Old Harry Rocks

Our somewhat abbreviated summer of walks – which ultimately ended up being only a handful – led us on a hot day in May to talk a walk up to the obelisk that overlooks my favourite town of Swanage. I also held the plan to carry on past the obelisk and along Ballard Down to take some long exposures of Old Harry Rocks, that mainstay of geography textbooks.

I last did the walk to the obelisk a couple of decades ago as a kid on one of our annual visits to Swanage, and have been meaning to redo it for the last few years that we’ve been more regularly day tripping to the area. The problem always was that the walk starts out on the other side of town than the one we usually arrive from, and on the occasions that we did enter from the atypical way (the route from the toll ferry, if you’re keeping score) it would be us driving past that made me think, ‘we should trek up to the obelisk’.

When we had a week off back in June to get some rest and relaxation, I finally had the wherewithal to plan ahead to go to Swanage specifically to make the walk up the hill to the obelisk.

To be honest, I don’t remember the walk being quite so tough when I was ten (or so). The climb almost killed Holly. She got most of the way to the top and was on the verge of going up until I walked on ahead and realised the obelisk was just over the hill – and the view was totally worth it.

f/8, ISO 100, 24mm (HDR)
f/8, ISO 100, 24mm (HDR)

That was the view looking back down the hill we’d just climbed up, towards Swanage itself. The view over the other direction was even more stunning, looking out over Studland Bay, Sandbanks, and Poole Harbour – deserving, of course, of a panorama shot.

1/400, f/8, ISO 100, (panorama)
1/400, f/8, ISO 100, (panorama)

As is sometimes the case, I found the 24mm wider limit of my main lens not wide enough for what I was trying to photograph, in this case getting a wide shot of the obelisk and some of the scenery behind it. As ever, Lightroom’s exceptionally effective panorama stitching helped me out.

1/250, f/8, ISO 100, (panorama)
1/250, f/8, ISO 100, (panorama)

It wouldn’t be me without trying a more unusual angle on things.

1/1250, f/4, ISO 100, 24mm
1/1250, f/4, ISO 100, 24mm

Having made it to the obelisk, we agreed to continue the walk along Ballard Down to visit Old Harry and his companions. I hadn’t lugged my big camera bag and tripod up that hill for nothing.

Ballard Down is great because it’s essentially a mound outing out into the sea. On one side you have Studland and Poole Harbour, and on the other you have Swanage Bay.

1/2500, f/4, ISO 100, 40mm
1/2500, f/4, ISO 100, 40mm

The view in the direction we were walking was great too, the path being marked only by being a clear section amongst a field of daisies and buttercups.

1/400, f/8, ISO 100, 24mm
1/400, f/8, ISO 100, 24mm

From there we could see Peveril Point, where I stayed for many a family holiday when I was younger.

1/1600, f/4, ISO 100, 82mm
1/1600, f/4, ISO 100, 82mm

Something on the point was catching the light and reflecting it straight at us.

1/60, f/22, ISO 100, 50mm
1/60, f/22, ISO 100, 50mm

Ballard Down was deceptively long. Fortunately some people were walking the path ahead of us to give us a sense of scale.

1/1250, f/4, ISO 100, 55mm
1/1250, f/4, ISO 100, 55mm

I loved the daisies and buttercups, so I took this shallow depth of field shot with Sandbanks in the background.

1/1600, f/4, ISO 100, 105mm
1/1600, f/4, ISO 100, 105mm

I found a log amongst not only the daisies and buttercups but also some forget me nots. I loved the assortment of colour.

1/1000, f/4, ISO 100, 47mm
1/1000, f/4, ISO 100, 47mm

Before long the land we were walking along began to taper into an arrow pointing at the Isle of Wight in the distance.

1/2000, f/4, ISO 100, 35mm
1/2000, f/4, ISO 100, 35mm

As you can see, up there the trees were a bit lop-sided. Growing in a strong, consistently-facing breeze, the trees has grown to look like Marge Simpson’s hair in a hurricane (only green, not blue).

