Work > Photography > Journey Through the British Isles

Journey Through the British Isles.

It’s Wednesday and here I am in the woods, with song thrushes, blackbirds and robins all around me, there are flies humming through the hazel branches and a fragmented light is moving fractionally over the ground as the breeze slips through the bright leaves above. It’s 5.00 o’clock; sort of tea-time, but I’m not bothered by that, or all that is usually inferred by 5pm. There is nothing else I should be doing. There is nothing more important now than to write, precisely and watch these ants crawl over the damp leaves around the base of my tripod, listen to the birds and look at what it is like to be right here in the late afternoon”

May 24th Forest of Dean

I am a photographer and my job is to bring it all down to no longer than a fifteenth of a second. Since I was seventeen I having been working in the landscape of the British Isles. I have had many trips; with days of preparation, hours of waiting, moving and thinking, and in the end it all comes down to the moment that I press the shutter and expose the film. The result has always been a series of individual moments of fairly precise engagement with the landscape. The nature of the game has been to reach as deep as you can into the world in front of you and return; it’s a sort of hunt if you like, there's a start and a finish. It's a raid.  

So what happens when you extend this approach, give it the shape of a journey, and allow the process of engaging with the landscape to become a thread, with no perceived breaks,where the thrill of taking one picture extends into the process of making the next. The preparation for such a journey is important and involves a state of mind that I enjoy. I put maps up on the wall, made notes about places that I wanted to visit, …..all with a keen sense of what the place might look like when I was there. It was not so much to do with the history of the place but rather the coming together of the time and place where the weather and time of day were as important as the location on the map. I soon began to see that the only way to achieve this kind of work was to stay put in one place for as long as such a journey round the British Isles would allow. This was to be no tour…not a road trip in the true sense of the word, but rather a series of episodes that allowed for a richer response to the land around me. I needed to slow it all down. I needed to take my biggest tripod, the big camera, and all equipment to store these large sheets of film. I needed my van, a trailer to take a few big canvas tents, wooden benches and a set of trestle tables. I needed to create a fundamental base to each place I camped so the people might come and join me to discuss the place we were in. I needed to bring my family.

I had my eye on a circular journey from the beginning and I photocopied a series of maps of the British Isles that fitted neatly on a sheet of A4. Some had complicated routes in thin pencil that darted from one county to the next; stuttering, impossible journeys that left no room for the process to unfold. I can see clearly now the map that we ended up with on the wall and that we talked about many evenings through the summer; it was a simple, slightly imperfect circle, and done with the imprecision of a large marker pen. It started right up north in Shetland and then down through the west Coast of Scotland, Wales, Cornwall through the South of England and up the east, crossing over itself somewhere south of the Scottish border and then out somewhere in the western Isles.(SHOW THE DRAWING HERE?) Of course the line was wrong, but the nature of it was right. Throughout the journey I was often confused by the important process of studying a map; the exact pin point of where a picture was taken was somehow at odds with the fluid approach of how I got there. This single line of the journey, a flick of the wrist, complete but imprecise and born out of some frustration I dare say, soon became the key to what we were doing; a talisman that we would refer to many times through the summer.

I was clear that I should start in Shetland and travel south to meet the warmth of the spring. The far north in the month of March was not going to warm my families spirits to the nature of a 6 month trip so I was to spend the first month alone and meet them on the north east coast of England in late April.

I started therefore on the Island of Unst in Shetland to coincide with the spring equinox and it was cold beyond anything I had imagined possible in the British Isles. The ground became a fragile and brittle skin beneath the scale and drama of snow storms from the north west and I was only given intermittent glimpses of a white and rolling landscape as the clouds cleared. As those dark, leaden clouds broke up they revealed skies of an intensely fresh blue that I had never noticed before and I began to take notice of the possibilities of the task ahead of me. The journey soon became a kind of quest.  

There is a state of mind achieved when taking a photograph with the big camera that is both calming and euphoric, where the camera’s literal approach begins to extend the possibilities of being transported somehow…carried away. It became like a drug and I soon was obsessed with the idea of burning this candle through the summer and keeping alight some sort of fire that had ignited itself during one of those cold, rosy dawns on Shetland.

