Picture of the week: 21/12/20

THIS week’s picture choice is an extraordinary portrait of a hungry kingfisher by local wildlife photographer Will Brown.

The 19-year-old spends as much time as he can outdoors with his camera photographing wildlife in their natural habitats around his home in Hertfordshire.

TASTY TREAT: a hungry kingfisher by Will Brown

He recalls taking his first picture using his dad’s camera at RSPB Rye Meads, a local wetland reserve beside the River Lee which is a firm favourite with walkers, birdwatchers and photographers thanks to its many trails and hides.

That picture was a kingfisher, and these birds remain his favourite subjects, even though his growing portfolio includes owls, kestrels and small garden birds, as well as foxes and other mammals.

“Kingfishers have always been and always will be my favourite subject to photograph,” he says.

His striking shot was taken in October this year in Hemel Hempstead, when the bird was particularly obliging.

“Hemel has the canal, rivers and lakes with lots of access so it is ideal,” says Will. “It was posing beautifully for me on the bridge, hardly disturbed by people which is very unusual for kingfishers as they are usually quite nervous birds.

LATE BREAKFAST: a short-eared owl hunting by Will Brown

“Owls are my rarest and most challenging subject, and another one of my favourites,” says Will.

His striking owl pictures here were both taken on the same evening in November this year.

“By far the best owl experience I have ever had. Quite amazing,” he recalls. “The type of owl is a short-eared owl. They only stay here during winter months. In the summer they migrate to colder climates, such as Scandinavia.”

Still photography remains his main love at the moment, although he has experimented with video footage of owls and kingfishers. “I’m sure in the future I will do this more often,” he adds.

And to answer some of those technical questions about equipment, he explains: “When I first started getting into photography I used the Canon SX50 for the first couple of years. Then I moved on to the Canon 7D Mark II with a Canon 100-400mm Mark II. However, occasionally, depending on the situation I am in I sometimes use the Sony RX10.”

FAMILY PORTRAIT: fox cubs in Hemel Hempstead by Will Brown

Foxes are the main mammals to feature in his portfolio, including an eye-catching picture of cubs taken in Hemel Hempstead back in August 2018. “It is very rare to have them all out at once in the right place!” he says.

Clearly patience is a virtue when it comes to widlife, and that hasn’t always been easy to cultivate, he admits.

“Patience is a skill which has taken me years to develop. When I was about 10, I used to sit around in a bird hide with my dad, bored and uninterested as to what was going on with the wildlife. I use to drag myself along with him because we would always go and get a KFC after.

“After a while, I started to become more and more interested. Patience is a skill which requires the right mindset as well. These days, I am more than happy to wait around all day for a particular bird or animal to show and would not feel fustrated at the end of the day if I produced no results.

“I just enjoy being out and around nature. I never thought all those years ago I would be where I am now, sitting in a hide waiting for my dad to leave and get me a KFC!”

ON THE WING: another shot of a short-eared owl by Will Brown

When lockdown restrictions allow, he hopes to take a part-time photography course at college to help improve his skills and learn more about the industry.

For the moment, his main plans are to keep working on building his portfolio and continuing to sell his photos and reach as many people as he can.

“When someone buys some prints from me, I don’t get a buzz from the fact that I might be making money, I get a buzz from the fact that my photo is in someone else’s house,” he says. “That’s what I love about what I do.”

Framed copies of Will’s prints can be obtained from his website or follow him on his Instagram account.

Couple capture that campfire spirit

FOR many of us, a summer’s day in the garden might sound the ideal setting to enjoy a gin and tonic: clinking ice cubes, a generous slice of lemon or lime, beads of condensation forming on the glass…

Not so Kate and Ben Marston. For these Hertfordshire gin enthusiasts, the perfect place to savour the eager anticipation of that first sparkling sip would be with friends round a roaring campfire.

And what if it wasn’t just a case of pouring your favourite tipple, but actually distilling the whole drink, mixing your own botanicals, coming up with the perfect recipe?

Ben and Kate decided to set up the distillery after buying two books: Difford’s Guide to Gin and Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus. A holiday in Kenya sipping a sundowner cocktail round the fire and swapping tales with fellow travellers helped to cement their plans.

