Stone Barns of the Derbyshire Peak District

Limestone and gritstone field barns have been a defining feature of the landscape of the Peak District of Derbyshire for centuries.

Built by farmers using locally sourced stone, they fit naturally into the landscape from which they rose, even enhancing the natural beauty of the Derbyshire countryside.

Field barns explain how the countryside has been managed over the course of hundreds of years.

Such stone barns have served a variety of purposes, including housing cattle, lambing, milking, winter shelter and hay storage. They also serve as valuable wildlife habitats, as many birds build their nests in the barns’ eaves.

But, with recent changes in farming practices, many of these centuries-old buildings have slowly fallen into disrepair. Farmers are understandably reluctant to put money into maintaining them when they no longer serve any agricultural purpose.

Some stone barns have been converted into houses, a particularly regrettable change of use as the owners lay paved driveways, install utilities and park their cars nearby, fundamentally changing the character of the structures in ways incongruous with the surrounding natural landscape.


These two stone barns, called the Staden Barns, named for the family who built them, are among the prettiest of the many barns I photographed in the Peak District. They straddle a narrow country lane about half a mile southeast of the village of Hartington, on the western edge of the Peak District.

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Roach End Barn

During my solo photography tour of the Peak District this past June, one of the locations I was most looking forward to photographing was the famous (among photographers, at least) Roach End barn.

Roach End Barn at sunset

While most of the Peak District lies within the county of Derbyshire, the Roaches, in the southwest corner of the District, lies in Staffordshire, just north of the town of Leek.

The Roaches area is loved by hikers and climbers alike for its steep, rugged gritstone ridge. It groups together two main gritstone outcrops, Ramshaw Rocks and Hen Cloud, both of which offer stunning panoramic views over much of Cheshire and, on a clear day, even as far west as Snowdonia in Wales.

But I came to The Roaches only to photograph this picturesque, tumbledown barn, which stands on a hillside semi-encircled by a clump of trees.

Though I was primarily interested in photographing the barn at sunset, I arrived in mid-afternoon and spent a few hours walking around the site, familiarizing myself with the scene and shooting the barn from different angles. I had seen so many inspirational photographs of the barn in the preceding years that I had to make a conscious effort to clear my mind of those images and seek out my own vision of it.

Finally, I settled on a composition from above the barn, shooting towards the west, looking out over the Cheshire plain. While the light had been flat during the first couple of hours of my visit, just as the sun sank to the west, a spectacular cloud moved across the sky from the southwest and was dramatically illuminated by the warm, pink light of the setting sun, which also lit up the brickwork of the barn with a warm, reddish glow (lead image).

(click on an image to enlarge it)

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Waiting for the Sun to Rise over West Virginia

I took this photo at 7:01am on Monday, October 8th while standing on Bear Rocks Preserve, one of West Virginia’s most iconic overlooks. That was 7 minutes after dawn and 20 minutes before sunrise.

(click to enlarge)

Bear Rocks is made up of massive sandstone boulders that form a ridge line, pointing north along the eastern edge of the Dolly Sods plateau. The boulders are interspersed with red spruce trees and huckleberry shrubs and surrounded by ancient bogs.

I noted the exact time when I took this photograph from my camera’s internal clock. In reality, however, time seems to stand still in this barren, forlorn landscape, especially when one is standing in the darkness, watching the sky to the northeast turn slowly from black to purple, to red, to orange and then to yellow, as the rising sun breaches the horizon beyond the receding lines of mountain ridges and valleys filled with early morning fog.

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The Barn on Bonner Mountain

When in West Virginia over the long weekend of October 10-12, the most enchanting subject I photographed was this elegant, lop-sided barn on Bonner Mountain Road in the Canaan Valley.

Barns fascinate me and I never miss the opportunity to photograph one.

I can’t explain this fascination. Yes, I was born and raised amid farms in a rural part of Ireland but I never saw barns there.

