Thursday 3 April 2008

Warminster Countryside Club


A 66-year old man ice-skating on frozen water meadows, a storm brewing over Dorset farmland, and a Standard Fordson tractor pop-pop-popping through Okeford Fitzpaine, were just three very different images shown to members of the Warminster Countryside Club, at their monthly evening meeting held yesterday evening (Tuesday 2 April 2008) at the Athenaeum, High Street, Warminster.

Club Chairman, the bearded and bespectacled Jim Banks, before introducing the guest speaker, put on a black hat to relate a personal anecdote. He said while shopping at Sainsbury’s in Bradford-on-Avon, the staff there, who are very friendly, had asked him if he was the author Terry Pratchett. This remark went completely over the heads of most of the 17 people who were sat in the audience, but undeterred, Jim went on to make a few announcements - next month is the AGM, two or three speakers had already been booked for the autumn programme, he was waiting for return phone calls from other speakers he had contacted, and plans were being made for outings and visits in the summer months.

Jim then welcomed the speaker for the evening, amateur photographer Paul Sturgess, who had travelled up from his home in Poole. Paul gives about 40 slide-shows every winter, to different clubs and groups, and we learned that he had once organised a slide show off his own back, which was attended by about 70 people and raised about £250 for the Riding For The Disabled charity.

Paul began by saying how pleased he was to be asked back to talk to the Countryside Club in Warminster, to show more slides of his beloved Dorset, but said he was disappointed to find that one of the lights in the room, immediately overhead of the slide-screen, couldn’t be turned off (for health and safety reasons) and he said this would prevent us from seeing his slides in the best way possible.

Although this was indeed a return visit to the Countryside Club by Paul, I hadn’t seen or heard him before, so it was a new experience for me, and I wondered exactly what his subjects would be, what his commentary would be like, and what his backgound was. I soon discovered that Paul was an ex-farm worker who had stepped aside from that to run his own business as a gardener which he combined with helping his son who was in the building trade.

The first few slides shown by Paul were of sunrises, mainly in the Wimborne area, which were extremely atmospheric and each was visually different - including a view across water showing the twin towers of Wimborne Minster reflected like a mirror; cattle in the muddy, hoof-poached, misty meadows, breakfasting on hay from steel feeders; and reeds glowing like the gold of Midas in the sun as fishermen in a boat made an early start to their piscatorial hobby. "I don’t ask people to go out in a boat at six o’clock in the morning," said Paul, "You wait and if you’re lucky something comes into the viewfinder and lends itself to a picture."

The next shots continued the early morning theme with frosty grass and stiff vegetation in the foreground, while in the background Paul had captured sunshine on thatched roofs at places like the mediaeval village of Cowgrove, with its old court house, on the Kingston Lacy Estate. A view of the sun behind a tree, with sunbeams cascading down, making the tree look surreal, revealed a single bird perched in the uppermost branches.

This was just a taster for things to come. We saw views of villages and pastoral landscapes that seemed almost trapped in the past - like Compton Valence captured by a 100 mm to 400 mm telephoto lens from an old Roman road; Litton Cheney with the Hardy Monument on the horizon in the far distance, and an empty water mill with a redundant grindstone leaning against a wall. And Edmondsham (where some of my ancestors lie sleeping in the churchyard), is another place of the past, where Paul is attracted to the organic farm of a Mrs. Jones who hosts bluebell walks in the spring.

Another of Paul’s haunts is the farm of Martin Green, near Cranborne, where barrow mounds aplenty and other ancient archaeological features have yielded a museum full of finds, arousing the enquiring minds of the Time Team. "The Cursus here," said Paul, "is a dividing line between the living and the dead." For the photographer, there is the joy of the set-aside fields, blooming scarlet red with poppies in the summer.

There were a couple of non-landscape pictures, although the subjects were part and parcel of the Dorset landscape: Thomas the Tank Engine steaming out of Norden en route for Swanage; and a work of art in local stone by a female sculptor on the Isle of Portland, depicting the craft of stone cutting, with a mason to be seen from which ever side you looked at the monument. One of these masons had a beautifully carved beard and very realistic eyes.

Churches featured profusely in Paul’s slide show. Two very interesting ones were included: the little tin church, near Loaders, (similar to the flat-packed Harrods-supplied ones in Wiltshire - Hilperton and Rudge were mentioned by the audience); and the church at Coombe Keynes, near Wool, which is usually locked and inaccessible to the public, but Paul had visited there when it was open for a village event and he showed us the interior. The flagstones have been covered with a dance-hall quality wooden floor and the pews had been re-arranged to the sides, but the most unusual feature was the lighting. Old shepherds’ crooks were angled from the walls and from them hung rusty lanterns, again once used by shepherds, and in these lanterns were electric bulbs, the power being supplied by what looked like cables decades old. "Don’t tell the health and safety," quipped Pip in the audience.

