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Photographing Wistman’s Woods

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

by Chris Page

Wistmans Wood 1

Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor had been on my photographic bucket list for sometime, but never seemed to be in the area to make a visit. With yet another year passing me by I decided to make a dedicated trip in November 2023. The weather had not been good, rain and wind had been storming into the West Country for weeks on end, however the temperature had been mild and delaying the Autumn colours reaching their climax. With one eye on the forecaster I was looking for a short brake in the weather where I could make over night journey to capture the woods in early morning dramatic light. Every time a possible time slot seemed to came up it was dashed away by yet another forecast of heavy rain and storms arriving.

By no means do I consider myself a fair weather photographer, but equally you have to respect Dartmoor. It’s not the kind of place to take chances, conditions can change very quickly leaving you in tricky situations you would rather not be in. Finally a window of opportunity opened, unfortunately not for a sunrise shoot, but the weather was due to break late morning and looked fair for the rest of the day. So with a five hour drive from Kent and an hour or so walk to reach the woods I set off at 4:00am.

The car was loaded with lots of camera gear and plenty of different clothing options for whatever I found on my arrival. However it did not take me long to decide that I would have to travel light when making the trek over the moorland to the woods. I opted to use just one camera, the Hasselblad X1DII with only a 45p mm lens attached, it’s the smallest and lightest lens I have for this camera. I did not want to use a back pack full of gear, so I used a small weatherproof camera case, spare battery and my light weight travel tripod. That’s all I was going to take, so I would work with what I had.

Wistmans Woods 2

By the time that I arrived at the small parking area that gives you access to the West Dart Valley the weather had cleared of rain. The sky was now blue and a bright sun was shining over the moors, that was not what I was after, but things do change, so I set off hoping that it would.

It’s easy going at the start, a cinder track running up to a farm where you then climb up to the open moorland. Once up here the scenery open up and you can see the expanse of moorland in front of you. The so call path now comes and goes, it is peppered with granite rocks sticking out of peat bog that was sodden from the weeks of rain. I am glad I had my big waterproof walking boots on as I spent most of the time tramping through the dark brown muddy puddles. You soon begin to realise that the half hour walk in Summer is going to take twice as long in November.

Eventually at the top of a rise an old stone wall comes into view, and beyond this you get your first real sight of Wistman’s Wood nestled on the side of the river valley. The breeze has now come up and clouds start to rush across the sky dimming the sun as they pass, this is more like what I need for photography. I begin my final climb up the rugged path towards the outer most tree line of the woods.

Festoons of dead mans beard hang from the these outlying trees which are sparsely spaced on the side of the rocky hill side. As I work my way around the perimeter it becomes ever steeper and you begin to look down into the dark depths of the woods. Granite boulders covered in moss create a natural inhospitable barrier; it shouts “Do not Enter”. The trees become closer and closer together with contorted limbs twisting and turning in every direction. It’s a mad chaotic confusion which sends your vision whirling. I stop, sit down on a large rock and try to refocus on single spot to find composition in the mayhem. With the wind blowing, branches swaying, leaves flickering and the light coming and going in the frantic movement, it's time to rethink how I am going to photograph this!

Wistmans Woods 3

My preferred way and the one I was planning to do was to photograph at a low ISO, slow shutter speed, a medium to high aperture stop and with the camera mounted on the tripod, but this was not going to work with what was in-font of me. I played around with the camera settings to find a suitable combination for the conditions; ISO 3200 - 1/90 sec - f13 - no tripod. Not ideal, but workable with the medium formate Hasselblad and its 45p mm lens.

So I began to start shooting these mysterious Dwarf Oaks in this incurable setting, with its boulders, mosses, lichens and autumn colours. From my elevated position I continued my clamber around the edge of the woods looking for compositions where I could lose the sky out of the shot and pick up the burnt colours of bracken from hillside on the other side of the valley. I had a vision of what I wanted to achieve and knew I would be lucky to get one or two images that got anywhere near to it (got three in the end). I finally arrived at the far end of the woods and then retraced my steps back to get the view point from the other direction.

After a hour or more I was done, and on cue the rain started falling as I walked back over the moors towards the car. On leaving I felt that now I known something of what to expect from this beautiful place that I should plan another trip, tackle it in a different way, what that is I have yet to decide, but I know there is more that I could captured from Wistman Woods given another chance.

West Dart Valley Wistman's Woods

About Wistman's Wood

A fragment of Ancient Temperate Rainforest on the banks of the West Dart River Valley, Dartmoor. It is a site of Special Scientific Interest and is a National Nature Reserve, being one of the highest Oakwoods in Britain at 1,350ft.

The Oak Trees here are distinguished by their dwarf habit, and rarely reach more than 15 ft in height. The trees also developed highly contorted forms with procumbent trunks, and their main branches tend to lie on or between the large granite boulders on the forest floor. The tree branches are characteristically festooned with a variety of mosses and lichens.

Wistman's Wood has been mentioned in writing for hundreds of years. It is likely to be a left-over from the ancient forest that covered much of Dartmoor c. 7000 BC, before Mesolithic hunter/gatherers cleared it around 5000 BC. The oldest oaks appear to be 400–500 years old, and originated within a degenerating oakwood that survived in scrub form during two centuries of a colder climate.

The name of Wistman's Wood may derive from the dialect word "wisht", meaning "eerie/uncanny" or "pixie-led/haunted". The legendary Wild Hunt in Devon, whose hellhounds are known as Yeth or Wisht Hounds in the Devonshire dialect, is particularly associated with Wistman's Wood.

This year visitors to Wistman’s Wood were advised to “walk around” the wood and not among the trees. This is to protect its delicate ecosystem and avoid any damage to its trees, lichen, and mosses.

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