Wollaton Hall by Chris Denning

Chris Denning is Director of University of Nottingham Biodiscovery Institute but it was his stunning photographs of Nottingham’s Wollaton Hall and Deer Park which first caught our eye on social media. From fallow deer frolicking in the golden light of dawn to spectacular sunsets framing the grand Elizabethan mansion, seeing his exceptional nature photography has been so uplifting throughout lockdown. We got in touch for a chat to find out why this area captured Chris's eye, how he manages to capture the majesty of the natural world and beauty of the area with his lens, things to look out for at Wollaton Hall throughout the seasons, plus some top tips for budding photographers. 

Photography is quite different from your career in academia, how did you become interested in photography?
 

My first love was, and is, natural history, with the happy addition along the way of my wife, Lorraine, and Border Terrier dog, Pickle. Places of beauty give me peace, with favourites combining landscapes and wildlife – thanks to a childhood shaped by Sir David Attenborough’s first epics in the 1970s/80s, particularly ‘The Living Planet’.

Whilst I’d love to capture Earth’s beauty with paint or pencil, that’s not to be. As a kid, I recall drawing a dog in the game ‘Pictionary’ – my teammates thought it was a crocodile. To compensate for my awful artistic skills, I turned to technology, with a camera providing the answer. Best summed up, “If you’re given lemons, make lemonade not orangeade”. And so my passion for photography started.

Are there any unexpected overlaps between the worlds of Stem Cell Biology and nature photography?
 

Actually, probably a lot more than you think. Nature can be stunning, irrespective of whether the scenes are dramatic mega landscapes or inner spaces under a microscope. The miniature world is full of structure, colour and transfixing movement. Here’s an example. The motion of a waterfall in ‘big’ nature can be hypnotic; the same is true of the rhythmicity of beating heart cells we create from stem cells in my lab.

We use photography to record this microcosm, with many of the skills overlapping those needed to capture natural history at its best, such as planning and technical precision. So much is the overlap that, early in 2020, we launched an ‘Art in Science’ competition within the Biodiscovery Institute, for which I am Director. Many of the images were eye-wateringly beautiful and, post-COVID, we will run an exhibition open to the public.

When did you start photographing Wollaton Hall?
 

That’s an easy one – ever since I moved to Wollaton in 2008. But, my love for the Hall and Park has grown in three stages, with each one meaning I spent more time in the grounds. First, 10 years ago, when I started to walk or cycle to work through the Park. The morning light is joyful. Next was when we got our Border Terrier dog, Pickle. He’s a tough little boy and needs plenty of exercise. Most recently, COVID has meant I’ve spent more time in the Park this year than any other.
 

Do you have a favourite aspect of the park?
 

Absolutely, yes. Going into the Park via the exit gate on Wollaton Road, immediately turn right and follow the wall for about 200 meters. I love the sweeping views across the tress to the Hall, and there are often red and/or fallow deer.

Wollaton Hall by Chris Denning
 


What's your favourite season to shoot in?
 

All are lovely, but standout is autumn. Far from being forlorn at it being the end of summer, I celebrate its arrival. Trees become iridescent with colour, accentuated by the softening light and misty, dew-laden or frosty mornings. Animals go into hyper-drive to ready themselves for winter, seemingly with a squirrel for every tree. Red deer are rutting, rooks roost in large numbers, and there are fascinating seeds and fungi everywhere, though Pickle is less keen on areas with super-spiky sweet chestnut pods. And in autumn, it’s so much easier to get up for sunrise than in the summer..!




As an expert in the park through the seasons, is there anything you can recommend for visitors to look out for throughout the year?
 

I’ve spent thousands of hours in the Park and something different catches my eye every time, depending on the light, time of day and how lucky I am. Every month has something different to offer...

In winter the bare trees make birds of prey easier to spot, including buzzards, sparrowhawks and various owls. A dusting of snow transforms the Park, not only for kids sledging, but also fallow deer. They go bonkers in a fun way, like they’re playing, and it’s a joy to watch. Winter is also the season easiest to capture majestic sunrises and sunsets, and to see the Hall lit up in different colours to mark special events.

