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Thames Waters

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song

Quintin Lake

British Architectural and Landscape Photographer, I originally trained as an architect and my interest in geometry informs all my photographic work.


We featured Quintin’s dramatic arctic and desert images in the last issue and we’re happy to feature some of his work again but this time in a more prosaic vein.

I’m sure Quintin was not the first person to think of photographing the length of the river Thames but his approach and execution are somewhat different and make a refreshing change. In August of 2012, Quintin walked the 170 mile length of the river, from Kemble in Gloucestershire all the way to the city of London, backpacking and wild camping all the way in 10 days.

The results may not be what you would expect. We asked Quintin a few questions about the project, firstly asking what prompted the idea and and how that idea progressed from germ to the journey to Kemble

Quintin Lake - Thames Waters 1/2 Mile downstream (near Kemble).

Thames Waters 1/2 Mile downstream (near Kemble).

The idea to wild camp all of the way sounds quite romantic until the journey starts to hit the outskirts of various towns and cities en-route, of which I imagine there are quite a few. What were the logistics like and how did the experience work in practice.

Yes camping was tricker than in a true wilderness like Scotland as one can't just camp anywhere. The official camp sites along the route are aimed at boaters and tend to be noisy and with hard ground and would remove me from the prolonged connection to the river that I wanted - not to mention sleeping next to noisy BBQ's was not the kind of spiritual connection I was after. So I ended up "wild camping" in fields pitching at dusk and breaking camp at dawn so as not to be visible or alternatively camping in woods. Ironically the biggest problem I had was finding fresh water - I thought the streams would be too polluted to even use a water filter unless i wanted it clogged up after a couple of uses - I ended up knocking on doors of houses i passed. Further downstream the locks all have fresh water taps.

Quintin Lake -Thames Waters 100 miles downstream (dawn near Shiplake).

Thames Waters 100 miles downstream (dawn near Shiplake).

Images such as X, "100 miles downstream, dawn near Shiplake" were easier to achieve by camping by the river as I would never have woken up early enough to catch the mist unless i'd been camping!

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Apart from the financial and creative benefits camping also means you don't have to keep to a particular schedule in order to reach a particular B&B for a certain time. I find this very liberating as some days i could walk 25 miles or more if the weather was fine or alliteratively slow down to take in a sight like the Stanley Spencer Gallery or Windsor castle.

Quintin Lake -Thames Waters 3 Mile downstream (near Ewen).

Thames Waters 3 Mile downstream (near Ewen).

I’m sure things didn’t go quite to plan and the journey was far from incident free - tell us about a few of the more interesting issues you dealt with.

Finding the source wasn't totally obvious as the location is contested  - I opted for the source defined by Ordnance Survey - but was surprised that the stone marking the source was a few hundred metres away from any water. I didn't expect stretches near the source to be flooded - I ended up wading through above knees at parts - the atmosphere was more Amazonian than Thames valley!

Quintin Lake -Thames Waters 5 Miles downstream (near Ashton Keynes).

Thames Waters 5 Miles downstream (near Ashton Keynes).

I met a couple walking the whole way that had their bags on a baby stroller as they couldn't stand the weight of  a bag on their back. I backpack a lot so everything else turned out well as the environment and conditions are very benign.

Quintin Lake -Thames Waters 64 Miles downstream (Abingdon Lock).

Thames Waters 64 Miles downstream (Abingdon Lock).

Creatively one would expect a more topographic approach to a project that tracked the river from the source but your work is more abstract in nature. Was this idea something that occurred to you early on or is it something that developed along the way? Was there a plan of some sort or was the idea to make an edit of the project at the end?

The Thames is not a dramatic river, it gently flows and meanders. The drama comes from the history and culture that it passes by: such as Runnymede, Oxford, Windsor, Hampton Court, Houses of Parliament. I tried to get across this richness by looking at the abstract qualities of the water as a topographic approach would undersell the mystery of this great river. I wanted to create a poem, not a documentary - I knew that before I started.

