the ones I hadn’t been on yet; Dad thinking of the journey whilst I was thinking of the photographs.

The road would have taken us into the centre of West Burton, but we took another footpath that skirted around the top of the village. We stopped for a breather and I looked down the length of the village green towards the pub and the shop and the village hall where The Penhill Poachers rehearse (we’ve also played there on several occasions).

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West Burton (c) Kim Ralls

The path took us away from the village and across fields to join the farm track from Newbiggin. The wind hadn’t dropped all day, but the sun was getting hotter and I was glad for my hat, no matter how foolish it made me look (which is pretty foolish, if you ask my father).

We cut across the fields to the main road and walked home in time for lunch, a host of new walks filed away in my head for future reference.

Knowing What I’ve Got

Richard Bernabe, a photographer I follow on Twitter, recently announced that he was heading on a trip to Africa. Various people left comments wishing him luck and asking if he needed any assistants or (in my case) if he’d packed enough sandwiches. The photos he and other globe-trotting photographers produce from these excursions are nothing short of stunning. The wide-open horizons, the glorious sunrises and sunsets, the incredible weather systems and, of course, the varied wildlife make for images that captivate an audience and turn yours truly green with envy.

Granted, I’ve only been using a DSLR camera for a short space of time and I am nowhere near as experienced as these men and women, but I can’t help but feel a longing to get out and photograph the wider world.

But while the Yorshire Dales might not have exotic allure of the Serengeti, Pen Hill is little more than a mole hill compared to Mount Kilimanjaro and, let’s be honest, next to Victoria Falls, those at Aysgarth are little more than a set of leaky fawcetts, it’s my adopted home and I do feel lucky to live where I live.

I still feel jealous of Richard and the rest, but the Dales are not without beautiful scenery of their own.

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Pen Hill (c) Kim Ralls

Over the May bank holiday, I took a walk over to West Burton. There is a small waterfall – Cauldron Falls – that I have photographed on a few occasions and the spot is, for me, the epitome of the word ‘picturesque’. Tucked in the bottom corner of the village, were it not for the weathered sign pointing the way, the casual observer would have no idea it was there.

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Cauldron Falls, West Burton (c) Kim Ralls

A short track leads down between houses to Walden Beck and before you see it you can hear the rush of the water as it plunges into a deep pool carved out in the rock before winding round the end of a broken dam – man-made – and under a thin, hump-backed footbridge. It’s a peaceful place, even during holiday season when the tourists flock to the better-known waterfalls at Aysgarth and Hardraw. I’m grateful for this because it makes it much easier to photograph the waterfall without waiting for people to stop taking selfies to grace social media under the burden of non-sensical hashtags: #poser #wet #grimupnorth.

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Footbridge over Walden Beck (c) Kim Ralls

As I said, I’ve photographed the waterfall on several occasions. I’ve been there in sunshine, rain and snow and was beginning to think that I probably wouldn’t get any better shots than the ones I had already taken. The snow-scenes were pretty enough, but under heavy grey skies they looked drab and uninteresting.

Then I hit upon an idea. In the nineties there was a television adaptation of Ivanhoe and several scenes were filmed in the Dales. Bolton Castle was the castle of King John and Cauldron Falls was used as the hideout for one of the other main characters (I’ll avoid spoilers because it’s a brilliant series and well worth watching). The character in question inhabits a cave, the entrance to which is next to the waterfall. There is no cave behind Cauldron Falls, but the cliff overhangs somewhat and I realised this would be a great angle from which to photograph the waterfall.

There was a young couple throwing a stick for a German Shepherd puppy when I arrived. The man would throw the stick in the pool and the puppy would plunge in and paddle furiously until it reached the stick and paddle furiously back to the shore, only to scrabble at the rock until one of its owners had to lift it bodily out of the water where it would stand looking like a large drowned rat; then the whole process would be repeated again. Apparently dogs enjoy this sort of thing.

I took a couple of snaps from the usual angle whilst I waited for the couple and their dog to finish their game and head off. The first rule of landscape photography, I’ve been told, is to exercise patience when people are in the way.

Once the couple had left, I crossed over the bridge and walked towards the overhang. Even in my sturdy old builder’s boots (cheaper than real walking boots, but they’ve done the job) couldn’t get a firm grip on rock slick with spray and moss. I had visions of my feet going out from under me and either falling face down with my smashed camera beneath me, or landing flat on my back with my camera intact if not my dignity.

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Cauldron Falls, West Burton (c) Kim Ralls

It took a little time for my eyes to adjust to the gloom beneath the cliff, but straight away I knew I had made the right choice. I set up the tripod low down so that I could get as much of the water in as possible and shot a few test snaps to get an idea of light levels. A professional would have a light-meter and all sorts of test cards to help judge the best exposure time and aperture setting. I trust to luck and the ‘P’ mode on my camera. It stands for ‘Programme’ and is basically an automatic mode that sets shutter speed, aperture and ISO (sensitivity). Most of the time it gets it spot on, but I do like to do things myself when I can and so I switched to manual and took a few shots using long exposures to blur the water and give it that soft, ethereal look.

This is a great effect, but it is over-used, and so I switched to a faster shutter speed and got some freeze-frames of the water. I can’t help thinking that it captures the power of the water and looks much more dramatic. I posted the photos on Twitter and everyone preferred the blurred water over the freeze-frame. Well, each to their own, I suppose.

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Cauldron Falls (c) Kim Ralls
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Cauldron Falls (c) Kim Ralls

Whilst I was photographing, I noticed a small bird on the other side of the pool. It would hop about on the rocks and then fly up and over the waterfall, I assumed to its nest. As mentioned in previous posts, I am a novice when it comes to bird recognition (apart from curlews and gulls – they’re easy), and I had no idea what this little one was. I tried to take its photo, but the damn thing wouldn’t sit still and, when I checked the images back, I saw that as usual my lens simply didn’t have the magnification to get a decent shot.

Whilst this was happening I was joined by an older gentleman wearing comfortable-looking loafers on his feet. He was doing a much better job than me at walking over the slippery rock beneath the cliff. He took a few photos with a tablet and we had a little chat before we noticed that the bird that had been hopping over the rocks was now flitting under the cliff and back out again. We watched it land near the top of the wall and two yellow beaks snapped out from a hole and cheeped their demands for food. The gentleman and I took our leave so as not to disturb the nest further and went our separate ways.

I am still jealous of the globe trotters with their arsenal of lenses and filters and other specialist equipment. I keep promising myself that, one day, I’ll travel the world and take the kind of awe-inpsiring photos that grace the pages of National Geographic and Time and others. But, for now, I’m also grateful for living where I do and having the time to enjoy it.