on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Why I love the Abergavenny hills

Rob Hudson lauds his favourite location

Rob Hudson

Rob Hudson

Rob Hudson describes himself as a ’conceptual landscape photographer’ and lives and works in Cardiff, Wales. His work, which is always in series, explores how we relate to the landscape.

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I have a confession to make, before you read further, you should know the following article isn’t really about photography at all. It is about a place, a place I love and my personal history in that place and how and why I have come to love it. But if place isn’t important to landscape photography then I don’t really see the point; surely there is a reason we go out to capture what we do? Okay I’ll admit it is something to do with landscape photography really, but first I’m going to have to explain why I feel so close to this area and that’s quite a long story.

If you are sitting comfortably, then I shall begin.

I sit on a late winter patch of russet bracken about three quarters of the way up the north-facing slope of the Skirrid. The first warm rays of sun hint at the coming spring, there is a gentle breeze carrying the cries of lambs exploring their new world, birdsong in that joyous way that birds sing when the end of the cold, the meager rations of winter are at last in sight.

Looking north I can see the rounded hills of mid Wales; to the east, across rolling fields lie the Malvern Hills; southeast is the escarpment of the Cotswolds. But west, hard up, close by is the familiar ridge of the Abergavenny Hills  (properly the Black Mountains). Hatterall Ridge, the border, below it the long winding remote Vale of Ewyas. It leads past the stony ruins of Llantony Priory and to Capel Y Finn which housed a more modern monastery, founded after local people reputed saw a vision in nearby fields, the farm is still called Vision Farm. A deep remote retreat from the world which was also home to artists from the 30s such as Eric Gill and his followers including David Jones artist and author of the First World War poetry book In Parenthesis.

Further to my left hand is the Hill Fort of Y Gaer, high on a promontory, hummocks of yellow gorse gracing its ditches and proudly topped with a rocky cairn – one I had to rebuild before I last photographed it. A little way further left lies the volcano like summit of the Sugar Loaf, just short of 2000feet, but it more than makes up for this apparent failing by being a proud point amongst the rounded ridges, purple when in summer heather.

So this is my country, I don’t live here, although I’ve come to love it over many years, it is special in so many ways, ways that can’t all be explained by the way it looks. The Sugar Loaf for example is the hill that on most Sunday mornings in my childhood I would climb with my mother and brother, my mother pointing out and naming the wild flowers. Whilst my grandparents (who lived near the foot of the hill) would go to the dour, dusty, dark Methodist chapel to listen to thunderous sermons denouncing ‘the young people of today’. But we would have the freedom of the hills, the sunshine on our limbs, the fresh air and the grassy paths to the summit. Our return, miraculously timed to coincide with Sunday lunch, maybe there was something to this religion after all!

This was also my childhood escape from the claustrophobic industrial valley we called home – an escape from “real” life. Although only thirty miles away, Abergavenny was the first proper country town after the coalmines and steel works that scarred the valleys back then. And the first proper, untainted, countryside separated from the industrial wastes by the vast bulk of the Blorenge Hill, big enough to blot out the view and polluted air.

In the school holidays we would be packed off to our grandparents, and spent a lot of time walking in the lower hills with my granddad – his dickey heart precluded the heights. Or driving the lanes in his Reliant Robin three-wheeler, wheezing and whining up hills, my brother and I would lean into bends like a yacht so unstable was it. Like many men of his class and generation a car seemed an impossibly distant dream, so he only had a motorbike license, which by some quirk of law allowed him to drive two wheels or three, but not four. Nonetheless motoring equaled a new found freedom and we would crisscross the countryside by the most obscure lanes avoiding the highways where we would slow up faster traffic.  Colours flashing through the windows, flashes of bluey purple in the bluebell season, the almost shimmering fresh greens of spring, that spoke of renewal and the yellow, reds and browns of a kaleidoscopic autumn.