To begin with, as I travelled through Scotland it was all about the majesty of the land and the weather; these were sweeps of land of immense presence, views kept at arms length and it was only later in late May, as the warmth stirred the earth that I began to take photographs where I felt the camera became part of the landscape. One morning I walked up a hill behind Lochinver at dawn to find a view of Suilven, an unreal looking mountain to the south east. It has a shape that dominates any view; you can’t take your eyes off it and I was looking for a foreground that rose to the foothills gently. When I got to the top the light was flat but the view was astounding. There was a small valley below with a burn rushing from right to left. On the other side the ground rose steeply through some greenery and then into heather and rocky ground where it undulated gently like a sea of brown velvet, up and away from me till it reached the base of Suilven itself. I went back for the big camera and spent the afternoon watching the cloud thicken from the west and shape the light on the hills.

As the sun broke through below the cloud before sunset the land lit up like a furnace. The heather at this time of year has the same colours as the Torridonian sandstone; a sort of majestic browny purple that responds to any warm light by appearing to glow with a light from within. I took two photographs of Suilven and then looked to the north where a shower was passing over the loch below. I put the 10x8 in place and exposed the next three sheets in five minutes. It was a view over a small loch with the landscape stretching way out to the north east with Quinag in the distance; its peaks cloaked in rain cloud. Some landscape photographs that I take are about being wrapped in a scene; about being a part of it, where the camera is almost the centre of it all. This was not happening here; the clouds, the loch, the trees, the mountains and the sunshine were all part of some fabulous togetherness.

I was a long way away watching a short moment in a grand world. I packed up as it got dark and then walked back through the trees to the car. It's a good time to walk; the rhythm of your pace, the comfortable weight of the camera and tripod, and the mind taken over by what you've just seen.

I then moved south into Torridon where the ground is as ancient as it comes. The Torridonian sandstones are sedimentary deposits lain down in waters some thousand million years ago on top of Lewisian Gneiss, a volcanic rock that had been there for about the same amount of time. It's clear for anyone to see the turmoil that has been going on since; faults, thrusts and folds in the rock where such enormous amounts of time have turned the rocks upside down, and year upon year of erosion has left a land that is shaped by some extraordinary force of which we can barely imagine.

But through the glen one day floated a quality of light that was so delicate and transient that you felt somehow part of that unfathomable history. It had been changeable weather, with bright sunshine between rich grey clouds of sleet and snow. The cloud rose up from behind the mountains to the north and then spilled over their shoulders in to the glen; great soft fingers of mist and rain that seemed to caress the rocky hillsides. It was a powerful world, full of grandeur and the precision of light and I found as central a position in the glen and watched it all go off around me.

In the western Isles it was very different; overcast with some dense clouds, rain and a strong wind from the west that got the waves going white and streaky. There were three tones around; the glow through the clouds above, the rich emerald grey of the sea with its silvery sheen and the soft greys of the land of the Uists, North and South. The simplicity of it. I was down from those magnificent hills and out into the Atlantic where it was damp, fresh and sharp where the air felt like it had come right out of the water. There was nothing crisp here; not like in the mountains, with those frosts, frozen puddles and everything cold to touch. This all had salt in it and felt thick and rich and required a different approach to taking the pictures. I had to deal with the sea spray now, with moisture on the lens in the morning, hands that won't dry...and sand.

When a place begins to reveal itself to you it can come quite slowly. It starts as a response to some central low key hum from the land and then grows wider until you realise that it fits into the frame of the camera. Sometimes it’s a question of setting up the camera right there and I usually find some stone or piece of string to mark the spot while I get the big camera. More often however there's a bit of dance to find exactly the right place to put the tripod.

You would think that this was mostly dictated by the composition of the picture; but this is not the case. I remember the beginning of Carlos Castaneda's Teachings of Don Juan (not my era of enlightenment) where he is made to pace around uncomfortably looking for the 'place' where he feels comfortable; where he is at one with himself and the place around him. Something akin to this happens with the plate camera.

