With the rollercoaster ride that was the year 2020 now officially finished, the start of 2021 has unfortunately seen much of the same for most of us. Another lockdown here in the UK (our third) saw the closure of schools once again and my job as a teacher shifted online to the world of Zoom lessons. Alongside this new, internet heavy learning, I still have to deliver in school provision to vulnerable students and those with key worker parents. Despite all these professional changes, I still like to get outside for a daily dose of fresh air when I can and very recently I took my camera along for the ride (walk).
Chiswick House, and its accompanying gardens, is an English Heritage site located a short walk away from where I live. It is somewhere I have been visiting for many years and one that is steeped in history. The house itself was designed and built by the 3rd Earl of Burlington, Richard Boyle, with its completion coming in 1729. The Earl had made a trip to Italy a few years before where he developed a passion for Palladian architecture. Upon returning he set about designing and constructing, next to his fathers house in Chiswick, the 'Italian-style' villa you can see today.
Since then Chiswick House has been through a lot. The property was eventually passed down to the 5th Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, and his wife Georgiana in 1774. The couple set about adding two further wings to the property, turning it into a stately mansion, as well as building a conservatory to house exotic fruit and camellia plants. This conservatory (and some of the camellia plants) can still be seen in the gardens today. Georgiana was very fond of hosting tea parties in the house's garden for formal guests and she commissioned the arched bridge across the lake that you can still walk over now. At one point the gardens were home to a menagerie of exotic animals including an elephant, elks, emus, kangaroos, and an Indian bull.
The house eventually fell into disrepair, after a brief stint as Chiswick Asylum (a mental hospital) but it eventually shifted into public ownership. A huge project, completed in 2007, helped restore the villa and gardens to the level which you can see today.
I always feel lucky to have a place like this right on my doorstep, especially here in London, and not only is it a great garden for a short walk but it is also one that is home to a nice array of wildlife for my photography pursuit.
This was the first day I had taken my camera out in 2021 and I picked an awful day to do so. The weather was typical for an English winter; overcast, cold and dreary - not quite what photographers wish for but still, given everything that was going on and how busy I have been at work, I was just happy to be out in the fresh air once again.
I headed off on a route around the lake, where most of the wildlife can usually be seen, with the view of just taking photos of any animals I could find. The lake here is home to a number of grey herons, a pair a mute swans and the occasional cormorant but unfortunately these were all acting un-photogenic this time round so I ended up focusing on some of the parks more friendlier occupants; the grey squirrels.
Chiswick House always has a healthy population of grey squirrels but in the winter months they are very easy to locate. Squirrels in the UK, contrary to popular belief, do not actually hibernate during winter but they do tend to eat an increased amount. This is in order to build up energy reserves which they then rely on to help them survive the harsher temperatures and conditions found during this time of year. All of those nuts and seeds you see them burying during autumn are now being dug up and eaten.
I found a couple of grey squirrels munching on the green shots of a tree that had been cut back by the park wardens. Whilst they were gorging themselves on sweet greenery goodness, I was able to capture some interesting photos. The weather conditions, and in particular the low light level, meant that I was not going to capture any of the vibrant, colourful images I usually opt for. Instead, I had to work with what I had, and I focused on a composition that deepened the shadows and created a colder, moody feel - one that I think worked well against the contrast of the lighter fur of the squirrel. The thin, newly formed branches of this tree helped to add a bit of texture to the images, without distracting away from my main focus, the heavy-set squirrels.
My first thought upon finding these individuals was that these squirrels had had a very indulgent Christmas as they appeared to be carrying a vast amount of holiday weight. Upon further reflection, and from some other opinions, it could very well have been that these squirrels were pregnant. Either way, their only concern during the few minutes I spent with them was finding some more food to eat - which I feel I can definitely relate to during the Christmas holidays.
I finished off my short walk with a few images of the feral pigeon flock that can always be found at Chiswick House and, on this occasion, was being fed by a very enthusiastic young lady . Some people have a real dislike for pigeons but I find the variation in pattern and colours between individuals to be remarkable and definitely something that is worthy of photographing.
My favourite image from this short trip was the one below. These squirrels are so used to the presence of humans that it meant I was able to get this close-up image despite not having a major zoom lens with me at the time. I wanted to capture a photo that highlighted the weather conditions but also displayed the feeding habits of the squirrels that I had just spent time watching - I am hoping that this one does the trick?
I am hoping to post a few more blog posts over this year so please do let me know what sort of content you like. Are these 'field reports' to your fancy or are you more interested in the techniques and editing processes that I use? I would love to hear from any readers out there!
If you are interested in visiting Chiswick House & Gardens (post-lockdown or if you live nearby) it is worth checking out their official website but also have a look at my Instagram page which is littered with photos of the wildlife, plants and architecture that can be found there!
Chiswick House & Gardens: https://chiswickhouseandgardens.org.uk/