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The Marshwood Vale — through the lens

Colin Varndell on photographing the landscape and wildlife of one of West Dorset’s most beautiful areas

Late in the year, moisture rises from the warm ground overnight to form mist across the landscape. This view across the Marshwood Vale is from Pilsdon Pen.

I have long been fascinated by the ancient hedgerows and tangled copses of the Marshwood Vale. The view westwards across this unspoilt backwater of West Dorset is within walking distance of my home in Netherbury. Here on summer evenings, nightingales sing and dormice scramble amongst the hazel stools while trundling badgers are frequently encountered in the quiet, grassy lanes. The well-preserved beauty of this place is due in part to there being no major routes through the Vale: unless you have business in Bettiscombe or Broadoak, there is little reason to travel along these narrow, winding lanes.

The rich foliage of broad-leaved trees transform the Marshwood Vale in spring. This is the view south across the Vale from Lewesdon Hill.

The wildlife of the Marshwood Vale comprises mostly farmland and woodland species of birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and flowers. Early in the year, wild daffodils grace the roadside banks and copses, later to be usurped by luxuriant drifts of lady’s smock and red campion, with copious helpings of primrose and wood anemone. In spring, the rich flora in these lanes attract typical woodland butterflies like the holly blue, brimstone and orange-tip. In summer, there follows a profusion of such wild flowers as restharrow, knapweed, tufted vetch and mellilot along the verges. Throughout spring and early summer there is a constant murmur of birdsong as field and woodland birds proclaim their territorial rites. Yellowhammers sit atop the hedges, uttering their monotonous, wheezy phrases, while blackcaps blurt out their flutey jumble of notes in the overgrown thickets. The Marshwood Vale is an excellent location for roe deer and almost every wood or copse has its own resident deer. They can be seen in the early morning grazing not far from cover, and again late in the day as they emerge from the relative safety of trees to feed again.

The bane of every landscape photographer who has worked in the Vale is the electricity pylons that were erected in the 1960s and still scar this beautiful landscape

In spite of this wealth of wildlife, it is the magnificent scenery which I find most appealing as a photographer. The Marshwood Vale is surrounded by some of Dorset’s best-known and highest hills, including Pilsdon, Lewesdon, Lambert’s Castle and Coney’s Castle. These hills make for a dramatic landscape of steeply slanting terrain, levelling out to the sprawling patchwork of fields and farmsteads nestling in the hollows below. So it is a very photogenic setting and one which I have used as a resource for my work for over thirty years. I never tire of taking photographs here and often set out in the early morning in order to reach one of my favourite vantage points before sunrise.

The Marshwood Vale is made up of a rich and photogenic patchwork of farmsteads, meadows and copses

There is, however, one blot on the landscape in the most literal sense of the word – pylons. Huge steel pylons were erected across the Marshwood Vale in the mid-1960s and remain to this day as an eyesore over this most beautiful part of Dorset. That particular section of the Vale is therefore out of bounds to us landscape enthusiasts and we all hope that one day the pylons might disappear to allow us the full potential of photography in the Marshwood Vale. For the time being, though, we continue to curse these ugly, giant, man-made structures.

Roe deer are abundant throughout the Vale and are the only deer likely to be seen at dawn or dusk

One often hears someone saying that they have witnessed the most magnificent sunrise, sunset or some other natural phenomenon but didn’t have their camera to hand at the time! Well, it doesn’t work quite like that. You select your view and vantage point by careful reconnaissance and legwork beforehand. Then you get there long before sunrise or sunset, prepare your equipment ready for the shot and wait for it to happen. The preparation and the wait may often prove fruitless, but when it does happen, the colours and the light can be truly magical.

Tufted vetch is a common perennial flower of the roadside verges here. This picture shows a common blue butterfly at rest on vetch flowers.

One such time, in September, I had risen early as it had been raining the day before but by bedtime the sky was starry and clear. These are the classic conditions for a misty morning, especially early or late in the year after the ground has been saturated; the cool night-time air condenses the warmth rising from the earth to form low-lying fog or mist, draped across the landscape. I loaded up my car with lenses, tripods and cameras and set off towards Broadwindsor. At Bowood I could see right across the Vale and, as hoped, a tight mist lay in the folds and depressions of the landscape. For maximum impact I have found it best to shoot directly into the light. I knew there was time to get to the west side of the Vale before sunrise so I drove on, without checking any other vantage points, to Lambert’s Castle. I arrived at my favourite gateway with ten minutes to spare, just time to erect two tripods and attach a telephoto lens to each. As the sun broke, I immediately started taking pictures. Within about four minutes I had made over one hundred exposures and then the effect vanished as the sun quickly climbed and the contrast was lost.

The yellowhammer’s song which is described as ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ is a familiar sound along the hedgerows of the Marshwood Vale in spring and early summer

The reason for such frenetic photographic activity was simply because there was so much potential in a moment of what I had never seen before in a lifetime of photography in West Dorset. This is no doubt the essence of the challenge of photographing such an area: we never really know what we will find when we set off on a dark morning. Sometimes though, the mist does not materialise, but then I still have the wonderful ambience to wallow in at dawn. Standing on Pilsdon or Lambert’s Castle before daybreak and listening to the growing din emitting from the copses and thickets below can be a breathtaking experience. The rising sounds of the Marshwood Vale epitomise the Dorset countryside at its best.

Recent evidence shows that otters frequent the streams of West Dorset and the Marshwood Vale

One of over one hundred pictures taken of variations of this scene within a few minutes on a September morning. My preparations are described in the text.

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