Photographer Valerie Mather captures the heart of farming on isolated Yorkshire moorland in a year in the life of Bransdale

Lunchbreak at harvest time, by Valerie Mather, from Fields, Folds and Farming Life at Nunnington Hall

FIELDS, Folds and Farming Life, Nunnington Hall’s exhibition by Yorkshire documentary, travel and portrait photographer Valerie Mather, captures candid moments from a year in the lives of upland farmers in Bransdale on the North York Moors.

“Photography has the power to capture a moment in history, and my hope is that these images paint a picture of the spirit, stoicism and joy of these local farming families and communities today,” says Valerie, a former lawyer. “I wish to share some of the joy and inspiration about farming and nature that I discovered from my year in Bransdale.”

Bransdale, one of the North York Moors’ most isolated valleys with high moors on all sides, is cared for by the tenant-custodian farmers, the National Trust and its volunteers alongside the National Park authority.

The combination of Valerie’s work and specially produced films and artwork reveals the hard work and determination of the farming community in navigating the ever-changing agricultural world to achieve a better farming future for people, the environment and wildlife. 

Smiles in the show ring, by Valerie Mather

Here Valerie answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions on photography, farmers and the future of farming

Speaking with the Dowsland family, from Moor Houses, Bransdale, their first concern was whether you would be ‘getting in the way of their daily routines’, but they grew quickly to enjoy your visits. “Oh, Val’s at the breakfast table again”! How do you build up that bond of trust with your subjects, especially when farmers can be taciturn?!

“I think being genuinely interested in the people I photograph goes a long way towards getting people comfortable. Also, helping out where needed. I helped out on a gathering in of some 300 sheep from the moor when one of the families was shorthanded, instructed by Nathan, their young son!”

If the two public views of farmers are that they are either “problematic” or “like on Channel 5” in the Amanda Owen and All Creatures Great And Small series, how have you set about changing those perspectives/misconceptions?

“Documentary photography is, for me, all about genuinely candid unposed moments, as opposed to posed portraits. There is no make-up or dress rehearsal! I am inspired by certain quotes and one of my favourites is by Paul Caponigro: ‘It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like; it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are’. That is what interests me as a photographer, no matter how much longer it takes in order to capture a genuine moment.”

Curlew on the moors, by Valerie Mather

Where does a traditional Yorkshire moorland farming community fit into increasingly fractured, no-sense-of- community-anymore Britain?

“I was initially drawn to document the farming community in my area when I attended a local agricultural show in the summer of 2019 and witnessed what a strong sense of community there is amongst farmers.

“I think documentary photography plays an important role, telling stories and allowing us an insight into communities other than our own. Through that we can hopefully appreciate how we all have a place in the world and have a greater understanding of other points of view.”

What did you learn from your previous lowland farming photography project that you could put to good effect in this upland series?

“Patience and pacing my energy levels. Farmers work long hours and staying in the moment requires concentration, otherwise something magical happens and you miss it, like the birth of a lamb for example.”

The yearning and the yawning: the joys of showing sheep start young, by Valerie Mather

What are the characteristics of upland farming that struck you the most?

“That the animals live outside most of the year and roam free on the moors but are ‘bound’ to stay in certain areas via ‘invisible boundaries’, which the farmers call ‘hefting’.”

The bond between farmer and stock and farmer and land are both central to your exhibition. Discuss… 

“One young farmer told me that he had spent a year working abroad and then lived for a spell in Kirkbymoorside, but eventually he had to return to the Bransdale valley he was born in. He used the phrase that he was ‘hefted to the land’.

“Whether you are born into it or not, in my experience, farming is a vocation and not simply a job.”

Sheep shearing on a Bransdale farm, by Valerie Mather

What did you discover in your upland farming encounters that most surprised you?

“I was surprised to learn that having a mix of cattle and sheep grazing on fields adjacent to moorland produces an ideal environment for ground-nesting birds by producing both long and short grass. Under-grazing (not enough livestock) or abandonment of pasture (no livestock at all) can lead to dense thatch, which is unsuitable for the endangered Curlew to nest amongst. Which means: no cattle, no Curlew.”

What is the future of upland farming?

“With only three per cent of farmers under the age of 35, our farming future is precarious across the country. Indeed, it was those alarming statistics that made me want to see for myself what life was like for smaller farmers in and around Yorkshire.

