Finding the line: when camping becomes an installation

putting up the tent on the 120 degree line from the Under Helm Sycamore. The tree sits at the centre of this project and can be seen in the distance on the scree slopes to the left of Rob.

We were sitting chatting over a beer yesterday, after a morning with the August canvas in the Duddon Valley (which we’ve yet to blog about), and it occurred to us that the canvas is not the only installation in this project.

Each month, when we camp in a very precise location at a particular angle from the Under Helm Sycamore, our tent, our campsite and ourselves become an installation: a temporary addition to the landscape that, albeit very small, that alters the way the land looks, just for a while, provokes new ways of experiencing and considering it, and leaves it physically unchanged yet different, in our perception at least. Our response to the camp is just as precise as finding the exact location for the tent: when we’re out there, we become very focused as we respond through photography and writing, and the practice of stillness.

Shaking out the tent before heading off the fell
Shaking out the house is part of the ritual of packing up, and moving on.

For this project, we are tracing a circle around the Lake District, going clockwise from north to south around the central point that’s a single tree. We have imagined the national park as a clockface, divided into 30-degree segments. Each month we pitch our tent on a different radial line. Thus in January, we nestled among frozen rushes by Grisedale Tarn, at an angle of 30 degrees from the Under Helm Sycamore; in February, at an angle of 60 degrees, we camped by Angle Tarn; in March, camping on the 90-degree line meant we were almost on the summit of Harter Fell.

Campsite as dusk falls
January: on the 30-degree line from the Under Helm Sycamore. Overnight, there was snow and we woke early enough to walk to the summit of Dolly Wagon Pike for sunrise. The air temperature dipped to minus 8, and there was a fierce north wind. Brrrrrrrr.

Where shall we camp?

There’s a lot of planning involved before we leave and we have to take several factors into account. We spread the maps out and look closely. We’re not after an official campsite or a back garden – we are camping in areas that feel wide open and are part of the wider landscape, and indeed may never have been camped on before. Our choice of pitch is governed by the line that runs out from the tree, by the terrain, and by the height of the land: we can only camp in areas that are above the last fell wall (that’s the permitted space for wild camping in the National Park). So we study the map contours carefully and look for patches of land that hold a promise of being flat (or nearly flat) and aren’t boggy or rocky. We need 2.2 x 1.3 metres; not asking much, but meeting all the criteria is surprisingly limiting.

Map of Sense of Here campsites Jan to August 2019
Camping on the lines: sites selected, month by month, at precise angles radiating from the Under Helm Sycamore.

We also take the weather into consideration. On a multi-day walk, we have to take whatever’s thrown at us, but for one night we do our best to choose the kind of weather we want. Preferably, we like it to be dry, but a fresh snowfall overnight, or the promise of fog, or even the drama of a storm, might draw us out. We use the MetOffice, which is pretty reliable, and is regularly updated. One of the key things we look out for is the wind speed and direction, and we’ll take this into account when we look at the lie of the land and consider our potential exposure. We narrow our choice down to the point where the line runs through a suitable patch of fell, mark it on our map and in our minds, and head out.

Making notes outside the tent after dark
Above Angle Tarn. February camp site on the 60-degree line.
Overnight temperatures dipped to below minus 2 leaving frost on the tent
Harter Fell, March.Overnight temperatures dipped to below minus 2 and we woke to frost on the tent
Feeling wild, just above Grasmere Valley, for the April camp, 120 degrees from the Under Helm Sycamore.

The walk up to our camping spot is an integral part of the camp. It allows us to get a feel for the land and shrug off the physical and mental limitations that are imposed by being in a building, connected to WiFi and phones. We begin to enter a keen and present state of mind. Once we’re close to a spot we’re aiming for, we take out the compass and gauge our proximity to the line we want to camp on. Rob holds the compass and sets a marker on the line, and I walk, checking the land as I go. We wander around, testing the terrain, until we’ve found something suitable. In reality, our pitches tend to be flatish rather than flat. So far we’ve avoided bogs, hidden streams, rocks and wild exposure.

At each site we’ve turned towards the Under Helm Sycamore, and for two of our pitches – May and June – we were able to see the tree. What’s forming is a set of invisible lines and a gentle, comfortable tension between known places in a spacious land. Lines of site, and lines of feeling, have been marked out by our feet and our senses, which become all the more keen when we’re out for long periods of time – just us, our bags, and the weather.

Each time we camp, we stay up to watch the night arrive, and typically spend some time outside in darkness. In the winter months, with all light departed and the temperature plummeting well below zero by 5 or 6pm, bedtime can be very early; in summer, we have enjoyed night’s half-light until midnight. And always we make a point of waking in the middle of the night, to step outside and gaze at the stars. We wake for sunrise, whatever time this happens, to watch the land slowly reveal itself – unless it’s raining, in which case we will grab a lie-in until the worst of it is over, and the clouds start to make magic of the land. These are the most fulfilling moments of a wild camp: to sit or stand in the great wide open, sky unbounded, mountains all around, light changing, and the soundscape purely elemental. The long, far-reaching views can leave us spellbound, as can the wild worlds that are much closer: butterflies, moths, caterpillars, mosses, reeds, newts, beetles, bees … and in the sky, peregrines, buzzards, swifts, larks, ravens. When you stop and sit in stillness, it soon becomes apparent that an empty land is very, very full, and a quiet space is an abundance of sound.

We observed Earth Hour from our campsite on Harter Fell. The lights to the south were striking
We observed Earth Hour from our campsite on Harter Fell in March, on the 90-degree line.

When we pack up, we leave the land as we found it, a small patch of green that may never before have held a tent, and may never again; but is now a part of the landscape we know. It is mapped in our minds and we leave with words and images, and new avenues of thought that feed into the next day, the next week, the next camp. These temporary overnight installations, and what has arisen from them, will be part of the Sense of Here exhibition and book in 2020. We have the rest of the year ahead of us to complete the cycle of 12 monthly camps on the 12 radial lines, and neatly close the virtual circle we began in January.

On top of the world, pausing, taking it all in.

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