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A Cyclist on the English Landscape

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A year ago, as a travel photographer grounded by the pandemic, I started taking a camera and tripod with me on my morning bike rides and photographing them as if they were magazine assignments.

It started out as something to do – a challenge to see the familiar with new eyes. It soon turned into a celebration of home travel.

I live in a faded seaside town called St. Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex on the south coast of England. If you haven’t heard about it, you are in good company. It’s not on the list of famous English beauty marks. In fact, I mostly drive over shallow coastal swamps or beach promenades right on the heel.

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There’s history here, of course. That’s England. In 1066, William the Conqueror landed his men in the lonely swamps in which I cycle most days. Otherwise, besides being a meeting place for smugglers, this stretch of coast had fallen asleep for centuries until the Victorians brought the railways down from London.

Then St. Leonards and the other nearby coastal towns became popular vacation spots for a popping few decades, England’s own Costa del Sol – down to cheap airfare and the real Costa del Sol, the one in Spain, lured the crowd away and rushed the area in a long and not so noble decline.

I am a transplant. I moved here from Australia. After the initial novelty of being in England wore off, it took on a sort of shrugging familiarity – the usual shops, takeaways, a shabby coastline, rough around the edges but with not too uncomfortable access to Gatwick and Heathrow and flights to more interesting ones Places.

But a year of exploring St. Leonards and the surrounding area, camera in hand, hunting for the light changed all of that. It brought home the truth that you don’t have to get on a plane and fly to the other side of the world for a sense of travel or the romance of difference. It’s on your doorstep – if you look.

You don’t have to go far. In fact, I was unable to. Given the various bans that have been placed on us over the past year, it is either discouraged or downright illegal to move far from where you live. All of these pictures were taken within ten miles of where I live, and most of them much closer.

I plan my trips and set out long before sunrise every morning to be where I want to be in time to catch the first light. In summer this can mean that I leave the house at 3 a.m. In winter it’s cold starlight, the crunch of frost under my wheels, the occasional snowflakes whirl in the light of my headlight.

I carry everything I need on my bike and work all by myself. I am both the photographer and the cyclist in the photos. This part takes some getting used to. I’ve never felt comfortable in front of the camera. As a journalist, I’ve always said I had a great face for radio and the perfect voice for print. But must must if the devil drives. What about socially distant requirements and zero budget, I am all I have.

However, these pictures are not meant to be about me. They are supposed to represent a cyclist in the landscape, everyone – you maybe.

The creation of these images not only required a new kind of visualization, but also a completely new photographic competence. The first question most people ask is how do I release the shutter when I’m a hundred yards away on my bike? Simple. I use a so-called interval meter, a programmable timer, with which I can preset the required delay and then let the camera fire a certain number of images. That’s the simple thing. Anyone can take a self-portrait.

To put yourself artistically in the scene is a far more difficult matter. It requires juggling a crazy number of details that most of the time you don’t think about until you start and critically examine the results. Everything is important, from lights and shadows to headlights to your body language on the bike. You have to be an actor, director, location scout, gawker, key grip, and even a cloakroom assistant: I always wear a spare jersey or two of different colors to make sure I can work with any setting.

In addition, you need to play all of these roles in real time, with rapidly changing lights, in an uncontrolled environment where cars, pedestrians, strollers, horses, cyclists, and joggers can – and do! – appear out of nowhere. It can be very frustrating and at the same time very satisfying when it all comes together.

It’s also addicting. Over the past year I have dealt intensively with local geography – not only with the design of the cities, the architecture and the contours of the landscape, but also with the point in time and when the light falls over the course of the seasons. I know the tide tables like an ancient salt and I follow the phases of the moon. I’ve developed a peasant eye for the weather. I can see at a glance when I step outside my door, on which morning an evocative fog will rise on the swamp from miles away. I plan my trips with the same carefree expectation that I had on the way to the airport. And when I bump down the street, the world becomes big again, just as it used to be when I was a child: rich in detail, ripe for discovery.

When I return to the house a few hours later, after watching the sunrise and putting so many miles of Sussex countryside under my wheels, I feel like I’ve been places, seen things, traveled in the great old-fashioned sense of the country his word.

And as a travel photographer, I bring back pictures of my whereabouts.

Roff Smith is a writer and photographer based in England. You can follow his daily rides on Instagram: @roffsmith.

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Robert Dunfee