Almost always the camera and I find ourselves on some slight ledge, a gentle lift in the land that might just be saying ' here's good, have a look from here'. Or is it perhaps that over thousands of years people have been drawn to witness this place from the same spot and there has grown a deep relationship between view, viewer and place. It is certainly what I feel is going on sometimes...where the uniqueness of what you are experiencing is the realisation of the moment and the deep sense of being in landscape.

As the warm weather came in May we stopped in the corner of a field on the banks of the river Tees where the water flows fast over slippery limestone with a steep cliff on one side and thick woodland on the other.

We were amongst bluebells and wild garlic where the sunshine was filtered through pale sycamore leaves and alders and the wood smoke from the fire bedded itself deep into all our clothes. The photographic journey was always as much about times of year and times of day as it was about the specific locations throughout the country - and that week we saw the most spectacular coming together of all the three.

The dawns were warm and glowing with shafts of light through the trees. Mid morning provided soft shadows on the sandy paths and twisted trunks by the riverside. In the evenings the air became thicker with moisture from the river showing off the magnificent wholeness of an oak tree, a sycamore and a particular beech by the river bank. I spent my evenings moving between these three trees with the camera watching the light soften and round their shapes, provide depth and blend them into the background of the thick woodland behind. The nights were dominated by the growing moon that was full the night we left. It rose behind the cliff on the opposite bank, throwing the alder and sycamore branches above us into wonderful twisted silhouettes with a shimmering reflection like black glass on the boiling water behind. The hot weather began to alter our experience of time and, together with the separateness of the field, we all felt a mixture of being detached from the outside world, but also thoroughly engaged with the place around us.

We camped in a field again when we got to Cornwall. It was high above the main road from Helston to Penzance and on a gentle breeze from the south you could hear the far away burr of traffic... but it was far enough away to be pleasant. There was much sunshine and the sea showed us all the variety of blue it could muster; blue pink dawns, pale bright whites at midday and deep rich evenings. I travelled a bit to take pictures but the best came within easy reach. We saw basking sharks in the Helford River, humming bird hawk moths beside the Camel, and speckled woods on the lanes and pathways, peregrines, swifts, slugs and mullet. But to me the experience I will most remember was walking between two fields from Logan's Rock at dusk on the south coast. The path becomes a deep sandy lane cut into the land by years of use with high banks on either side. It was sunken world; cool, dry, dark and separate from both the earlier heat of the day and the glowing twilight above. Five bats flicked around me; whirring up into the cool air, then skimming over the hedgerow and down into dark of the lane between the banks of grasses and foxgloves. Me and the bats.

Such moments are extraordinarily unto themselves; they have a completeness, a totality that allows them to be expressed so clearly, they swing quickly to the front of the mind when called. And they carry a strong sense of place; a coming together of time and place. That lane belonged to that shoulder of rock in South West Cornwall, and the dust I scuffed rose from the ground, the air that lingered in the hedgerows that evening was as part of it all, as were the stars above us and the camera on my shoulder.

The journey is often defined by its opposites and the implication of the range within; night and day, north and south, fresh water and the sea, traveling and staying still. On the first day in Shetland the brightness of the sunshine had a clarity made more intense by the thick snow clouds and squalls that followed. In Wales I knew that the lush secluded world beside the Mawdach River was even more beautiful because that morning I had seen the vastness of the forest from the mountain above. The end of a day only intensifies the dawn that is to follow.

Such range is familiar to us as the year moves through the seasons. We know what it’s like when the temperature is -5 and the wind chill takes it beyond, a warm day in July where the temperature is 75 is a very different day to when it hits 85. Through the day the swinging combinations of temperature, humidity and the very look of the thing from the angle of the sun, throw up these reassurances of where and how we are. During the summer the temperature reached extraordinary record levels in the South of England and I was on the cliffs at Beachy Head on the South Downs as the highest temperature for 100 years was being recorded only 25 miles away. It was astonishingly hot of course, but what remember most about that hottest hour soon after midday was the completely unfamiliar nature of the sky over the sea; the clouds were expanding rapidly from small cumulus and the colour of blue sky had an intensity that belied the hazy nature of the day and the whole thing was moving with a speed that I had never seen before. It was not what I knew…it was an exception, out of the realm of everything that I was working on. It belonged elsewhere.

