A Weekend Workshop in Wiltshire

As landscape photographers, we are always on the hunt for that elusive image, that perfect shot that in reality does not exist. We travel the length and breadth of the country in the pursuit of finding THE next magical location. I am sure that I would have it confirmed by a decent psychologist that I have an addiction, that landscape photography and the constant search for the perfect photograph is like a drug and it would appear that I never tire of the quest. It is something that I genuinely feel I HAVE to do as well as want to do.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given by a much more experienced landscape photographer when I first started out with a basic DSLR back in February 2007, was to visit a local place to near where I lived regularly and photograph it in a variety of weathers, at different times of the year and at various times of the day. Really get to know a place well enough to learn your craft. I thought it great advice so I did and while there is a benefit in doing so, I must confess to really enjoying discovering new places. To see for the very first time a new location sends my sensory receptors into overdrive and for the first few minutes, I am like a child on Christmas morning.

Arriving in Wiltshire for the very first time last month had me experience those feelings once again. I arrived in the dark, late on a Friday evening mid September this year. A friend and fellow professional photographer Chris Beard mentioned a couple of weeks before that he would be heading down there for a week seeing friends and would I consider running a one day workshop at Avebury. I thought about it and decided yes, why not. The workshop was promoted on my Facebook photography group Landscape Locations and it sold out within two days. There was no going back now. Avebury as it turns out has the world’s largest stone circles, some 3,200 years old in fact.  It was near midnight and it was dry but cloudy. I decided to venture down to seek out one of the four quadrants that make up the circle. Standing in the middle of a small field in the dark with an unlit head torch felt kind of eery, especially as I could barely see the large stones. Switch on the powerful headtorch however and I became so startled that I’m sure I frightened the wildlife with my impromptu verbal outburst for the stone closest to me looked like a ghostly figure.

Avebury Stone Circle, Wiltshire
Ghostly Figure, Avebury Stone Circle, Wiltshire

Once I settled down, I fired off a few shots and returned back to my accommodation for the evening which happened to be a wonderful B&B called Beckhampton Bed and Breakfast, just down the road from Avebury and I received great service from both Simon and Catherine. This place even has a hot tub in the back garden. The next morning I left the B&B in the dark and drove to the car park of the Red Lion Pub in the very centre of Avebury. The clock read 6.15am and it was wet, very wet and I wondered what the hell I was doing there but I am a landscape photographer and I know that the weather could turn at any minute. Several minutes later I decided to leave Avebury and go in search of the huge white chalk horse on the hillside of Cherhill three miles away. I found it but as grand as it looked, the freshly harvested fields all around with several dozen very large rectangle based haystacks appealed to me more. An hour or so was spent wandering around trying to find a composition that I was happy with.

Haystacks, Cherhill, Wiltshire
Haystacks, Cherhill, Wiltshire

 

Chalk White Horse, Alton Barnes, Wiltshire
Chalk White Horse, Alton Barnes, Wiltshire
Trees, West Kellet, Wiltshire
Trees, West Kellet, Wiltshire

My friend Chris arrived some time later to spend the day with me as well as his buddy Stephen, who happened to live locally. The rest of the day was spent photographing the white chalk horse at Alton Barnes, where the light danced on the hillside through a stormy sky and a few trees on the horizon at West Kellet. The one thing that Wiltshire does well is to have wonderful copses of trees that stand proudly on the tops of the rolling countryside. They make a fantastic subject matter to capture on camera. The one thing that I was really impressed with Wiltshire was its booming big skies. There was plenty of stunning white fluffy clouds drifting in front of a backdrop of the bluest sky and when mixed with the freshly cut fields below them, with their browns, yellows and reds visible to anyone who cared to look, helped create some of the most wonderful landscape scenery in the country.

I was in my photographic heaven, often not knowing which way to look sometimes as composition, after composition, after composition jumped out at me. Trees, here, big skies there, white horses here and in the end, a mid-day trip back to the stone circle at Avebury followed. Wow was that place was sure busy with a million people all wandering around soaking up the history and feel of the stone circle. I settled on what I considered to be the most interesting of the four quadrants and I set up the camera (I shoot using a Canon 5D MK3 for those of you who are interested) and I waited for everyone to disappear, either behind the stones or from the higher embankment that lined the circle. An empty scene was not happening until I managed to politely ask those behind me to stay where they were in the pursuit of capturing that one image without people in it. I managed one frame with a solitary figure in it for effect (high up on the banking in the background), a sense of scale or whatever you want to call it. I am sure that those who I asked to wait behind me while I got a shot must have thought “Who the hell is this guy?”. I would have said the same don’t worry but my Grandmother use to say, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”. How right she was for everybody granted me my wish.

Avebury Stone Circle, Wiltshire
Avebury Stone Circle, Wiltshire

After chatting with several international visitors from Canada and New Zealand, of whom complained of their visit to Stonehenge the day before and the fact that they were not allowed anywhere near it whereas here at Avebury, they were free to wander freely around and among the stones that had stood for thousands of years before. It’s amazing to be reminded of our history and and heritage by those from countries that are much younger than ourselves. That always makes me feel proud of living here in the UK. Stephen suggested that we should finish the day off with a visit to Roundway Hill, near Devizes  a 794ft hill which affords you some stunning views, especially at sunset. On arriving at the parking area at the end of the lane which winds its way up to the summit, we could hear the local farmer out in his combine harvester cutting his field. This provided some excellent opportunities to capture some unusual images and that suited me fine as I am use to hunting for an alternative shot or two.

