Interview with photographer Matilda Temperley
PUBLISHED: 09:58 29 June 2016 | UPDATED: 15:16 17 November 2016
Photographer Matilda Temperley recalls a magical childhood roaming on the Somerset Levels
It is early spring at Pass Vale Farm in South Somerset: a season of pruning, distilling and lambing. Photographer Matilda Temperley has been ‘elbow deep in a sheep’ in the early hours before breakfast. “The poor ewe was exhausted,” she says.
“We had one live lamb, and one dead one. This is real life.”
Life for Matilda began in 1981 at Pass Vale, a cider-producing farm at the foot of Burrow Hill, a famous Somerset mound that is crowned with a single sycamore tree.
Like many across Somerset, the farm had been producing cider for 150 years. Matilda’s father, Julian Temperley, took over as a sheep farmer in his 20s, before turning it into a flourishing cider-making business. Julian Temperley was the recipient of the first full UK licence to distil cider from HM Customs and set up the Somerset Cider Brandy company. More than 40 varieties of vintage cider apples – Kingston Black, Brown Snout, Stoke Red - are now grown on the farm.
For more than three decades, the Temperley family has been making an annual pilgrimage to Glastonbury Festival on their ‘Somerset Cider Bus’, which is parked near the Pyramid Stage and serves hot spiced cider from a metal cauldron and traditional farmhouse cider from wooden barrels.
Matilda’s childhood with her three siblings - Alice, Mary and Henry - sounds like one of bucolic bliss: a picture-perfect farm with views that extend over the wide flat lands of the Somerset Levels as far as Glastonbury Tor. Around 300 sheep roam among acres of old apple trees; there were sheep dogs, peacocks, alpacas, pigs, old-fashioned tractors and a traditional horse and cart that Matilda’s mother, Diana, still drives to the shops. It was a magical, free time. “I spent my childhood roaming on the Somerset Levels,” Matilda says. “To me, it is a dream landscape of rhynes and meadows full of wildlife. I had what my parents’ friends describe as a feral childhood.”
Matilda attended a local Somerset school, then left the county to study biology at Edinburgh University, after which she completed an MSc in the control of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She worked for the London School in East Africa, but soon realised that she was professionally unfulfilled.
“I wanted to be master of my own destiny,” she says.
Matilda discovered that her passion lay in telling stories through images. “So I returned to the UK and built up my photographic skill-set in a London studio.”
Having gained a solid foundation in the techniques of photography, she then applied these skills to documentary photojournalism. Her work and contacts in East Africa eventually led her to Ethiopia, and specifically to the Lower Omo Valley, a wild, remote region where migrating peoples with a broad genetic and linguistic diversity have converged for thousands of years.
“I was simply amazed by the diversity of culture and similarly horrified by the changes taking place,” she says.
Her stunning, not-for-profit book, Omo – Change in the Valley, is the result of her affinity for the area, its peoples and the threats to their way of life.
Matilda has also assiduously documented a disastrous period on the Somerset Levels: the winter floods of 2013-14. She was working in Asia when her mother sent her photographs of the area under water.
“My 100-year-old grandfather had to be evacuated from his house in Thorney, which was under water for 62 days.”
She stayed at home, building up a collection of arresting black and white images of the flooding. Her first book, Under the Surface – Somerset Floods ensued. “It is a community story, with quotations from the people who were so affected. The floods of 2014 brought with them an extraordinary community uprising. Writer Joanna Eede and I are now working on a new book about Somerset, its landscape, people and culture – and looking for a publisher!”
It is clear that Matilda has a very strong connection to Somerset, its heritage, people, landscape and changing seasons.
“From spring to autumn there’s nowhere else I would rather be. But I’m not overly keen on winter!
“I have come to appreciate that this is a privileged way to live, so I no longer try to replicate it. Somerset keeps me very grounded. I can never spend more than three weeks in a city before going back to Burrow Hill.”