Rallynuts Severn Valley Stages 2024

After going to the Dukeries Rally with Owen earlier in the year, I was keen to get to a “proper” forest rally – and the next one scheduled was the Rally Nuts Severn Valley Stages, in Mid Wales – a round of the British Rally Championship. Even better, it was just after I had bought my Fuji X-H2S, so it would be a perfect opportunity to put it through its paces. My dad was also keen to watch a rally, so a plan was hatched.

As an early start was needed to catch the cars on the first loop of stages, I stayed at my parent’s house for the night so we could make a quick getaway. Usually I would relish an early morning blast across to Wales, but due to logistics we ended up going in the van. It was still a decent drive though, and we stopped for bacon sandwiches as a second breakfast, shortly after crossing the Welsh border. First we went to Sweet Lamb, as it seemed that it would be the easiest stage to get to and park at. It felt strange being somewhere that I have seen so much on television, it always looked like a cold place on television, and the reality matched that. As we waited in the spectator area low clouds drifted over, occasionally clearing. We would hear the cars coming before we saw them coming down the hill, round a corner, through the water splash, over a jump, then round a couple of hairpins and across the finish line. Whilst it was great watching the cars, we were stating to get cold as the last classes of cars were coming through. So we decided that we would watch the afternoon loop from the Myherin stage – via a third breakfast at the cafe in Devil’s Bridge.

By the time we arrived to Myherin, and had parked up on the side of the fireroad, and walked up to the viewing area, the sun had come out. I am not sure if it was the weather, or the better location, in the forest, but spectating at Myherin was one of my favourite motorsport experiences. Seeing the cars drifting through the back-to-back right angled, right hand corners and hearing them continue down the stage was exactly what I imagined rally spectating to be. The classic Escorts were mostly sideways (predictably), but it was also impressive seeing the top drivers in their modern four wheel drive machinery being millimetre perfect on the apex of the corner. There was also a Mitsubishi Evo VI who just brushed the large rock on the apex of the first corner, to gasps from the crowd – caught perfectly with the 20FPS of the X-H2S. However, my favourite car of the day was the classic 911 driven by Seb Perez (photo at the top of the post), it was good to see the mix of classic and more modern machinery on the rally. Also of note was that Jos Verstappen, ex-F1 driver, and father of current F1 world champion Max Verstappen, was taking part in his first gravel rally.

It was a good first test for the X-H2S, paired with my Fuji XF 50-140mm lens, the autofocus locked onto the cars, with the car subject detect mode activated. And the 20FPS shutter ensured that I could select the prime frame in Lightroom when I got home. I felt like a came home with way more keepers that I would have done had I been shooting with my old Fuji X-T2.

Spectating at a gravel rally in a Welsh forest really lived up to the hype, it was defiantly worth the early start, the long day in the van and spending the morning on a cold Welsh hillside. Seeing the cars sideways on the gravel, especially at close quarters was such a great experience. It was also nice to spend the whole day just with my dad, something that we do not manage to do enough.

Ox Stones – Throwback Thursday

Last August I went on a Peak District photography workshop, with James Grant. I had a great day, and took some images I was really happy with. The only problem was that it was only a few days before we left for our summer road trip, so I did not get round to processing the photos. Fast forward to the present day, and I am arranging a bike ride with Partho, and I notice that we would be passing close to the Ox Stones, which reminded me about the unprocessed photos in my Lightroom catalog, and I processed them.

The portrait version was my first composition, and I think it is my favourite of the two, despite the sky in the landscape shot being better. In the landscape composition I had tried to use the clumps of heather as a leading line, but I feel the foreground works better on the portrait shot, with the nicer light on the heather. Hopefully I will be able to share a few more processed photos from the workshop soon.

Wales with Owen

A few weeks ago Owen and I finally made it to Bike Park Wales, we have been wanting to go for ages, but various things had got in the way. We came close to going last year, we had passes and a hotel booked, but then Owen had to go to hospital. Earlier in the year we won a competition, on the Little Rippers Facebook group, for a “parent and child pass” at Bike Park Wales, which is a new offer which makes it cheaper to ride there with kids. One of the dates coincided with an Orange Bikes event, also in South Wales, so a plan was formed.