I suspect the roots of this fascination may lie deep in my DNA. Just as all human beings hold in our minds an idyllic vision of a rural landscape with rolling hills leading down to a lake surrounded by trees because that’s what East Africa, where all humankind originated, looks like, so I suspect that my love of barns has a similarly deep-seated source somewhere in an ancient, long-lost Ireland.

(click on an image to enlarge it)

 

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Dolly Sods Sunrise

On my recent West Virginia trip, I spent every morning on Dolly Sods, a rocky wilderness area in the Monongahela National Forest, which forms part of the Allegheny Mountains.

Standing in the dark on a rocky outcrop, facing northeast towards the rising sun, I felt that familiar, quiet thrill of being back in nature again.

To be standing on this rock at 6:00am each morning, I woke up at 4:15am, drove an hour, mostly on dirt roads, from Davis, where my hotel was, to get to Dolly Sods by 5:30am; then trekked for half an hour in the darkness to reach the rocky overlook from which I wanted to photograph the rising sun.

And yet, when I rolled up to the parking area in the dark at 5:30am, the place was already abuzz with several photographers intent on doing exactly the same thing as I was doing. Fortunately, Dolly Sods is so vast that I was easily able to avoid my fellow-photographers.

In the internet age, when information about even the most remote photographic locations is strewn all over social media, it’s hard to find a place where one can be alone, even in the middle of the night standing on a West Virginia mountain top.

Every time I visit West Virginia, I feel conflicted between admiration for its natural beauty and concern for its unmissable poverty. While it has famously been called “almost heaven”, the state is also hellishly impoverished: of the U.S. states on the mainland, only Arkansas and Mississippi are poorer. One sees the effects of such poverty everywhere: in the ancient pickup trucks that most people seem to drive, in the dilapidated state of the houses where West Virginians live and in the bargain-basement stores where they shop.

When in West Virginia, I always make a point of staying in a locally-owned guesthouse, not one of the national brandname hotel chains, and of eating in locally-owned restaurants. It’s a small gesture but it salves my troubled conscience a little to think that I am putting my tourist Dollars into the local economy in such a way that they will probably stay in the state, rather than being siphoned off to some corporate headquarters elsewhere.

(Click on an image to enlarge it)

 

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Douglas Falls, West Virginia

I recently returned from a six-day photography trip to West Virginia, where I spent a lot of time photographing waterfalls, including Douglas Falls.

View from a rocky outcrop mid-way down the falls

Close-up side view of the falls

This wasn’t my first visit to these falls (the profile photo on the “About” page of my website was taken on the same falls four years ago) but it was certainly the most dangerous I had ever seen the falls.

On my previous visit, the flow of water over the falls was low, so it was safe to walk out on the mostly dry rocks. This time, by contrast, because of recent heavy rainfall brought by the tail-end of Hurricane Florence in mid-September, the north fork of the Blackwater River had turned into a torrent, making walking out on to the slick, partially-submerged rocks a perilous undertaking. It was only by wearing Stream Trekkers traction grips over my hiking boots and exercising caution with every move that I managed to avoid falling.

The bottom of the falls is reached by scrambling down a steep, rocky descent. And, at various places along the river, there are other, even more treacherous vantage points which, if you climb down to them, offer alternative compositions. Shooting with a friend, Riley, he asked me nervously at one point, “Are we gonna try to climb down this one?” referring to a fifteen-foot drop which required lowering oneself backwards over the riverbank on to a rocky outcrop below, to which I replied, “What the hell! I might as well die out here doing what I love as die at home in the safety of my bed.” So, down we went, taking it in turns to scale down the sheer precipice and helping each other climb safely back up again. The lead image resulted from this tricky, blind descent.

 

Wide angle shot taken downstream with scalloped rocks in the left foreground

Among photographers, Douglas Falls is one of the favourite West Virginia waterfalls on account of its dramatic location, the endless compositional possibilities afforded by the huge rocks strewn along the riverbed and the scalloped layers of rock that border the stream, which I used as a foreground element for the third image.

