So, 2020 is finally over. A well and truly good riddance! As a matter of principle, Jen and I stayed up long enough to see the new year in, then almost immediately hit the sack. Every year, I confidently predict the new year will be better than the last, but from now on I’m keeping my trap shut. Hoping for an improvement on 2020 is setting 2021 an awfully low bar, but I don’t want to tempt fate. (Not that fate can be affected by anything we say or do: that’s the whole point of fate… Not that fate actually exists.)
On New Year’s Day evening, I had the latest of my weekly FaceTime chats with my friend Stense. We both brought along a bottle to toast the new year. A year ago, who’d have thought video calls would become so important in our lives? Talking to my hard-of-hearing dad on the phone is an absolute nightmare at the best of times; FaceTime saved the day during the lockdowns. Regular video calls with a small number of close friends also helped make a dreadful year more bearable for me. I‘m sure I’m not alone.
Stense and I had actually done some homework for our latest chat. She’d spotted a book she thought we’d both like, so treated us both to copies for Christmas: The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham. From next week, it’s unlikely Stense will have much time for reading or video calls, so we’ve agreed to read one chapter of the 13-chapter book per month, starting in December 2020, taking us neatly to the end of 2021. So, in advance of our first chat of the year, we’d both read chapter one, the subject of which is comfort reading.
Our conversation was fascinating. We talked about the books that have brought comfort to us over the years. It’s not my place to name Stense’s comfort books, but I reminisced about firm favourites from my childhood: The Story of Ferdinand (the first book I ever ‘read’—although I really recited it by heart); Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories; the Asterix comics; Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series; and all things Tolkien. I also told Stense about the authors whose works comfort me as an adult, in particular Kathleen Jamie, W.G. Sebald, and Ronald Blythe (whose Wormingford series brought a much-needed sense of tranquility during the first lockdown).
As we reached the end of our wonderful chat, I told Stense I wish I’d recorded our call, as it would have made a lovely podcast.
Lying awake in bed in the early hours after a night of non-sleep, I heard a vixen screaming nearby. A chilling sound. The first time Mum and Dad heard one from their house, they thought a woman was being attacked on the other side of the railway line.
Foxes are rare around here. They’re not tolerated in sheep country. One saw off most of our neighbours’ chickens last year, despite their being secured inside a sturdy chicken-wire enclosure with a roof.
There’s been snow on the ground since before Christmas, and throughout the first week of the year. Not an awful lot, but enough to be inconvenient. We’re going through a bit of a cold snap, so the snow shows no sign of turning to slush.
Jen and I managed to take a few walks around the lanes. The first time, we were caught out, ending up walking through something of a blizzard. I managed to take a few photos of falling snow. But my favourite photo came before the blizzard: a nice one across the snowy fields of the beech stand next to Old Town Mill. Someone is building a few new houses next to the mill, which will mar my favourite iconic view, so this time I kept the mill out of shot, concentrating on the silhouetted trees on the skyline. Unfortunately, they weren’t the only prominent features on the skyline: a pile of plastic-wrapped hay bales very much got in the way.
There’s a general rule of thumb in portrait photography that it’s acceptable to remove facial blemishes ‘in post’, provided those blemishes are temporary, and likely to be gone from your subject’s fizzog within three weeks. Other than cropping and removing sensor spots, I tend not to remove stuff in post from my landscape shots, but, on this occasion, the unsightly temporary blemishes were totally ruining the image and had to go.
I really liked the resultant photo. I’ve photographed the same stand of trees hundreds of times, but this time I think I really caught their ‘character’—perhaps because they weren’t contending for attention with hay bales and an iconic mill.
An early morning walk to the post office to post a parcel. Really just an excuse to take a few snaps in the snow. I was very pleased with the results. A handy hint when taking snow photos is to set your camera’s exposure-compensation to over-expose by about one stop. Your camera doesn’t know it’s photographing snow, so assumes it needs to turn the brightness down to get the right exposure. By telling it to over-expose, you correct this assumption.
Heard, then saw, a raven cronking overhead on my way to the post office. Then spotted a woodpecker flying across the fields towards the trees at Ibbot Royd on my way back. It was only a silhouette against the snow, so I couldn’t tell whether it was a green woodpecker or a great spotted, but its roller-coaster flight-path was unmistakable.
In the afternoon, Jen and I took a walk around the lanes. A huge thrill as we walked alongside one of our farmer friend’s fields: a barn owl on patrol. I fired off several photos, some of them in focus, as the owl quartered the field then plunged into the grass. It stayed on the ground for over a minute, its head occasionally popping up to see if we were still watching. Then it took off with slain rodent dangling from its talons, moving to a patch of taller, more private grass at the edge of the field.
Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it’s inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants […] or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS. […] All in all, this is probably best described as a great ramble on the moor with an expert guide. […] It’s a wuthering wonder. —Brian Clegg, popular science author and communicator, Popular Science Books