My previous trip to Cumbria was the first time shooting for the Black Dots project. I hadn’t visited a Bothy before either and didn’t really know what to expect, so I treated it as a scouting trip more than anything else. Knowing the locations better, the best routes to and from the Bothies and having a clearer idea of what direction I wanted to take the project, I made a second week-long trip up to The Lake District in October.
This time, my good friend and fellow photographer Andy Ford accompanied me to shoot behind the scenes images and to provide some proper Cornish motivation. Check out his website here, or give him a follow on Instagram. The forecast looked pretty bleak for the first couple of days, so we braced ourselves for a traditional Cumbrian welcome as we pitched our tents in Buttermere.
Waking up to the distinctive sound of rain tapping on the tent roof is pretty therapeutic but certainly deters you from wanting to climb out of your cocoon. After an abysmal attempt at cooking breakfast for us both (I seem to remember screwing that up last time too) we set off for a days walk around Crummock Water to the North/North West of Buttermere. Crummock Water eventually takes you quite a distance away from where the two Bothies on Haystacks are located, despite the iconic silhouette of Fleetwith Pike and Haystacks permanently visible to the South. Admittedly, this walk probably takes me out of the acceptable "boundary" for Black Dots which I've enforced. That said, it's a great walk and a part of the Lakes I haven't hiked before so it seemed a shame to pass up the opportunity. The weather was awful anyway, which made shooting on the Large Format pretty impossible.
The walk was a bit of a drencher, but we hardly met any other hikers and there's nothing better than the feeling of having a place like this to yourself. We slowly picked our way across the boggy slopes beside the water, arriving back at the tents shortly before dusk. I took pleasure in introducing Andy to the ration pack; he was a chef in a former life and I'm fairly confident in saying this was the worst thing he'd eaten in a very long time. With our bellies full of what is essentially a lukewarm sludge, we clambered back into our tents.
The morning greeted us with fair weather; reasonably dry and hardly a breath of wind. We figured that this must be a rarity in the Lakes and so, after the obligitory morning struggle, we made our way up onto Haystacks to check out the Bothies. I followed the same route as my previous trip, as it offers the fastest assent up from Honister Pass and pretty much leads you directly to the Dubs Hut bothy. We would repeat this walk several times over the next few days. The first section of the walk would probably be quite enjoyable if you weren't lugging photographic equipment around with you, but it soon levels out and you're greeted with a breathtaking view over Haystacks and towards High Crag, High Stile and Red Pike in the distance. Dubs Hut sits slightly below the brow of the hill and as great as the location is, I still found it as uninspring as I did the first time. The second bothy, a short walk away, is much more spectacular and worth the extra legwork.
We sat for a while at Dubs Hut, watching the clouds break and reform over the surrounding fells. Waves of mist passed over the summits and taunted us with the prospect of a storm, only to break up and disperse. There was still hardly any wind, so I was keen to press on and make the most of it - it's so rare that you get to shoot large format this high up without a stuggle.
Continuing down the track towards Haystacks, you're blessed with a huge view looking down over Buttermere and Crummock Water where we were walking the previous day. I'd made an image of this view on my last trip, but the weather wasn't ideal and I'd picked a fairly uncomfortable vantage point. With the weather on my side, a soft quality of light and the clouds forming below the summits I set up the 5x4 and began framing up the first sheets of the trip.
We stayed in that spot for the remainder of the afternoon until the light began to fade. I shot a few sheets of film and was fairly confident with what I had, so began retracing our steps back along the track and down towards Honsiter. A succesful first trip into the fells and with plans to return the next day to spend the night in the mountain bothy, we were pretty fired up and looking forward to what the rest of the trip would bring.
There's something very primal about bothying; the idea of heading into the fells with only very basic essentials is quite poetic. Lack of phone signal adds to the sense of escapism associated with bothying, and after shaking the habit of constantly checking your phone only to be greeted with "no service". you find yourself able to appreciate your surroundings more. This part of the trip was focussed entirely around the Warnscale Head bothy, the idea being to arrive at dusk and to make some images at sunrise. I'd already calculated that on a clear morning, the rising sun should paint a hard line across the opposite fells. I'd already attempted this shot on my previous trip to the Lakes so knew roughly where I'd be setting up.
We spent the afternoon wandering up through Honister Pass, watching the early morning cloud rise over the fells. As the sun began to break through the clouds, we made our way up over the old mines and began the trek up to the top of Haystacks, bothy-bound.
Landscape photographers spend a lot of time sprinting across ankle-snapping terrain in order to chase the light. You can plan as much as you like but always allow room for the unexpected, and this was such a time. As we approached the top of the mine track, the sun began to dip behind the fell-line creating a stunning golden shaft of light which filled the valley. With no consideration of the weight of our packs, or the loose scree underfoot - we sprinted down the track, frantically adjusting the settings on our DSLRs. Although these trips are prioritised around Black Dots, I'm still eager to catch beautiful landscapes like this.
The sun set, and the colour began to fade from the sky - with only the very tops of the fells being kissed with a golden glow. We continued to make our way to the bothy, keen to get there before it got too dark.
Arriving at Warnscale, we found ourselves to be the only ones at the bothy. Entering through a small door, the bothy is dark - lit only by two small square windows. There is a small stone floor space, and three sleeping platforms raised off the ground and made of slate from the local mine. An adequately sized fireplace takes up one wall, with a couple of shelves containing a random selection of items left behind by previous inhabitants. The MBA have left a handful of old roll mats on the sleeping platforms and a couple of camping chairs, and there's an assortment of cooking utensils hanging from a wooden beam - I wouldn't want to cook with any of these but they give the bothy character at least. We got the fire lit and began cooking our dinners - accompanied by some South West Ales which Andy had lovingly hauled up the hillside. I also found time to fill in the visitors book, it's always pretty interesting to read about peoples experiences in the bothy - and good to see so many people making the most of it!
When we'd finished our food and the fire was roaring, we headed outside to see how clear the night sky was. We were presented with a near perfect night sky, a blanket of stars framed by silhouettes of the surrounding fells. I'm fortunate enough to live in a rural location anyway, but I'm rarely blessed with a view like this. And as if the Lakes hadn't impressed us enough already, we watched in awe as the Northern Lights gave us an incredible show over Buttermere. We were the only people on the fells, and it felt like a private show - waves of light danced in front of us as we frantically attempted to take as many photos as possible. As quickly as they appeared, they were gone again and the fells echoed with our cheers and childish shouts of excitement! Climbing back into our sleeping bags, we sat and listened to the crack of the fire, occasionally chuckling to ourselves about what had just happened. Definitely a night that neither of us will ever forget.
The following morning, we got up before sunrise so I could set up the 5x4 to make a few frames of the Bothy. The fire was still smouldering as we had kept it going throughout the night; small plumes of smoke puffed from the chimney and out into the cold air. I instructed Andy to stay in the Bothy and not to "ruin my shot" - he did as he was told! I was in position on a bank of heather behind the bothy, anxiously waiting to see if the light would do as I'd predicted. As the minutes ticked by, I was relieved to see the line of light appear on the opposite fell. I shot a few sheets of film - and happy with what I'd shot, I sat in the heather and watched the sunrise over the Lakes. I also gave Andy permission to leave the bothy...
We hiked out of the bothy and retraced our steps back the way we came the evening before. As our trip neared the end, I spent the remainder of the time on the shores of Buttermere shooting a couple more sheets of film. This was potentially the last trip to The Lake District for Black Dots, and it really did not disappoint.