Black Dots - The Borders & Snowdonia, September 2016
The Lakeland bothies are not all that Northern England has to offer. The MBA network has also found it's way to the Pennines and the forests lining the England/Scotland border. I've wanted to check out these bothies for a while, as the landscapes they sit in vary from the locations I've been visiting lately. As a commercial job took me to the Lake District, it seemed like a good excuse to load the car up and extend my stay in the North...
From the Lakes, I drove further north to the border in search of Wainhope Bothy. This whole area is a maze of forestry commission roads, dead ends and miles upon miles of dense wood. Feeling optimistic I stopped off at a village stores to ask about the best place to leave my car. Sometimes it pays to be optimistic, as Steve, the gentleman who ran the store happened to also be the forest ranger, and offered to jump into my car and unlock all the gates so I could drive directly to the bothy to scout it out!
After a short while bouncing my car down the dusty forest tracks, the landscape flattened out, the trees departed and Wainhope Bothy came into view. Sitting in an open plain of long grasses and sheltered by a large tree, the vast Kielder Forest extended over the horizon behind. The noise of the car crunching through the stones only helped to accentuate the absolute silence of this location, as we strolled down the grassy path towards the bothy. As much as I love hiking, it was quite a luxury to be pushing open the bothy door after only leaving my car less than a minute away!
After a quick scout of the location, I dropped Steve back at the the shop. Parking at the edge of the forest, I packed my kit and set off on foot along the tracks, retracing the route I'd driven previously. Arriving back at Wainhope, I ditched my kit and began scouting locations from which to photograph the bothy. I decided I wanted to keep as much of the long grass in as possible, it made for an interesting foreground and contrasted well with the darker evergreens in the background. Thankfully, the main track sits slightly raised above the grasses, providing me with enough height to get a clean line of sight towards the bothy. I shuffled around in the dust leaving small piles of stones at various points I deemed to be possible shoot-points.
The weather had been on my side so far, with a light breeze and cloudy skies. As evening drew closer, I spied a gap in the clouds just above the horizon to the South West; "if that stays put", I thought, "the sun's gonna pop out below that, and the lights going to look sweet!". It did exactly that, and as is the case most of the time, the hours of waiting culminated in a frantic few minutes taking light readings and fumbling with dark slides. I made my final image just as the sun began to drop below the horizon. The rays retreated from the grasses and the forest sunk into shadow.
The bothy remained empty, and with the light dropping I settled in for a night alone at Wainhope. Given the location, there were plenty of dry logs to keep the fire stoked throughout the night and I spent my evening in front of the flames breaking up wood for future visitors and listening to the Kielder wildlife.
The following morning, I sat and watched the mist creep through the forest at the end of the track as the sun broke over the tips of the spruce trees. The waist-high grasses around the bothy were now twinkling with fresh beads of morning dew; the silence only briefly interrupted by the spits and bubbles of my Jetboil. After making some images of the interior of Wainhope, I gathered my gear and set off back along the forest tracks towards the car, keen to check out another bothy nearby; Kershopehead.
In order to reach Kershopehead from my location, I had to head North, crossing the border into Scotland before following country lanes South back into England again. The car-park at Kershope Bridge actually lies within Scotland, but the walk to the bothy (over the bridge) starts in England. Back on the forest tracks again beside Kershope Burn, you remain in England until you reach the bothy - however any left turn you take over the burn greets you with a "Welcome to Scotland" sign! I opted not to stay at Kershopehead, but spent some time exploring the area and reading the visitors book. It's a decent sized bothy, with views of the forest in all directions. There's even a timber framed bed upstairs, and a room reserved for owls! I was eager to make it to the Pennies the next day, so headed back and drove to a quiet spot - spending the night in the back of the car.
Cross Fell (Greg's Hut)
Greg's Hut is the highest bothy in the MBA network. At 700m above sea level, this remote and exposed shelter is battered by the elements on all sides and accessed by a track which in reality seems to be more knee-deep bog than anything else. For me however, the terrain here feels very similar to that of my home-landscape of North Dartmoor. I'm all too familiar with ankle-rolling grass tussocks, gaiter-defeating mires and tracks that disappear and re-appear without warning.
Crossing the open flat section of mire to the North West of the Cross Fell summit, the bothy comes into view. Greg's Hut sits on the well trodden Pennine Way and is a welcome retreat on a particularly lengthy stretch of the trail. With the evening drawing closer and the wind building, I attempt to set up the 5x4 and bag a couple of shots outside the bothy; there's a single tree in a dry-stone enclosure, bending and buckling in the wind which made for an interesting shot. As night time approached, the weather closed in and I climbed into my sleeping bag, drifting off to the sound of raindrops tapping on the roof tiles.
After my morning bothy-coffee, I set out early to capture Greg's Hut in the morning light. Strong gusts of wind and the soft ground made setting up my shot difficult, but hanging my pack from the tripod was enough to keep the camera steady. Intermittent banks of mist closed in over the fells, resulting in short bursts of clarity in which I had to try and swiftly focus the camera. After firing off a few slides, I spent an hour or so cutting up some old bog wood and stacking it next to the fire before hiking back to the car.
Penrhos Isaf - Snowdonia
On the long drive back to Devon, I decided to stop off for a night at Penrhos Isaf bothy, just outside Dolgellau in the south of Snowdonia National Park. I'd already been to this bothy once before back in February 2016 but I've never been 100% happy with the images I made there, so I was glad of the opportunity to re-visit. Arriving at dusk, I walked through the woods towards the bothy which is only a short distance from the car. In the fading light, I noticed a flash of blue between the trees - a man, carrying a large bag of coal over his shoulders, followed obediently by his dog. I entered the bothy just behind him, and we began chatting as he loaded up the fire.
Trevor was homeless. He had left Liverpool several months ago with his dog, Roxy, to escape the uncertain chaos of the city in search of a quieter life in the forests of Wales. He managed to land a job at a local hotel, which pays him just enough money to keep his car on the road, in which he spends 4 nights a week. The other 3 are spent at Penrhos Isaf bothy. When he isn't at work, he can be found panning for gold in the rivers nearby. We spent the night in front of the fire, sharing stories and watching Roxy cheerfully play with a pinecone on the flag stones. "It's perfect!" he kept saying - "no helicopters, nobody bothering you. And you can see the stars! Look at all the stars!". Trevor's love for this bothy was clear, and despite his lack of money he still made sure that there was plenty of coal and firewood for anyone who came to stay.
In the morning before he left for the hotel, he agreed to sit for a portrait. I carried out a couple of chairs from the bothy and placed them on the grass outside. We sat and chatted as I set the camera up; "I don't mind having my picture taken" he said, "it's all a bit of a laugh isn't it!". If everybody had this attitude then this project would be so much easier! I fired off about four portraits, shuffling the chairs backwards each time to make sure the rays of sunlight continued to illuminate his face. We exchanged contact information, and he hurried off through the woods to start his shift with Roxy close behind (still carrying the pinecone..)
I suppose Trevor's use of the bothy is wildly different to that of your ordinary bothy-inhabitant. Although with that said, I'm yet to figure out exactly what that is! But at a time when all Trevor needs is some shelter for him and his dog, a fire to keep them warm and a star-filled sky to marvel at - Penrhos Isaf delivers, and I'm happy to see a bothy double up as a temporary sanctuary to somebody who needs it the most.