Escape to Dartmoor

For the first time in a few months, I have managed to have a sneaky Friday off, a chance to enjoy a quieter day on Dartmoor, now that the summer holidays are over.

Today’s outing will include a pleasant stroll around Venford reservoir, a quick trip to Coombestone Tor and another visit to a favourite of mine, the Powdermills ruins.

I will write more about Venford in another blog, today is more about my enjoyment of exploring the rocky outcrops of Coombestone Tor and fascinating landscape of the Powdermills.

Coombestone Tor is very popular, given the ease of access to its location, the car park being a stone’s throw away from the main attraction, which on an overcast day such as today, looks as dramatic as ever.

The bracken surrounding these outcrops are taking on an autumnal tinge, greens and rusty browns add contrast to the cold grey monoliths.
The views from here are nothing short of breathtaking, just a small reminder of how lucky I am to have this barely an hour from my home town.

From here, the destination is Princetown, home of Dartmoor prison and a handy village store where a welcome bite to eat is enjoyed, before the third part of today’s outing.

Powdermills ruins are the remnants of a gunpowder manufacturing facility, the explosives being used for the quarrying of the granite on Dartmoor, with several of the well separated buildings still standing, apart from their roofs, they serve as a poignant reminder of the areas industrial past within this unforgiving landscape.

I have visited this location on much brighter days but for me, the overcast conditions add a little more drama to this desolate moorland, a place that I will continue to visit time and time again.


A trip to Piles Copse

It has been a while since my last blog entry, a busy August has left little spare time to write, however there are a few entries in the offing.

The first of these is a first time trip to Piles Copse, the third and less well known of the ancient oak woodlands of Dartmoor, situated on the banks of the River Erme, a few miles from Cornwood and Ivybridge.

I have visited Wistman’s wood and Black a tor copse before, both of which are breathtakingly beautiful and popular, Piles copse has a less defined footpath so a map is pretty much essential.

Arriving at just before 7am, the sun is making its way into the sky, my first photo of the day is a copse of fir trees silhouetted by the morning light, a truly inspiring start to today’s outing.



Just a few steps into today’s walk and this is my view

With my need for some urgent shutter therapy and the outstanding natural beauty of the landscape, the hike towards Sharp tor takes a while, and upon reaching the tor, the view below is second only to the local equine population atop the hill.

My first photo of this little beauty was from some distance away, but I sat quietly on a rock and she slowly but surely came closer to satisfy her curiosity.
The view from Sharp tor down to Piles Copse

From this vantage point, to the woods below is a steep zigzagging route weaving a path around the dense vegetation, it is clear that this is not a well used path.

The copse itself is owned and managed by the Howard family, who thankfully allow rights of access through the woodland but camping is not allowed with the area being designated site of scientific interest status.

Like Wistman’s wood and Black a tor copse, one could be forgiven for thinking that you had come to middle earth, the lichen and moss coated trees and rocks, and twisted tree limbs looking so beautifully other worldly.


I find my usual photographic fodder of back lit leaves and dappled sunlight through the trees, a spiders web shimmering in the gentle breeze that whispers quietly as it passes by.

The route out of the copse is as hard as the one in, yet for this, I feel a sense of reward, nothing as beautiful as this should be easy to reach, the total distance of just under six miles feels more like ten but I feel privileged to have completed the Dartmoor triumvirate of ancient woodlands.

Woodland wanders

Summer arrived this weekend, its suitcase packed with blue skies and temperatures in the mid to late twenties centigrade, the first prolonged period of decent weather for some time.

Not wishing to sound ungrateful but I will not be one of the many seeking sand, sea and surf, instead I will seek the shade of a woodland walk, while continuing with my series of vintage lens shoots.

Today’s lens of choice is a Helios 44-2 58mm lens, bought some years ago on an online auction site, these lenses are known for their swirly bokeh wide open at F2, with a decent sharpness throughout the focal range.

Helios 44-2 ‘Zebra’ lens

My introduction to the Helios lens was with my first film camera in the 1980’s, a Zenit TTL, at that time,it would be true to say that I did not appreciate what I had, equally, my relationship with photography had barely begun.

Today’s destination is Dane’s wood, owned by the National trust just a couple miles from the Killerton estate near the village of Broadclyst.

Normally, my woodland walks tend to be in the mid to late autumn months, capturing the changing colours of nature, today will be finding areas of interesting light, flora and fauna, looking for more abstract shots of the woodland.

It is a slow amble through the woods, enjoying the cool shade of the trees,while listening to the birdsong above as I look for my next subjects, of which there is plenty.
More and more, I am enjoying the more deliberate process of manual focusing, for sure, auto focus has its many advantages but for me it is not critical in capturing the ‘moment’ in an instant as it would be a journalist, sports or wedding photographer.

