Famous witness to a unique rural way of life
For photographer Alfred Vowles, a Romany caravan was the perfect home and mobile studio as he travelled Exmoor capturing its rich life and customs, writes Tina Rowe.
He was a familiar figure to the farming and hunting communities from 1910 until after the Second World War, and published hundreds of sepia photographs that are now collectors' items, as well as a number of books.
The man who captured the evocative images we reproduce today is celebrated in a bi-annual photographic competition run by the Exmoor Society.
The 2013 contest is open for entries, and enthusiasts have until December 31 to capture their own images for submission. There are three categories in which photographers can base their submissions. These are: landscape, people at work and heritage.
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Vowles, born at Compton Bishop, near Cheddar, Somerset, in 1883, set up in his Romany caravan in Porlock in 1910, using it as his base until 1914. A keen follower of local hunts, he would often run ahead to capture action shots, as M J Scott reported in an article for the Exmoor Society Journal. Vowles' photographs show an active and sociable world, where hundreds turned out on foot for the hunt meet. He knew the images of picturesque Porlock and other communities would sell to the increasing numbers of tourists, but he was also creating an important archive for Exmoor itself.
During the First World War, Vowles served as an officer in the Middle East, and took his camera with him. In 1919 he published a book, Wanderings With a Camera in Mesopotamia, with 60 illustrations. Other publications included Stag Hunting on Exmoor and The Lorna Doone Country.
He was also a keen amateur archaeologist and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and in 1949 played a key role in repairing Tarr Steps which had been damaged by floods in 1944. Interestingly, the same iconic bridge was washed away in the storms and floods of the current winter, being repaired only recently.
After the war Vowles returned to the landscape he loved, and often travelled by motorcycle and sidecar. For some years he lived in Minehead, where he opened a photographic studio.
On VE Day, May 8 1945, he marked the momentous day in suitably patriotic style. He was out on Dunkery beacon, the highest spot on Exmoor, to raise the Union Jack at the exact moment that Prime Minister Winston Churchilll was broadcasting to the nation about its historic victory against all odds.
Jenny Gibson was the last winner of the photographic Alfred Vowles Competition with a picture of the stone entrance to a sheep "stell" or fold at Three Coombes Foot, one of half a dozen built in the 1880s by Scottish shepherds when that area began to be cultivated. She said: "They fascinate me. Each are in the middle of great bleak expanses of moor, and the form of this one is beautiful with a ring of beech trees."
The Exmoor Society is hoping others will find similar inspiration.The online entry form is available on the Society's website www.exmoorsociety.com