One warm evening in early July, we went to look for a fish to catch and padded along the river banks talking quietly until the light had gone and we felt our way back with our hands on the grasses. I came back to the spot with the camera before anyone was awake the next morning and there was absolute stillness over the water meadows. There was red in the light as the sun rose and it caught the tops of the tall curling grasses and reeds beside a small brook that leads into the Candover river . It was all so clear, so unique; such a beginning that the sense of prospect was embodied in the light itself. This was the start of a day.

I pushed through the soft mud of the reed beds and set up the camera in cold knee deep water looking upstream through thin mist. It was a moment of intense tranquility, when you wish the camera could do more and drink in the whole morning; gently play back those quiet, liquid sounds of the birds moving in the willows and put out the rich blended scent of the stirred up bog and crushed leaves of spear mint.

When I came to photograph the river Wey in Surrey it was more difficult than I imagined. It’s a wide meadow down beside the river, full of waving grasses, surrounded by oak woods and it filled with a low level mist through the night that was cool relief from the heat of the day. It is a simple beautiful, field, hidden from the business of Surrey’s network of roads and pathways and I grew up here.

I learnt to fish in the deep pools, catching dace, grayling and perch. I built campfires with my Dad here and learnt to canoe downriver to meet friends in the village. It has always been the starting place for me, where the world begins; the river coming from somewhere up there, flowing through the field in one great meander and heading off down that way to bigger places that seem quite unimportant. The path down through the wood is where I conquered my deep fear of the dark, it's where I first drank and smoked, where I took my first photographs, and where my father's spirit abounds. I love this field more than I could describe.

To apply the photographic approach that I had been searching for on this journey was not easy. I found myself pointing the camera at familiar spaces, and then began to doubt the relevance to the pictures I had taken so far. However as I began to dig deeper I began to feel that I was perhaps close to finding a kind of Key; a sort of secret born out of the quest that I had been on for the last months. I took pictures in the river, and amongst the long grass and in the dappled light under the alders, but the most evocative pictures were at dawn as the mist swelled out from the river and cooled over the couple of hundred yards towards the wood. It sat low over the meadow's flatness and moved from one end to the other like the field was being gently tilted. The mist built up in the stillness, seeping into and over the trees and then, just as the camera was set up and ready, I looked up and it had moved back into the open and was drifting imperceptibly across the field, dragging across the grasses towards the oaks beside the river.

On through the South Downs I built on these moments of magical clarity, with consistent soft dawns that grew quickly into days of flamed July where we idled in the shade of canvas through the middle of the day. We crossed the Thames with a glance at the metropolis before out to the east and the tidal expanses of north Norfolk. I am familiar with this landscape and I had wanted one picture that could show the power of the twice daily flood of tide over saltmarsh. Through the journey I had begun to concentrate on the effect of the bigger forces of nature on the more intricate elements of landscape, and here, when the big spring tide begins to flood, there are moments when you are aware of the full weight of the North sea behind the waves that roll over the bar, push through the gap and out over the mudflats of purslane and samphire.

The final leg was up through the spine of England as the air cooled and sweetened towards autumn. I began to round up my thoughts and look at the ways I could bring this journey to a close with ideas of warm fires and shelter…a sort of homecoming. But when we had drawn on that first map with thick marker pen, the final kick of the line had passed through the Isle of Skye. Throughout the journey I had many discussions about the rich opportunity of feelings available when immersed in British Landscape, and Loch Coruisk on Skye always talked of with a deep reverance. Of all the places I have visited it is the most of another world; within yet also apart. Surrounded by the mighty Cuillins and accessible only on foot or by boat, you arrive at the grand place with a sense that you have only just started. It’s all just begun…the slate has been wiped clean…all is well. Such refreshment of spirit is the domain of great landscape. It has been as thorough and rich a journey as I could have asked for...I look at the photographs that are spread out in front of me as we prepare this book and see that not one of them was taken idly...this was the real thing.

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