A two hour mooch around the woods seems like just a few minutes, it never ceases to amaze me how fast the time passes by on my camera walks.
Emerging from the woodland path to the car park, it appears that the world and his brother are looking for a parking space, it looks like a good few others have no wish to go the beach either.


Old lenses, modern camera

As digital photography technology advances ever forward, camera companies are cramming more and more megapixels on to sensors, adding ever more features to make the photographic process more instantaneous.
Modern camera lenses are now clinically sharp, even the humble ‘kit lens’ offered with a new camera is no longer the cheap and cheerful offering it once was.

With a long time passion for photography, I have embraced all the above with vigour but I feel that sometimes I am forgetting one of the reasons that I got into photography in the first instance, the whole process of manual focusing a lens, learning how to read the light and expose correctly (more often incorrectly in my early days).
For all my mistakes, they were all part of the learning curve, just one of the many steps in my photographic journey.

Every now and again, I retrace these steps to an extent, by attaching an old manual lens to my mirrorless camera, I went through a stage of finding some cheap lenses through online auction sites, a few of which have become firm favourites and will not be parted with, others were not so good and found their way into charity shops.

Today was one of those days where I took out my Helios 44-2 58mm lens and an industar 50mm 3.5 – 4.5, both od Russian origin, both mass produced so incredibly plentiful and cheap.

The Helios wide open at F2 produces a swirly bokeh, ideal for shots in woodland where the background can be isolated from the subject, the Industar has a more muted colour palette which I like for street photography.

While a manual focusing lens may not be ideal for street photography, there is pleasure to be had in finding a spot and pre focusing, waiting for someone to walk into frame, with a small city such as Exeter, it is just a matter of time before someone obliges.

Maybe I need to spend more time with these legacy lenses, I felt more immersed in the process, rather than just being in charge of pressing a button!

A welcome return to Dartmoor

It has been four long months since I last visited Dartmoor, a trip to Wistmans wood in March, just a few days before lockdown restrictions were put in place.
Realising that such measures were likely, I made sure to savour every step of that March outing, unsure of when I may visit again.

That day was yesterday, to say I was looking forward to it would be an understatement, I could not wait to tread once more amongst the vast openness, to hear the sweet summer sounds of the skylarks soaring above, to gaze in awe at the many tors, stone sentinels of the moorland landscape.

The rain from earlier in the morning had abated but the skies still wore remnants of mist and grey cloud, giving the moor a sombre moodiness, for all I cared it could have been torrential rain, I was just happy to be back on familiar ground.

Dartmoor will always present photo opportunities, the most obvious being the landscape as described earlier, yet I find pleasure in finding the smaller treasures, water droplets on grass, a fallen foxglove petal, or fungi thriving in the humid air, to name just a few.

A bit more milage

Unlimited exercise, the two sweetest words I have heard in a long time, two words that those of us that love the outdoors will be relishing.

Recently, these late spring mornings have dawned with beautiful blue skies and a freshness in the air that invigorates the senses, so with a licence to walk, I was keen to get a few miles under my belt.

One of my favourite local walks, is one that takes a path along the River Exe and on to the town of Topsham, via a footpath that runs alongside the estuary, with high tide a couple of hours away, I will have chance to walk the path before it is cut off by the tide, the alternative route being close to a main road and the incessant roar of traffic.

It is one of those very tranquil mornings, not even a breeze disturbs the water, so what little reflections there are at low tide are perfect mirror images.
Since it has been over three months since my last walk along this route , it feels as if I am seeing it all for the first time again, constant reminders of how picturesque the area I am privileged to call home is.


Keen to retrace the path I have walked before high tide, I save my other favourite places in Topsham for another day, as it is, today’s walk is just over 11 miles, a good start to my day.

A route well trodden

It has been a while since my last musing here, for the first time in a while, I have not felt compelled to write, since my exercise walks have taken a very familiar route, yet this morning, I felt this malaise lift and wanted to share a few images I have taken over the last few days.

My route well trodden, takes me to the Riverside valley park on the outskirts of the city, on these cooler May mornings, I have been fortunate to capture the low lying mist, sometimes tinted with the glow of the rising sun.

From behind majestic oaks, wrapped in their new verdant green leaf cloaks, I capture my favourite picture so far this year, perhaps this one moment made me realise that while I miss the outings by the sea and on the moor, I am fortunate to have such immediate beauty on my own doorstep.

Early light 2

As late spring turns to early summer, my alarm is set from early, to silly O’ clock, yet this seems such a small price to pay when I apparently have the whole place to myself.

It is not just the sights, the sound of a stonechat nearby, a woodpecker also heard in the distance and just the whisper of the breeze as it ghosts through the trees.

