Photographer Quintin Lake recently completed a five-year challenge to walk the entire coastline of mainland Britain, documenting his epic journey in a remarkable series of captivating pictures. Everything about the project is impressive – including the stats. It’s taken ﬁve years, 455 days on the trail, 268 days of photo editing and 6,835 miles of walking. The result? An incredible 179,222 photos of a journey on foot around Britain’s perimeter.
It was quite overwhelming, partly because the second COVID-19 lockdown coincided almost exactly with the date I finally finished. But it was really moving to walk down the River Thames and see the lights across the water, looking towards North Kent, and realise there was no new headland to walk. The circle was finally complete. That was it – it was all over.
Parts of Britain are far wilder and more remote than I had expected. That impression is particularly pronounced as you get farther north. In a way, the south and north felt like two different chapters of the journey – walking Scotland’s coastline in particular meant being self-sufficient for days at a time, and so that sense of being in a wild and remote place was very acute.
On a cultural level, I came across a great degree of pride amongst people from coastal communities for their particular stretches of coastline, which surprised and delighted me. There was lots of engagement and support along the way too. The wonderful thing about the British is that when I told people about the walk, literally nobody I met said, “You’re insane, why are you doing that?” Instead, it was “Wow, that’s brilliant, I’d love to do that”. Which was really heart-warming, particularly because in a way I do think that what I did was a bit insane. But many of us have childhood memories connected to the coast, and people seem to see it as a place of escape and joy. Maybe that’s why there was such positivity – even though, of course, much of the coastline I was walking was far removed from traditional notions of the seaside.
The most compelling example was Wick in Scotland, which was once one of the biggest herring ports in the country, but now feels really melancholy. The docklands in Liverpool, London and Edinburgh all felt similar. It’s as if we still haven’t really come to terms with their loss, despite efforts to regenerate those areas.
On the other hand, some places that I associate strongly with Britain’s maritime past proved to be a surprise. When I walked up the Clyde, I had this preconception that it might be a bit dangerous – a gritty place, full of forgotten shipyards and derelict cranes. But there was really almost nothing like that – it was mostly supermarkets and big box retailers, and modern affordable housing. There was no bombastic sense of pride in the past.
But the incredibly close proximity of rugged landscapes and industrial or post-industrial sites is still mind-bending. In a single day in Scotland I passed titanic shipping cranes, an empty loch and then a Trident weapons storage area, with Royal Marines patrolling around. And on many days I’d see affluence and poverty co-existing just a few miles apart along a single stretch of coast.
When I was 10, I walked from John O’Groats to Glasgow with my mother, which normalised the idea of doing long walks in the summer holidays. Aged 16 or 17 I hiked a lot in Skye, and when I was 20 I walked the length of Britain. Pretty much every summer I’d do some kind of backpacking journey, including most of the UK’s national trails. But I only started combining it with photography about 10 years ago – it took a long time for me to get inspired creatively by the British landscape. For a long time, I didn’t feel that my pictures could look any better than the work of other landscape photographers, or really say anything different. That all changed when I walked the length of the River Thames, which was hugely rewarding both creatively and commercially.
Absolutely. I’m a complete believer in National Trails because the fact that they’re generally well maintained and well signposted means that the barriers to entry for going walking are much lower. That can only be a good thing, and the England Coast Path should be a great asset for coastal walking. I worked out that my journey around Britain’s coastline was equivalent to walking a quarter of the circumference of the globe – it’s the same as walking from London to Manila. We’re such a tiny island, and yet we have this unique and extraordinary coastline.
At first, I wasn’t that concerned with the outbreak of COVID because I was solo backpacking, so I felt I was already practising social distancing pretty effectively! But as the situation changed, I felt less comfortable, particularly as I was walking the Norfolk coast at that time, and there was understandable resistance to outsiders from locals. I soon realised it probably wasn’t the right thing to be doing, so the day before Boris made the lockdown announcement I stopped and took the train home.
The end to the walk was surreal for similar reasons, and there was a time when I was worried that I’d be unable to finish the walk. Every day became quite stressful towards the end.
Very much so. The sense of satisfaction increases with the difficulty of the journey – being self-sufficient is quite empowering. Conversely, to have it taken out of your hands, by an event that is completely out of your control, is psychologically very difficult.
It’s a dichotomy – on the one hand I wouldn’t have put myself through all this just to say I’d walked around the coast of Britain. The creative element is what kept me going, but conversely if I got too weary or tired, it was impossible to think creatively anymore.
I wanted to portray the coast honestly. That was perhaps the most important thing from a creative perspective. And for me, it proved far easier to say something original by portraying modern features – creating a new landscape by interpreting those things, rather than trying to do something new with iconic locations like the white cliffs of Dover, which have obviously been symbolised and portrayed in art for centuries. In those places I felt all I could do was document what I saw.
I love the mountains as well as the coast, so it was partly to get a change of perspective, and partly because they were irresistible. For me, if I see a peak, it’s almost teasing – I want to climb it.
But doing that was also a homage to John Merrill, the first person to walk the coast of Britain back in 1975, who also did those three summits. I tried to get from the sea to summit in a day, which meant some long days – especially climbing Snowdon – but it really is amazing to be able to completely change your perspective like that. I remember standing on Snowdon’s summit, looking back to the Llŷn Peninsula and Anglesey, surveying a coastline that had taken many weeks to walk.
Wind is a constant on the coast, especially on the northwest coast of Scotland in winter, where the temperatures were consistently slightly above freezing, with pretty much continuous rain. So, walking in those conditions became a constant battle against hypothermia, requiring lots of hot brews and frequently changing from wet to dry clothes when I got in and out of my tent. It needed a lot of discipline and was a real challenge, but it was also exciting. Overcoming something that is difficult can be very motivating.
