Bluebells at Dawn / by Graham Dew


There is a certain type of landscape photography that is a kind of geographic or natural history big-game hunting. Super-keen photographers will travel large distances, arrange special holidays and camp out at these beauty locations in search of the perfect lighting and weather conditions to produce a photograph that is complete facsimile of the same view seen many times over in magazines, competitions and lectures. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen pictures of Glen Etive Moor, Malham Tarn, the boat huts at Lindisfarne and arch at Durdle Door. I’ve met some guys who make a profession of photographing these clichés and taking groups of keen hobbyists on workshops to reproduce yet more versions of these places.

Our local honeypot is the rather mundane Micheldever Woods. For most of the year it is unremarkable small woodland that has the M3 running noisily past it. However, for a few glorious weeks at the end of April and the beginning of May it is the place to go to photograph bluebells. I’ve known people travel for a couple of hours in the night to be here just as the sun rises to capture that perfect rendition of a bluey-purple carpet of flowers. A friend once relayed how on one occasion a dozen or so other photographers had set up a line of cameras on tripods on either side of him so that they too might capture an original picture. There have been times too when we’ve travelled up there for a springtime exam stress-busting walk only to find choked car parks and strings of abandoned cars along the road through the woods.

We travelled up to Micheldever Woods late on Saturday afternoon for stroll amongst the tall trees and the dusty bluebells. The display in the main wood was less impressive than it had been in most of the previous years that we’ve visited this spot. I don’t know what the reasons were; apart from a sizeable number of fallen trees little looked different. But we had spied another section very close to the motorway on our way in and decided to visit this place. In here was the densest covering that I’ve ever seen. The scent was heady and the colours, even at the end of the day, intense. After a short walk my wife suggested that I come back first thing in the morning to take some pictures by myself.

I don’t sleep so well these days, and so at 5:30 the next morning I found myself awake and in need of stretching my legs. I parked the car just after six and entered the newly discovered woodland, which was just beginning to catch the first rays of morning light. The protocol is to find your pitch, set up the camera and tripod and then repeatedly take pictures of the scene as the light changes. I can’t work this way; all of my shots are hand held, up close and often from a low vantage point. I’ll stick the flash on if it is too dark or the contrast is working against me, but almost never use a tripod. I need to move around, try new ideas, work the subject and finesse the picture. Maybe that’s why so many of my pictures rubbish. Anyway, I wandered off to a quiet corner of the woods and had a very pleasant hour making pictures while the sun came up.

One thing that was apparent was just how many bluebells had been trampled by previous visitors. It was sadly clear that the flattened flowers were the result of photographers trying to get in close or get a good vantage point. The paths made only went as far as these photo-opportunities. I’m afraid that this is a continual problem for attractive places be it bluebell woods or historic sites. In our eagerness to see these places, our presence makes them less attractive for everyone else. Fortunately there are several other woods in my area that, while less extensive than Micheldever, are prettier and more intimate. I’ll be visiting those places over the couple weeks, and hopefully I will be able to keep them secret.