An ode to rain, or; "Lost in the Woods: A cautionary tale"

Updated: Nov 23, 2018

We all know that Brits love to moan about about rain, but in June and July of 2018, we learnt something that may have been a surprise to some: We don’t just love to moan about it, we actually love the rain itself.

There’s something burned into the British psyche, something indelibly written into our DNA, that makes us cherish the rain, or at least cherish the thing that makes our land so green and pleasant.

See, we forget all of that when a damp, grey low pressure system has been sat on top of our island, refusing to budge for weeks on end. We forget what the smell of rain is like, because the novelty has worn off.

But when the rain hasn’t fallen for two months straight, when the grass is scorched, when wildfires rip through scrubland, when the flower beds have turned to dust… it is then that we understand how rain feels like our birthright as Brits.

Think of summer barbecues, planned so optimistically for the weekend when sun is forecast, and how when the forecast is proven to be wrong us Brits still insist on barbecuing outside in the rain, stubbornly refusing to let the weather rain on our parade. That’s what rain jackets were made for, right?

Think of Glastonbury, held on the last weekend of June, and how we declare “it just wouldn’t be Glastonbury if it weren’t a quagmire”.

You’ve probably heard the saying “There's no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”, and it should come as no surprise that the man who first uttered those words was an Englishman by the name of Alfred Wainwright. He's the one who gave his name to what walkers and ramblers now call The Wainwrights, a series of walks on 214 fells (hills and mountains) in the notoriously wet Lake District.

After 59 days, during which only 0.1mm of precipitation fell where I live in north Surrey, I was daydreaming of a time when I would once again be able to pull on a rain coat and head out for a wet and windy walk with my dog. Britain collectively sighed with relief when rain and thunderstorms were forecast across the UK. As a photographer, I kept a hawk eye on my plethora of weather apps, hoping to photograph something spectacular, like a storm brewing over the parched Surrey hills, breaking the heatwave and nourishing the land.

The conditions seemed ripe for a good sunset on Saturday night. The stormy rain clouds unfortunately weren’t due until 3am on Sunday morning, but the high and mid level clouds were due to start rolling in before that, hopefully offering some decent sunset colour and a pinkish afterglow.

Crossing my fingers and hoping for the best, I headed out towards Newlands Corner at 7:30pm. Newlands Corner lies on the chalk ridge of the North Downs at a height of over 170m, which gives glorious views across the Weald to the ridge of the South Downs.

I arrived at 8pm, and was crestfallen that I hadn’t taken the Earth’s summer tilt into account, and that sunset was happening too far to the west (unlike winter’s west-south-westerly sunsets) to be throwing any kind of fun or interesting light into the valley.

The sky was still pleasant enough, full of candy floss pastels and delicate clouds, but nothing like what I had hoped for. It’s also a location that I imagine sings the loudest with either a drone, giving you height, or if there’s any direct sun casting long shadows during golden hour then a long lens to pick out a smaller details of the vast landscape. Alas, I have no drone and golden hour was happening too far to the west, out of sight of the valley.

I got this photograph around 30 minutes before true sunset. It wasn’t at all what I had been looking for, but I knew that from that position looking south west with that composition, it wasn’t going to make for the photo I wanted.

I should say at this point that the views over the Surrey Hills are not the only attraction at Newlands Corner. There is an ancient woodland that stretches out to the west, which is home to yews that were standing at the time of the Norman Invasion, 952 years ago, with some estimates suggesting there are trees up to 2000 years old residing there. The mighty oaks and ancient yews shelter roe deer and are home to green woodpeckers, nuthatches and tawny owls.

In the name of making the most of being out with my camera I made the call to head into the woods, hoping to emerge the other side in time for the afterglow.

Now, even as I type that, I hear how daft it sounds. Heading into a wood that I hadn’t been into before, or even researched, just as the sun was setting? Yeah. That sounds pretty unwise, doesn’t it.

Very quickly I learnt that this wood was exceptionally dense. The further I ploughed in, the thicker the canopy became, but I still wasn’t overly concerned. The path I was on was wide, and with no forks in the road I felt confident that I would easily retrace my steps to the car park. On I went, stopping very briefly here and there to try and grab some photographs. As you can imagine, the light levels were very low, so I was leaning against trees in lieu of my tripod - I didn’t have time to stop and set it up if I were to stand any chance of emerging on the other side of the wood with any light left in the sky.

Then things took a turn.

To the right of the wide path I was on, I heard a group of men whooping and hollering. It sounded like a campsite descending into a raucous party. I’m not normally one to be fearful, but as a woman alone in a dark, ancient wood (what was I doing?!), I hurried on hoping I wouldn’t be seen or heard. It’s one thing knowing you’re alone in a wood, but entirely another to know that you could potentially be discovered by people you’d rather not meet.

Next came the fork in the road, and the progressive narrowing of the paths. I decided to take the path on the right, and memorised my route as the path continued to divide in two, the deeper into the wood I went. I had been using my phone’s sat nav, but all it really showed was my position right in the middle of the wood.

We all have a breaking point of how much we’re happy to risk, and I eventually found mine when my path intersected with two others, a total of six routes converging on one spot. After 25 minutes of legging it though the wood, I stopped at this intersection while I made the decision of whether I should turn back. Sunset was due to happen in exactly five minutes, and the western edge of the wood was at least further 10 minute walk.

And then I heard it. With me standing absolutely still, I heard the distinctive crunch crunch of dry leaves underfoot, somewhere off the path. I looked up in the direction of the sound, and the crunching immediately stopped. The threat of being discovered in the wood making the decision for me, I pulled out my phone to use the compass to find the quickest route out of the densest part of the wood. As I looked down at my phone, the crunching started up again.

I started trying to reason with myself that it was a deer, but the steps were too heavy for that. I turned on my heel and bolted back along the path I had come into the intersection on. The fear centre of my brain was fully engaged, and I decided to call my husband, Derek. For good measure, I turned on the ‘share location’ feature of my phone. Having somebody know where I was felt like the most sensible thing I could do in that situation.

Inevitably, I lost the path I had taken, but with the help of my phone’s compass I knew that heading directly south would get me out of the wood the fastest. With Derek on the phone keeping me company, I eventually found my way on to a comfortingly wide path that would lead me directly to the car park, right on the edge of the wood.

Me being me, I was still keeping a watchful eye on the sky, whenever paths opened up to the fields adjacent to the wooded path I was on. I saw the afterglow developing nicely, so I dashed out towards the fields and grabbed this shot. With a bit more of a westerly aspect, plus the pink sky, the fields of hay and the moody cloud cover, it was much more the kind of photograph I had hoped for. At last, a shot that made getting lost in the woods worth it!

This spot is certainly one I'll be returning to, especially in deepest winter with (hopefully!) a thick hoar frost and a southwesterly sunset. For now though, this photograph tells the story that I wanted it to: the thirsty land under the afterglow of a summer sunset, with a stage of clouds assembling, ready for the sorely needed rain. Rain that will feel almost patriotic after the desert-like conditions our nation of reluctant wet-weather lovers has endured.

It ultimately took 15 minutes to get back into the open clearing of the car park, and honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see my car.

All this is to say, don’t venture into an ancient forest on a whim after dark.... Obviously!

I definitely want to return to those woods, and it would be beautiful in the fog, but I think I’ll be taking my husband and dog along for the ride next time!

Despite all that, I'm glad I went, even if I didn't quite get what I wanted. It taught me a lot about location scouting and sunset shoots, which I've not actually done a huge amount of given that landscapes are what I photograph the most!

What to read next: The reason we shouldn't just be documenting what our eyes see, we should be telling the story of a place, instead.

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