Wild camping has been something I have wanted to do for months, and a couple of weeks ago I finally got my chance. I have been a long time admirer of the photographer that goes the extra mile to get a shot. I like a photograph that has a story behind it, or maybe one that you look at and think to yourself what an amazing experience the photographer must have had to produce such a spectacular piece of work. Im also mindful that the photographer was committed to the location. He/she may have more time to get to know the immediate area but also you're stuck with what you get. If the weather in the neighbouring valley is much better than where you are you can't simply jump in the car and drive a couple of miles up the road. The car is probably an hours walk away, so you just have to look longingly at what was so near, yet so far, and make the best of what you have in front of you.
I may have had a near miss on the Wednesday night (the sky looked amazing near Keswick and Derwent Water) but I think I struck lucky on Thursday morning.
I started to plan wild camping around Easter. I regularly purchase 'The Great Outdoors' and 'Trail' magazines, which are both full of walks around the UK that have the potential for a wild camp along the way. I also discovered a couple of books by the talented Phoebe Smith. Her book 'Extreme Sleeps' is lighthearted, yet informative and packed with tails from her first and most memorable trips. Its also packed full of useful tips, things that may seem obvious but are often overlooked (I always carry suncream thanks to this book).
But its still not as simple as 'just buying a tent'. The amount of equipment on the market for wild camping is staggering! For example, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of sleeping bags. Tents come in all shapes and sizes and no matter how many reviews you read, you will rarely find two people recommending the same one. I found myself glued to outdoor shop websites for many a long night, trying to decide what to buy. I kept the budget tight, but I was mindful that you get what you pay for, and sleeping on a mountain isn't something you should do 'on the cheap'. Safety is important, and should really come first.
Im going to list some of the basic items I purchased. This may help a few but please don't take it as gospel. Its simply what I decided to go with. Ask anyone else and I'm sure they will say they prefer a different bag, tent or mat.
For my first time out I decided to head up to the Lake District, to the area around Ullswater. Its a fair way for me to travel but I had been working on a project that required 12 landscape photos from this region and I felt I was one short. The traffic on the way up almost persuaded me to change all my plans and head to my back up location in the Peak District, but I persevered and eventually at 5:30pm I parked the car in Patterdale.
Having carefully packed the rucksack with all of the essentials (throwing in an apple and some nuts for a snack along the way, and a boil in the bag pasta bolognaise for tea) I started to follow the path towards St.Sunday crag via Birks. I had never been this way before but wanted to pitch the tent somewhere I could get decent views across to the lake, and according to my basic but improving map reading skills, this looked perfect.
Now I'm not great at climbing or heights, so what takes the average human an hour to walk probably takes me 90minutes. But for once I wasn't in a rush. A lot of the time I rush to locations to get the shot, then get back to the car as fast as I can before it gets dark and dangerous. This time I was able to pace myself. The conditions for the evening didn't look promising but I had the morning to work with and the forecast for then was more favourable. I had chosen this particular night as the Met office had suggested it would be clear, calm and dry. Perfect conditions to ease myself into this new pastime of mine I thought. After all this trip was essentially about testing out my purchases, and hopefully bagging one shot for the project. Anything else would be a bonus.
Ten minutes walk from the car and the path started to climb, and from this point on I didn't see another person until 9am the next day. It was just me and the landscape. I felt like the luckiest man alive to have all this to myself (apart from a couple hundred sheep).
Now as I said earlier, I wasn't rushing because the conditions were not as expected. There seemed to be a lot of clouds around, and at high level, they seemed to be fast moving. Having found the perfect place to pitch the tent, on flat grass with shelter provided by some scattered boulders, I started to mooch around looking for potential compositions for sunset and the following morning. The tent only took 10 minutes to put up (I had practiced this once before in the back garden), the sleeping mat was inflated and the sleeping bag was removed from its compression sack. The sleeping bag had no doubt been handpacked by a robot. It was exhausting removing it from its state of tidy parcel into something I could sleep in, but after 5 minutes wrestling I had won. This didn't bode well for re-packing (as I found out the next morning).
