Quintin Lake has always loved walking, ever since trekking from Lands End to John O'Groats as a teenager. But his five-year epic journey around the coast of Britain has taken his love for getting out and about to a new level — as well as his love for our beautiful island. He spoke to James Fisher.
If recent weeks have taught us anything, it’s the value of stretching your legs in the great outdoors. It would be easy enough to write some soliloquy about how ‘we miss the simple things only when they are denied to us’, but I think this pandemic has done more than that. It’s made us value not just the act of getting out and about, but also what see when we do head outside.
Quintin Lake, a Gloucestershire-based photographer, learned this lesson several years ago. His teacher was not a pandemic, but a brutal case of meningitis.
‘After the infection, I was unable to do the heavy backpacking that I used to, so instead I decided to walk the Thames from its source,’ he said.
‘It was a slow, contemplative journey, and I was only taking photos for myself. They turned out to be the most successful pictures of my career.’
Looking at the gallery from his most recent expedition, The Perimeter — several of which you’ll see on this page — it’s clear that stopping and taking the time to appreciate his surroundings has always been important for Quintin.
He began his solo journey — a near 7000-mile walk around the coast of Britain — some five years ago, taking three or four weeks to advance his progress. My first question was: Why?
‘After the Thames, I did another walk, this time along the Severn,’ he explains.
‘I started to get hooked on the unknown around each corner, but it was when I finally reached the coast that it got really interesting. It was then that I decided to dedicate a few years of my life to understand this country.’
Quintin had done several backpacking trips a year in Britain (‘for my soul’, he says) since he was 20, but this trip was still new territory for him.
‘I’ve been a photographer for most of my life, travelling elsewhere to find beauty, but I never really felt able to capture original beauty in this country,’ he explains.
‘The coast of Britain reveals itself to you slowly, over time. It was stumbling across its beauty over time, rather than travelling specifically to find it, that I found so fascinating.’
In an age of instant gratification, it’s refreshing to hear that, sometimes, the key to finding the best of Nature is patience. The Perimeter is all about letting things slowly come to you, says Quintin, and getting involved with the landscape.
‘It has to be a long walk, it has to be camping,’ he says. ‘I need to feel connected to my surroundings. You can’t rush it, you have to wait for those extraordinary moments.’
Cheekily, I ask if Quintin was practising isolation before it was cool. We read stories every day about those people on trans-Atlantic boats or lost in meditation retreats who eventually resurface to discover a totally changed world. Quintin was out on one of his trips as the UK entered lockdown, and I wondered what impact that had on him.
‘It was strange! In a way, it made no difference to me at all. One of the fascinating things of the walk is that, even though this is a densely populated country, there would be weeks when I wouldn’t see anyone.’
He did notice change though. ‘In the beginning [of the pandemic], it was just people moving out of the way as you walked past them. But soon I started to feel like an outsider. I could have kept moving, but it felt socially unacceptable to be a tourist.’
Five years ago, he started at St Paul’s Cathedral, and has been slowly heading clockwise. When the pandemic forced him home, he had got as far as Norfolk, agonisingly close to the finish line. ‘I was due to finish at the beginning of July, and I reckon I’ve got seven weeks left,’ he says. ‘I might do it in one push, but it depends. I’ll be happy if I’m done by Christmas.’
What has this walk taught him? Mostly that Britain is a lot bigger, and more rural, than we think it is. ‘I’d never known how wild and remote this island is. When you follow a footpath, or go into a town, it feels dense and busy. But it’s really not.’
‘The diversity and wildlife is mindbending. I’ve not been bored once, after 450 days of walking, which was totally unexpected. I also love how the accents change as you move around the country. They can literally change in a day! In the north east, I heard Scottish, Geordie, Durham and Teesside in 24 hours.’
So, with The Perimeter almost wrapped up, what’s next?
‘First, I’ll focus on an exhibition and a book, but I can’t imagine my life without regular long walks. I have no idea what that might be yet, but it might be time to leave Britain. Perhaps a big trip in Europe.’
It’s tempting to ask if I can join him, but after looking at his pictures and hearing his stories, I don’t want to intrude. Some of us have been solo for some time, so it’s reassuring to hear that it can be a positive; that it can make us stop and look at the things that we are often too busy to see.
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