A Megatrip!? A mega trip to finish off an amazing photography commission over a mega year, or maybe it was just to finish me off! Just as my energy and emotional levels were near total empty after a year of single minded endeavour cycle touring round the UK making virtual tours and photography of the amazing Wildlife Trusts Living Landscapes my lovely wife tells me she has found a new job, staving off the threat of redundancy, yay. In Russia! Yay? Yes, of course. It’s great she has a new exciting job, in a great new place, totally exciting, and a relief after the threat of redundancy. The only slight hitch was they needed her in Russia within the month! OK. I’ll finish up my photography, pack up the house, arrange it’s sale, say goodbyes to friends, start learning Russian and make travel arrangement for me and the dog then! A solid month of planning, organising, preparation and angst filled our next month as we sorted out the move and planned a final month of travel round the UK for me. I guess it was great fun and looking back at how well we worked together without falling out once is a testament to our amazing relationship. But then she was gone, my love, gone four time zones away!
So I was off on tour round the whole UK for forty continuous days. I need to be honest and say I was fed up at this point. The commission was amazing, and working with so many brilliant people from the Wildlife Trusts was treat after treat. They have so much knowledge, passion and commitment to not just conservation for the sake of it, but to the bigger picture taking in people and business as well as the furry and slippery critters of moors, woods and seas. But I was exhausted from a year of cycling 40-80miles every other day on a folding bike with a 30kg trailer of camping kit and another 10kg of camera gear on the bike. Worn out by wild-camping with it’s highs and lows. I was exhausted from the sheer creative drive that pushed me to make some of the best landscape photography that I feel I have ever made, often working 18hour days waiting for light or cloud, frequently waking in the night to rise and capture light pollution or moonlit panoramas, then rise again a few hours later to cycle again. And deeply lonely from a year by myself in a tent, away from loved ones and friends. Twitter was a saviour and I will be forever in the debt of those who tweeted me messages of support *1 when I lost the plot which I was doing an increasingly large amount. I felt overpowered by these feelings, and every day became a struggle of energy and motivation, great job or not. But, I had said I would complete the job to a group of people at The Wildlife Trusts who work hard every day of their lives to make all our lives a bit richer and hopeful for the future. There was no way I was going to let them down.
So yes, a mega trip. Starting in Scotland on Eigg, up to the North West Highlands, down to Cumbernauld, down the west side of England taking in the Isle of Man, round the south coast and back up the east side of England. 16 locations to photograph, over 40days, two weeks at home to finish packing the house, party my goodbyes and then head to Russia to join the greatest love of my life.
Now even I know when I am beat, and there was no way I was cycling in Scotland in winter, and public transport was not practical to link my locations, 24hours by train and bus to get from Mallaig to Ullapool, I think not. I’ll say it quickly, I used the car.
The sun shone, the roads were clear of cars and snow so 350miles in a Smart car wasn’t too bad, especially through the scenery to Mallaig to catch the evening ferry to Eigg. What better time to arrive on a Scottish island than on a golden evening? Now for some reason I thought the wild camping was still a good idea. After a year in a tent. With 14hour dark winter nights. In winter temperatures, although mild. That lasted exactly one night, it was too much, too long staring at a dark tent wall. I was on the phone the next morning to my lovely kind client to let her know I needed to retreat to a hotel for the remaining nights once I left Eigg (no hotels there)! “Not a problem.” I could have hugged her!
Eigg is, well, just Eigg. It’s a wild Scottish Island with rough terrain and wild Scots. Sheltering my second evening in the communal waiting room I was invited to join a group of islanders celebrating Stewarts birthday. OK, I don’t know Stewart, but why not! Seemingly we drank a lot of whiskey, I can’t remember, but I do remember the scramble up An Sgurr at 6am the next day as being not so much fun. The Scottish Highlands and Islands are one extreme of the Wildlife Trusts Living Landscapes. It’s not the carefully delineated conservation areas as are found in England, it is people living as part of the landscape and taking responsibility for it as part of their daily lives. Both extremes and everything in-between have to work, and the effectiveness of the Living Landscape vision across such diverse landscapes and conservation areas impressed me a lot.
The North West Highlands
A ferry ride and long drive took me up into the far north west of the Scottish Highlands to the Assynt area. A quick iPad search got me a hotel in Ullapool and after a coffee and chat with Viv from The Scottish Wildlife Trust all I had to do was find 4 locations in 600sq km to photograph over two days! The skies stayed blue, the weather fine, locations just jumped off the map at me with the highlight being an evening trip and scramble up Stac Pollaidh to make a couple of panoramas from it’s jagged spires. Tired or not, every moment making photographs in that beautiful golden frosted rock place overlooking the green and blue landscape in ear ringing silence is etched into my mind. My camera and tripod ended up a little etched too from the rough rock during the scrambles to the summits!