Owen and I drove down the afternoon before, taking a detour to Porthcawl for fish and chips, and some photophotography/playing on the beach. The fish and chips from Beales were good and we enjoyed exploring the seafront. I got a couple of good photos. Owen had play on the beach, but unfortunately he missed out on his favourite seaside activity, as the arcades did not take contactless and I had left my wallet in the van. We stayed at the Premier Inn at Caerphilly, ready to hit Mountain View Bike Park in the morning.

After a fairly restrained visit to the breakfast buffet, we drove the short distance to the Orange Gathering at Mountain View Bike Park. We got there early, before the event started, and hit the pumptrack after signing on. Owen managed about three laps before ending up on the floor. Not the start we wanted, especially as we still had the main event later in the day. We thought it best to leave the pumptrack and explore the trails, the short green loop went well, so we added on the “8 ball” blue trail, which was a bit rougher. Owen seemed to be struggling, he was not feeling 100%, but I could also tell that he had not been riding his bike much. He should have been fine on the trail, he has ridden worse, but his confidence was knocked. Fortunately, after a rest, and a look at the Orange bikes back at the event, a session on the skills area, practising drop offs, helped, and Owen rode really well on the “Twister” blue trail, which to me felt harder than “8 ball”. As we climbed back up to the start we noticed another trail, alongside the huge jump lines that looked fun. It was the “Jamming” red trail, and after another family told us that it was fun, we decided to give it a try. Owen loved it! We did another lap of “Twister” and “Jamming”, then went back to the event for pizza before the short drive to Bike Park Wales.

I was not sure what to expect at the Orange Gathering, but must admit that I came away slightly underwhelmed. I had hoped that they would have some merch on sale, but it just seemed like they had their demo fleet to test and I definitely do not need another Orange bike! The new, made in the UK, MsIsle hardtail looked great though. And seeing the bikes in different colours has made me rethink my plans for the Clockwork Evo, which I was going to get powder coated in “Norlando Grey” to match my Four. Now I think I will go for a brighter colour. There did not seem to need too many other Orange riders at the bike park, but maybe the afternoon was busier. However, I was really impressed with Mountain View Bike Park, the trails were compact, but well maintained and the cafe/bike shop were nice. If we were ever in South Wales again I would call in for an afternoon. I thought that it would be an ideal place to break the journey if we went to Bluestone again.

As good as Mountain View Bike Park was, we were both excited for our afternoon at Bike Park Wales. As we arrived we saw people parking on the approach road, but decided to risk driving up nearer to the car park, hoping to find a space, which we did. We also got checked in quickly, I guess most people had been there since the park opened at 10:00. The deck outside office/cafe/shop was buzzing with people, it reminded me of spring days at a European ski resort. The food looked good too, but we had already eaten and we were there to ride!

We took the green trail down to the uplift pick up point, which was further away from the cafe etc than I had expected. There was a push/climb to get to the uplift too, which was also unexpected. I was pleasantly surprised that despite it being a sunny, sold-out, day, we got straight onto an uplift bus without waiting. The system they have in place is very efficient. The uplift seemed to go on forever, much longer than at 417 Bike Park, which is my only previous experience. From the top of the uplift there was also a short, fairly flat, pedal to get to the trailhead.

We chose the green-graded “Kermit” trail for our first descent, as it is the easiest trail in the bike park, but also one of the longest. After dropping in we had the trail to ourselves. It started off twisting between lines, then there was a traverse out in the open, with scenic(?) views over Merthyr Tydfil. With a few more curves before a sneaky short uphill section which spat us out at the terrace. As unwelcome as the sudden climb was, it showed how much thought had gone into the park, as it slows the riders right down before joining a busy area.

