Daniel Groves

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Published: 28 September 2015 · Tags: photography, coast, backpacking

A lightweight overnight micro-adventure to Bolt Head, Soar on the south coast of Devon.

After leaving work early and racing for the coast both Mike and I were a little disappointed as the sun went down while we were setting up. It was the last opportunity of the year to fit an after-work shoot in, so I had jumped on a train to Ivybridge where I met Mike before we headed for the coast.

Things hadn’t gone to plan so far. My train was delayed by 20-minutes, making our tight drive to the coast a bit of a race against time. We parked just as the sunset got underway, and moved quickly down onto the coastal path before heading along it for about 100 meters to get somewhere with a feature. Unfortunately, the colour never truly developed.

 alt: The calm after the storm: sunset.
The calm after the storm: sunset

One disadvantage to this time of year is the lack of light afterwork. We were now losing light, but hadn’t found anywhere to bivouac (bivvy) for the night. We knew we wanted to be right on top of the mornings sunrise shoot, and where the moonset would be visible. We spent a while walking around in the dark to achieve this; making our way down to the next headland under starlight, while trying to identify which in the labyrinth of mostly unmarked paths was the one we were looking at on the map.

We eventually found ourselves on the path around the bottom of the headland. We were moving slowly here; the path was extremely steep and regularly touched the edge of the cliff. Neither of us wanted to get wet.

Eventually we came to the realisation that we were never going to find anywhere to bivvy on the lower path. It was too steep, so simply rolling over in the night could have resulted in one of us going over the edge of the cliff. Instead we turned to our right and looked up at the dark headland towering above us. In the dark we could just see the rocks protruding from the brambles and gorse above, so we proceeded to climb the steep ground, constantly hoping not to slip with our vision limited to the tiny pool of light cast from a head torch.

When we reached the top path we spotted a bench and sat for a few minutes as we came to realise how much higher the cliff had been than our expectation. Going straight up the front probably hadn’t been the best decision, but made us both grateful of our lightweight loads compared to our normal backpacking weight.

Moving along the path we soon came to the next headland, which has a small flat area behind it. We would normally have been hard-pressed to get our tents up here, however this time we had come prepared for this situation. We hadn’t expected it to be easy to pitch a tent, so we each bought a bivvy bag with us instead. This was to be a first for us both, and an interesting experience.

I was starving. By this time it was about 8:30 and I hadn’t eaten anything since the pasty I’d had for lunch, so I didn’t waste any time getting my sleeping mat, sleeping bag and bivvy bag out to sit on while I cooked some dinner. While this was cooking I started experimenting with some camera settings for the early night shots ready for the time-lapse I was hoping to shoot.

 alt: The moonlit view down the coast.
The moonlit view down the coast.

Struggling into the bivvy bag was less than elegant; it wasn’t long until we were both buried in ours to the quiet clicking of my camera a few feet away taking time-lapse footage of the moonlit cliffs and stars overhead. Much to my frustration this sound stopped after a few minutes. Crawling back out of the bivvy bag it turned out the interval timer had turned itself off, so I re–enabled it and proceeded to hide back in the depths of the bivvy bag. A few minutes later it stopped again. This time I left it for the night as there was clearly a problem that needed looking into properly.

Sleeping in a bivvy bag was interesting. The looming super-moon did not help as I’m not used to sleeping in a bright area, and having the wind on your face while sleeping took a little getting used to. Despite this I slept as well as in a tent — and I sleep better in a tent than in my own bed.

At three o’clock my first alarm went off, ready for the moonset we’d planned to photograph. A quick glance around proved that this was not to be the case for a while. I went back to sleep.

At 3:30 Mike woke me. The moon was now touching the horizon, but my camera was not where I remembered it being. As it had turned out it had fallen over when the wind picked up. Mike had moved it to stop it rolling down the hill (thank you). It was too dark to see what state the lens was in, and with only a couple of minutes to shoot the moonset I set-up and got going. Thankfully nothing was broken, and the only dirt was on the lens hood.

 alt: The moon setting at around 3:30am.
The moon setting at around 3:30am.

With the moon now behind the horizon it was even darker. This provided just enough visibility for me to spot the Milky Way a little to the right. This isn’t an easy thing to shoot, however a camera can see better in the dark than our own eyes, allowing me to gain some results I am reasonably happy with.

 alt: The Milky Way.
The Milky Way.

It was 4am by the time we’d both finished. Back in the bivvy bags we set the next alarm for 6:20, ready to shoot the sunrise. When this alarm went off we were awake a little early once again. It’s better to be up a little early than too late and to miss the show, so I spent the next 20-minutes lying in my sleeping bag watching the faint colour change on the horizon. It wasn’t going to be a dramatic sunrise, but the low morning sun always creates some interesting light.

 alt: Morning Sailing.
Morning Sailing.

Once the sun was up and the best of the light was over I returned to our bivvy spot to make a spot of breakfast, where Mike had already tucked in. We now only had a short 20-minute walk back to the car.

Bivvy bags are certainly a fantastic way to spend the night, so thanks the Pete Sherwin for lending me yours. They make life easier for these short overnight micro–adventures where the need isn’t in being prepared for the unknown, but instead in traveling light and having minimal faff when it comes to dealing with kit at each end.

 alt: An incredible spot to bivvy.
An incredible spot to bivvy.

Location and Equipment

I was using a Rab Survival Zone bivvy bag for this trip, while Mike was using the AlpKit Hunka XL. I’ll be looking to get one of the AlpKit bivvy bags myself in the near future — I don’t see a need for anything more. They’re light, small, and far cheaper than any alternatives with similar performance.

Both locations are on Ordnance Survey map OL20. The sunset shots were taken around SX708367. The bivvy spot was around SX725362, which was also where all night-shots were taken.