The Muker Wild Flower Meadows, a Photographer’s Guide

The following article provides some thoughts and ideas how to photograph Muker’s wild flower meadows. It’s by no means a  comprehensive guide to the meadows, or to photography, but hopefully can be a useful resource for those intending to visit Upper Swaledale and who, like I, are caught by the photography bug.   

Please note: remember when visiting and taking photographs that the meadows provide a valuable crop and that you must stick to the footpaths; trampled meadows are really no good for anybody!

The Muker wild flower meadows are amongst the best examples of upland hay meadows in the country and are protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to their abundance of  wildflowers and grasses including: Buttercups, Clover, Wood Crane’s-bill, Melancholy Thistle, Yellow Rattle, Pignut, Lady’s Mantles, Rough Hawkbit, Cat’s-ear and Sweet Vernal Grass. Four of the meadows were included in the 60 Coronation Meadows in 2013 by Prince Charles in recognition of their importance to the preservation of wild flower meadows in the UK. Perhaps more importantly for a photographer they are a feast for the eyes and their setting, in Upper Swaledale, cannot be beaten. (There are links to more information at the end of this article). 

In mid-May ewes and lambs are taken to new pastures, making way for buttercups, purple clover, wild geranium and a confusion of rare flowers and grasses, which spread rapidly to reach their peak during the first two weeks of June. With each meadow playing host to its own variety of flowers, and maturing at its own pace, it’s well worth paying multiple visits to see each at its best.  

As the meadows lie in the shadow of the fells the summer sun arrives relatively late and dips behind the fells in the early evening. It’s not generally a place for spectacular dawns and sunsets, but if you arrive early or leave late you’ll have the meadows to yourself with a chance of some colour in the sky; a sight of some wildlife (including deer); and before the summer sun doesn’t become too overwhelming.

By ~7:15 am the sun clears the fells and the soft, dappled light,  shinning through the trees,  plays on the meadows, barns and dry-stone walls. This for me is a favourite time of day. 

When visiting the meadows for the first time it’s all too easy to find yourself lost in the sheer beauty of the flowers and forget their context; the dry stone walls, pathways, barns, trees and fells that play a huge part in making the meadows so special. Used well they provide structure and lend weight to a composition. Forgotten or ignored they may add complexity and clutter! 

Including a focal point in the composition: a barn, the path that links the meadows, Muker Village itself - something that means something to you - will elevate your photograph from a picture of yellow buttercups (wonderful though they are) to an emotional connection to a special place and time. 

Photographing from a low vantage point, perhaps shooting just above the flowers, will provide strong foreground detail and interest, concentrate the colours in the background and reveal interesting compositions. If you want front to back sharpness you’ll need a tripod for the longer exposure needed to maximise the depth of field. Before shooting be careful to “clean up”, in a non-destructive way, the foreground before you shoot, a stray stalk of grass blowing across your lens isn’t going to add to the end result, nor are dead flower heads. 

Photographing from an elevated vantage point will elongate the meadows and separate the different elements of the photograph, again revealing interesting compositions. I often carry a small step ladder or platform around and just a few inches of extra height can change the dynamic! 

It’s impossible to guarantee a still, rain free day in Swaledale, so use the conditions to your advantage.  A gentle breeze and long exposure can breathe life into an image, and the blurring of foreground flowers will increase the dabs of colour and create an impressionistic feel. 

Photographing with a wide open aperture through the flowers, focused on just one, will highlight its individual delicacy surrounded by a blur of colour. Though I spend a huge amount of time hunting for the perfect subject I have to admit that for me it’s a very hit and miss affair and I usually end up with a full memory card of shots to find one or two that work! 

If you’re a fan of modern art, and Jackson Pollock, avoid a focal point, forget any rules of composition and just go for the pure patterns, textures and colours of nature’s abstract expressionism. 

Go at the right time (early) and you may see deer, rabbits, pheasants and ducks with their brood in tow, before they disappear from sight for the day. Whatever time you go they’ll be swallows, swifts and house martins dashing in and out of barns and skimming the petals of the buttercups. Here though I’ll make way for wildlife photographers as my attempts invariably end in failure! 

From the start of July, and at the first opportunity for good weather, hay making begins in earnest providing winter fodder for the livestock (note: some protected meadows like those at Muker cannot be cut until mid-July).  

As each meadow is cut Swaledale and Wensleydale become a patchwork of colours and patterns. It’s a superb time for taking photographs and a reminder that the meadows are not just a thing of beauty, but a valuable resource … which is a good prompt to remind people to stick to the paths! …

… And as the meadows are cut the wildlife take advantage with rooks and seagulls following the tractors and buzzard descending onto the freshly cut fields.

Some final thoughts

The Muker Meadows, and surrounding countryside, are a wonderful place to practice your photography skills, providing an abundance of opportunity to apply different techniques and create stunning compositions … however … it’s far to easy (for me at least) to succumb to the temptation of immediately switching on the camera and start taking pictures without thinking a little harder about just what it is I’m trying to capture and how best to go about it. The end result is that when I return home and upload the photos I’m disappointed with the results. So perhaps it’s wise to arrive with an idea of what you want to take away: the feeling of total immersion in a world of buttercups, purple clover and wild geranium? An impression of the patterns, colours and textures? The delicacy of each individual flower? The setting beneath towering fells? The abstract nature of the countless points of colour?  The list is endless, but hopefully you get the idea and some of the photographs above might provide some inspiration. The meadows mean different things to different people and perhaps they already mean something special to you. Having a starting point is not a bad idea when presented with (and perhaps overwhelmed by) so many different options.  If in doubt, don’t worry, experiment and get to know the place; after all taking photographs is a great way of discovering what has meaning for you. 

If you’re interested in joining Richard for a 1 to 1 photography workshop please take a look at his workshops page.

Information about the Muker wild flower meadows can be found via the following links.

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