Quintin Lake -Thames Waters 103 Miles downstream (near Henley-on-Thames)

Thames Waters 103 Miles downstream (near Henley-on-Thames)

I kept an open mind about how I would edit the work when I started. However, I quickly realised the quality of the water and the patterns are special - If I haven't seen something before then i give it attention! This was one idea I purchased along with man made structures by the river and more topographic images, when it came to editing the abstracts were clearly better.

Quintin Lake -Thames Waters 132 Miles downstream (Under M25 bridge near Staines)

Thames Waters 132 Miles downstream (Under M25 bridge near Staines)

Once you had decided that the project was going to be more abstract in nature was it easy to stick to that?

No! I hedged my bets by trying out other types of images as I went too. I had a wavering of confidence about halfway through as the light was very flat and I'd walked a couple of days without taking any abstract pictures so I did try even more topographical photographs then. In the end, the abstract series seemed to work even though the images are not proportionally spaced out along the length of the river.

Quintin Lake -Thames Waters 158 Miles downstream (near Richmond, London).

Thames Waters 158 Miles downstream (near Richmond, London).

How did you know when and where to finish?

The official Thames Path finishes at The Thames Barrier but I chose to end on the steps of St Pauls as it seems a better urban/rural contrast with the source, So I left the river by crossing the Millennium bridge by Tate Modern. Also, I felt the series was better to end with an image of urban London (symbolised with the houses of parliament)

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When you started editing the work were you tempted at anytime to go back and 'fill in a few holes'?

No I wouldn't want to add or take away anything from the series - not because it is perfect but I think reworking it would reduce its spontaneity and lead me to over-think things. I might redo the journey by bike or canoe, but I'd expect that to be parallel series rather than fill in gaps. I also like the idea of continuing downstream from central London to the sea

Quintin Lake -Photolive_Travel-208

I presume you were carrying a fair bit in your rucksack. Did you use a compact camera to save weight? 

Yes I used a Canon G1X. It has a large sensor and I find the lens has excellent sharpness for non moving subjects - its the ideal small camera for landscape and architecture. It weights 0.5 KG and represents the best compromise of weight to quality with a decent zoom range for me. I carry it in a pouch on the rucksack shoulder strap so its always accessible. I've found the best way to use it is like a medium format film camera: strap around the neck, camera pressed against the chest with the screen rotated upwards and looking down towards the camera. This provides a very stable platform an helps me see the image in isolation from the surroundings.

Quintin Lake -Thames Waters 169 Miles downstream (Houses of Parliament, London).

Thames Waters 169 Miles downstream (Houses of Parliament, London).

What were people's reactions to the work like and did you find commercial success from it.

Very positive: it got picked up by a number of magazines: Londonist, Treehugger, Landscape Journal, entirely organically from my initial blog post. I was very lucky as it was meant as an intimate personal project - I felt compelled to do it but had no plans for it commercially during the creation. This lead to a number of print sales which is ongoing. I think many people have an emotional & geographical connection to the river and this series expresses that for them. As its been the most commercially successful work and also one of the most satisfying personally, its profoundly changed the way I work: I'm happy letting intuition lead me now!

Quintin Lake -Thames Waters 165 Miles downstream (Wandsworth, London).

Thames Waters 165 Miles downstream (Wandsworth, London).

Do you think doing the whole project in a single 'trip' helped it's cohesiveness?

Yes, dipping in and out on weekends for example would make it harder to focus on a creative idea to push it beyond the obvious or to be distracted by everyday concerns. Also after a few days of continuous walking one becomes spiritually/creatively focused - which I imagine is the wisdom behind the religious pilgrimage.

Quintin Lake - lightroom

What do you thinks makes the difference between success or failure in a project like this?

I think success on a project like this is a combination of sticking at it, keeping an open mind to creative possibilities yet striving for some kind of theme to tie the work together. Practically speaking packing light prevents one tiring too much to be able to think creatively about photography.


Do you have any plans for other local projects of this sort?

I recently completed walking Britain's oldest path, the Ridgeway exclusively using a 400mm prime, which was a follow up to the Thames series. You can see some images from this here. Next year I'm planning a longer month long journey across Wales from coast to coast following the route of the Cambrian way. I could see these projects eventually forming a book or exhibition on British paths.


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