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Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2000

Close-up and personal with Peak District scenery


By JULIAN RYALL
Staff writer

On Friday morning I was a point, press and hope-to-get-a-good-one sort of photographer; by Sunday evening I knew the raison d'e^tre of an f-stop and could talk solarization, ambient lighting and reversals.

Members of a photography course in the Peak District National Park, in northern England, pursue creative "wow" moments.

While these technicalities might not sound too taxing to the initiated, for an amateur like myself they have been known to cause frustration and hilarity after the photographs have been processed. The beauty of landscape courses, such as the one run at Losehill Hall, high in the Peak District of northern England, is that for an entire weekend one is immersed in some of the most spectacular countryside that Britain has to offer: the Peak District National Park, the oldest in Britain, visited by 30 million people each year.

Losehill Hall's photography courses, which include fungi and wildlife weekends as well as landscape courses, and a "Winter Wonderland Special," attract an eclectic mix. Our group include the retired head of mathematics at a Yorkshire school, a window-dresser from Derby and Jessie Flannigan, a 74-year-old grandmother from Edinburgh. Among these 24 old hands, I really was the novice; Jessie told me she had first borrowed a Box Brownie camera as a youngster and reeled off a roll of Scotland's Forth Bridge arcing high over the firth.

Times have moved on since then. Our first vantage point Saturday morning was Millstone Edge, where the technological advances of the last half-century could be seen in the hardware being set up to capture the changing light and textures around Owler Tor, or pointed west over the valley that carries the River Derwent from the town of Matlock, on the very edge of the park.

Jessie herself now uses a hefty Pentax and she was glad she had brought along her tripod. The wind being funneled along the valley and up over the lip of the drop-off was strong enough to have convinced even the rock climbers to have a morning off. Several of our colleagues had opted to use black-and-white film -- most effective in the bleak landscape. If only a photo could capture that wind.

Jean Napier, the course tutor and a professional photographer who has swapped her native East London for the rugged landscape of Snowdonia, in north Wales, was quick to point out that a camera's size and price tag aren't everything.

"On my courses I don't want to make people feel elitist. It is very important to make them understand that the equipment is just a tool to be used," she said. "My aim is to make [students] find out more about their equipment and help them get it off the automatic setting and play with it, try things and not worry about making mistakes."

By the time I had clambered to the top of Owler Tor, startling the odd grouse, my modest Canon had gobbled up a 36-exposure film roll and I had lost the feeling in my ears. I was not prepared for the weather in the Peaks, even in early October. By the time we had returned to our minibuses the showers had begun, and worse was on the horizon.

We ate lunch and set off, lenses cleaned and fresh film loaded, across Lawrence Field to where piles of old millstones lie abandoned beside an embankment that has long since lost its railway tracks. The rough-cut stones, from nearby quarries, were left behind when cheaper alternatives flooded the market in the late 19th century.

Now overgrown by bracken, they're a popular subject for photographers. The quarry the stones come from was cut into nearby Bole Hill, where climbers find the angular workings a sheltered spot to practice before they graduate to the longer, more complex pitches. Another roll of film used up, trying to capture some of the watery sunlight and reflections from the pool at the base of the rock faces.

The rain began in earnest. In the hope that it would blow over, it was decided that we should, as planned, walk the short distance through the woods (about a kilometer) to Padley Gorge. We emerged, dripping, where the Manchester-to-Sheffield line disappears into the tunnel beneath Totley Moor. Resuscitated by tea (by the pint or half-pint) in the old wooden Grindleford Station building, we determined to continue up the gorge, hoping the elements would provide us with some out-of-the-ordinary shots.

Padley Gorge is one of the prettiest spots in the whole 894 sq. km of the park. Burbage Brook tumbles through the narrow, beech- and oak-lined valley until it enters the Derwent just above the village of Nether Padley.

After so much rain, however, it doesn't so much tumble across the rocks as roar, frothing orange-brown with peat washed off the surrounding hillsides. The gold and copper-colored leaves formed a carpet to the edge of the stream, but it was only the brave ones among us who exposed their photographic gadgetry to the pouring rain.

Back at Losehill Hall, Jean led a photography discussion and advice session. The Hall, a converted Victorian manor house built in 1881 by a local lead mine owner and bought by the National Park in 1972, runs a wide range of special interest holidays, from botanical illustration to navigation skills, for which it is perfectly situated on the edge of the village of Castleton. The hills to the northwest rise to windswept Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Park at 536 meters, and the spectacular Ladybower Reservoir.

Sunday dawned dry and clear with a thick frost and ice on the puddles. When we got off the buses on top of Eyam Edge, the only whites in the sky were some thin aircraft contrails. As the wind picked up, the mist on the fields between the villages of Foolow and Eyam began to burn off, carefully observed by our serried ranks of lenses. The sun's arrival also allowed Jean to demonstrate how to get the best results from a polarizing filter to keep the glare off the camera's lense.

The Eyam Edge dips away to the north into Bretton Clough, another of the park's forested valleys, a remnant of the extensive woodland that once cloaked large areas of the gritstone and shale Dark Peak. It is bounded by a patchwork of fields divided by dry stone walls, grazed by the hardy Derbyshire sheep. Above the pastures, the moorland stretches away until it meets the sky.

Our final destination was the picturesque village of Cressbrook, on the River Wye above the market town of Bakewell, the largest in the Peak Park. The river had been disrupted in its course generations ago, when a millrace was constructed to feed the wheels of the local mills, now fallen into disrepair.

The weather was still on our side. The changing colors of the surrounding trees were reflected in the large pond above the cataracts, where moorhens chased crusts of bread thrown by one of our group's members (he said he wanted more action in his pictures).

Meanwhile, Jean showed me how to photograph the water as it pours over the millrace. She had me put my camera on its manual setting and watched, patiently coaching when I fumbled a speed or angle, as I ran off a range of shots. Later, when I had the film developed, I had a series of photos at varying speeds, initially showing the water perfectly still, individual droplets catching the sunlight, through to an almost milky, translucent image at a much slower speed. It is a photo I have seen time and time again, but never before managed myself.

"I want people to relax with their cameras," she said. "I want them to see what works and what doesn't -- not to try to always produce perfect pictures for the camera club: that stifles creativity and while they may be technically good, they're not the 'wow' photos that we're all after."

Landscape courses are run throughout the year and two-night breaks, with all meals included, start from 125 British pounds per person. Contact the Hall at +44-1433-62-0373.


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