Winter at Wollaton Hall - Photography by Chris Denning

Spring brings beautiful lush new growth to the trees, under-carpeted with bluebells in most wooded areas – the best patch is between the lake and the A52 boundary wall. Spend some time around the lake and you will see a lot of nesting birds with their young, including the heronry on the island and the whacky red, yellow and black colours of coot chicks. If you’re lucky, you’ll see great crested grebes, with mating pairs doing their courtship dance. Look out for cheeky birds pulling hair from deers’ backs to use as nesting material. Late spring brings an abundance of pink and red rhododendrons, which makes for a lovely background for white swans.

Spring at Wollaton Hall - Photography by Chris Denning
 

In the long days of summer the Park is used for loads of events, so this is the most human-orientated season. Food and music festivals, charity runs, arts & craft events, steam rallies. Wildflowers, butterflies and other insects are in abundance, with an absolute highlight being extensive carpets of foxgloves in the woods between the lake and the A52 boundary wall. Also look out for the parakeets flitting around – while they can be anywhere, most often you’ll find them in the trees around the southerly part of the lake. At this time of year, you’ll start to get glimpses of the young deer as they emerge from the long grass.


Summer at Wollaton Hall - Photography by Chris Denning

Autumn is my favourite season. Whatever the weather, you will see something, so go frequently. The light is magnificent and the colours are magical, with every scene changing daily. This season is best known for the rut, when fierce battles occur between red deer stags as they jostle for mating rights to their harems. 

Autumn at Wollaton Hall - Photography by Chris Denning

The park is home to an abundance of wildlife, do you have any stand-out memories of things you've spotted?
 

When it comes to wildlife, “patience is a virtue” is a good phrase by which to live. What I find most rewarding is watching how animals behave and interact. Heron chicks squabbling over food, even though they’re as big as the parents. Squirrels racing after each other through the trees. Geese, ducks, swans or coots settling territorial disputes or having lover’s tiffs. Seeing the reflections of animals and birds slaking their thirst. And, of course, the behaviour of the deer – fallows playing in the snow or boxing in the grass, or reds rutting or rolling in the mud. It never ceases to amaze me how tolerant the deer are to their hair being pulled out by jackdaws gathering nesting material.  


Finally, do you have any photography tips you'd like to share?
 

Books have been written on this, so here are a selected few…

  • Shhhh… Morning is such a peaceful time of day. No need to shout. Just blend in with nature… quietly… and you’ll be rewarded.
  • Enjoy: If you go to the effort of heading out, enjoy the moment – a memory card full of great photos is a bonus rather than guaranteed…!
  • Composition… is king. No matter what camera you use, try to make landscapes appear three dimensional, even though they will be viewed in two dimensions (e.g. on a screen or in print).
  • Wildlife… shots work best if the capturing action, behaviour, interaction or mood. Watch with patience.
  • Time of day: Due to the softness and warmth of the light, an hour before or after sunrise is often the best, followed an hour before or after sunset. On overcast days, this is less important – woodland scenes and rivers are often better in cloudy conditions.
  • Location: Definitely visit the location in advance so you don’t waste precious time on the day, especially if conditions are good. It’s also safer to know the area if you plan on arriving before sunrise.
  • Apps: There are loads of apps to help you plan. I use ‘The Photographers Ephemeris’, which tells you direction and angle of the sun and moon, which vary by time of the year and location on earth. ‘Sky Guide’ is fantastic to understand the night sky – stars, comets, constellations, planets and Milky Way.
  • Your camera: However basic or complex, know the settings on your camera. Make sure you have a full charge and spare batteries or power.
  • Full control: If your camera has the ability to shoot in RAW, use this mode. Learn the differences between manual, aperture priority, shutter priority and fully automatic.
  • Clothing: Make sure you’re wearing the right gear for the conditions. Layers are best so you don’t freeze before sunrise and fry after.
  • Workshop: If you’re still wanting more, go on a photography workshop. I’ve been a client on several with three different professionals to cover landscape and wildlife. Each has been incredibly rewarding.

If you're a Twitter user we highly reccomend giving @chrisdenning42 a follow  – his beautiful landscapes and nature photography captured in this special place are sure to brighten your feed and bring a smile as you scroll!

Related

Wollaton Hall and Park
Museum
Wollaton Hall - Visit Nottinghamshire

Spectacular Elizabethan Mansion and Deer Park set in the beautiful suburbs of Nottingham. Car parking £3 for up to 3 hours and £5 for the whole day.

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