A summer wild camp in the Lake District

Written on 14th September 2019 | No Comments

At the start of August I spent a couple of days in the Lake District. I took my tent with me so that I could wild camp if the weather allowed. It had been a few years since my last wild camping trip which I spent in Snowdonia photographing Castell y Gwynt and Tryfan. I find it very rewarding to combine camping and photography but for various reasons (maybe laziness!) I don’t do it often enough.

This trip to the Lake District seemed like a good opportunity to wild camp for a couple of reasons: firstly, I had an idea for a picture with an east-facing view that would require me being out on the fells before dawn; secondly, that view was from Middle Fell in Wasdale, which isn’t that easy to get to by car. Thus camping was a sensible option.

The view towards Wast Water Screes from halfway up Middle Fell. Not a bad bit of scenery!

The route to the top of Middle Fell involved an entirely straightforward walk of about a mile, going up hill all the way. I set off late in the afternoon while the sun was shining in an almost cloud-free sky. Within 20 minutes I was sweating buckets due to wearing a ‘breathable’ synthetic top that was more suited to autumn or winter walks. My progress up Middle Fell was frustratingly slow as I had to stop every few moments to catch my breath. I’m not unfit but the weight of the camping and camera kit on my back, plus the temperature, made it hard work.

Middle Fell: from mountains to nuclear waste

After about an hour and a half of plodding along I reached the top of Middle Fell. The view of Scafell Pike and Wast Water stretched out below and when I turned around I could see far out to the coastline and beyond to the Isle of Man. The outline of the Sellafield nuclear site was the only blip on the horizon. I could hear nothing but the light wind and my own breath; there were no cars or aeroplanes or people.

After pitching my tent I was backpack free. Without the weight of my camping gear on my shoulders I was able to fully appreciate the peace and quiet and beautiful views. I reflected on just how good wild camping is; it may involve a lot of effort but it is well worth it for the tranquillity of having the open countryside to yourself.

Last light illuminating the top of Yewbarrow and Great Gable. If only the light had been a bit more intense.

Unfortunately the evening light reaching Scafell was uninspiring; it was hazy and the sun was struggling to cut through layers of cloud. I experimented with a few composition ideas of what I might photograph in the morning before spending some time enjoying the views. I’m not sure what I enjoy most about wild camping: the photography or the sense of calm. The lack of distractions helps a great deal: there is no need to travel home to eat, sleep or do other household tasks. Photography is the only thing on my mind and my senses are concentrated on the scenery, the weather and the light.

Not a bad view for the evening. I had to walk just a few metres from the tent to find a good spot to take photos.

The next morning I woke to the sound of my alarm. It’s here, before dawn, that wild camping really pays off because if I were to have walked up the fell in time for sunrise I would’ve had to set off a good deal earlier. As I unzipped the tent I could see that the light was poor as there was thick cloud cover on the horizon. It was still very hazy as well. The forecast from the night before indicated there would be broken cloud but what I saw was the opposite of that, with no chance of the sun shining through. I snoozed on in short intervals until the sun showed signs of coming out. By that time I’d given up on my original idea of photographing Scafell Pike and Wast Water as the tops of the Scafells were covered by clouds. However, rays of light were hitting the water below and I thought that that was interesting enough to make a photo.

Crepuscular rays reaching over Wasdale Head.

I felt despondent about not being able to get the photo I had in my head as it’s one I’ve wanted to capture for a few years, since the last time I visited Wast Water. I find it hard to let such disappointments go and in the past I’ve let them distract me to the point of giving up on other ideas and going home. However, I was determined not to let my mindset be spoiled so I tried to forget my preconceived ideas and instead photograph what I found appealing in the present.

The haze had its benefits, causing the sun to create crepuscular rays which broke through the clouds above Great Gable and Yewbarrow. Visibility wasn’t so good but I liked the softness of the light. I spent a long time waiting for the right moment as clouds kept stopping the sun from illuminating both the hills and the ground in front of me. Eventually the cloud breaks lined up and the sun lit the grassy bank I was standing on while creating some rays of light in the distance.

A hazy view towards Yewbarrow and Great Gable from Middle Fell. Purchase a print.

I felt I’d made the best of the conditions and I’d exhausted any ideas I had for other photographs so I had breakfast then packed up and returned to my car. One of my favourite things to do after a night on the hills is to wash my face in a stream. Somehow it helps me feel more connected to the outdoors and it certainly freshens me up. Luckily you don’t have to walk far to find water in the Lake District and there was a waterfall part way down the fell.

A view of The Bell

Later I drove back towards Ambleside to explore new locations that I’d researched before arriving. I was pleased to discover the Walna Scar Road above Coniston which marks the start for many routes to the Old Man of Coniston. The view from the car park features a prominent outcrop called The Bell. It’s relatively small in comparison to the fells behind but it’s the most dominant feature to be seen.

That evening, just as I arrived in the Walna Scar Road car park, the sun went behind clouds and showed no sign of re-emerging. I took some snapshots as composition ideas before packing up for the day. I had just one more chance during my time in the Lake District to capture this view so I decided to revisit at dawn the next day.

The weather forecast for the morning didn’t look promising but I headed out anyway in the hope it might change. It was grey and very hazy with thick cloud cover overhead. I didn’t hold much hope of getting any pictures but I thought it was worth trying again anyway.

As I drove through Coniston and started ascending towards the Walna Scar Road the sun began to break through the clouds. Soon The Bell came into view and I was delighted to see that it was lit by some diffuse sunlight. I was in luck as the clouds were starting to part. The fells behind The Bell seemed diminished in stature because their heads were stuck in the clouds. The light was soft but it had a nice quality to it, casting soft shadows. I took a few different compositions in landscape, panoramic and portrait orientations before the clouds parted completely and the drama created by them disappeared.

The Bell surrounded by the Coniston Fells. I find the wiggly line of the dry stone wall interesting. Purchase a print.

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