Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria were all counties I passed through. It was quite a range of regional identities to move through, and a very wide range of sleeping arrangements for this cycling photographer, from hotels to totally dodgy wildcamps!
There is not going to be much talk of cycling in this diary. I have become increasingly exhausted with all the travelling and photography for this year long commission, so I decided that I was going to take a step back and take things really easy. With short days and long nights I was able to rest pretty well and get some good long sleeps, when I could sleep. Just to add interest, The Sun newspaper were giving away free Lego that week, so it was my little quest that week to find a newsagent, then a ToysRUs or WhSmith to claim my free Lego. It felt pretty relaxing to eat at a decent time, play with some Lego in my tent, read for a bit, then be able to sleep till 6 or 7am then next morning. And the cycling through much of these very industrial and motorway covered landscapes would not be much fun, so the trains were welcome. It’s a shame that wildlife doesn’t have the option to travel by train for moving between green areas.
I started not far from home in Doncaster. Off the train and pedal into the town centre to get some food. I’m locking up my bike when a lady comes up to me and asks me if I expect to find my bike there when I get back! Great, quick shop then. And my bike was still there. It made the tone of the area feel rough straight away, and as I cycled through industrial estates, large roads and intersections and a myriad of railway lines I wondered what I would find at the Potterric Carr reserve. Sat there like a green and blue jewel in amongst all the concrete and tarmac grey, bordered on all sides by motorways and railways, with my arrival heralded by torrential rain, I found a myriad of pools, reeds, woodlands and hides. The sound recordings were pretty grim with all the road noise, but it was interesting to see a thriving reserve in this setting. And my campsite that night? A muddy ploughed field miles away to escape the rough industrial landscape. Euch!
I headed down to The Charnwood Forest near Loughborough next. I used to live not far from here and it was a surprise to find such a large hill, covered in old woodland rather than the flat arable land that I remembered from trips to Leicestershire. This contrast between car travel perception of the landscape and ‘reality’ was highlighted on this trip. Travelling by bike I usually manage to find lots of green areas to travel through. But in the car and on the train landscapes can often look just grey and industrial. This became even more apparent later in this trip in Merseyside. Huge motorways, but lots of green hidden away.
Charnwood Forest was a delight, with autumn golds in the grasses and leaves. Golden light galore. The wild forest contrasting with the massive granite quarry nearby that has shaped the landscape and the local economy. Katie from Leicestershire Wildlife Trust who showed me round works closely with the quarry company to ensure issues of conservation and quarrying are clearly understood on all sides and to ensure wildlife and the local communities can both continue to benefit from jobs and wild areas.
And I got to camp a nice grassy field at the back of a farm whose family also works closely with Leicestershire Wildlife Trust to manage land in the Charnwood Forest. Best of all, the farmers mum took pity on me and kept me plied with cake, hot tea and chat. Perfect.
Cheshire next, eventually. The train got stuck in the Peak District, so I was really late to meet Rich from Cheshire Wildlife Trust. Being late isn’t a problem as such, but with the early nights, finding a campsite after I have been shown round a location can be a problem at times, and it was a problem this time.
We had a good tour round The Mersey Washlands on the edge of Runcorn looking over the Mersey to Liverpool. The light was pretty good when we arrived, so I took the opportunity to make some photographs. A nice view from the top of the fort inspired visitor centre with me balanced on top of a railing to get a higher viewpoint for the 360 panorama. Then wait till it was pitch black to make a nighttime panorama of the Mersey at night with the lights of Runcorn and Liverpool twinkling in the distance. Another one of those green places surrounded on all sides by grey.
So, in the middle of a marsh, on the edge of the Mersey, about 1/2mile from the path over the marsh in the dark at midnight, surrounded on all sides by really deprived areas! Sometimes I wonder what I am doing. With no campsite to go to. Should I woos out and go to a hotel? I had no idea. I had to get myself out the marsh first, wading through long grass in the dark, trying to avoid all the deep hidden ditches. Getting closer to the path, where I have hidden my bike and trailer in the long grass, to be confronted by someone starts shining a torch at me. I ran scenarios in my head, extended my tripod legs to use it to protect myself in case of trouble. Turns out it’s just a young Liverpool lad out walking his dog. So, I sat and chatted to him for half an hour, talking about Shelley (the poet) and Siddhartha (Buddhism). Surreal or what? Still nowhere to camp, but I wasn’t really up for a hotel. Wildcamp then! I headed away from the path a bit and pitched my tent behind a tree. Too tired at that point to really care, I slept soundly for a while then woke in a panic realising where I was camped. I lay there for two hours terrified, every noise outside raising my heart rate and dropping even more adrenaline into my system. I honestly wondered about getting up and cycling around till dawn. However, I eventually decided I had already had some relaxed sleep, so I put my head back in my sleeping bag and went back to sleep till dawn. I was still an early rise for breakfast on a nearby picnic bench. I don’t know what all the fuss was about.