The next generation together: Boy and lamb on a Bransdale farm, by Valerie Mather

“Upland farmers have an important role to play in nature-friendly farming and the farmers I spent time with were actively engaged, for example, with breeding conservation initiatives for the endangered ground-nesting birds, such as the Lapwing and the Curlew.”

Do you have a favourite photograph in the exhibition?

“My personal reactions to the images are, of course, coloured by the emotions I felt when pressing the shutter each time and the engagement with my subjects on that particular day. An image that stands out for that reason was made during a lunchbreak from making silage on a scorching hot July day. The farm workers sat in the shade of their giant machines, eating sandwiches and laughing about how it beat sitting in an office.

Ewes’ round-up: Farmer, sheepdog and flock on the move, by Valerie Mather

“As talk turned to the rapidly rising costs of farming, their laughter and smiles gave way to silent contemplation. A reminder for me of the importance of valuing our British farming community and how shopping locally can make a difference.”

What will be your next documentary photography project?

“Too soon to say! I’ve been focused on this project for the past two years, so I need to take some time out, enjoy teaching my workshops, and wait for inspiration to strike. To make anything meaningful, one has to feel passionately about a subject.”

Fields, Folds and Farming Life, Nunnington Hall, Nunnington, near York, on show until December 17; 10.30am to 5pm, last entry at 4.15pm, with reduced winter hours from November 24. No booking is required; exhibition included in admission price at this National Trust property.

Valerie Mather’s notes on an exhibition

Documentary photographer Valerie Mather spent a year with her camera at Bransdale. Picture: Laura Kennedy


“My journey into the world of farming was originally inspired by an article in Country Life back in 2019, which said that only three per cent of UK farmers are under 35 and the average age is 59. 

“These alarming statistics made me want to see for myself what life was like for small farms in Yorkshire, so I set out to build relationships and visit the farmers in my local area.  

“That resulted in a book of black & white photographs in 2021, which led to the National Trust inviting me to spend a year exploring the working lives and environment of their tenant upland farmers in Bransdale, on the North York Moors.” 


“I am inspired by the work of James Ravilious (son of the artist Eric) and his important photographic record of rural England in the 1970s.” 

Ewe and lambs in a sunlit pen on a Bransdale farm, by Valerie Mather


“The importance of balance between nature and farming and land management. Success relies on finding a balance in an ever-changing industry.” 


“Photography has the power to capture a moment in history and my hope is that people will enjoy the exhibition at Nunnington Hall and the accompanying book, available from, and will recognise the importance of valuing our British farming community and how shopping locally can make a difference.” 


“Today everyone has a camera in their phone. Digital photography means it doesn’t cost anything when you press the shutter. However, to make an image that another person might feel an emotional response to involves passion and understanding on the part of the photographer about their subject. 

“One of my favourite quotations is: ‘It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like; it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are’.”

At work in the sheep pens, by Valerie Mather


“Photography can be very beneficial for our mental health and well-being. There is a lot of joy to be found in the world and a camera is a great way to share that joy with others. 

“I love helping people to understand their camera through my workshops. There is a saying that the best camera is the one you have in your hand. I think it’s truer to say that the best camera is the one that you understand how to operate.

“We all know how to work our phones but few of us take the time to learn how to use our camera and get off the Auto settings.” 


“The new AI technology may offer a multitude of artistic opportunities, but it does mean more than ever before that documentary photography has an important role to play in capturing our lives today and in asking the complex questions.

“There are no easy answers but if a photograph gets us to consider the questions in the first place it has done its job.”

Animal husbandry: Checking a sheep’s teeth, by Valerie Mather

Can you help put the finishing touches to the slithering dragon at Nunnington Hall?

The Nunnington dragon: “Slithering down the exhibition corridor” at Nunnington Hall

VISITORS to Nunnington Hall, near York, have until September 4 to help to determine the look of the Nunnington dragon as part of a story creation project in Ryedale.

Literacy specialist Rosie Barrett and artist Karen Thompson have been working with school groups and families to retell this folktale.

The story features in the Creatures Of Curiosity project, funded by grants from Arts Council England and Ryedale District Council, to encourage young people to engage with stories rooted in local places.

“There are some fascinating stories from the region, but the dragon has really captured imagination,” says Rosie. “Lots of regions have their own version of a dragon story, but most of us have only really heard of the most famous dragons – those featured in stories such as The Hobbit, for example, or Beowulf.

