Combe Valley – Guardians of the Gateway

Combe Valley – Guardians of the Gateway

Winter is having one last blast here and recent rains have brought back floods in the valley, making the paths impassable. So, rather than taking a journey out in search of the signs of spring, I’m sharing this first image, taken in February, of one of the local projects I have been working on.

The gateway to our valley is a two-minute walk, down a gentle, grassy slope, bordered by blackthorn and brambles. A path leads into wooded areas of white poplar, blackthorn, oak, hazel and willow, alongside a river before entering the reedbeds. However, for me the star of the show, is a small cluster of trees standing out alone, away from the edgelands – a pair of oaks and a pair of hawthorns. Trees steeped in folklore and myth, stalwarts of the quintessentially English woodland and hedgerow, they escaped from the confines of those areas to stand as sentinels, guardians even, over the entrance into the reedbeds.

On my early walks in the valley, I had paid little attention to this clump, but as the seasons changed, I noticed how the trees character also changed and I started photographing them to document this.  The project has encouraged me to visit and explore this small area of nature more often and, over the past three years, it has become my bolthole when there’s no time for a long walk. Here, using a mindful photographic approach, I can immerse myself in nature and enjoy the sense of stillness that this brings, whether I take photographs or not. Focussing on just one aspect of a scene, brings a heightened awareness of the sounds and scents around me – all of which are also different, dependent on the time of year.

As I woke up on the morning this image was made, I could see for the first time in a couple of months that heavy fog was rising across the valley and a hoar frost had settled. The sun was just coming up as I arrived at a wintry scene – an area usually boggy at this time of year had frozen solid and I could feel the grass crunching underfoot. Bramble leaves were edged with silver, distant trees formed ghostly apparitions framing the scene and a combination of bitingly cold air and hot breath sent clouds of steam into the fog.  The dawn chorus was led by a song thrush with its repetitive, flutey melody, robins’ whistled, two magpies bounced from branch to branch and, in silent pauses, the sound of a woodpecker drumming rang out from an old willow.

In late winter the oak tree takes on a skeletal form, every scar revealing a story of its life lived thus far. In this case, on closer inspection, the tree I had for so long thought of as one that had split, with half of it dying was, I realised, actually two. An upright guardian oak, strong and tall alongside a second oak, its base exposed and rotting, yet deeply rooted, fully alive and growing across the earth, pointing the way into the valley.  Close by, two aging hawthorns stand strong. Known as ‘nurse of the oak’, they offer protection to saplings as they grow. I like to think that once they stood as a shield to these now mature oaks against bitter north winds, hence the name of my project, ‘Oakenshield’, Tolkien fans will recognise this name!

The Wheel of the Year has now turned, soon days and nights will be of equal length, the sap is rising and this cluster of trees will burst with life, so this seems the right spot to leave their story, which I hope to update over the coming year as the seasons roll on. In the meantime, do you have a favourite local tree or grove that you return to again and again? Do you also use a mindful approach to your creativity? I’d love to hear in the comments below.


    • Thank you Julie, that’s very kind of you. I find standing and composing an image mindfully makes me more aware of the beauty around me – we are very lucky to live so close by.

  1. Winter seems to be having one last blast everywhere! I enjoy seasonal projects where the focus is placed on single trees or corners of the landscape. I look forward to seeing these trees next in spring. Thank you for sharing your lovely photo and this well written post.

    • Thank you, Sarah, I have to confess I have a soft spot for lone trees, ancient trees…actually most trees and woodlands! After many years focussing on the coast I now spend more time in woodland or this lovely local valley than anywhere else, watching and documenting the change of seasons.
      Winter is having a big closing party here too, but hopefully there is promise of warmer days ahead if we can trust the forecasts!

  2. Aha! You have not only a sharp eye for nature but also good writing skills. Your brilliant description of the scene with the fog reminded me of Charles Dickens’s book, Great Expectations. Excellent, dear Lin.

    • Thank you Aladin for your generous words, you are very kind. I think the landscape in Great Expectations was marshland, so a little similar to the reedbed and fen-like land that this little area leads down to. It certainly was slightly spooky at first in the fog, but the sound of the dawn chorus soon changed the mood.

  3. I love your idea of focusing on just one tree, Lin. I’ll try that myself this spring, beginning today with an Autumn Blaze Maple Vic planted about 30 years ago. I’ve watched it grow and the color is superb. Like Aladin, I love your descriptions. I feel I’m there standing next to you, but in a different landscape than my own-including the sounds you hear. I wonder if the oak roots will sprout a new tree. That happens often in my forest. I look forward to reading about the changes in your observations-and I watch everything carefully and mindfully here with the help of my young dog who watches every bird or deer out the window. Blessings to you and Deborah as winter turns to spring.

    • Thank you, Elaine, for your generous feedback. Yes indeed, narrowing down to just one tree, plant or outlook works so well as a project and I find that, through having projects, it keeps my mind focussed… its also really satisfying when it all comes together! Most of the projects I have on the go (and there are many) have come about not from an intention of “right I’m going to document this tree or that wood” but more from just something that develops as I walk in nature and notice things around me, take a few images…before I know it, if I’m inspired by the subject, I return again and a project is born. I’m so pleased you’re going to give it a try with Vic’s maple – just the name of the tree alone conjures up some spectacular images and I’m already looking forward to seeing them.
      So often I read photography blogs where they concentrate on what camera and settings they use…me, I’m more interested in what it was like to experience that moment, so I’m really pleased that it makes you feel as if you’re standing there too. Ha-ha, I can just imagine your dog now, eyes fixed on the prize – what it would be like to hear what she thinks about his view out the window! Blessing to you too, in one day here suddenly I see magnolia and forsythia blooming – spring is pushing winter out of the door!

  4. Your words paint a delightful picture thank you Lin.
    You say well how stillness allows for all the senses to come into play. I’m paraphrasing – certainly, my senses were piqued!

    • Thank you Susan, in these busy, busy days its food for my soul to stand in the stillness of nature and immerse myself in her beauty…I find it helps me to see and hear so much more in the simplest of scenes. I’m pleased this piqued your senses too!

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