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Peak District National Park Photographer Ray Manley

PUBLISHED: 14:38 28 April 2010 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

Ray Manley

Ray Manley

Mike Smith meets Ray Manley PDNPA staff photographer for the last 28 years.

On the southern rim of Kinder Scout, between Crowden Tower and Noe Stool, there is a gritstone tor known as the Moat Stone, so called because it is an isolated rock that is completely surrounded by a pool of water. Most of the nearby rocks do not stand alone, but are arranged in packs, rather like the granite tors of Dartmoor.

A photograph of the Moat Stone and its companions appears on the cover of A Park for all Seasons, first published in 1989 and, to my mind, the most evocative book ever produced about the Peak District National Park. The picture was taken by Ray Manley at the precise moment when the formation of gathering clouds above the plateau became a mirror image of the arrangement of rocks on its surface.

Ray is an expert at capturing those moments when sky, clouds, rocks and land combine to make a satisfying image. Sometimes he is lucky enough to find that nature has arranged a composition for him, but on other occasions he is prepared to wait patiently until weather conditions give him a perfect combination of shapes.

In 1979, when he first joined the Peak District National Park Authority as their staff photographer, Ray was asked to take shots of Kinder Scout and the Vale of Edale for use in the newly refurbished Edale information centre. Recalling his anxiety during that first assignment, he told me: 'I would leave the National Park headquarters at Aldern House in Bakewell in bright sunshine, only to find Kinder covered in a blanket of cloud when I arrived in Edale. Each day, I would return with nothing to show for my time on location. In fact, almost three months elapsed before I took a decent photograph.'

Of course, Ray wasn't simply waiting during all those weeks for clear skies, but for appropriate skies. His keen eye for composition dates from his childhood in Hampshire, when he made up his mind that he wanted to be a painter. After a year spent at Portsmouth's art college, he realised that he had insufficient talent to achieve this ambition and opted instead for a three-year photographic course at Manchester College of Art.

On graduating, he would really have liked to work as a photographer for the RSPB, but settled for a job with a local authority on the south coast. Six years later, he applied for the post of staff photographer with the Peak Park. When he was chosen out of 51 applicants, he felt he had landed a dream job. As he says, 'Who wouldn't have been delighted to be offered the chance to spend their working life taking photographs of one of the most beautiful and varied places in England?'

Almost three decades on, Ray's dream has ended, because he has decided to retire in order to look after his mother in Southampton. It is a decision taken for the best possible reason, but he will miss his colleagues at the Peak Park and they will miss him. To show their appreciation, they have bought him a companion for his retirement in the form of a Labrador puppy, which he had just collected and brought to Aldern House on the day of my interview. In fact, our meeting was delayed while his colleagues gathered around and fussed over the dog - and over Ray.

Having finally left the puppy with a group of willing minders, we settled down for our conversation, which gave Ray the chance to reflect on the changes that have impacted on his dream job over the years. In the days before digital photography, he developed his images in his own dark room at Aldern House. To his great regret, the dark room has gone now and a computer has taken its place. In the early days, his employers were happy to accept pictures in black-and-white, which delighted Ray because he believes that monochromatic images have stronger shapes and sharper contrasts than polychromatic ones. In more recent years, the demand has been almost exclusively for colour photographs, and he has had to adjust accordingly.

When Ray looked back over his career, it was inevitable that he should pick out those times when the sky and the land combined to give him the perfect subject matter. As well as recalling that moment by the Moat Stone when the clouds had shapes that were as strong as the rocks, he brought to mind the morning when he was about to leave Curbar Edge, only to be stopped in his tracks when a sudden mist transformed the valley below into a landscape in the clouds. He remembered a late evening on Rushop Edge when the setting sun converted Back Tor, Lose Hill and Win Hill into shapely silhouettes set against a golden background.

One morning, he set off in his Morris Minor to capture the winter scene on Stanage Edge, after a Peak Park Ranger had told him that the edge was covered by an undisturbed blanket of snow. Half way up the hill, his car gave up the task of climbing the snow-covered road and left Ray to complete the journey on foot. The effort was worthwhile, because he discovered that the snow drifts had been shaped by the wind into sculptured forms. Set against a clear winter sky and cast partially in shadow, the drifts looked like a monumental work by Henry Moore. Ray told me that he had even been tempted to trample in the snow so that no one else could capture the same image, but he simply couldn't bring himself to destroy such a perfect composition.

Ray's work has not only been widely used in the Peak National Park Authority's various leaflets, posters and exhibitions, but has also appeared in book form. To mark the fortieth anniversary of the Peak Park in 1991, Ray proposed that it might be useful to publish archive photographs of various Peak scenes set alongside his own photographs taken from the same viewpoints. The resulting publication, called Time Exposure, proved to be a highly effective means of illustrating the dramatic changes that have taken place in the landscape.

As one would expect, the photographs in the book clearly demonstrate that there has been a massive increase in the number of visitors to the Peak. For example, a Victorian photograph of a handful of people crossing the stepping stones in Dovedale is juxtaposed with a 1991 shot of hordes of trippers queuing to cross at the same spot. One of Ray's other photographs shows the Pennine Way as a heavily eroded six-lane track. It is poignantly accompanied by the words of Tom Stephenson, the instigator of the long-distance path, who navely envisaged the route as 'a faint line from the Peak to Scotland'.

However, the most surprising revelation in the book is that there has been an enormous increase in tree and scrub cover in the limestone dales, largely as a result of cattle and sheep grazing being moved from the valleys to the plateau. By 1991, some of those limestone pinnacles in Dovedale that were so appreciated by the Victorians had been hidden by foliage and the Hope Valley had been transformed from an almost treeless landscape into a lush dale.

Whereas Time Exposure tracks changes in the Peak landscape, A Park for all Seasons illustrates its permanent beauty. Although Brian Redhead, who was a well-known broadcaster and journalist at the time of publication, is named as the author, he actually wrote no more than the introduction. Most of the words are by Roly Smith and the photographs - all 83 of them - are the work of Ray Manley. The pictures are a fitting tribute, not only to one of England's most beautiful regions, but also to the man who has captured that beauty so effectively for the past three decades.

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