By now the wind had really picked up, the clouds had thickened and were looking increasingly dark, I conceded that this evenings photography was cancelled and I should relax and enjoy nature, my evening meal and get an early night. The pasta dinner cooked within 8 minutes after which I retired to the tent.....just in time for the heavens to open. It rained and blew a gale for 3 hours until 1am. I didn't get much sleep....
I last remember checking my watch at 1am, the next thing I knew my alarm was going off and it was 4am. Everything was now perfectly still and totally, totally silent. I slowly unzipped the tent and what I saw took my breath away. The sight of the fells at dawn or just before sunrise is something everyone should experience at least once. I knew once the sun was up I would be busy for at least an hour so I decided to make myself a coffee and come round slowly. There was little point packing at this stage as the risk of burglary was 0% and anyway I wasn't planning to go too far.
Out came the camera... The rocks near the tent provided an interesting foreground and the soft, diffused light was just strong enough to provide light and shadow, that much needed contrast. It was whilst taking the shots at this location I started to notice the ray of light that was starting to form across the lake above Place Fell. It was time to move on. I quickly ran down the path in the direction of the car to a place where I could make the most of the lovely light. I wanted to position sunrise to my extreme right where I wouldn't need to worry too much about lens flare (I had forgotten to pack a lens cleaning cloth, a massive error on my part and my filters were misting up quickly due to the humidity).
The opening shot of this blog is what quickly followed. A 5 shot stitched panorama that has been cropped down to an aspect ratio of 3:1 (my favoured ratio for panos). Its hard to see the best of this photograph as a low resolution file, so you'll have to take my word for this....but the detail in the shadows that are held within the files of a Canon5D mark iii RAW file is staggering, especially for a camera approaching its 4th Birthday.
Happy with the wider landscape shots, I turned my attention to smaller details. Sunlight projected through broken clouds creating dappled light on the fellsides. I was watching as patch of light lit up a small copse of trees and then the little islands on Ullswater. One shaft of light started to trace its way along Patterdale Common. I looked ahead to see if it would be passing anything interesting as it approached. The little house at the foot of Hartsop Dodd was perfect. It would give the image a sense of scale, and ultimately its title 'Sun shines on the Righteous'. Incidentally can you see that tree halfway up the fell? If you compare its size to the size of the house that tree must be HUGE!
Time was passing far too quickly and I was conscious I had a day job to get back to. I made my way back to the tent and started to repack the rucksack. Everything I had bought had performed splendidly, but i still needed to get the sleeping bag back into its compression sack. It took 3 attempts, a lot of bad language and sweat but eventually I did it. I thought to myself how impractical this bit of kit will be in bad weather when I need to pack quickly. I was impressed with everything but the sleeping bag had failed me.
Now in hindsight the failure of the sleeping bag is entirely my fault. After I had got home and emptied the camping gear out to dry and air, I checked the Snugpak website intent on sending an angry email. However on the website there is a lovely, clear and well presented video showing you just how easily the sleeping bag can be formed back into a tight little bundle. I tried it, it took me about 30seconds to pack it. I wish I had had this knowledge 24 hours earlier. So to the makers of the Snugpak softie....your kit is amazing, sorry for all of the cursing aimed in your direction.
I packed up in glorious sunshine. The tent was still soaking from the rain of the night before but I knew it was only a matter of hours before I would be back home and I could dry everything on the washing line in the garden. Anything that doesn't like getting wet was put in a dry bag to protect it. I checked the area around my campsite to make sure I had left nothing behind and started the decent back to the car in good spirits, for after all I had done something I had wanted to for months.
The views on the return to the car were stunning. This area of Northern England was particularly hard hit by flooding in December, so it was brilliant to see how well and quickly it has bounced back. There is still some evidence of rebuilding and repair, but on the whole you would never know. The people and the welcome they extend is never faulting and the bacon sandwich from the shop next to the post office in Patterdale was the perfect reward for my morning hike.
I fell in love with Cumbria when I first visited with a camera in 2013. Now I feel like another level of enjoyment has been made available to me. This was all about an experience, with the photography coming second. There will be plenty more wild camps to come. I can sense an oncoming addiction and lets face it, I'm very unlikely to run out of potential camping spots.