As the human race becomes more accustomed to new ways of life, nature continues as nothing has happened, the first brood of cygnets trail behind mom, as they take their first few forays along the Exe.

New brood

A kingfisher, a dart of orange, too quick to take a picture of but there nonetheless, an egret too camera shy for its picture, all calming sights during troubled times.

It is true to say that familiarity can breed a certain amount of taking for granted those things close to home, it is safe to say that my sense of appreciation has been wakened from its slumber.

Small world

I remember my first experience of looking through the eyepiece of a science lab microscope at school and being immediately captivated by the details that were previously kept hidden from my inquisitive mind.
Of course I had seen images in the children’s magazines of the day, (look and learn being a particular favourite) but to see these images in the real world made me want to look at the world in a different way.

The fascination for these miniature worlds has never left me, I count macro photography as one of my favourite subjects, typically it is fair to say I have bought and sold a few dedicated macro lenses over the years but it is possible to get close without spending a fortune.

These days, rather than lugging an expensive and often heavy lens around, I use one of my vintage 50mm lenses for close up work, while not a dedicated macro lens, its close focusing ability allows for a much lighter camera bag and some decent results.

The lens is question is one I mention often in my musings, a Pentacon 50mm 1.8 lens, available very fairly priced on online auction sites.
These lenses are often the of the  M42 screw mounting, popular with many of the SLR cameras of the day, for around £10-£20, an m42 mount adaptor can be bought for most makes of camera.

Focus is manual only, aperture is controlled from the lens aperture ring, focus from the lens ring, just like the good old days.

In the current ‘stay home’ directive, take a little time to look around the garden at things that we take for granted, take pleasure in the things that we can see, not those that we can’t.

 

Close to home

Walking has always been something I have enjoyed, from an early age growing up by the sea, I took great pleasure in discovering the miles of coast path around the picturesque south hams.
It has only been in the last 10 years that a camera has become a part of my continued exploration of old and new places, what better way to record the changing of the seasons in those favourite haunts?

More recently, I have endeavoured to travel further afield, with day trips to Bristol, a 3 day break in London, other venues were due to follow this year but for the Covid spanner being thrown into the works.

The moving of the goal posts has been the same for all of us, it is how we respond to new challenges that can make us more creative, or perhaps in my case, to appreciate all the more the opportunities that are on our doorstep.

For the last couple of mornings, I have taken an early walk around the River Exe, watching the day unfold but this morning I was keen to see what I could find closer to home.

With the morning spent doing the few jobs I had set out to do, it was unusual for me to set out after lunch but with ideas in mind, it was a favourite 50mm vintage lens that was put onto the camera, the pentacon 50mm 1.8, which offers a close focusing ability.

There is something about the rendering of colours from vintage lenses that I really like for this type of close up image, as well as the fact that manual focusing gives you the feeling of taking the shot, not just point and click.

While I only took a fraction of the photos that I would on a ‘normal’ photo walk, I was happy with the majority of them, just going to prove we should not ignore, or take for granted the beauty than can be found close to home.

 

Another Dartmoor day

It has been a few weeks since I last visited Dartmoor, yet it feels like months, but today I shall atone for my absence with a visit to a favourite haunt on the moor,Wistmans wood.

For the unfamiliar, Wistmans wood is one of the highest ancient oakwoods in the UK, designated as a site of special scientific interest in 1964, it’s mixture of lichen covered granite boulders and oak trees have been the source of inspiration for writers and artists for generations.

It is thought that the name derives from an old dialect word ‘wisht’ meaning eerie or uncanny, pixie led or haunted.

The weather gods have been kind today, the rain is off duty, it is so good to see clear blue skies and to feel the warmth of the early spring sunshine, as I begin the two miles along the well trodden path towards the woods.

One of the enduring images of Dartmoor are the miles of dry stone walls, standing as a testament to the stone mason’s craftsmanship, my route today is no exception, I stand as I so often do and admire a skill that only a few will ever master.

The sound of traffic from the nearest road is soon lost in the vast openness of the land, overhead a skylark hovers above, its song a pleasure to hear, in my mind, I am hearing Vaughan William’s lark ascending, my favourite classical piece

As I approach the ancient oaks, the skylark’s song is replaced by the familiar tunes of chaffinches as they flit between the branches.

At first sight, the trees would appear to have played some macabre version of twister, as lichen clad branches twist and turn in all directions, it is not hard to see why this woodland has so much folklore attached to it.

I take a few moments just to sit on one of the many boulders under the trees, just listening to the sounds of nature, a welcome interlude these worrying times of late.
I have taken far fewer pictures today than normal, I have simply enjoyed my return to the moor and will always take away more memories than photographs.