Walk and Talk with Quintin Lake

The architectural and landscape photographer has recently completed a walk around Britain’s coastline, enduring ferocious onshore winds, dangerous tides and gaining a unique insight into our varied coastal landscapes and communities

By Rebecca Swirsky

Portrait of Qunitin

Quintin in London on the last day of his journey

What motivated you to make this journey around Britain’s coastline?

I’ve always chosen eerie, beautifully empty spaces to travel to, such as deserts in the Middle East – Syria, Iran and Egypt – and the Arctic. Britain, by contrast, didn’t feel spiritually nourishing. Then I took a number of incredibly inspiring river walks to the sea. The abstract, low-key, square-format pictures I was taking of the water somehow conveyed the spirit of the river. As a photographer, inspiration rules – you never let go. Experiencing the extremes of Britain through its mainland coastlines was pushing it as far as I could. Beginning in 2015 at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral (finishing there in 2020), this meant averaging between 20km and 40km (12-25 miles) a day for up to three months, to complete the 11,000km/6,835 miles. I wild-camped and also couch-surfed. 

What kept you going?

For the first month, I wanted to give up by the end of each day. Taking photographs and searching for images added another level of mental taxation to the physical exhaustion. Eventually I became mentally and physically more attuned to the experience. With 20kg on my back, including a tent, food, fuel and batteries, I could be self-sufficient for up to five days at a time. Over hundreds of days, my psyche slowed and the slower pace of walking helped me seek out the stillness within photographs.

A man and tent, by the sea

With his lightweight tent near Dunstanburgh Castle,

What challenges did you face?

The perpetual wind! I didn’t use ferries or any vehicles, so had large detours inland. The change was immediate, with trees and valleys offering a benign embrace. At times, the wind’s ferocity could resemble the Arctic. Accordingly, I chose to start on the west coast first, because I felt it would be best to get the hardest bit out the way. Walking in winter took a bonkers amount of self-discipline. In Scotland, I faced just-above-freezing, gale-force winds and a tremendous amount of hail and sleet. Before bed, I’d have a big meal and hot drink to rev up my metabolism and keep me warm. Winter also gave me three or four hours each day of walking in the dark. I always had a sense of where the moon or tide was to work out where I would put my tent, so that I could photograph sunrise and sunset. Living this way was unforgettable. 

What did it teach you about our coastal communities? 

Our coastlines are packed with history and cultural extremes: coal supplies departing Cardiff; slaves arriving in Liverpool; or a modest croft in a remote Scottish peninsula with mooring for a single fishing boat. There’s also a sense of melancholy, where you witness the scale of an industry that has died. Wick Harbour in North-East Scotland was once the largest herring fishery in Europe, with thousands of boats coming and going. Now there’s a handful. But the commonality among the historical, topographic and cultural diversity was that everyone genuinely loved their own area. Nearly everyone I met had a special childhood memory connected to the coast. We are deeply nostalgic towards our earliest memories.

Loch with a house in the distance

Loch Eil in the Highlands

Why does the coast appeal to us?

Well, I like the ambiguity of an in-between world where land and sea mix. Then the oxygenated air, the sound of the waves. I think that, as a child, our first genuine sense of freedom is on the beach. On some deep level, it’s that joy which makes us flock to Britain’s coastlines. The coast’s ferocity is also a tremendous physical ordeal, thrilling and sublime. So the coast appeals because it explores the world that cannot be defined in words, and is inspiring.

Did you witness coastal erosion?

Yes, particularly so around North Norfolk and the Holderness Coast in Yorkshire. My trip’s scariest moment was getting stuck in wet clay under one of the cliffs near Bridlington. In the dark, I eventually managed to climb up this wet, slimy cliff, tide swishing around my boots. It marked the closest I came to calling the coastguard. There are long stretches with no steps up the cliffs, catching people out. It’s a high-erosion environment – you can’t relax. 

And you walked the Broomway path…

Foulness Island fascinated me because it’s so secret. Robert Macfarlane wrote about it beautifully. The experience of walking on a glass mirror [along this tidal route off Essex’s coast] was uncannily beautiful, yet there was the subtle, keen knowledge that if I got the tide wrong, there would be no way I could outrun it. Straddling the hair’s breadth between survival and the sublime, 
I felt profoundly alive.

How did coastal access vary?

Sunset over mudflatsDiscovering the Cumbrian Coastal Way was pure joy. Any efforts to ensure easier coastal access are a huge step in the right direction. Yet a victory isn’t a victory if I’m walking within a barbed-wire corridor and a dozen signs are shouting, ‘Keep Out’. Suffolk and Hampshire are places where, in particular, you feel like a third-class citizen. You might be following a footpath that hugs a barbed-wire corridor away from the sea, or the river around the bulk of a large estate. Not much of a coastal walk. In that sense, it was a journey of two parts – as Scotland was mostly pathless, the freedom I’d enjoyed there was hard to relinquish. The first Scottish landowner I met enquired if I might need food or water, helping me through their land, rather than restricting me. People don’t see the land as ‘theirs’, but ‘ours’. They open their land with a sense of pride. And it works.

(Right) Northumberland; sunset over the Humber

When did you first walk along the coast?

When I was 10, my mum took me on a mammoth walk which forever normalised long walking – John o’ Groats to Glasgow. Also, I was brought up in Norfolk, so I’m used to vast, expansive landscapes. I love Holkham Beach’s niches in the dunes and grass textures. During this journey, treading the landscape like our ancestors must have done, I felt on fire and alive. Not a single day was boring. It’s been wholly life-affirming, proving beauty and interest are everywhere if you have an open heart.

Discover a large selection of photographs by Quentin from the journey: theperimeter.uk

What’s your favourite

Country walk?

The one I’m always on the cusp of taking.

Town walk?

I lived in London for 10 years, walking any point to any point. Going to a party, I’d allow time to walk there and back (the journey often better than the party). Particularly memorable was walking through Battersea by the river at night. 

View?

I definitely won’t be drawn into choosing here! As a photographer, I am always searching for the serendipitous moment; a chance combination of light, weather and place.

Kit?

My Terra Nova tent. Having a 1kg storm-proof tent is amazing. And my stove boils water within minutes. In winter, you need hot food and drinks immediately. 

Post-walk tipple?

At the halfway and end points of my journey, I drank Balvenie whisky. Otherwise, coffee excites me more. Starbucks VIA instant coffee weighs only a few grams and is tasty.