1/125, f/8, ISO 100, 24mm
1/125, f/8, ISO 100, 24mm

Whilst we were up there, a boat left Swanage Pier, presumably heading for Bournemouth. I decided to take the resulting photograph and fabricate a tilt-shift effect in Photoshop.

1/640, f/8, ISO 100, 105mm
1/640, f/8, ISO 100, 105mm

At some point I will get round to my years-old plan of hiring a tilt-shift lens to play about with.

We weren’t alone up on the hill. There was also ahead of cows keeping the grass a reasonable length.

1/800, f/4, ISO 100, 55mm
1/800, f/4, ISO 100, 55mm

We finally arrived at the first of Old Harry’s Rocks. I’m not sure if this one has a name; I had a quick Google but turned up nothing.

1/1600, f/4, ISO 100, 60mm
1/1600, f/4, ISO 100, 60mm

I set up my tripod and broke out my 10-stop ND filter.

8sec, f/16, ISO 100, 105mm
8sec, f/16, ISO 100, 105mm

It quickly became apparent that the wind was a problem. My tripod is relatively lightweight, and travelling light I didn’t bring any sandbags (which I don’t own anyway). The wind was pretty strong up on the clifftop, creating a slight wobble in my camera, which became pretty noticeable at longer exposure times. The shot above is an eight second exposure; anything longer turned into a blurry mess.

I grabbed my kit and we moved on a bit further to another vantage point. Here the only shot I want to share wasn’t a long exposure because none of those came out with anything approaching sharpness. Instead, this shot is a ‘normal’ exposure that’s been through Color Efex Pro.

1/400, f/8, ISO 100, 28mm
1/400, f/8, ISO 100, 28mm

We soon came to Old Harry himself, and I took this shot which has been through the same Color Efex filter.

20sec, f/22, ISO 100, 28mm
20sec, f/22, ISO 100, 28mm

Old Harry’s current wife is hidden behind the big lump of rock in the middle of the picture. He’s apparently had a few wives in his time; apparently his first died in the 1500s.

The wind was even worse on top of the cliff, but fortunately as it was coming from behind me in the above shot I could walk down a slight slope towards the cliff edge and use it as a bit of a wind break, allowing me to get some longer, sharper exposures of what is literally a textbook example of coastal erosion.

20sec, f/22, ISO 100, 28mm
20sec, f/22, ISO 100, 28mm
20sec, f/22, ISO 100, 50mm
20sec, f/22, ISO 100, 50mm

Not being entirely sure at the time if the images were coming out sharp enough, I made sure to also get some quick shots. Here, I saw a canoeist amongst the rocks, with Peveril Point and Durlston Head in the background.

1/320, f/8, ISO 100, 70mm
1/320, f/8, ISO 100, 70mm

After spending a bit of time at the head, being bustled and chilled by the wind, we decided to head back. We generally prefer circular walks so there’s no backtracking but that wasn’t really an option in this case – or at least, if it was, it wasn’t one we’d researched, which would probably only end up with us getting lost again.

On our way back we found someone’s attempt at modern art.

1/800, f/4, ISO 100, 47mm
1/800, f/4, ISO 100, 47mm

Having taken a bunch of pictures there, I was a bit more creative on the way back, and noticed a number of shots I missed on our way out. This next one is one of my favourites.

1/2000, f/4, ISO 100, 24mm
1/2000, f/4, ISO 100, 24mm

And in a similar vein, this lopsided way marker.

1/500, f/8, ISO 100, 32mm
1/500, f/8, ISO 100, 32mm

Returning to the obelisk I saw it from a couple of different angles. As we first approached there was a guy sitting in its shadow reading a book.

1/250, f/8, ISO 100, 105mm
1/250, f/8, ISO 100, 105mm
1/640, f/8, ISO 100, 24mm
1/640, f/8, ISO 100, 24mm

After that, we walked down the hill – not exactly easy but a damned sight easier than walking up it – and headed into town for some well deserved ice cream.

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