The other extraordinary feature of these falls is the other-worldly, reddish colour of the rocks. While the unusual colour may increase the visual interest of the falls, it is, in fact, the result of a man-made disaster, as acid mine drainage from a disused coal mine upstream seeped into the river some years ago, killing the aquatic life in its waters and staining the rocks this garish colour. Clean-up operations have been ongoing since the leakage and it is reassuring to note some fish have since returned to the river.

The riverbed is strewn with massive, discouloured boulders

While I thoroughly enjoyed my exhilarating visit to Douglas Falls, there was one big disappointment: West Virginia’s famous fall colours have failed to materialize this year. Because of Florence, many trees were stripped bare of leaves before they had a chance to turn. And those leaves that are still on the trees remain stubbornly green, as you can see from my photos. Talking to several local people about this disappointing phenomenon, it is apparent that West Virginians feel non-plussed by the non-appearance of their famous fall colours this year. In a state whose efforts to transition from heavy industries, such as coal, to a cleaner future based in part on service industries, such as tourism, it will be bad news indeed if one of the effects of climate change turns out to be the disappearance of autumn.

 

 

 

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The Walk to Poolbeg Lighthouse

The Stena Line ferry “Superfast X” entering Dublin Port

On both mornings of a recent two-day visit to Dublin, I walked out to the pretty little Poolbeg Lighthouse.

The lighthouse, which was first built in 1786 and reconstructed in its current form in 1820, sits out in the middle of Dublin Bay, at the end of the Great South Wall.

The walk out to the lighthouse can be bracing when the wind comes sweeping in off the Irish Sea but it is always worthwhile because of the close-up view of the squat, bright red structure and of the ferries and ships that regularly pass into and out of Dublin Port.

Poolbeg Lighthouse and Winch

The lead image shows the Stena Line ferry “Stena Superfast X”, which makes three crossings a day from Holyhead, on Anglesey, North Wales to Dublin, taking 3 hours, 15 minutes to cover the 73-mile distance.

In the second image, one can see the old, rusted winch that was once used to hoist up provisions for the lighthouse keepers from boats moored below the sea wall.

Standing out in the middle of the bay, one enjoys a panoramic view toward the town of Dun Laoghaire and the Wicklow Mountains to the south of Dublin and Howth Head to the north.

The walk out to the lighthouse has also featured in music videos that accompany songs by some of Dublin’s most famous musicians, including Phil Lynott, in the video for “Old Town” and The Script for “Breakeven”. In both videos, at the end of a song about the pain of lost love, the singer turns and sets off on the long, lonely walk out along the sea wall towards the faraway lighthouse, a journey whose distance and isolated setting serves as an evocative visual metaphor for loneliness.

 

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Ballygawley House

This stately pile stands abandoned atop a hill overlooking the A5 Omagh to Ballygawley Road in western Country Tyrone, not far from where I was born and raised.

According to the official history of Ballygawley House, it was built by Captain Andrew Stewart, a native of Scotland, who settled in Ireland in 1627. His arrival in Ireland was obviously part of the Plantation of Ulster (1609-1690), when the English Crown decided that the only way to pacify Ireland was to “plant” it with Scottish and English settlers.

This followed the Battle of Kinsale (1601), the ultimate battle in England’s conquest of Gaelic Ireland, which resulted in The Flight of the Earls (4 September, 1607), when Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Red Hugh O’Donnell, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell (Donegal) fled to France, following their defeat by the forces of the English Crown.

Having replaced Queen Elizabeth 1 on the throne in 1603, King James 1 ordered the forced colonization of Ulster, Ireland’s northernmost province, by handing over large swathes of land, taken from the exiled Earls and their clans, to Scottish and English planters. The plantation saw half a million acres of prime arable land, including this site outside Ballygawley, forcibly taken, without recompense, from the native Irish and handed over, free-of-charge, to Scottish and English settlers.