Well I do actually, it was a bloody stupid thing to wildcamp in an inner city area, so I promised myself a campsite the next night. First I had to photograph Gowy Meadows on the edge of the refinery between Runcorn and Chester. A shell suited scaly paying too much interest to my bike and camera gear meant that was a very quick photoshoot, before I headed to a campsite outside Chester. A shower, a safe campsite, hot running water. How I looked forward to it. How disappointed I was to find it closed to tents for the season. As were all the rest in the vicinity! I sat slumped on a bench for half an hour, simply too tired to have any real perspective or useful thoughts. Eventually I got my map out to find the Delamere Forest nearby which looked like a likely spot to hide a tent. It wasn’t perfect as there were lots of people about and lots of houses nearby, but it was better than the edge of the Mersey that’s for sure.
Wigan Flashes was next on my itinerary and I had no idea what to expect. I got off the train early on Sunday morning in the centre of Wigan to a litter and vomit covered post Saturday night urban scene. Cripes. I’ll say up front, that to counter this, the people of Wigan were so friendly with an amazing community spirit. Then on the Monday I even saw a group of school-kids out on a litter pick. First impressions and all that jazz.
Wigan Flashes itself is an old brownfield site and gravel quarry that has been managed to create a wild space that feels really wild with dense woodland, primordial looking pools full of waterfowl, heather covered heath, grassy meadows criss crossed with miles of paths that people used for walks, cycling, getting to work, fishing and even a boating lake. Right on the edge of town, it looked and felt like a success in every way, for both local people and wildlife. I look at places like that and feel nothing but respect for the initial vision to create a place like that, the hard work that went into implementing that vision and the ownership of local people who take ownership of it and prevent petty vandalism in their space. Bloody cool. And, I had a hotel room for the night. I think my perspectives are totally off now.
The flashes had been beautiful at sunset so I headed back first thing in the morning for another glorious sunrise with a sound track of waking birds then watched all the people on early morning dog walks then commuting to work over the reserve. Truly a Living Landscape.
Hotels are alright, but nothing beats a home cooked meal, so I headed up to Penrith to stay with my sister and her family. After living a quiet life in a tent, two young kids is quite a handful, but we had great fun playing before my sister did her very best to feed up a stick thin cyclist with plate after plate of tasty sausages and mash. And the odd beer from my brother in laws prime beer stash. I even got a lift down the road to Preston the next morning. Very relaxing and restful.
At Preston I was visiting the Brockholes reserve and Visitor Village. This is another place with strong vision, and the strength to make that vision a reality. Just off the M6, they aim to not only create a world class reserve in the former gravel quarry, but they have created a world class motorway services as their visitor centre. Sitting on a concrete and polystyrene pontoon in the middle of one of the lakes is their Visitor Village with beautiful buildings housing a cafe, shops and meeting/conference/wedding facilities and a carbon footprint that is one of the lowest in the UK for a visitor attraction. The reserve itself has been heavily reshaped from the gravel quarry to create wildlife friendly pools with heavily shaped (to look natural) edges to attract further species to the lake fringes. And these pools are just a short walk from the Visitor Village, so it’s easy to have a quick walk after a tasty lunch in the cafe, before getting back in your car to continue up or down the M6. Not a traditional wildlife reserve at all.
Not fancying a wild camp in such a rough area, I cycled off into the hills to find a campsite. After a long cycle and climb through biblical thunder and hail I arrived at the Longridge campsite which was still open and even had a swimming pool. All for £6.95 a night. And promptly broke down in tears. It was all just too much. The rough wild camps, the time away from home, the enormity of the commision, worrying about my wife who is left managing the house and trying to find a new job for herself. And whilst I had enjoyed my time with my sister and family, I often get by on these long trips by hardening my heart to my emotions and getting on with the job, but something as personal as seeing family broke down that hardness before catapulting me straight back into my other life. It is really too much sometimes. It took calls from my wife, encouraging tweets from all my friends on Twitter, and a message from my brother in law to come and collect me again if I wanted to perk me up again. There is no way on this earth I could do what I am doing without the support of those around me, and I am so thankful to you all.
The journey goes on and I moved from grim to cheerier as I moved from urban areas into the countryside of Morecambe Bay. David from Cumbria WT and I headed up onto the deeply folded limestone pavement of the Witherslack Hervey reserve. Wind shaped and deer nibbled stunted yew trees, a ground covering of wild juniper, views to Morecambe Bay and the Lakes. The urban reserves were deeply fascinating, but here was a place I could relax again. Despite the rain, I managed to make some delicious moody panoramas of the area. The only bad thing was having to portage my bike and 30kg trailer up and down a steep 500foot cliff to get onto the reserve as I didn’t fancy leaving it at the bottom. I guess I was just paranoid after days in town.
And so to the Lake District proper. Penrith first, to meet up with my lovely lady, then off to Blea Tarn south of Langdale to capture some classic Lakes photographs with a backdrop of the Langdales and golden moody autumn spotlights of light dancing over the landscape. The area around Blea Tarn is still in the early stages of management, and is more about managing and preserving what is already there, rather than the total reshaping that I saw in so many areas on this trip.
I am just so tired at this point, I love the work, but it is relentless and I am exhausted. I went the full gamut in every way on this trip. Reserves, conservation management, emotions, travel, places to stay, everything I saw and did was the full spectrum of possibilities. Both of my own and the work carried out by the Wildlife Trusts. And the last night I stayed with my parents near Penrith.