Sadly my trip to Cumbernauld was not so sunny, in fact it chucked it down. Absolutely pelted it down, soaking me to the skin in about half an hour. I don’t want to stereotype, but Cumbernauld has a bad reputation for a few reasons. Like most places, if you look below the surface and the media veneer, you can often find fascinating and beautiful things. And Cumbernauld is no exception. Travel around for a bit and you will notice lots of little bits of woodland poking out through the blocks of grey flats. Amazingly these little bits of wood are often linked together and you can walk for ages through the old woodlands enjoying the wildlife and chatting to friendly locals who are out walking and cycling in their quiet place. How could it rain?
This commission has been an interesting personal and creative journey, shaving me down to nothing and re-building me in so many ways. I started the year making panoramas that were classical landscape photography, all golden light, interesting foregrounds, perfect skies. But the landscape isn’t like that, it is so much more. Rain, snow, mist, sunshine, blue skies, grey skies, foregrounds of rocks, grass, litter, concrete. I began to totally reject the classical landscape approach, trying to let each place and it’s mood seep into me and reflect that in my photographs. With a brief to capture the UK’s Living Landscapes through the seasons then my client was happy to have a range of photographs.
But some places just need a little golden light, not rain, to bring their best parts to view, and Cumbernauld is one of them! I enjoyed my foray there, and one of the great things about virtual tours is that you can embed extra information so I hope that will tell more of the story of the conservation efforts there.
I headed home for a few days to ditch the car, see my wife who had come back from Russia for the weekend but thanks to Heathrow’s total incompetence during a little snow her flight sat on the runway for about 7 hours so she was only home for about 8 hours rather than a weekend. So really I just picked up my bike before heading out again.
First stop in England was to meet up with Chris from Lancs, Manchester and North Merseyside Wildlife Trusts to tour round some of the quiet and subtle bogs of Lancashire. It was still rainy and grey, but the soft colours of the mossy bogs, heather, pine trees, and open peat extraction sites, their black peat (which will soon be restored) topped with fresh snow made for some lovely panoramas.
Isle of Man
A night time sailing with the Steam Packet company landed me on Manx at 6 in the morning, but Duncan, the Chief Exec of Manx Wildlife Trust, came to pick me up, take me for breakfast before driving me round the island that was larger and hillier than I anticipated. Oh my poor legs for the next few days as I cycled round. It is not surprising that Mark Cavendish’s legs are so strong. Coast, moors, bog, wetlands. Manx has it all requiring a pretty broad conservation knowledge to tie it all together. And it has wallabies too! It was great to visit the isle for personal reasons too. My uncle has raced motorbike sidecars there for many years, and it was fascinating to ride the TT course on my bike, to pass the famous corner that his house is named after, and more than anything else to be chatting to locals. When I mentioned my uncle to them to see their faces light up at his name. I think they all have petrol for blood there!
My journey rolled on, hotels stopped feeling like a luxury and more like dull routine, especially as the weather improved and I felt like I had copped out. But at least i had regular wifi and my iPad so I could FaceTime with my wife in Russia. It’s amazing how much more personal a video call is over a voice call, and I think we both took a lot of comfort from the calls.
The Churnet Valley and River Severn
In Staffordshire I spent a couple of days at the industrially historic Churnet Valley with it’s steep wooded valleys, down through Gloucestershire whilst exploring the River Severn where the sun finally came out for a beautiful evening of photography by the river with a soundtrack of some of the loveliest bell ringing I have heard. The River Severn, being such a big and threatened river, is a major area of conservation effort by a few Trusts, so it was interesting to visit it in lots of different locations and see the work that is being done.
The kindness of RSWT staff was another of my saviours. When I arrived in Oxfordshire to photograph the Upper Thames Living Landscape, Lisa from the BBOWT took one look at me and decided that she would put me up in her house, feed me up and see I was generally well looked after. Lisa, like so many I met, you have no idea how your kindness supported me and kept me going.
The work done at locations like Chimney Meadows near Lechlade by people like Lisa in such heavily urbanised and farmed landscapes is the other extreme of Living Landscapes. Over-used and over-populated with many disparate voices talking about what is best for the land makes for a very different conservation effort from the Scottish Living Landscapes where I started. To restore the land, to win the trust and support of local people and businesses is as much a work of generations as the work done in wild Scotland. Complexity made brilliant!
Nutfield Marshes in Surrey is another heavily used and populated area of land. Bordered by Redhill, a major arterial railway and the M25 means the pressure on this small space of land is intense. Clear and honest communication seems to have been a major influencer here in the success achieved judging by the pride of locals in the area and the variety of birds noisily going about their life. The Inn on the Pond pub has become a hub for nature walks and activities, with tasty food and cold beer to refresh participants after. The burgers were awesome and I totally blew my food budget by eating and drinking there at every opportunity. It was also interesting to see how a housing developer worked as a partner to create a wildlife friendly wetland housing estate on the edge of the marsh.