Facade of Ballygawley House

As for Captain Stewart, his official biography records that “he had been actively engaged against the rebels and fell in one of his encounters with them in about 1650.”

That’s something to be cheerful about, at least. Though quite how native people who have had their ancestral lands stolen from them and handed over to foreigners qualify to be called “rebels” is beyond me.

Something else to be cheerful about is that Ballygawley House is now a hollow shell, its innards used by a local farmer to store plastic-wrapped hay bales, the classical scrolls of its Ionic columns gazing dejectedly down on the hulk of an abandoned, rusting car.

(Click on an image to enlarge it and view it in a lightbox)

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Cheating at Bird Photography

Northern Cardinal (male)

Bird photography is my idea of going to hell holding a camera.

As a ponderous, molasses-slow landscape photographer, I am fully aware that photographing these tiny, unpredictable, fast-moving creatures is way beyond my technical limits as a photographer. The high-end skills of panning, locking on and tracking focus, all while shooting eight frames per second are not ones I have practised nor believe I could ever master.

Song Sparrow

However, I do appreciate the beauty of birds and certainly admire the many spectacular examples of bird photography that I see online, by photographers such as Maxis Gamez, Andy Nguyen and my friend Jeff Johnson, who is one of the finest bird photographers out there.

Inspired by a class I recently took with Jeff, I decided to try my hand at capturing some bird images but knew that I would have to find a way to do so within my technical limits. I found the answer in a YouTube video, in which a photographer located a spot that birds frequent, picked up a small branch that had fallen from a tree, sawed off one end, used a drill to hollow it out, creating a bowl, which he filled with bird seed; he then affixed the branch to a fence post, using some string, in a spot with some colourful vegetation in the background. He set up his camera on a tripod a few feet away, pre-focused on the end of the branch and waited for birds to land on it to eat the seed. And bingo! He produced sharp images with pleasing, colorful backgrounds without requiring any of the advanced shooting techniques normally employed when photographing birds.

Carolina Wren

I thought, “This is for me!”

I have the perfect spot in my back garden, where one of my bird feeders is just a few feet from a wooden fence where birds often land to check out the area before flying on to land on the feeder. So, I set up my branch-feeder on a fence post, opened a window that looks out on to the back garden and sat inside, invisible to the birds, shooting out through the window with a Nikon 200-500mm lens on my Nikon D810 camera. Even with that focal length lens, as the subjects were at a distance of about 30 feet, I still had to crop these images heavily to produce a useable image. However, I knew that the 36.3MP FX-format sensor on my D810 would allow heavy cropping while still delivering good image quality.

American Robin

My retreat from the world of real bird photography was completed by the fact that I focused all of these images manually using LiveView, as is my preferred way of shooting landscapes. Even then, using a shutter speed of 1/1250th sec at f5.6, I captured plenty of blurry images. These little critters sure are twitchy!

Finally, as if to prove that I am not a complete fraud as a bird photographer, I walked to my local park, where I managed to photograph this great blue heron as it perched high in a tree.

Great Blue Heron

No bird-seed trap was used with this beauty. But I did have my camera on a tripod and focused manually. But, then again, herons are such big, slow-moving birds that even I can photograph them.

(Click on an image to view it in a lightbox)

 

 

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More Infrared Cows

A friend of mine mentioned how much she enjoyed an image of a cow, photographed in infrared light, that I published in a recent blog post.

Her comment reminded me that I had a few more images from the same shoot that I had not yet processed, so I went back and prepared these three images to form the basis of this post.

I find that there is something otherworldly yet strangely beautiful about the look of these images, as if the cattle take on a different character.

It intrigues my eye to see these most familiar of domesticated animals in such an unfamiliar light: the invisible light of the infrared spectrum.

 

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