Updated: Dec 5, 2021
Tim & Ben at the start of their journey at Land's End, Scotland!
This week we interviewed Tim Wilson, a nomadic creator, who cycled the length of the UK from Land's End to John O'Groats May this year. With his brother, Ben, he set out on this adventure to to raise money for South African-based, Vulture conservation charity, VulPro. To document this challenging journey, Tim ditched his digital set-up in favour of his Canon-AE 1 Programme film camera and a whole stash of Kodak Ultramax. You can read all about this experience, including the highs & lows of the trip, to the benefits of favouring film photography below (along with some awesome photos!).
Can you briefly introduce yourself to us, who you are, and what you do?
Hi there. My name is Tim Wilson, I’m originally from Kent in England. I’ve been living full-time in a campervan since last year and I put my whole life towards having adventures, taking photos, and bouldering. I juggle several different freelance jobs to maintain a flexible approach to life.
When did you first start shooting film?
May 2021. I’ve been shooting digital since 2011 and never touched film until this year! I think I had been put off by how expensive people made it sound, the amount of ‘extra work’ you hear you must put in compared to digital, and the risk of losing images on film through bad luck or user error.
I was in Wales for May of this year, and I managed to completely saturate my trusty Canon 5D in a waterfall. The camera shut down on the spot, and that was that. By good fortune, a family member had gifted me their old Canon AE-1 Program several months previously. As soon as I realised I no longer had a working digital camera, I opened the box for the AE-1 Program and it was obvious I had run out of reasons to put film off. I remember picking the thing up and looking at it and feeling so excited that I could continue shooting, and that there was something right in front of me that was both familiar and unknown all at once. A couple of days later I had picked up some Kodak Gold (the only stock I could find) from a shop and it was like a revelation. The thrill of walking around with unexposed film is so much more than the thrill of an empty SD card.
What is your favourite film camera and film stock to shoot with?
So far I’ve only used that one camera – the AE-1 Program, which I find really lovely to use but then I’ve never shot anything else. I’ve experimented with different film stocks but having used Kodak Ultramax the most I feel more familiar with it than any others. I like the warmth it brings to images. I’d like to experiment with more black and white film as well.
When was the idea of cycling the length of Britain first conceived?
I’ve been a reader of Alastair Humphreys’ and Tom Allen’s blogs for years, and the idea of serious long-distance bicycle travel has been in my head since I was first inspired by their stories.
A few years ago I was working full-time as a falconer in Kent, and one of my colleagues raised some money for the African charity VulPro by walking the Jurassic coast. For some reason I thought, I could do something like that, and the obvious thing to do (at least for me) was something on a bike. The route of Land’s End to John O’Groats was the first one that came to mind, I think because I didn’t need any visas or overseas travel; it had the right balance of accessibility and adventure – bearing in mind I was working full time when I planned to do the ride.
When did you first start cycling?
I can’t tell you exactly, but I would have been very very young. Some of my earliest memories are going on short bike rides with my dad and my brother. I didn’t start driving till I was in my early twenties – I used to cycle everywhere, and if where I needed to go was too far for a day trip, I’d take a tent and allow more time!
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Why did you pick your chosen charity for the challenge?
As I say, the charity was part of the inspiration for wanting to ride. VulPro are a relatively unknown charity based in South Africa, and they dedicate themselves to the conservation of African vultures. The work they do is absolutely incredible. Vultures in Africa are so endangered and face a really varied number of threats to survival, including poisonings from poachers, electrocution from powerlines and being hunted for their own meat.
VulPro monitor wild vulture populations, rescuing and rehabilitating injured or sick birds and breeding from those vultures that cannot be re-released into the wild. Vultures get a lot of stick for being gruesome, nasty birds but they’re just brilliant. They’re highly intelligent and full of character. Vultures feed by scavenging from leftover kills and have an immune system that’s literally impervious to most diseases and viruses. Environments graced with a healthy vulture population benefit from the spread of potentially fatal threats such as rabies, plague and Ebola being vastly reduced by vultures.
Having spent so much time myself working with vultures in captivity here in the UK it was an obvious choice of charity, and one that’s very close to my heart.
Why did you opt for documenting your voyage on film?
I started the bike ride hoping to take loads of photos on digital and I’d hoped to make a short film too. Very early on I found that my digital camera was detracting me from taking in the experiences as they happened, as well as being extra weight and cumbersome. My girlfriend Willow was nearby in Cornwall in the van, and I just ditched the digital stuff with her and kept the film camera. It was the obvious choice – lightweight, simple, fairly rugged – and I’ve found that shooting film keeps me present in a way that digital never could. Plus, no need to worry about camera batteries going flat when you’re miles from anywhere in a tent!