We rode straight back to the uplift pickup for another lap, discussing which trails we would ride, settling on “Melted Welly” into “Roller Disco” into “Blue Belle”, all blue-graded flow trails. As we were about to drop in, Owen said that he was not feeling well and that he did not want to do another lap after this one, which as disappointing, but not surprising as he had not seemed himself all day. We enjoyed our second run down the hill, well maybe not the surprise climb on “Melted Welly”, but the downhill bits were great. It was a shame that we had to leave after only two runs, but Bike Park Wales was even better than I had expected, and I had very high expectations! I am sure that we will be back there later in the year to do some more runs!

New Camera – Fuji X-H2S

After trying a Fuji X-H2S last year, it was inevitable that I would end up buying one, I just was not expecting it to be so quickly… After buying a XF 50-140mm lens last year I was mostly happy with the performance upgrade over my old telephoto lens and was enjoying photography. Thoughts of upgrading my camera had been pushed to the back of my mind. When Owen was frustrated with the performance of “his” camera at the Dukeries Rally, I started looking at options for either a cheap Fuji body to use with my old telephoto lens, or even a Canon lens to use with my very old Canon Eos 20D body, an upgrade for me was not on the radar. However, the more I looked the more I realised that there was not really such a thing as “a cheap Fuji body”, and then that my X-T2 was probably the best of the “cheaper” Fuji bodies, and that I would be as well upgrading my body and letting Owen use the X-T2, but the idea was filed away for later in the year.

Then over the Easter holidays we visited Leeds Castle in Kent, and I figured it was as good a time as any to let Owen try the X-T2, to keep things simple for him I fitted the FUJINON XF35mmF1.4 fixed lens, whilst I used my X100V. Not only did Owen absolutely love it, he was careful with the camera and took some good photos. My plan would work. When we had guests round over the Easter weekend, rather than taking photos myself, I handed Owen the X-T2 and put him in charge of photos, once again he did a great job, capturing some lovely photos of his cousin. He had proven himself, but a camera purchase still was not on the cards.

What tipped me over the edge was learning that the price of the X-H2S was going to increase by £500 from April the first. Now I had three reasons to buy the camera, on their own better autofocus performance for shooting action sports, being able to have a spare camera for Owen or avoiding a £500 price increase would not have been enough to get me to buy the camera, but all three together was a compelling case. The only catch was that it was Easter Sunday, and the price rise was the next day. Usually I would buy from London Camera Exchange in Leamington Spa, as they have always provided good service, and I feel it is important to support bricks and mortar camera stores, but I had to settle for ordering from LCE online.

The camera arrived in the middle of a busy week at work, so I did not have much opportunity to try it out and work my way through the multitude of settings, although Owen and I did get out for a brief, muddy, walk on Coundon Wedge, where I took the photo above (of course Owen had the X-T2). From a photography perspective it was not the most productive, but it was nice to get out with Owen.

It was not until the weekend that I got to really try the camera out properly, and even then it was only a quick walk around the War Memorial Park, whilst Jen did Parkrun. I only had about thirty minutes, so did not want to waste time switching lenses, so fitted the 50-140mm and went to see what I could find in the park. First I found squirrels, and being park squirrels they were used to humans, so even with a relatively short lens, I was able to get close enough to them for some decent photos. More importantly it was a good opportunity to experiment with the animal detection autofocus, which worked really well.

Over the next few days I was able to take photos of the boys at Junior Parkrun, and also Henry at Cycle Speedway. In both cases the improved autofocus over my X-T2 was noticeable, and I was pleased with the photos. After each time using the camera I continued to tweak the settings to my liking, which I feel will be an ongoing process. I may also have made a mistake setting up the custom modes too early, as now if I want to change something globally on the camera, I then need to change it eight times, once as the default, then once again for each of the seven custom modes. I have got a busy few months ahead, and will have plenty of opportunities to put the X-H2S through its paces, so hopefully there will be more photos appearing on this blog soon.

I Won a Photography Challenge

Most months I enter some informal photography challenges, mainly to force me out of my comfort zone and encourage me to do some photography. And last month I won one! The theme was “Backlit”, and as we were able to use old images, I knew the backlit jogger I took on the War Memorial Park Sunrise Photo Walk last year.

