When I'm walking, I have my best ideas, enjoy the most profound conversations, feel the most remarkable calm and am receptive to seeing the uniqueness of the world around me. I love walking. Between 2015 to 2020, I walked 6,935 miles in 454 days around the mainland coast of Britain for a photography project I called The Perimeter. I walked in sections of up to two months throughout all seasons, and wild camped, to be close to the land, most of the time. The aim of the journey was creative: to produce a body of photographic work to get under the surface of the British landscape and understand more of the island nation that I call home. The journey also changed my perception of time and critically the relationship between creativity and walking.
White horizon, Irish Sea, Scotland.
The deeper calm that comes from a long walk requires a few days to present itself. At first, aches and pains are too prominent in the body, and busy thoughts dominante the mind. After a couple of nights sleeping on the earth and walking the ground, a deeper connectedness and ease can be felt. Moving all day starts to feel normal, as it was for our hunter-gatherer ancestors for millennia. One no longer checks one's watch, urging the next landmark to arrive or needing breaks at predetermined intervals as motivation. Instead, one knows the evening's destination will come in the end, and the body flows along. This self-sufficiency of time is enhanced further when backpacking; carrying a stove, tent, food and fuel, one is genuinely the master of one's own time. External schedules vanish; you can stop, start, eat and sleep precisely when and where you wish.
The built-up areas of Britain are only 6% of the total area, so away from towns and villages, there are great expanses that are unpopulated, especially in Scotland where I'd regularly not see a soul for days at a time. Away from popular beauty spots, very few people are out on foot, dog walkers only stray a few hundred metres from car parks, and farmers are often enclosed in machinery. When I did meet someone for the first time after a few days, I'd sometimes have momentarily forgotten how to speak.
Silken Sea, Portling Bay, Scotland.
The coast is consistently very windy without trees and mountains to slow the air. The feeling of wind on my head was a constant, at times a kind of torment but ultimately something I grew to miss. Hundreds of days walking the coast of northwest Scotland was pathless, the convoluted terrain leading itself to neither road-building nor agriculture. The broken ground, micro cliffs, bogs and dense undergrowth frequently made progress impossible or dangerous, so I'd need to use my initiative to figure out the best ways through the landscape. Sometimes it felt like nobody had walked here for hundreds, if not thousands of years. After a few days of walking on very rough ground like this, where any misstep would likely end in injury, to reach a road or path was physically and psychologically startling. The smooth path would feel so fast underfoot, like an airport travelator, and the carefree feeling of not having to use my brain to move along was euphoric.
In Scotland, finding flat ground for my tent could be surprisingly tricky; many times, I'd have to pitch on the tussocky ground and hope I could fall asleep contorting my body around the lumps and bumps below. However, one is never more than a few metres from a delicious peaty stream which meant I could be self-sufficient for several days so long as I had dehydrated food, power and fuel.
Blà Bheinn looking fierce above Isleornsay on Skye, Scotland.
I often walked with the rhythm of the tide to cross a particular bay. In extreme examples, such as on the long and potentially hazardous tidal paths of the Broomway to Foulness Island or the Pilgrims Path to Holy Island, progress had to be very carefully synchronised with the right tide to progress safely. The moon not only pulled and pushed the tide but also enabled my photography by illuminating an inky sea or guiding the way. Daily, I became familiar with the moon state and the sun's rise and fall. The moon and sun defined my schedule, the parameters for the day; not a time-block, a calendar or a to-do list.
I learnt it was possible to have too much of a good thing, overuse injuries (a split tendon and a tibia stress response) after three thousand miles made me reevaluate how much I carried and how far I walked daily. I'd been too goal-focused: I used to think to myself, "I must get to such and such a destination by the end of the day no matter what", and had suffered the consequences. After I recovered, I prioritised resting more, listening to my body and stretching - in other words slowing down further. The formula I had by the end was sustainable; I knew my own body and could continue the pace of the final three thousand miles indefinitely if I wanted to. Learning to test and adjust my strategy took time.
I also learnt not to look at the overview map where my minute and seemingly inconsequential daily progress compared to the whole seemed insurmountable. Instead, I aimed at the day ahead, and often, in the hardest of terrain such as in Knoydart (when it took me eleven hours to cover nine kilometres) the very metre ahead. I knew that each step in the right direction, no matter how difficult, was a step closer to the goal.
Loch Hourn from Knoydart, Scotland.
Walking is the best technique I know to open my heart and mind to see the world with clarity and innocence that I need to feel inspired in my photography. As a photographer, walking encourages a state of relaxed readiness, perfect for making, thinking and seeing a photograph when it reveals itself. The optic flow of passing scenes become accentuated by the interplay of light and form until the moment of revelation: when harmony or beauty reveals itself. I stop and let a few moments of that light into my camera. Sometimes only a few thousandths of a second and sometimes a few minutes at a time. On days when the weather or my energy didn't inspire me, I learnt not to be concerned, as I knew inspiration would come again in a few more days.
Walking is not a sport; walking is an enabler of the mind and body, an elixir of meaning and connectedness with people, place and planet. The rewards of completing a long walk are within the soul, the realisation that slower is better and that the journey is where the magic happens, not the arriving. The greatest pleasure of a long-distance walk is, paradoxically, forgetting that time exists at all. Measuring the world by the length of our stride seems to render time immaterial.
You can see more of Quintin Lake's photos and buy prints at theperimeter.uk