Harvesting, Roundway Hill, Wiltshire
Harvesting, Roundway Hill, Wiltshire
Harvesting, Roundway Hill, Wiltshire
Harvesting, Roundway Hill, Wiltshire

But it was the views from the top of the setting sun and the wonderful single trees that ended the day perfectly. Wiltshire had left a very good impression on me by the end of the first full day in the county. I could only wonder on the way back to the B&B what tomorrow would bring, both with the weather and the eight people who will be meeting Chris and I at Avebury at 10am for their one day workshop.

Sunset at Roundway Hill Summit, Wiltshire
Sunset at Roundway Hill Summit, Wiltshire

6.30am, Sunday morning, and after a brisk ten minute hike up a nearby hill to capture sunrise over Silbury Hill, I watched in awe as the colours of the sky illuminated the most wonderful reds, oranges and yellows. I do love photographing the minutes just prior to actual sunrise for the colours can be spectacular and this morning was no different

Sunrise Over West Overton, Wiltshire
Sunrise Over West Overton, Wiltshire

But it was Silbury Hill that stole the show that morning for as the sun rose, the line of light slowly dropped lower and lower down the 133ft grass covered chalk mound. Finding a clean composition was no easy task considering the sheers number of trees and hedges that always seemed to get in the way, until you find a solution and a composition that I liked.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire
Silbury Hill, Wiltshire

A quick stroll down the hill to the car and a hot shower had my name on it back at the B&B. The one thing about getting up very early to head out with the camera in the dark is that you learn to leave the showering until after breakfast. You want to maximise your resting time in bed before surfacing at an ungodly hour. Chris and I arrived in the National Trust car park of Avebury to meet and greet our eight clients for the day and I for one was very keen to meet them. The one thing that really surprised me was that some of those who attended had travelled upwards of almost three hours each way to join me for the day. I find that incredible. The sun was out but not as forceful as the previous day which as a result, had less people milling around getting into your shots which was fine by me.

We had a varied bunch of people join us but all shared my passion for landscape photography and some wonderful compositions were flowing from their cameras. I tend to run my workshops pretty informally, I like to have people enjoy them and to have a laugh and enjoy each others company. Of course you’re there to do a job but I always ensure that while the art of photography can be serious, spending a day with me is a little less so. Its important to me that people enjoy themselves and find the whole process of photographing landscapes stimulating, entertaining and educational. Having stopped for lunch at the haunted Red Lion Pub, we dove off to visit West Kennet Long Barrow just up the road.

West Kennet Long Barrow is a 3,000 plus year old neolithic tomb chamber in which the dead were housed. It’s a fascinating burial chamber located at the top of a small hill and it proved to be a popular place on arriving. One elderly lady came up to me and asked if we were waiting for someone famous as the sight of almost a dozen photographers complete with tripod and cameras was in her eyes, an unusual sight. I could not resist and explained that it was I that was the star attraction as I billed myself as the ‘World Famous Aura and Spiritual Photographer known as Melvin Nicholson’. She looked up at me with the kind of look that implied she did not have a clue who I was (obviously for I am not a world famous aura and spiritual photographer) and yet did not really want to admit that she did not know who I was. I carried on with the charade for a couple of minutes longer before allowing her to go on her way still none the wiser which had a couple of my clients giggling with laughter. I know, I can be mean sometimes but it was funny.

Here’s a shot from inside West Kennet. It was impossible to shoot the interior scene with just a single exposure so I took two, one exposing for the outside entrance with its harsh light of day visible and one for the interior stonework. I blended them in Photoshop CC.

West Kennet Neolithic Tomb Chamber, Wiltshire
West Kennet Neolithic Tomb Chamber, Wiltshire

Here are a couple of group shots at West Kennet, the first one showing both Chris and I at the front with everybody all around the main entrance and the second with Silbury Hill in the background.

West Kennet Long Barrow Group Shot, Wiltshire
West Kennet Long Barrow Group Shot, Wiltshire
West Kennet Long Barrow Group Shot, Wiltshire
Group shot at West Kennet Long Barrow with Silbury Hill in the background, Wiltshire

The workshop then came to a close and a quick pint back at the Red Lion Pub at Avebury just up the road followed. This gave us all a chance to relax and reflect on what I considered to be a very enjoyable and successful day. Everybody was asked what they thought of the workshop and what they had learnt. It appeared that everyone really enjoyed themselves and had learnt so much about their cameras and how to improve their landscape photography too but none more so than me. for my first foray into the wonderful world of Wiltshire was complete and I can wholeheartedly give it a HUGE thumbs up.

So much so that I have decided to create another one day workshop for Saturday 31st October 2015. Same hours apply 10am – 5pm and the cost just £145 for the day. This includes tuition from two professional workshop leaders (Chris Beard and I) and all the laughter your stomach can take. It really is a great day out in the country with your camera. What more could you want?

p.s. I am also organising a one day ‘autumn colours’ workshop to the gorgeous National Trust Stourhead Gardens just an hour south of Avebury in southern Wiltshire. Also priced at £145 for the day and again both Chris Beard and I will be present to give tuition and ensure that you have a wonderful day capturing on camera the amazing sight of the vibrant trees in the gardens.

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