It is only a bit of fun, with the prize being to set the theme of the next challenge, and judge it, but it is nice to see one of my favourite photos getting some recognition from a third party.

Dukeries Rally With Owen

One of my goals for 2024 was to photograph a rally, ideally one in a forest. The Dukeries Rally, was not in a forest, it was a single venue tarmac rally at Donington Park, but it was a good opportunity to get some practice in. It was also an ideal rally to take Owen to, as it is fairly local and at a venue with good facilities, rather than in the middle of a muddy Welsh forest. I was not sure if he would want to join me, but was pleased with his excitement when I suggested it to him. As such the day was more about Owen’s first rally experience, rather than a pure photography mission, but we both managed to get some shots we were happy with.

We had a later start than normal, which was a good move, as it meant that we avoided the morning rain, and timed it perfectly to arrive at the Craner Curves viewing area just as stage three (of six) was starting. During the stage with worked our was up from the Craner Curves to the end of the start/finish straight stopping at various points to photograph the cars. As the last few cars were completing the stage, we went back under the track, and got an ice cream whilst waiting for the crossing to Redgate to open (the cars were entering the track next to the hospitality units at Redgate), as Owen had spotted the grandstand and wanted to watch from there. Which worked for me, as I wanted to see the part of the stage on the large asphalt area behind Redgate.

As stage four started, we watched the first few cars on the coned area behind Redgate, but with high fences it was not really ideal for photography, although it was good to be close to the cars as they accelerated away from a slow corner. From there we climbed up into the grandstand, which gave us a good view of most of the circuit, so we watched most of the stage from there. I spotted a gap in the fence which would give a nice view down the Craner Curves, so we went there next. I think it would be a good angle on a busier race weekend, as you would be able to see cars all the way from Hollywood corner almost all of the way to MacLeans. We did not have the cars for that shot, but the light played nicely, highlighting the cars that were there.

As the stage layout was being reconfigured for the fifth and sixth stages, there was going to be a long gap before any more cars came out, so we decided to call it a day after two stages. Owen really enjoyed himself, but struggled a bit with the shutter lag on the camera he was using, my old Canon S90 compact camera. Worryingly I think it might be time to have (another!) camera upgrade, as he is really enjoying photography at the moment, and has already outgrown my old camera.

Henry’s Fifth Birthday

Today was Henry’s fifth birthday – one that he has been excited about for a long time. I think the planning for his birthday party started last summer! He is really developing his own personality, which is completely different to Owen! Henry loves princesses and Barbie, but also bikes and cars. He likes dressing to impress, be that dresses or dungarees. Since he started school in September, his reading and writing has come on leaps and bounds. That first year of school is amazing!

We actually had his party at the weekend, and I think it lived up to Henry’s expectations! There was a bouncy castle, dressing up, a soft play pirate ship and Henry’s choice of music, which is surprisingly good for a five-year-old! He seems to have chosen a really nice group of friends, and it was a good opportunity to meet them, and their parents. Henry’s cousin Sienna, who is eighteen months old, also came to the party and loved it. After the party, we had a small “after party” at home with Jen’s family.

Unfortunately for Henry, he had to go to school today, but we had a small family gathering at home after school, with one of Jen’s homemade chocolate cakes. I had the day off work, so I managed to sneak off for a bike ride. Henry was a very lucky boy and got some great presents from his friends and family, although by far his favourite was the Princess Belle dress, that he is wearing in the photo at the top of this post. He saw it in the supermarket just before Christmas and has asked about it pretty much every day since. He also got the Orbea mountain bike that Owen has recently grown out of – Owen also got it for his fifth birthday, but it looks way too big for Henry at the moment. There is no rush for him to move on from his current bike, so we will see how he gets on.

