As I write this, in the middle of May the first bluebells are starting to open in North Yorkshire. This fills me with excitement, as the bluebells are a real seasonal treat and one that I look forward to every year. But more and more in recent years, they have also filled me with sadness and frustration.
Bluebells should be treasured. For me they are a symbol of the start of summer. When the bluebells arrive, I know we are moving from spring to summer and those long lazy summer evenings have arrived. There is something special about them that I cannot put my finger on. I have loved them for as long as I can remember, since I was a child. Maybe it is the subconscious connection to summer; maybe it is the simple beauty of seeing a glade or woodland floor carpeted in that distinctive blue/purple, or maybe it is the delicate beauty of each individual bloom or the soft perfume that permeates the air on a still evening. They also feel quintessentially British and are an icon of the British spring/summer.
So why do they also fill me with sadness and frustration? Let me share a story with you from an evening last year. Not far from my home is Newton Woods on the slopes of Roseberry Topping. In spring this old oak wood has to be one of the most beautiful in Yorkshire, if not the whole of Britain, with a solid carpet of bluebells and wild garlic. Above the woods is an open meadow overlooked by the summit of Roseberry itself and again carpeted by a sea of bluebells; a more idyllic location is hard to imagine. Unfortunately this is no secret, and when the bluebells are at their peak photographers flock from all over the north of England to photograph the spectacle.
I have to admit that I don't really like sharing locations so the presence of other photographers taints the experience, but I can live with that, and early in the season the photographers I meet are generally passionate about the bluebells. Although they want to get a great image, like me they are essentially there to enjoy the bluebells. Unfortunately a week later this all changes, as the word gets out and the masses descend. It is not uncommon to see over a dozen photographers in a relatively small area, but again I can accept this as I can't blame people for wanting to visit or photograph such an iconic location, and there is always a quiet corner to be found if you look hard enough! What I do object to is people trampling all over the very thing they have set out to photograph. The meadow is surrounded by a fence and a path generally gets walked in around this perimeter. It is from this path that most of the best views can be captured. There are also a couple of other paths that lead through the meadow and a few deer and rabbit runs that cut through it; you can carefully follow these without damaging anything.
So why is it that over 50% of the photographers think it is OK to just walk straight through the middle of the meadow? I was up there last year and had built a nice little composition in a quiet corner. I was sat minding my own business, enjoying the evening and waiting for a bit of nice light, when along came another photographer, wading through the bluebells five yards in front of me. When I politely asked why he was walking through the bluebells when there was a path only a few yards away, I was confronted with a barrage of abuse; then he trampled down a four-foot circle in which to put down his camera bag and tripod and sat down five yards in front of me. This whole experience really upset me, not because of the aggression, although that was very unpleasant, but because of his total lack of respect for the bluebells or the environment in general.
Unfortunately this was not an isolated incident. I have never faced aggression before, but every year I see countless people trampling the bluebells and hear other photographers arguing and bickering. We all want to get a good picture, but at what cost?
As a professional landscape photographer I like to think of myself, in some small way, as being an environmentalist. My passion isn't for cameras or even for photography; it is the landscape that inspires me. I am fascinated by the seasons and by the way the weather and light transform the landscape. It is this passion and my love for the natural world that drive me to make images, to share my experiences with others. I like to think that my images, at least in a small way, help to reconnect people to the countryside and inspire them to explore and appreciate the natural beauty that is often right on their doorstep. So why do so many photographers apparently feel that it is OK to destroy the very thing they set out to capture? It seems the mentality is that I must get the shot at any cost, and if it ruins the view for everybody else, then so what. This mentality deeply saddens me, and every year I promise myself that I will not visit the bluebell meadow on an evening, but every year I am tempted back and every year I come away totally disillusioned by landscape photography in general.
I am sure the readers of this magazine are all passionate about the landscape and are not the culprits here, but at the same time maybe there is a message for us all, and not just about bluebells. Maybe sometimes it is better to compromise on a composition or walk away from a picture altogether, rather than risking damaging the environment. England is a very small, overpopulated country and we all have to share it.
The picture here was taken from the Roseberry Topping bluebell meadow at dawn. The location is normally shot at dusk but dawn can be very rewarding too, and on this particular morning I had the place entirely to myself for almost three hours. The only souls I saw were a couple of dog walkers.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 29 of Landscape Photography Magazine.