These trips gave me a thorough appreciation of how everything fitted together over a wide swath of countryside for the first time and like none I’ve experienced since. This was more than thirty years ago and at times I struggle to put it together in my mind. A stranger would soon be hopelessly lost, mainly as the local tradition of turning the road signs to face in the wrong direction still persists into the twenty-first century. But keeping to the main roads would mean missing out on the real delights, as every landscape photographer should know.

Had I been a poet this would have been like Ted Hughes’ Devon, Dylan Thomas’ Laugharne with it’s “heron priested shore” or of course Owen Sheers’ Skirrid Hill, the place of safety of contemplation and refuge, a reason to exist amongst the daily mundane. I was just a child back then, however, but it has come to mean all that and more in my deepening adult life.

Stopping to think about the places I love the images that come to mind are predominantly this rolling landscape hemmed in to the west by sheltering hills. It has become so familiar that I feel I couldn’t get lost, even on a moonless night I could safely navigate back to civilization. It’s that intimacy which has become important for self-expression. Even when I don’t have a particular image in mind I know where to look. Be it in the dark, untidy wood of the Skirrid or the bright valleys that cut into the Sugar Loaf or the airy tops that speak with an open heart. I need that depth of knowledge, but more so I need that interconnectedness.

In a way I suppose it has become a muse, a paint box on which I express my feelings. It is still an escape – I live in Cardiff  - and for the past three years this land has become the way I express who I am, how I feel and how I interact with the landscape. More than that it actually feeds into who I am, it has in some ways reflected back into my self-definition. Sometimes I feel like a hefted sheep, so accustomed to my part of the hill that I can’t begin to imagine wandering to somewhere new. On those rare occasions when I do venture to photographic pastures new I feel I am struggling to find an engagement, the fires of creativity too weak to crack the spark needed. Not that I’m worried by this, the days of wanting to rush from one grand vista to another are well behind me. I have learned here what I love about landscape photography, and it is more to do with finding the magical amongst the mundane than it is about adding some extra magic to the already impressive.

It took me a long time to realize that what I wanted to express with the landscape was the inner vision. Well the outer vision of landscape is quite compelling! I take a certain delight in the fact that this landscape doesn’t conform all that well to the norms of landscape photography, it’s lacking in well formed mountains, there just aren’t those clichés to tempt me, no jetties, no piers, no slow waves, no limestone pavements with lone trees, no waterfalls, only one lake. It is landscape in the common, everyday sense, tree topped hills, hedge lined rolling fields and mostly featureless moor. I have to work hard here to find ways to express myself, I can’t rest on my laurels and copy all those ideas I’ve seen others use in the past. I might stoop to the odd pointy hill for which I apologise most humbly, but for the most part big vistas don’t work here. It’s the intimate expression of connection that fascinates me in any case. I’m not really interested in showing you how it looks to my eyes, you have eyes of your own, I’m looking for a narrative, which represents the experience. And when you get into representing – denoting, signifying - rather than illustrating, then it opens up a whole new world of expressive potentials. Pablo Picasso once said, “A painter paints to unload himself of feelings and visions.” it’s why I photograph too and I believe we can do that with a camera as well as a painter can with paint if we only but try.

Some charge me with of having an agenda or a dislike of Romantic landscape photography (capital “R” Romantic in the artistic tradition rather than the pink fluffy stuff). But I am a Romantic, I feel the world me inside, I just have a need to find new ways to express it, in order that I might discover new revelatory expressions, ways that don’t replicate the ideas of others, but are as much as possible my own, that come from within.   I’m not claiming to be Byronic, but the Romantic tradition originated as a reaction to the industrial revolution, the age of enlightenment, the scientific codification of the natural world and the right to express our emotions. Of course this brought it’s own codification - of emotion, that is what I fight against, not emotion itself, but a cosy, repetitive realization of those emotions. There are new ways to say it, that is all I want to explore. If my experience and photography doesn’t represent that, then everything above is mere falsehood.

So do you fellow landscape photographers have a special place, a place that has both taught you how to love and taught you how to photograph? I would love to hear more!

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