The Nunnington dragon’s head at the Creatures Of Curiosity exhibition at Nunnington Hall

“The project was a great opportunity to engage Ryedale people with our own dragon and find out a bit more about it.”

Rosie and Karen took their retelling of the story into schools in Ryedale to gauge their responses, inviting children to create their own illustrations and writing. “They had very strong ideas,” says Rosie.

“The original folktale has a devastatingly sad ending. We asked the children about it and how we should tell this element. We thought they’d want a happy ending and were surprised by their stoicism!”

Artist Karen illustrated the dragon based on the children’s ideas and consequently it slithers down the exhibition corridor. “The children helped us to get an idea of what the dragon should look like at the exhibition,” she says. “Based on details in the story, they were quite clear that the dragon should be long and worm-like.”

Scale drawing: Nunnington Hall visitors can add to the design of the dragon’s body and tail

Now Rosie and Karen are inviting more visitors to participate by creating a scale to go on the dragon’s body and tail.

“It’s been fantastic to see the dragon develop over the summer, but we’ve only got until September 4 to get enough scales to finish it,” says Karen. “We’re really hoping it will be complete by the end of the exhibition.”

Other stories featured in the Creatures Of Curiosity exhibition at the National Trust property include moorland myths about “hobs”, the secretive and mischievous creatures believed to have helped around farms and houses on the North York Moors, and an original tale based on the prehistoric creatures whose fossil remains were found at Kirkdale Caves.

Look out too for artwork by children’s author and illustrator Tim Hopgood, who has illustrated the Kirkdale creatures, such as hyenas, lions and long-tusk elephants, once native to the region, and for sensory textile creations by Wanda Szajna-Hopgood, based on Tim’s illustrations, that showcase the story of the Kirkdale Caves. Artwork by schoolchildren is on display too.

A close-up of the Nunnington dragon at Nunnington Hall

Based on a range of real and mythological creatures from the Ryedale area, the exhibition pulls together history, archaeology, science and folklore. The real creatures are themselves in some ways fantastical: creatures that lived there during the Ice Age, including mammoths, hyenas and giant deer.

The exhibition offers the opportunity to explore how local myths were created and how even real stories can take on mythical status.

On August 25 comes the chance to join Dr Liam Herringshaw, from the Fossil Roadshow and Scarborough Museums, to learn about fascinating fossils. Hands-on art and storytelling activities will take place on August 30 from 11am to 3pm.

Find out more at:

Pyramid Gallery to launch three exhibitions at once by Emur Aamir, Debbie Loane and Linda Combi in triple celebration of nature

Father Of The Flowers, York artist Linda Combi’s memorial tribute to Abu Waad, The Last Gardener Of Aleppo

ERUM Aamir, Debbie Loane and Linda Combi form the suitably triangular structure of Pyramid Gallery’s summer show in York.

Not one, but three exhibitions will run in two rooms at the Stonegate gallery from Friday (9/7/2021) to September 5.

For Celestial Garden, Manchester ceramic artist Erum Aamir has made intricate porcelain sculptures that fuse her scientific research and artistic imaginations.

“Nature is a source of inspiration for me,” says Manchester ceramic artist and scientific researcher Erum Aamir

Erum was awarded first place for excellence at the 2020 British Craft Trade Fair in Harrogate by Pyramid proprietor Terry Brett, winning a solo show at Pyramid as the prize.

“I’m a ceramic artist and nature is a source of inspiration for me,” she says. “I enthuse by the details in depth, therefore I explore through the eye of a microscope. Sometimes the compositions found in the microscopic study and my imagination’s interpretation bypasses what is found in nature.

“This blurred line between reality and created reality intrigues my practice. If only for a moment, one might lose oneself in the curiosity of the composition, perhaps creating a personal narrative with the piece.

Pyramid Gallery’s poster for Erum Aamir’s exhibition, Celestial Garden

“This process of creation and exploration forms a shared experience between us. In my work, there’s always a repetition of single or more than one element which mimics the process of growth by repetition. I like this repetitive action – it’s not a thoughtless activity but is meditative.

“Moreover, the repetitive nature of bringing together many components creates a rhythm and facilitates an active trance of intention.”

Seascape and landscape paintings in assorted sizes by Easingwold artist Debbie Loane will complement Erum’s intricate sculptures in Pyramid’s upstairs front room under the title of The Peace Of Wild Places.

