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The Black Dots Film

I recently headed out to Warnscale Head bothy in the English Lake District with filmmaker Ryan Goff from Coldhouse Collective to film a short piece about the Black Dots project. The film will be shown at Somerset House alongside my work as part of the ZEISS Photo Awards and is currently is available to view online now on the Rab website.

The Black Dots Project is a film delving into the talented world of Nicholas JR White, where his wooden camera makes his photography a work of art. Exploring the British landscape, Nick can be seen documenting glimpses of the peculiarities and personalities behind bothies and the culture that coincides with them. Here, with baited breath and soggy feet Nick braces himself for a typical taste of Lake District weather, high up in Honister Slate Mine, Warnscale Head.

Press play to join Nicholas behind the scenes and experience what it's like to stay in a bothy...

Directed by Ryan Goff of Coldhouse Collective.

Black Dots - The Lake District, October 2015

 

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.

The 5x4 on the shores of Buttermere

The 5x4 on the shores of Buttermere

Black Dots - The Lake District, April 2015

 

Leaving Devon at midday on the Sunday, the 6.5 hour drive was pretty uneventful. As the panoramic view of the fells revealed itself over the M6  it was only a short journey via Keswick before I was on the winding roads beside Derwent Water. I've only ever visited the Lakes twice before; once on a climbing holiday with the family in 2008 and again on my own in 2010, so I am unfamiliar with the vast majority of the park.  I'm fortunate enough to live on Dartmoor National Park so have around 360 square miles of open land on my doorstep, but the Lakes are different. I guess it's the closest thing we have to "proper" mountains in England and as a result, everything feels absolutely massive! 

I arrived late, and spent my first night at the Langstrath Inn, Stonethwaite - a small country inn nestled in the Borrowdale Valley. It's a great little place tucked away at the end of a winding country lane with fantastic views of the surrounding fells. It's pretty much everything you'd expect from an inn in the Lakes. You can check out there website here

Fuelled by a decent nights sleep and a traditional Cumbrian breakfast feast, I made the short drive towards the village of Buttermere. The drive is spectacular and takes you through one of the treasures of the English landscape - Honiser Pass. The Pass is the location of the famous Honsiter Slate Mine, and traces of this mining history are strewn across the steep slopes either side of the road. I'd like to avoid this journal from becoming a holiday guidebook, so if you want to know more about the mine then please head over to the site, here. That said, I did attach a GoPro to the roof of the car and film the drive through the pass:

I made my way to a small campsite in Buttermere, which is overlooked by High Crag and High Stile. Despite the blue skies and sunshine, the weather report had warned of "snow & hail showers, risk of lightening" - welcome to Springtime in Cumbria. After pitching the tent and packing up my kit, I began my first trek towards Haystacks. Somewhere below Haystacks lies my first bothy, a tiny construction with a slate roof that looks like it can only take a small group of people at any time. From what I have seen from satellite imagery, it appears to be pretty well camouflaged; with its rear wall tucked right up against the fell. Locating a building constructed from rock, on the side of a huge rock covered with smaller rocks is always going to be difficult. I didn't have a full day so opted for a shorter trek up Scarth Gap Pass (on the right hand side of the below image). I thought that route would give me a great panoramic of Haystacks and would help me to try and locate the bothy, whilst also offering up some great opportunities to shoot a few frames of the pass.  

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Up to now the weather had held off, but as I explored Scarth Gap trying to spot the bothy on the adjacent fells the wind began to build and I spotted the first few flakes of snow landing on my jacket. No sign of the bothy, and the fells kept disappearing and emerging again through the waves of mist. I managed to find a sheltered spot to shoot a couple of frames for Black Dots on the 5x4 before making a hasty retreat down the trail and back to Buttermere. Shooting 5x4 in those sorts of conditions is pretty impossible when you're that  exposed and to be honest, huge stormy landscapes aren't what I'm looking for for this series.That didn't stop me taking a few shots on the digital on the way down though. A solid introduction to the Lake District and although the weather stopped play, I'm excited to finally have this project under way. 

I ended up spending the night in my car after the tent got flattened by wind - hopping around a rain drenched camping field in my thermals trying to find tent pegs wasn't my finest hour. I spent the first half of the morning drying everything out and trying to figure out the correct porridge-water ratio. I got it wrong. 

The weather had calmed down by mid morning, so decided to walk in a similar(ish) direction as yesterday on the lookout for the popular Warnscale Head bothy (approx. 5km from Buttermere village as the crow flies). Again, I wasn't too bothered about finding it as the project is as much about the journeys through the landscape as it is about the buildings themselves. Following the marked bridleways around the lake via Burtness Wood offers some great views and is a pretty easy going walk for those who don't fancy tackling anything too strenuous.

Passing the base of Fleetwith Pike you're greeted with the infamous White Cross which serves as a reminder to all that the fells can be as deadly as they are beautiful. 