Paul told us he had walked 60 miles, over several weekends, from Mudeford to the source of the Stour at Stourhead, sometimes taking photographs along the way. At Stourhead he wanted to photograph one of the temples surrounded by the autumn colours of the trees and shrubs, but rain meant three visits had to be made before he was able to capture what he wanted.

Patience is obviously a virtue as far as photography is concerned. When Paul showed a wonderful view of Hengistbury Head he said he had waited two and a half hours to take the photo - allowing the mist to rise and the sun to come out, but had been doubly rewarded when "the Noddy train" crossed the foreground and a boat sailed into the harbour.

Stamina and maybe a touch of madness were requisites too - to get a picture of Corfe Castle surrounded by mist Paul had to climb up West Hill, in the dark, at half past five in the morning, and then wait for the sunrise, not knowing how things would turn out.

On a smaller scale, Paul uses a macro lens for photographing close-ups of flowers, like tulips and magnolias in the gardens at Poole and Upton Country Park, or the wild blooms, like dog roses in the hedgerows, in the countryside. A tiny orchid, the size of a matchstick, in a churchyard, required Paul getting down on his knees, which prompted the Vicar to ask if Paul was looking for something he had lost.

Paul has access to the private woodland of a friend, where he has photographed spring primroses and pine needles, and he also showed us pictures taken at Duncliffe, beside the A35 Wimborne to Poole Road, which included a man-made pond, the fronds of a fern, and a puff ball pushing upwards and breaking the crust of the arboreal floor. The shiny red berries of a Rowan tree must have provided a gourmet dinner for some lucky bird.

Another tree in another of Dorset’s secret places, had been photographed by Paul with the rising sun behind it, with sunbeams cascading down, making the tree look surreal and revealing a single bird perched in the uppermost branches. Elsewhere, Paul had captured the golden leaves of a beautiful tree in autumn, red heather in clumps like ant hills, and the green and white of the water-crowfoot on a chalk stream. For me these were more than photographs - I was seeing landscapes, I was seeing nature, I was seeing colour, and I was seeing art.

While referring to Duncliffe, Paul told us he usually goes out first, with a pencil and notebook, talking to local people he meets, as a way of finding out where things are and seeing beforehand what he thinks will make good pictures. He then returns, research already done, at a later date to take the photographs, thus avoiding wasting time with the camera.

Although the majority of his pictures concern landscapes, the bird and animal life of the countryside also interests Paul and he teased us with a few glimpses. Sika deer near a lake, and a heron "who didn’t dip for a fish," were eclipsed with several oohs from the audience when we saw Paul’s photos of a robin on a hazel stick on one of Paul’s allotments. Uncooperative at first, the Robin kept his back to Paul, before returning to show not only his redbreast and his cheery face, but also to sing a mate-seeking song, spurred on by the clicks and noises of the camera. Equally delightful was a photo of a ewe with newly born twin lambs.

Paul’s love of farming was revealed with several photographs on an agricultural theme. Muckspreading with a huge horse-powered tractor and massive modern machinery, preparing a field for a maize crop, was contrasted by a couple of photographs of four Shire horses pulling a one-ton roller in a pasture field on a farm open day at Ellingham. A binder in a wheat field and "a motley crew who didn’t seem to want to be photographed working," stacking up sheaves for threshing at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, was likewise contrasted with modern round bales of straw in a field near Badbury Rings.

Market gardening was also featured. At Tamarisk Farm, beside the shore, with the Devon coastline in the distance, chillis and vegetables, organically grown, were thriving, despite no ploughing or digging. Instead the owners just till the soil by using a prong. The produce is sold in a farm shop and a speciality is beef from Ruby Red Devons. Diversification is obviously to the fore. Polytunnels, their sides held down by car tyres, served a dual purpose. In the winter they are strewn with organic straw bedding for housing sheep, the ends of the tunnels being gated off. And when the sheep are turned out in the spring, channels are dug in the straw and dung, and these channels are planted with tomatoes.

Many of the photographs I was seeing evoked family memories or personal connections for me.

Paul’s photograph of Horton Tower, surrounded by sheep, featured a thatched cottage in the background. In that very cottage lived my great-great grandfather John Cutler, who was a gamekeeper (an occupation referred to as ‘woodman’ in those days). That thatched cottage facing the tower, was the birthplace of my great grandfather, Charles Cutler, who also became a keeper. The scene, captured by Paul, would probably have looked very much the same as the Cutlers saw it at the beginning of the twentieth century.

And when Paul showed a photograph he had taken at a young farmers’ ploughing match, held near Puddletown, of a ploughman using a David Brown tractor and a Ransomes three-furrow plough, I instantly recognised the ploughman - it was good old Pat Dennis, who works at Down End Farm, Stourpaine Bushes - someone I have photographed and filmed many times myself at ploughing matches.