Back home, Ben had worked in a variety of creative design and marketing roles, including working at a brewery, and he saw the perfect opportunity to combine his own interests in exploring and creating too.

What better way for the couple to put their professional skills to good use than by producing an artisan gin of their own, blending unique botanicals to produce the perfect “spirit of the outdoors” that could be enjoyed with friends round that campfire?

Kate recalls: “It was a big step out into the unknown to establish the region’s first small batch gin distillery.”

It was 2014 that the idea started to take shape and the couple toured distilleries around the country to research the process and establish relationships with industry professionals.

As they finalised their distillery name and logo, it was a chance for Kate to put her marketing and graphic design skills to the test in the careful branding that epitomises Puddingstone Distillery and its products.

Puddingstone takes its name from a rare rock formation found in Hertfordshire and historically used in churches to ward off evil spirits, while Campfire gin, with its unique blend of ten botanicals, summed up the spirit of outdoor adventure which Ben was so keen to create.

“After 18 months of premises hunting across the beautiful Chiltern Hills, a chance meeting with a local farm owner who shared our vision of a destination for local food and drink producers took the distillery one step closer to becoming a reality,” Kate recalls.

Gin derives its predominant flavour from juniper berries and the name gin is a shortened form of the older English word genever, related to the French word genièvre and the Dutch jenever. All ultimately derive from juniperus, the Latin for juniper.

Once a medicinal liquor made by monks and alchemists across Europe, gin emerged in England after the introduction of the Dutch and Belgian jenever liquor, which was originally a medicine.

Its popularity exploded in the late 17th century after William of Orange came to the throne, when gin was actively promoted as an alternative to French brandy at a time of political and religious conflict with France. But the resulting “gin craze” of the early 18th century let to a succession of acts of parliament trying to control consumption.

Hogarth depicted a world of poverty and misery in his “drunk for a penny” Gin Lane portrait of 1851, and by the 19th century the gin shops had been replaced by thousands of glittering gin “palaces” where, despite the ornate fittings and gleaming mirrors, customers were expected to down cheap shots and leave pretty quickly, rather than lingering over a drink as they might do in a public house.

Nowadays gin is a much more sophisticated libation produced in different ways from a wide range of herbal ingredients, giving rise to a number of distinct styles and brands. After juniper, gin can be flavoured with a combination of botanical, herbal, spice, floral or fruit flavours.

The hipster tipple of choice, in the 21st century gin shrugged off both its grim “mother’s ruin” image and any stuffy colonial connections. A staggering increase in the emergence of artisan gins saw sales almost doubling between 2016 and 2018, with hundreds of different brands being launched by dozens of new distilleries.

That put Kate and Ben well ahead of the curve. After acquiring their licence to distil and launching a crowdfunding campaign to help finance their venture, the doors to their distillery opened in November 2016, the PE Mead & Sons farm shop at Wilstone Green, Tring, providing the perfect base.

The pair hit the ground running with their first delivery selling out in less than a week and a variety of awards following, their original Campfire creation being praised for its classic dry character: juniper, angelica root and coriander seeds being “elevated with subtle notes of florals, nuts and fruits”.

Situated next to Wilstone Reservoir, just five minutes from Tring, Kate and Ben were determined to create drinks of an “exceptional and inspirational nature, created with a mindfulness of community and environment”.

The success of that mission was reflected in awards, sales growth and the increasing popularity of tours and tastings – prior to the nightmare of lockdown restrictions, of course.

The distillery’s location also allowed it to team up with the neighbouring Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust for a rather special project involving an invasive plant which has proliferated in the area: Himalayan balsam.

Introduced to the UK during the Victorian era and notable for its pink orchid-like petals, Himalayan balsam has done rather too well at taking hold along the banks of local lakes, ponds and streams.

Nowadays wildlife trusts, backed by the support of volunteers, are setting about uprooting the plant to clear space for native species to grow – which seemed a perfect opportunity for Kate and Ben to step in to help, creating a rather special edition gin in the process, with money from the sales being donated to the Wildlife Trust.

