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The January call of Gunnerside Beck

It’s the first photography of the year and Gunnerside Beck calls after too many days stuck inside. Heavy overnight rain has swollen the River Swale and its slush-coloured flow writhes down the dale. After driving through the main village of Reeth, a short section of the road then runs immediately beside the Swale and today it’s shadowing the spate, a road racing a river. In an adjoining meadow two mallards settle on a pool of floodwater and enjoy a moment’s relief from the river’s incessant rush.

I head north across the village bridge in Gunnerside and alongside its beck, face down into a pushing wind and looking forward to the shelter that will come as the tributary valley narrows. January is a good time for self-assessment, before February and the drifting back into comfortable ways, and the familiar mantra of “must get out more” provides the energy needed to push back against the wind. It is from the north west and has bite.

When the main River Swale is exuberant and unapproachable like this, Gunnerside Beck is often the first of its tributaries to fall back and offer encouragement to explore its banks. Stepping among the riverside grasses I notice that each clump is compressed and slicked in the same down-river direction, the nap of their fibres a sure sign of considerable flow during the night.

The day develops free of rain and the level of the beck continues to fall. Water tension around each boulder eases too, along with the beck’s shrill note. In the following hour the spate retreats further and more rocks are revealed. As I tumble around the larger boulders by the water’s edge I hear the trees above creak with winter cold. After the struggle with a heavy camera bag over such uneven terrain, I sit close to the river's edge and begin to relax as my eye is drawn upwards by the strong sunlight that is striking the tips of the tallest oak and beech trees.

This valley is more intimate than the main dale and in January its steep sides rule out any possibility of direct sunlight reaching the valley floor. However, a billowing cumulus cloud, crisp white, is stretched across the roof of the narrowing valley and welcome light is reflected down off it. This borrowed light glints on a gathering of angular rocks arranged in the middle of the river and the increase in colour temperature warms them, accentuating their subtle colours. Despite the falling level, the rocks are still wet and as I spend more time studying them I realise that splashes from the passing flow are helping to reveal a quiet but varied palette that appeals to my eye.

Engrained on the surface of the rocks are shades of pale orange and rich saddle leather brown. I sense there may be a photograph here and strive for a composition that will weave the rocks together and bring an overall harmony to their angular and muscular shapes. Realising that the run of reflective cloud may not last, I work quickly but not hastily because my camera and tripod is balanced precariously over the beck.

As the composition eventually falls into place, there is a splash of dramatic end-of-the-day sunlight on the slope above me, a searing light so intense that the dying bracken it illuminates turns flame orange. Tempted by such rich saturation, I consider chasing the light. However, experience and the length of the winter day tell me the moment is fleeting and I decide instead to return to my quiet arrangement of rocks. They have longer lasting appeal and their calm colours match my muted January mood.

With the photograph made and the equipment returned safely to the bag, I relax again. The air temperature is falling and I accept with reluctance that my short but rewarding winter day is coming to a close. Cocooned in the valley I have forgotten all about the strong wind and it reminds me of its vigour as I re-emerge, but pushes now at my back rather than in my ribs. The walk back to the van gives me the chance to relax further, and as I head along the track by the beck there’s time to enjoy the trill of blackbirds, ever busy with their early evening endeavours in the fading light.

The January call of Gunnerside Beck

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