Easingwold artist Debbie Loane at work on the North York Moors

“As a painter, I’ve always sought out wild expanses, the vast open moorlands of the North York Moors or dramatic coastlines of the North for artistic inspiration,” says Debbie, who works from a farm home and studio in Alne Lane, just outside the market town of Easingwold.

“Over the past 18 months, when all our freedoms have been restricted, like so many I found myself seeking solace in the wild places I could find on my doorstep: a morning coffee taken on the doorstep in the morning sun watching a spider methodically weaving its web between a plant pot full of neglect and a wellie boot.

“The spider was completely at one with its environment knowing at once in that moment what it was supposed to be doing. How that spider taught me a lesson!”

Pyramid Gallery’s poster for Debbie Loane’s exhibition, The Peace Of Wild Places. Ignore the closing date: it WILL be September 5, not September 3!

During the past lockdown when home-schooling and simply staying afloat financially became Debbie’s priorities, her creative endeavours shifted to focus on wider things. Such as? “Tree planting 1,400 new native trees on our land; sowing seeds; teaching myself new things to do with my hands, like crochet (maddeningly); making paints with natural materials and running for many miles through the landscape, both around my home and on my beloved North York Moors,” she says.

“Consequently, my relationship with nature has deepened, as has my understanding of why I paint and what I’m painting. That spider has taught me to trust my creative instincts, to pause when I need to, to explore when it is calling. Most importantly of all, I have discovered the landscapes and wildness that I need are as much within me as out there.”

In 2005, Debbie established Lund Gallery in converted farm buildings next to her studio. “To give me time to concentrate on my own practice, the gallery no longer has regular opening hours; it opens for pop-up exhibitions and events,” she says. To keep up with her gallery news, sign up to her mailing list via

Linda Combi in her York studio

York artist Linda Combi will complete the trio of exhibitions with The Last Gardener Of Aleppo , a series of original collages and mixed-media artworks and giclee prints that form a moving tribute to Abu Waad in a charitable show in aid of The Lemon Tree Trust and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In 2016 Krishnan Guru-Murthy presented a Channel 4 News story about “The Last Gardener of Aleppo” that introduced viewers to Abu Waad, whose name means “The Father of the Flowers”.

“This genial Syrian ran the last garden centre in the besieged city of Aleppo, assisted by his 13-year-old son Ibrahim,” says Linda, who first exhibited these works in a Covid-curtailed run at the Angel On The Green, Bishopthorpe Road. “Abu Waad told us of his love of flowers and plants; about how their fragrance, beauty, and resilience were life affirming and joyful.

Linda Combi’s poster for The Last Gardener Of Aleppo fund-raising exhibition for The Lemon Tree Trust and the UNHCR

“We watched his large hands gently planting seedlings, pruning trees and making bouquets of roses for his customers. Despite the on-going bombardment, the growth and renewal within Abu Waad’s garden made it a ‘small oasis of colour and life’ amid the death and destruction.”

The Channel 4 film portrayed the bond between Ibrahim and Abu Waad as they worked together in the garden centre. “We see the father stretched out on an old settee during a tea break laughing with his son; a picture of relaxed contentment. But one can also detect fear and stress in the eyes of both of them,” says Linda.

The story closed with the death of Abu Waad, killed by a barrel bomb that landed near the garden centre. “His oasis is now closed, and Ibrahim is left without a father, lost and tearful as he visits his father’s grave,” says Linda.

“It is a devastating end, and so it felt important to me to celebrate Abu Waad and Ibrahim and their work in the oasis they created. I’ve illustrated the words of Abu Waad, which so perfectly describe the joy that plants and flowers can bring to us all.

Blue Flower, from Linda Combi’s series of collages, mixed-media artworks and giclee prints

“However, hope returned earlier this year when I was contacted with news that Abu Waad’s son, Ibrahim, had been found and is living with his sister and an uncle in Syria.”

Ibrahim hopes to continue his father’s work as a gardener. “So far we’ve helped him buy a solar energy system,” says Linda. “The Lemon Tree Trust is aiming to help Ibrahim with seeds and equipment for his life as a gardener. My piece, Ibrahim’s Hope was made after receiving this good news.”

A percentage of proceeds from picture and card sales will be divided between the UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency mandated to aid and protect refugees] and the Lemon Tree Trust charity that helps refugees create gardens in migrant camps.

Pyramid Gallery’s opening hours are: Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm; Saturdays, 10am to 5.30pm; Sundays, 12.30pm to 4.30pm, but please check by texting Terry Brett on 07805 029254 to check a specific Sunday opening.