Thursday, August 9, 2012

Exmoor Day 1 - Packhorse bridges & National Trust villages

After setting off on a long weekend away in Exmoor, with a view to photographing some of the varied landscapes contained within its 267 square miles, our first stop was a motorway service station just outside Bristol, so we could take care of that most basic of human needs; coffee. 

So after refueling, we had a quick sprint along the M5 before taking the turn off to Bridgewater, where we fully immersed ourselves in that archetypal English summer pastime, being stuck for miles and miles behind a caravan. But soon we were on the fringes of Dunster, and our first photo of the trip presented itself via the impressive façade of Dunster Castle as it emerges from the surrounding canopy of trees. 

There has been a settlement on this site since the 11th century, originally a motte and bailey construction, which gave way to a timber castle after the Norman conquest of England, it was not until the 19th century that it was converted into the sumptuous manor house that stands there today. So with the sun sparkling upon its fortifications we set up our tripods and took a few pictures. The sun was fairly bright by now as it was around midday so a polariser helped cut through some of the glare, as well as making the sky a richer blue. The foreground was barely of interest, being just a field of grass so I decided to use the 70-200 lens to get tighter to the castle and crop out anything that wasn’t essential to the picture. 

Due to the polariser, at f/16 I had a shutter speed of 1/13, so a tripod was essential to eradicate any blur that would have occurred if it was handheld. This shot was comprised of two exposures, one for the sky, the longer shot, and one for the land, which were then blended together in Photoshop using layer masks.
After parking up in Dunster we took a stroll through town to Gallox bridge, a 15th century packhorse bridge whose name is believed to be derived from the word gallows, as the village gallows were nearby, to see if we could get a snap or two, but unfortunately it was infested with children having a splash about in the steam and it looked like they had no intention of moving on, so we headed instead towards the castle gardens, where they have a very special bridge.

Lovers Bridge was built in the wild gothic style so prized by the late 18th century landowners, with a seat carved into the stone and boulders positioned underneath to form a rocky cascade, it was designed to make people stop and admire the bridge and to look across to the mill in the distance. Its charms seemed to have worked as it has prompted more than a few marriage proposals in its time. But we were not here for such fripperies, so with cameras at the ready we tried to get a something worthwhile, which, as there wasn’t much space around the bridge, didn’t make it that easy. In the end I settled for a wide angle portrait shot, to get the arch of the bridge and the movement of the water. 

Here I used the widest angle of my 24-70 lens to fit in as much as possible and use the little bit of wall on the left as a lead in line. I wanted to keep sharpness throughout the image so used an aperture of f/14, but had to bump up the ISO to 400 so I could get a reasonable shutter speed of 1/40. As it was handheld I had the Image Stabilisation turned on, which kept the picture from blurring. 
Feeling the need for another shot of caffeine we made our way to Selworthy, home to a very picturesque café, which, along with many of the other thatched cottages, has limewash painted walls, that have been tinted a warm creamy yellow with ochre. This village is part of the National Trust’s huge Holnicote Estate, which takes in over 12,000 acres of Exmoor coast and countryside and was gifted to them in 1944 by Sir Richard Acland, having been passed down through the Acland family for nearly 200 years. But before we could refresh ourselves we set about getting some pictures, as the weather was beginning to close in.

I tried to get a photo that showed how the cottages were part of the landscape, what with their warm rounded walls and thatched roofs, it was as if they were just another item of flora naturally emerging from the ground. Again, using a polariser to cut out the glare from the vegetation, I slightly underexposed to darken the surrounding undergrowth and to saturate the yellow of the cottage, plus, using the surrounding plants and trees in the background as a natural frame, to try and give the cottage some emphasis, almost as if it’s glowing. It was fortunate that the light by now was quite diffuse as clouds were starting to gather, which also helped with the softness of the image, as there weren’t any strong shadows to contend with. 

In post processing I made the edges of the picture slightly darker to heighten the effect with various gradients and applied a lightening curves layer, using a mask to concentrate it on the cottage to really bring it out. 
With the rain now falling we hopped into Periwinkle Cottage for a lovely cup of coffee and a sit down, unfortunately the coffee was awful but fortunately the rain didn’t last long, so we were soon out of there and on our way Allerford and it’s comely packhorse bridge. The village, which is mentioned in the Domesday Book, has an 18th century bridge that traverses the river Aller and is a favourite spot for photographers and it’s easy to see why. The bridge travels across the frame in front of the old Meadow & Packhorse cottages while the hilly moorland rises up in the background giving it an old rural feel that is, dare I say it, quaint, but in a good way. 

Using an aperture of f/8 and a 1/60 shutter speed I was able to manage the brightness of the sky to retain some detail that could be brought out later, but not so dark it would lose detail in the shadows of the building. I could have used a graduated filter but that would have made the chimneys and the top of the hill dark, as well as the sky. 
The sky was still pretty gloomy, and as is often the way in these situations it can be difficult to know whether to include it or not, generally I would try my best not to, as it doesn’t add a great deal to the scene, but in this case, to exclude it from the image would have meant cutting off the cottage chimneys. So in the end I had to decide which was the lesser of two evils and I decided I preferred the chimneys to be intact, and as it turned out, I managed to get a bit of detail in the sky when post processing it later anyway. 

I did get another shot, cropping tight into a part of the bridge and the cottage behind. I like the slight curve of the bridge and the light as it finds its way under the arches, and as an image it’s quite interesting, but it doesn't really ‘set the scene’ like the first one.
Afterwards we jumped in the car and made our way through the narrow lanes to Bossington, another village that lies within the Holnicote Estate. Bossington is a picture perfect village comprised of what looks like, one street, but most crucially there are no cars, they’re not banned or anything but there are none parked along the street, whether by National Trust law, if there is such a thing, and part of me hopes there is, or due to lack of space, the outcome is a sense of stepping back in time.

Even though it was getting late the sun was out again and warmly beaming away, which typically, was of no use to us at all, as it meant one side of the street was in sunlight and the other in deep shade, I know, never happy. But we did what we could and spent about an hour trying to get some pictures of this charming village, which again posed a similar problem to Allerton, as far chimneys go, the sky was still featureless and all these buildings had huge chimneys, far too big for them in fact. I may write to the National Trust, see if they can do something about that, shouldn’t take much to chop a few feet off them surely? 

This view through Bossington was taken when the sun went behind a cloud, I had to up the ISO to 400 so I could get a decent exposure of the buildings, but there was not much I could do with the sky, it was just too bright and bland, and I didn’t want to lose the chimneys from the cottage on the left as it’s such a lovely building.
As the sun was setting we drove over Dunkery Beacon, not only the highest part of Exmoor, but also the highest point in southern England outside Dartmoor, I got a quick shot of the scenery, using the verdant ferns as a foreground, but the sun soon disappeared, so we decided to visit the next day, and instead went in search of some late evening pictures. But were stymied by all the incredibly high hedges they have in this area, we couldn’t see a thing, so we called it a day and headed out for something to eat at the Exmoor Forest Inn, which was a bit of a triumph, so a pretty good end to the day. 

Using an aperture of f/18 and a shutter speed of 1/20 meant I had to use a tripod for this shot, I didn’t really need such a high aperture, as the higher you go, the more you sacrifice in image quality, but I wanted to get a long enough shutter speed to get some movement in the foreground ferns. I used a graduated filter to bring the sky under control and get an evenly balanced exposure, along with a polariser to bring out the clouds and the green of the ferns, I think I may have overdone the right hand side of the sky though, as it has gone slightly dark, which is a typical result of an overdone polariser. Tut tut.

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