The following is taken from the National Trust website:

"The white cross on the side of Fleetwith Pike and overlooking Buttermere marks the sad story of Fanny Mercer. Fanny was a young servant girl who worked for Mr. Bowden Smith, a school teacher from Rugby, and accompanied his family on their summer vacation in the Lakes. One fateful day in September 1887, the party were walking to the top of the crag above Honister Quarries and were descending down the steep ridge of Fleetwith Pike. Fanny was not an accomplished walker and during this part of the journey she jumped down from a ledge and lost her balance. She fell a distance of around twenty feet amongst rocks and rabble until she reached the bottom of the fell side. By the time the others had reached her, she was badly injured and taken to the nearby Gatesgarth Farm, but sadly died before medical assistance could arrive. Her body was returned to Rugby where she was buried and the white cross erected in her memory in Buttermere. To this day the symbol stands as a warning to walkers that the mountains of the Lake District can be perilous unless you are alert and mindful of the dangers."

The walk around Fleetwith Pike and Striddle Crag was pretty easy going. I'd spied this bridleway yesterday when I was up at Scarth Gap so was able to orientate myself pretty well. At Warnscale Bottom the footpaths split into two - one way leads up around the back of Fleetwith (and onwards to Honister) and the other takes you almost directly up Green Crag/Haystacks (east), following what I  assume is an old mining trail which traces a waterfall almost to the very top. I reckon I walked as far and as high I could on that particular path before the scree slopes began to crumble away under my boots. A few hairy moments were prevented by grasping frantically onto the tiniest sprigs of heather and swearing under my breath, followed by laughing at how stupid I must look to people down below. The views that extended North-West out to Buttermere and Crummock Water were breathtaking and totally worth the struggle.

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When you're out shooting for a project, it's easy to get so caught up in making the right images that you forget to actually stop and enjoy the journey. There's always time to sit down and just spend a few moments appreciating how beautiful the views are. This is one of the advantages of shooting landscapes on large format (I'll post something about that at some point). It's such a slow process that you're almost forced to play a waiting game. Once I'd set up the 5x4 on the tripod, focussed and loaded the film I think I must have sat there for nearly two hours waiting for the right conditions. As you can see from the behind the scenes shots, it was really cloudy, overcast and the last bits of snow were still clinging onto the higher fells. The sun was poking through occasionally, shining a few diffused rays down into the valley below. I shot a couple of frames, but I'm a little worried that the wind and unsteady ground will result in a blurry mess. Guess we'll find out in a few weeks...


For my fourth day, I began my hike from the Honister Slate Mine. From the mine, there is a clearly marked trail which if followed for a few hours, eventually meets the trail I passed on Day 3. This route takes you through some of the mine workings and past some pretty large slag heaps. There are two bothies on the hills around Honister; Dubs Hut and Warnscale Head. The latter is the one I have been skirting around for the last few days and is only a short distance away from Dubs Hut. They are both old mining buildings which have been handed over to the MBA to be maintained as bothies. 

'If' slate engraved poem on the hills above Honister Pass

'If' slate engraved poem on the hills above Honister Pass

Dubs Hut is the first bothy you'll get to if you're approaching from Honister - it's a fairly large building with enough room to sleep a decent sized party. It was a great feeling to finally reach my first ever bothy after reading about them for so long! I shot a few frames inside before finding a suitable location on the high ground behind the bothy. Up until now the weather had held off, but the approaching storm hovering over the summit of Brandreth had me and a number of other hikers on the hillside taking cover. 

I moved on, leaving Dubs Hut behind me and heading towards Warnscale Head. The track was easygoing, crossing small streams and large areas of grassland; a welcome relief from the past few days. I found Warnscale Head nestled beneath a large stack and patches of brown heather. It's infamously difficult to locate and I totally understand why! This tiny, unassuming structure can probably only sleep 3-4 people and comprises of 2 sleeping platforms, a small fire and one tiny window which looks down towards Buttermere. It's incredibly cosy, and due to its small size probably doesn't take long to warm up. I haven't really met anybody yet on my walks, and both bothies have been empty, but you can paint a pretty vivid picture of the individuals that have been there before you by observing the items they have left behind. Food, clothing, toys, books, drawings in the visitors book and other little oddities tell a story all by themselves. 

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My final two days in the Lake District saw me leave the North Western area of the Park, and move eastwards towards Haweswater. From Haweswater reservoir you can take a half-days walk S/SE to Mosedale Cottage - perhaps the most well known of all the Lakeland bothies. The walk to Mosedale began with a steep climb through the gulleys beneath Artlecrag Pike and Harter Fell - it's a magnificent gulley with some massive views.

The landscape surrounding Mosedale Cottage is different to that of the previous two bothies. Mosedale sits alone, at the foot of Great Grain Gill in a vast sweeping grassy valley with large herds of deer grazing on the slopes. A small waterfall trickles behind the cottage, leading towards Mosedale Beck. Scandanavian dialect is common in the Lakes, and Mosedale is a great example of this, meaning mossy valley. I spent most of my last day at the bothy, taking photographs and reading the visitors book. There were about 6 leather chairs, all positioned in a semi circle around the fire with an empty bottle of wine on the mantelpiece. The cottage is large, and there are a number of separate rooms - I'd say you could probably sleep about 12 people here comfortably. 

I didn't take many digital shots on these final two days, but I did film a great deal of it on my GoPro so maybe I'll upload an edited video from that footage. All in all, a pretty successful week in the Lakes and a good start to the project. I imagine that I'll return here again in the Autumn to explore some different routes to these bothies. Cheers lakes, it was a good one!