I was brought up in Barnes, in south-west London, and if I went to the countryside for the day, or a weekend camping with the boy scouts, the destination would be somewhere in the North Downs, usually near Dorking or Guildford. Later on it was orienteering in forests, anywhere from the Hogs Back to Sevenoaks and beyond, and family walks on Leith Hill or The Chantries that taught me about these lovely hills. This is why, having produced the Chiltern Landscapes photo book, my next subject had to be the North Downs.
Work started in March 2013 and my first surprise was that the Downs extend as far as Dover, covering a greater area in Kent than in Surrey. I suddenly had a lot of land to cover and a great deal to learn. My first photography trip was on a clear, sunny day in the early spring when I drove to Dorking and did a circular walk through Denbies Wine Estate and over Box Hill. This was the first of seventeen such day trips, as well as one flight in a light aeroplane, covering the entire length and breadth of the hills from Dover to Farnham at all seasons. Initially, I sought to walk, or drive through, the country, taking photographs whenever the scene offered some beauty or interest and visiting known attractions. As the project progressed my expeditions were more targeted, ending in January 2015 when I took the train to Folkestone to photograph the Downs in that area that I’d neglected.
A landscape photographer is very dependent upon the quality of light, so the weather is critical for taking interesting photographs. I usually picked days when the forecast was good, or at least offered some clear spells, to head off with my camera: you are not looking for clear blue skies as much as good light and an interesting sky. However, sometimes this wasn’t possible or I was unlucky, in which case it is harder work, but the results can be very interesting and occasionally dramatic. On my Folkestone visit, for instance, the forecast wasn’t great and the sky remained stubbornly overcast with only an occasional few moments of January sun. On another occasion on a dull damp day I was in Farnham and took images of Farnham Castle that were more than those I’d taken on a previous visit when the sun shone.
I was very fortunate to be able to take a series of aerial photographs, owing to the great kindness of my pilot instructor friend, Andrew Sharratt, who took me up in a Cessna on a flight along the length of the Downs on a day of very mixed weather. The colours are not as bright as one would have liked in the images I took, however they are clear and provide a different and informative perspective on the White Cliffs, the M25 and Guildford.
On the way I have walked about one third of the Pilgrim’s Way and tramped over many miles of forest and grassland on shorter walks looking for butterflies, orchids or a particular view. Sometimes I wouldn’t find my objective and then encounter it unexpectedly, or something even better, on another day. On my visit to the White Cliffs Nature Reserve near Dover, after a dismal morning, the sun came out and the sunlit grassland became alive with butterflies feeding on the colourful wild flowers.
The photographic equipment used to take the photographs has been selected for its low weight and compact size as well as image quality. I have a pair of Panasonic G series bodies with a mixture of Panasonic and Olympus lenses that provides all I need and are a fraction of the size, weight and cost of equivalent full DSLR cameras. Apart from the fact that I can walk, or even run, with this equipment, I hardly ever use a tripod (though I do carry one) as it is much more flexible, particularly when taking birds and butterflies. With heavier equipment, this would be much more difficult.
My aim throughout has been to portray the North Downs as they are, and to capture the beauty of the scenery in a way that people will readily recognise. Therefore the photographs are taken at times and places that could be experienced by anyone, and the image files are not altered beyond some image cropping and adjusting the contrast, as I used to do in the old days of chemical film development, so that they look their best when printed.
The text for North Downs Landscapes was a joy to write as there are such strong themes to work with. that run all the way through the and a lot of England’s history took place there. The Pilgrim’s Way is an ancient route that ran from Dover to Winchester, traversing the entire North Downs ridge on the way, and most of it still exists and is used. Because it links Winchester Cathedral to Canterbury, it was used by bishops and kings who built a series of castles and palaces to accommodate them on the journey. The Downs have seen a lot of England’s history taking place, and the castles that remain provide wonderful material for photography.
The other main theme is the beauty and biological diversity of this landscape, and how much of it is under threat from development being adjacent to London and in the most intensively populated region in England. I hope that the message communicated by North Downs Landscapes is that these hills are well worth protecting, and it is up to us all to tell governments and developers to leave them as green places for us and for future generations. One way of doing this is by supporting organisations such as the National Trust, The Woodland Trust and local wildlife trusts.
North Downs Landscapes is published by Oxbow Books and available to purchase now.
Something to look forward to – Norfolk Landscapes: A Colourful Journey through the Broads, Brecks, Staithes and Churches of Norfolk by Doug Kennedy is publishing this autumn.