I cycled up into central London from there to a hotel in Elephant & Castle. “South of the river! Interesting!” were my wife’s comments when I told her where my hotel was. When I found my hotel I did nearly phone to cancel thinking I could find a chain hotel north of the river that might feel a little more, erm, well, boring probably! Anyway, the welcome was genuine and I was well looked after with a hearty breakfast of finest fried fare every morning, so it was just fine in the end. Snob that I am!
London’s wild gardens were my subject for this location, in particular the Centre for Wildlife Gardening, a colourful and compact community garden tucked away in a small residential street. I went to the David Hockney exhibition one evening, but whether it was the art or me, I just wasn’t getting his new work. It was great to see some of his older photomontages though as I think they are brilliant.
Personally I was about broken at this point. Exhausted. Lonely. And I’d picked up some man flu somewhere which I just couldn’t shake. It was taking me all my remaining willpower to keep going, to not quit. I just longed to be at home with my wife. Safe. Quiet. Not driven. Not overpowered by an urge to photograph so many fascinating places. I didn’t even have the energy to tweet anymore. Body and senses both were just overwhelmed, shredded, saturated. I felt ill and cried a lot.
Onwards to Rayleigh in Essex to another of the little gems of wild space that provides essential living space to both people and nature. Sometimes even simple locations can be deceptive looking and I spent a full day photographing before I realised I had got all the photographs there totally wrong. Wrong theme, wrong subjects. Format card, start again! A chance encounter with some of the Essex Wildlife Trusts keen volunteers undertaking forestry work made for a lively panorama, and then into an area of cleared and coppiced woodland criss-crossed by busy paths produced another lively panorama of many people at play in the conservation area.
Onwards into Suffolk to meet my friend Steve from Suffolk Trust who had looked after me in the past to have a tour round Stour Valley woods. A mix of old and new woods, the previously intensively farmed edges of the wood are being allowed to naturally re-seed, and are doing so with a vigour and density of seedlings that is simple un-believable. It looked more like a tree nursery than a naturally wild wood.
Onwards to the West Cambridgeshire Hundreds where the woods are being linked through and round intensive farmland to create natural corridors for wildlife to move through from area to area.
Enough! Just 4 locations left, but enough. I could barely walk, all I did was cycle and photograph and I didn’t even have energy for that any more. Broken, empty. I just stopped and went home. The sun shone, life went on around me, I was simply totally empty. It was terrifying. Home, what an odd concept then, our house packed up, my wife thousands of miles away, no energy to visit friends, I couldn’t speak to my family as I didn’t want them to know how completely broken I was. I’ve never quit anything, ever, in my life. I slept, made some arrangements for travel, slept some more. Three months on writing this, and I’m in tears remembering the fear and the total emptiness.
Onwards, I slept for days until I could find the energy to drive down to Lincolnshire for the day to photograph the fens and coast. I can hardly remember the day, the photographs came out sunny and fine, but all I know is I went and as the sun went down and my shutter clicked for the last time, all I did was sit down on the ground and, well I just sat down, there was nothing else.
And so it finished. A year of cycling, wild camping, hotels, train travel, making panoramas at all times of day, working my creative vision into a thousand directions, fascination, wonder and drive as I met some of the most fascinating and committed conservationists and seeing the fruits of their work. Fruits evident in the shape, texture, feel and sounds of land, wildlife and people. And as for my complete emptiness. I do know that I would gladly do it again, that it was willingly given to be part of a project this special that preserves our natural world for future generations. Even if my work can have the smallest positive impact on a hopeful future for wildlife and people, then it will have been so worth it.
You can see all of my virtual tours on The Wildlife Trusts 360 site.
Postscript and some perspective
It’s taken me three months to feel human again. This wasn’t a life threatening illness or a violent attack upon my person. It was something I chose to do and would do again. But I broke myself physically, mentally and creatively and then kept going to complete this. I’ve read a lot, mostly fiction to escape, but an article by a musician about the complete creative exhaustion musicians feel after a tour or completing a studio album resonated. I’ve moved to Moscow, which is awesome, to live with my wife. That wasn’t easy, getting to know each other again after pretty much a year apart, but love is a pretty cool thing and a bit of faith in it is all that we needed to find each other again. I’ve finished computer work stitching and weaving the tours into a vision that matches what I felt and saw. My complete emptiness, all of me, emptied into a giant series of photographs and soundscapes. Nearly there.
*1 Twitter friends who held up a candle for me through miles and miles, so many thanks and hugs for your little tippety tappety fingers; @brucegreig01, @lyngomad, @breenster, @karenspix, @dougchinnery, @aw_photo_nottm, @susemcfarlane (my lady), @robhudsonphoto, @brad_photo (who puts my life turmoil in context), @penguinzoo, @stewyphoto, @rcnaturephotos, @holgaman, @scillywildlife, @katebellwood (my sis, for tweets, and sausage dinner), @midcenturylass, @churchgreenfoto, @adaynotwasted, @michael_kemp, @thepackhorse, @photoglyn, @timsmalley, @paularthurphoto, @alanhewittphoto
All the best, and worth a follow.