Final Round of Racers Guild Winter Cup Series

I have enjoyed shooting the Racers Guild Winter Cup Series downhill races at Stile Cop this winter, it is good to see grassroots downhill thriving in the Midlands. This is just a quick post to share a few of my favourite images from the final round in February. Somehow the Racers Guild managed to arrange for good weather, which has been rare so far this winter. I got to Stile Cop during the practice session, so took the opportunity to shoot something a bit different to my usual race images. I used my little Fuji X100V camera to do some slow-shutter-speed panning shots. I really should have put a wider lens onto my main camera, but it was a nice change to use the little camera for some action photography. I managed to get a few good shots, but the one above, of Fletcher Gallagher, was my favourite. Especially after I had converted it to black and white. I feel like it captures the speed and madness of downhill racing.

For the first race runs, I chose a rooty section, which seemed to be where most of the riders were gathering after their runs, it was a great atmosphere, but the light was not ideal for photography.

When there was a gap i the racing, after a crash, I walked up the track to a better view point and stayed there for the rest of the race.

I have thoroughly enjoyed shooting the winter cup series, and am already looking forward to the next races planned at Stile Cop.

Top Five from 2023

The PistonHeads.com Photography Forum had a thread to share your favourite photos from the previous year, in this case, 2023. As it is usually your “top five” photos, I chose five and also decided to share them on my blog, as I have done in previous years.

This was my favourite photo of Henry, taken when we were in Peebles on our Summer Road Trip. Owen had not been feeling very well and did not want to go out, so I took Henry for a walk to the park. The colours on this rocket worked well with Henry’s t-shirt.

I could not have a favourite photo of Henry without one of Owen too. I took this one at a friend’s barbeque in the summer, whilstt is not technically perfect, I liked how the colours of the bubbles work with Owen’s shirt and draw your eye through the image.

I do not do much “street” photography, but enjoyed the Coventry Photography Meetup group photo walk at the War Memorial Park. This was the only photo I was happy with from the morning, but I am still really happy with it and it made it worth it. Even the 5:30 alarm!

Another photo from our summer road trip, this time from our final stop in Saltburn-by-the-Sea. As we were finishing up our dinner, I could tell that it was going to be a good sunset, so I rushed back to the flat we were staying in, grabbed my camera kit and headed back down to the beach. This was my favourite photo from that evening – and I took a lot! It was almost totally dark by this point, but that meant I could use a long shutter speed to blur the sea.

I managed to shoot more mountain biking last year, including three downhill races at Stile Cop, this was my pick of the images that I shot at the most recent race, in December. It was the first outing for my Fujinon XF 50-140mm f2.8 lens, and it was a good job I had it, as my old lens would have really struggled in the woods on a rainy December afternoon. Of all the shots I got during the race, this was my favourite, you can tell that the rider is fast, and their red kt stands out from the dull background.

Bike Check – Owen’s Vitus Nucleus 24

Owen has outgrown his trusty Orbea MX-20, at least it has lasted two and a half years, unlike his previous bikes which only lasted twelve and five months respectively. Owen got the Orbea for his fifth birthday, so Henry should be upgrading to it soon.

We wanted a hardtail for Owen’s next bike, and I got a good deal on this Vitus, which is the smaller version of the bike I started my MTB journey with, in 2014. I swapped on Owen’s SDG saddle and pedals but figured that the bars that came fitted to the Vitus would fit him. I also moved his mudguard and bottle cage across. I did try to set up the Maxxis Snyper tyres tubeless, but they did not hold air, so I have left the tubes in. Owen was excited to have Maxxis tyre, like me and Brandon Semenuk, mostly Brandon Semenuk though. The tyres are not particularly grippy either, so we will likely swap them to the classic Minon DHF and DHRII combo, which I run on my Four. Hopefully, we will be able to set them up tubeless. The other main upgrade we have planned, once Owen has done some growing, is to fit a dropper post. We will also have to see how the Clarke brakes and Box drivetrain fare, I usually only fit Shimano.

Owen got the bike for Christmas but has only been on a few rides so far, as he needs to take it easy for a few months. We had a good ride at Hicks Lodge on New Year’s Day, and he seems to be getting on well with it – including conquering his fear of riding up kerbs. We are looking forward to more bike adventures later in the year.