What was your favourite photo you took on your trip?
This is a hard one, but an image that jumps out to me is one I took in the Cairngorms during sunset. I got the exposure bang on for the awesome light, and it really picks up the vivid colours of the flowers and mountains as the sun went down. There are also a couple of my brother that I took while cycling up some high passes, that bring back all the memories of grafting uphill together in the wind.
What were the high and low points whilst cycling?
The whole ride was just full-on emotion, across the entire range of the spectrum. I think I experienced every feeling that I’ve ever felt in my entire life within those three weeks, which ultimately was more exhausting than any of the cycling. A lot of the emotions were apparently without any external reason too – from unbridled joy, to laughter, to apathy, to deep depression. I can’t fully explain this, but both my brother and I went through severe and encompassing mood-swings, independently of each other, across the trip. We’d be pedaling eight hours a day, often half a mile apart, and there was a lot of headspace and introspection.
I think one high point was when we cycling up above the Somerset levels. We climbed over 250m in about two miles, up a wickedly steep and winding hill in 35°c heat. We sweated up this incline, cursing and groaning and I thought we had rounded the final bend so I called out that we’d done it. We both relaxed a bit, only to round the corner and find we still had half the hill ahead of us. Our quads just hurt like anything and we’d already been cycling uphill for 15 minutes, but we didn’t stop. Both of us were bellowing out loud with the effort of it, I’ve never cycled up a hill like it. We didn’t dismount and made it to the top – bear in mind we were both carrying all our gear on panniers at the same time – and it was just the most incredible feeling ever. The whole of Somerset below us, one of those still, hot summer days and just nothing but grass, the sound of crickets and sky above. We topped that hill together and hugged each other that we’d done it. Then we realised we’d run out of water, and it was over 6 miles to the nearest settlement…
How did you find traveling with your camera equipment and do you have any recommendations/advice for people who are considering doing something similar same in the future?
So this follows on to one of the earlier questions – my early decision to shoot only film made the whole experience pretty blissful, from a photographic point of view. I only ever carry one lens (always a prime, and in this case 28mm f/2.8) which frees me up in terms of weight and allows me to be creative in the moment instead of chopping and changing lenses. I find the 28mm to be pretty optimal for ‘adventure’ type shooting; it’s good for landscapes and contextual portraits and is relatively fast too.
Shooting film meant I wasn’t bogged down with buttons and screens, and I was able to just soak up where I was while taking photos, which I rarely get with digital. There were times when I just stood back and didn’t take any photos as well; to me it’s important to be present without doing anything else.
When it comes to shooting, my approach is to remove all the little resistances that stand in the way of a good shot. Camera is always on me, film loaded, lens cap off. I prefer not to use a strap, so I have to hold the camera in my hand which is exactly where it needs to be for a photo.
While cycling, my film camera stayed in my bar-bag on the bike frame and was always within reach this way.
My recommendation for anyone considering a bike trip is: do it. Get a bike, book some time off, pack a bag, and just start pedaling. It will be one of the best things you’ve done, and it will change your life. You will not regret it.
Is there a particular location or area that will stick with you?
Literally the entirety of North Scotland. That place just had a huge effect on me. It felt closer to northern Europe than the UK (which in many ways I guess it is). I will never forget the spiced scent of Scots pine which was ever-present in the Highlands.
The areas in rural Cornwall and Devon were also particularly lovely with their tunnels of winding lanes and quirky cottages. To be honest, the whole ride was just a lesson in how much beauty lies in the UK.
How did you feel you reached the finish line at John O'Groats?
Strangely, not a lot. It was oddly anticlimactic. We arrived…and that was it. Externally and internally.
No one there knew what we’d done, what we’d seen or felt. Even the fact that we were on bikes didn’t raise eyebrows – it’s such a popular route. We just blended into the late afternoon sight see-ers.
After we’d taken a photo at the signpost, I took myself off for a walk and sat down at the pier. The sun was slowly setting like it always does, and I just felt lost. After three weeks of simply getting up and cycling everyday, all I could think was “well, now what?”
There was triumph for sure but it really hit home the fact that the journey is so much more than the destination. The little moments here and there over the three weeks felt so much more significant than reaching the finish line. It’s funny, as we were doing the final miles, I can remember thinking that I didn’t want it to end. But also, that the whole experience was just a stepping stone for something bigger next tim
e. Is there ever really a finish line?
Would you ever do a challenge like this ever again?
My girlfriend Willow and I are currently working towards a bike tour around Europe in spring. Watch this space…