The worst physical problems I had were overuse injuries, including a split tendon in my foot, which according to the physio was down to repetitive motion – essentially, same gait, same terrain, day after day. I had to wear an immobilising boot for two months while it healed, which was frustrating.
Similarly, I suffered from a stress response in my shin, like a minor fracture, which again was essentially down to overuse. In hindsight I wasn’t really stretching enough or prioritising nutrition, which I now do in order to look after my body a bit better.
In fact, I now understand my own body and mind far better, in a way that I didn’t before. I know when I need food and rest – not just physically, but also in order to think creatively. It’s about being calm – I could probably have walked twice as far each day if it was just the physical challenge of the whole endeavour.
As a person I have an inner calm that wasn’t there before. I’m kinder to myself and more content. And as a photographer, I think I am also far more attuned to the unusual or the out of place.
The scariest moment was getting stuck under the eroding cliffs at Holderness, in East Yorkshire. It was dark, wet and slippery, and there was no real escape from the shoreline to the clifftop for about 12km. The tide was coming in and I began to panic, moving faster and faster until I was running along the shoreline, desperately trying to find a way up. I managed to clamber to safety just in time, but it was a scary experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat. In a way I’d got a bit complacent, as most of the objective challenges were over – I’d navigated the wildest and most remote bits of the coastline. But that’s dangerous in itself, because getting too comfortable puts you at risk.
Walking Britain’s most dangerous footpath on Foulness Island in Essex was also exciting – many people have drowned because the tides and weather have to be perfect. You’ve got quicksand on one side and unexploded ordnance on the other. I got advice from a meteorologist to find a safe passage and time it all correctly. It would be difficult to navigate even with a compass – I was glad to have a GPS for that one.
Generally, there’s no greater joy than unzipping the tent and having a view of the sea. But at the same time, always consider the wind when wild camping on the coast. My rule of thumb was that in winds of up to 30mph I’d tend to put up with it – but if the wind was stronger than that, I’d seek shelter by pitching up on the leeward side of trees or other structures. Oh, and you need ear plugs to get any sleep!
Finding drinking water can also be a big problem on the coast, so carry a hydration bladder and fill up before nightfall. Generally, I’d need 3 litres or so to supply me adequately for the evening and the next morning. I generally boiled my water, as I’m a big tea drinker, although I was also carrying a filter. Of course, even boiling and filtration won’t always sort out things like agricultural runoff – so farmland can be a tricky place to camp. In my experience, the Essex coast is the hardest place to find wild water. In turn, that meant I became an expert on the different kinds of sinks in public toilets – I grew to hate those sinks with push-button taps, as they’re so difficult to fill up a bottle with!
Like most true wild campers, I’m a big advocate of leave no trace. In fact, I’d say I went beyond that and would try to have a positive impact, by actually leaving my camp spot cleaner than I’d found it. Wild camping has obviously had a lot of profile in the media recently – unfairly in my view, because wild campers get lumped in with so called ‘fly campers’, even though the two are completely different.
Some of my best wild camps were on Scotland’s coast, since it is so rugged and remote in places. I was walking for up to 9 weeks at a stretch, and within that time I would be completely self-sufficient for fuel, food and power for up to 5 days without resupply.
I remember camping on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula on New Year’s Eve, which was a stunning place to wild camp. Well, actually, there was a horrendous storm overnight, but when I unzipped the tent the next morning, it was a beautiful day. It felt miraculous and is a wonderful memory.
I completely changed my philosophy on kit over the course of the walk. I started with the ethos of US ultralight backpackers – taking lightweight fell-running shoes and cuben fibre gear. But it just wore out too quickly, and that stuff is so expensive that I then couldn’t afford to replace it. So, I ended up with what was essentially Scottish winter mountaineering gear – a thicker Gore-Tex Pro jacket and leather Meindl boots. Everything became a bit sturdier, which was a bit heavier, but lasted longer and gave me a lot more confidence in my kit. Put it this way – I went through six pairs of lightweight trail shoes compared to just the one pair of leather boots. It takes a lot of management to keep your feet healthy if they’re wet all the time. It’s time consuming and takes a lot of admin. I was forever applying balms and trying to air my feet. So, even though I could cover more ground wearing lighter footwear, in the end I went back to boots.
Having said that, Ray Jardine’s book [Beyond Backpacking] is still a bit of a bible for me, and I’m a member of the website backpackinglight.com. Those are brilliant resources, and I do still think there’s a place for ultralight, but it’s not necessarily the right choice for everyone. That’s particularly true here in Britain, simply because it’s so wet here.
It varied a lot. I was carrying up to 25kgs in the most remote places, including up to 3 litres of water, and 4 to 5 kilos of camera gear, as well as a drone in Scotland. Then there was about a kilo of weight in power banks, in order to keep gadgets running.
On the other hand, in southern England I was sometimes under 10kg, carrying only ultralight backpacking gear, plus the 5kg of camera kit. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to calculating my weight, but it’s a philosophy that I don’t think can work for a multi-day long distance walk like mine – unless you’re rich enough to be able to afford replacement gear all the time, because it simply wears out too quickly.
Well, to be honest I’m still living this adventure – I’m working my way through the thousands of pictures I shot. According to the checklist in front of me, I’m up to day 370 in terms of edited photos, but there are plenty more to go! So, I’ll still be living this for another year or two.
I’ve just walked Glyndŵr’s Way in Mid-Wales, and I’ll probably aim to do a long-distance path every couple of months to keep my hand in, so to speak. However, I’m not going to take on another grand project until this one is completed. After that, I think I’d like to head to Europe. My wife is Czech, and so I do like the idea of doing a very long walk on the continent, with a creative photography element.
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