Seventy miles is an unarguably long distance to cover photographically, however this is what I agreed to complete when I received a commission to write a book regarding the Cumbria Way track back in the summer of 2004. My brief for the images to be captured for the project were that they would achieve photographic justice of every nook and cranny of the popular long distance route, and the splendor to be found in the National Park and surrounding areas of Cumbria encountered en route. In addition, the commission stressed that every season of the year should be covered, producing a true representation of the walk for the reader intending to hike the track at any time of the year, which entailed that I would be required to revisit the track – on numerous occasions!
Logistically this produced various difficulties. By the nature of the book, the only way to capture the images was by reaching the locations on foot. This often dictated the carriage of all of my normal hiking and camping equipment, as well as the carriage of heavy photography gear including my trusty tripod – a piece of equipment that I feel is as important as the camera itself, with over 99% of the images captured for this project being produced utilizing it. The actual cameras to be used were an assortment of digital and traditional film equipment.
At the point of receiving the commission, I was totally dedicated to traditional film capture and the decision to make the step of using digital equipment was not one that I took lightly. There were obvious benefits with digital capture such as the eradication of film and processing costs, but there were also concerns regarding battery life, image storage and the final reproduction quality of the images. I finally bit the bullet, and purchased a Canon 10D digital SLR (with a whopping resolution of 6mp) and soon discovered that by shooting RAW files I was able to produce an image that would easily match the quality required for this kind of publication.
With the advent of using digital equipment, I decided to abandon the traditional 35mm format and to concentrate my film captures to medium format equipment. Again, the weight of my rucksack meant that I could not physically carry a medium format SLR alongside my digital gear, so I opted to use a rangefinder camera. The panoramic images for the book were to be captured on a Hassleblad X-Pan, a unique camera hardly bigger than a 35mm SLR, capable of producing true panoramic images. Towards the end of the project, I upgraded my film equipment to a Mamiya 7II, a truly remarkably lightweight 6x7cm medium format rangefinder camera, although I still found myself mainly using the digital gear. However, in turn digital is somewhat of a double edge sword, and I found myself having to spend an immense amount of time editing and processing the files, which is not entirely surprising if you consider the actual amount of images captured digitally for the book exceeded over 1700 photographs.
But as is so often true with landscape and general outdoors photography, the choice of equipment is irrelevant without suitable subject matter. Thankfully, the route I was to cover had an abundance of photographic highlights. The Cumbria Way track meanders some seventy miles from the market town of Ulverston in the southern Lake District peninsulas, to the thriving historic Cumbrian capital of Carlisle found in the north. The ‘Way’ must be considered as one of the finest walks to be found in the British Isles although it is not designated an official long distance route. The reasoning for this was the complexity of creating an official route such as The Pennine Way, Britain’s first in 1965, and the length of time involved to make a new long distance track a reality.
The Ramblers’ Association formed a route which was to allow the walker to fully immerse themselves in the spectacular and picturesque landscape to be encountered in the county, by devising the Cumbria Way long distance route. By planning a route that used existing rights of way and small country lanes, they were able to avoid legal red tape and quickly introduce the walk that we know today. The route predominately follows many of the tranquil valleys found in the Lakes with a couple of high and exposed mountain passes.
My initial attempt to walk the track coincided with a typical display of British weather. High winds, torrential rain and poor visibility resulted in me having to abandon the trip after only 3 days – this project was evidently going to be difficult! I quickly returned to the lakes with my long suffering partner Lynette, to complete another other night stretch with the prospect of a night wild camping near Caldbeck common. Lynette, as ever, volunteered to carry the tent, food and cooker and still managed to find the energy to be a model when I need images of people hiking the track. Apart from a grotesque onslaught of biting midges on the moors, the trip was highly productive and the project was back on track. Now it was time to walk the complete length of the Cumbria Way.
We returned in the late October of 2004. By this point my 10D had been replaced by the 20D and I was excited to explore the capabilities of this new body. We completed the track in nine days and for once the weather was mainly on our side. We started the track in Ulverston and headed towards the tiny settlement of Gawthwaite and the Lake District National Park boundary. From here the route heads towards Coniston. We wild camped near Beacon Tarn before reaching Coniston and then spent another night there to allow me to capture more images. Moving on we passed Tarn Hows before reaching Skelwith Bridge and another night in the tent. From there we had the prospect of a more arduous day, as the route continued through the langdale valley and traversed Stake Pass and descended down to the picturesque Langstrath Valley and our campsite for the night.
The weather had turned by the time we finally reached the small national trust campsite in Stonethwaite. As we struggled to erect our tent in the torrential rain and escalating gale force winds, we both knew that this had all the hallmarks of being a somewhat unpleasant night in the tent. As the wind speeds increased our tent was being subjected to yet more and more stress. In the morning, when thankfully the winds had declined and we were greeted by blue skies, we discovered that our tent had actually ripped in a couple of places and that a pole was looking a little bit worse for ware. However, this was not a time to ponder on the logistics of a somewhat unstable tent as we had an important task to complete. We were now half way through the track although we still had to traverse the highest mountain pass, and for that we both knew that we would need exceptional weather.
The way now continued through Borrowdale and began to follow the banks of Derwentwater before reaching the town of Keswick and the next overnight stop. Upon reaching Keswick, we decided to spend another day there to help us recharge our batteries. I didn’t have to worry about the digital batteries though – they were still going strong.
The last couple of days on the track were the hardest although at least the weather conditions were impeccable! Our last night on the track we decided to stay at a rustic mountain hut atop Lingy Hill, a night shared with a far too friendly mouse! After a night of broken sleep, we completed the remaining seventeen miles to Carlisle, through the sleepy village of Caldbeck continuing to loosely follow the course of the river Caldrew.
The next twelve months consisted of many more trips to the track, both solo and accompanied by Lynette and other enduring volunteers! Cumbria became a second home for both of us, as I continued to capture the features of the Cumbria Way track throughout the seasons. By the end of November 2005, I finally completed the project, ironically with an early morning shoot at Carlisle Castle at the very end of the Cumbria Way track and another display of extraordinary Cumbrian weather!
The Cumbria Way was released by Zymurgy Publishing in July, 2006.