A view of a Truckline Ferry heading out of Poole Harbour, at Sandbanks, prompted Paul to tell us about Marconi, who first transmitted from the Haven Hotel. Paul also pointed out where Harry Redknapp, of Portsmouth Football Club fame, lives; and Paul also said one of his gardening clients lives in ‘Millionaire’s Row’, where "the huge amounts of money paid for houses is mind-boggling to say the least. I wish I knew where these people get all their money from," remarked Paul, "I would like some of it myself."

Paul told us he wasn’t one for holidays, but he had spent a long weekend with his partner Sue, at Weymouth, when a friend offered the use of a cottage near the harbour. He said he was impressed with the cleanliness and tidiness of Weymouth and he used his camera to record images of fishing boats and a chip-stealing gull, and he also showed us an evening scene.

The urban landscape was only a brief interlude in the slide show, for Paul soon returned to the rural scenes.

The view from St. Catherine’s Chapel, with walkers on the grassy path overlooking Abbotsbury, made me think of the time I climbed up there; and another view in the same area, looking down on a concrete bunker (a Second World war defence) and the neighbouring fields divided by a drystone wall, evoked similar memories. Likewise, the view of Lyme Regis, the haunt of fossil hunters and the many daytrippers, including me, who enjoy the simple pleasure of strolling, eating icecream and inhaling the brine, along the Cobb.

For me, one of Paul’s simplest photos of the countryside, seemed to say the most about the art of photography. A picture taken on the Critchell Estate, at Moor Critchell, showed an avenue of young beech trees, with the sun half-illuminating, half-shadowing the bark of the trunks, and to the left a winter-sown wheat field, its recently germinated crop showing green and neat straight lines in the middle of the field but a higgledy piggledy pattern of lines around the edge of the field where the corn drill had bounced on the headland. For me, it was a photograph that "spoke" volumes about both landscape and photography. Simple as it was, this one photograph probably encapsulated everything Paul was saying about his hobby.

By now the show had run over a quarter of an hour over time and it was five past nine. Two almost full carousels of slides, nearly 160 images in all, had been projected. Our appreciation for what seemed a rather quick passing of 100 minutes of pleasing entertainment by Paul, was shown by a brief but loud round of applause.

For those who wanted to purchase some of the images we had been shown, Paul had brought along a selection of blank greeting cards, featuring a range of his photography, priced at £1.25 each.

Before the raffle (50p a ticket to win prizes ranging from a belated Cadbury’s Easter Egg to a book about living with God), and refreshments (tea, coffee, bread rolls and pate, etc.,) there was time for Paul to answer a couple of questions from the audience.

"Had he gone digital?" was the first. "No," replied Paul, "I’m old fashioned and I stick to what I know. I’m still using my old camera (a Canon), which means I’m not spending hundreds of pounds on new equipment." He added "I don’t want to spend my time indoors, like in an office, processing digital images. I prefer to send off my films and a week or so later the slides come back, done for me, and ready for purpose. I take photographs of what I see and if they don’t come out exactly as I would like, well, that’s the way it is."

Geoff Hall, who had asked the first question, also asked the next one: "The world isn’t so nice now, it can be nasty, do you get frightened when you go out on your own, to isolated places, in the early hours?" Paul answered: "No, not at all. I decided I would do what I wanted to do and to not let anyone stop me. Of course, there is always the risk that when you park your car somewhere lonely and leave it to walk to where you want to go, that when you come back it will have been vandalised, broken into or stolen. It’s not something I think about. I have an old car and it’s insured. If anything happened to it, it’s not the end of the world. I really don’t think about things like that."

Pip then asked: "Do you ever see other people taking photographs at the places you go to, or are you alone, the only person there?" Paul said: "Sometimes I have found another photographer at the same location." After relating a story about another photographer who was waiting to take a picture of a sunrise but at the last moment discovered he had left the required lens for his camera at home - not a laughing matter - , Paul said "I noticed on one of my photographs the other day that I had captured another photographer in my picture but I hadn’t noticed him at the time."

"Have you considered aerial photography as another way of recording the Dorset landscape?" was the next question. Paul said "My experience of balloon flights isn’t good. I once travelled all the way across to West Dorset for a balloon trip, but the balloon took me over Somerset, when I wanted to go over Dorset! I suppose I could see if someone at Compton Abbas Airfield would take me up in a plane. That might prove more successful."

Margaret enquired: "You are obviously a walker?" "Yes," replied Paul, "I am a keen walker, a keen countryman and a keen photographer."

These final words at the April meeting from Paul perfectly summed up the man whose camera work we had all enjoyed that evening. It was no surprise to hear that he has been asked to come again, with more Dorset pictures, next year.

Report by Danny Howell.