So what does the future hold for the Puddingstone pair? Like all businesses, coping with lockdown restrictions has posed plenty of challenges, but while we may need to wait a little for the tours and tastings to restart, we can expect plenty of campfire cocktails and Christmas gift ideas in the meantime.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the local support from everyone who is shopping locally supporting us and other independent retailers. It’s been disappointing to have to postpone tours and events but our fingers are crossed for 2021,” says Kate.

“We’ve plans for a new gin in collaboration with the Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust and will continue to head out and about to markets and events where we are able to and to welcome customers to the distillery shop on Fridays and Saturdays.”

Check out the Puddingstone Distillery website for news, events, gift ideas and to sign up for their newsletter.

Picture of the week: 14/09/20

TO MARK Hertfordshire’s annual open studios programme, our third picture of the week is another featured artist from the event.

Our focus is on artists specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife working in any medium, and our latest selection is a colourful painting by Mary Ann Day.

BOLD COLOURS: Red Sky at Night, Hertfordshire, by Mary Ann Day

A self-taught artist whose work has featured in several exhibitions on the outskirts of London, Mary Ann has experimented with different styles and textures, using a palette knife in much of her work. She continues to be excited by the “magic of paint” and says she is travelling on “an artistic journey that continues on a never-ending rollercoaster of discovery”.

Her work features various themes but is notable for its bold, bright colours, sometimes laid on in thick layers but always vibrant and often evoking far-off wind-lashed islands like Hawaii and Fiji.

“Colour is the key to my work,” she explains. “Without colour life would be a very dull place.”

The Herts Visual Arts event runs until September 30 and features artists, artisans and designer-makers who live or work in or on the borders of Hertfordshire. Visit the Herts Visual Arts website for more details.

Do you have a favourite artist or sculptor specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife work? We’d love to receive your nominations for future works to feature in our Picture of the Week slot – drop a brief explanation for the reasons for your choice to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk.

Picture of the week: 07/09/20

TO MARK Hertfordshire’s annual open studios programme, our second picture of the week is another featured artist from the event.

Our focus is on artists specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife work in any medium, and this week’s painting is a new work by Alexander James Gordon.

LIGHT AND COLOUR: Daybreak by Alexander James Gordon

Inspired by colour and light, Alexander’s influence comes from watching the sky and imagining the possibility of colour to use within his oil paintings.

He lives and works in Barnet and his paintings are abstract landscapes using oils and a palette knife, which enables him to leave visible marks on the canvas, creating a subtle textural layer to the painting.

His oil painting demonstration for the virtual open studios section of the Herts Visual Arts website shows him explaining his technique during the early stages of creating Daybreak.

More paintings are featured on his own website, which also includes information about future exhibitions.

The Herts Visual Arts event runs until September 30 and features artists, artisans and designer-makers who live or work in or on the borders of Hertfordshire. Visit the Herts Visual Arts website for more details.

Do you have a favourite artist or sculptor specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife work? We’d love to receive your nominations for future works to feature in our Picture of the Week slot – drop a brief explanation for the reasons for your choice to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk.

Virtual visitors enjoy Herts arts

HERTFORDSHIRE artists are taking their annual open studios event online next month.

And although the move was forced by ongoing coronavirus restrictions, it means this year Herts Visual Arts will be able to host an extraordinary range of virtual events around the clock.

LOCAL LANDSCAPES: Harpenden Ponds, Southdown Road by Andrew Keenleyside

The county network for artists and creatives is celebrating its 30th anniversary and to mark the event is planning 30 themes over 30 days for its annual #HertsOpenStudios celebration of local talent.

As well as a social media wall, the group website features dozens of artist’s galleries and videos of them at work in their studios or explaining their techniques, like the oil painting demonstration produced by Alexander James Gordon (below).

The month-long art celebration follows similar events earlier in the year in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.

There will be live personal events and exhibition visits too, normally involving advance booking and social distancing restrictions.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: Red Sky at Night, Hertfordshire by Mary Ann Day

But the virtual celebration means that visitors can seek out artwork and demonstrations at any of the day, popping back numerous times to explore different trails and techniques, with videos including studio tours, demonstrations and individual artists explaining and showing off their latest work.

The event runs from September 1-30 and features artists, artisans and designer-makers who live or work in or on the borders of Hertfordshire. Visit the Herts Visual Arts website for more details.