The man behind the successful documentary Life of a Mountain: A Year on Scafell Pike, film maker Terry Abraham, recently moved from Nottinghamshire to Cumbria to fulfil a lifelong dream of living in the Lake District. It’s also significantly reduced his travel time to work on the fells, where he documents life through the seasons – the most recent on Blencathra, which will be screened on BBC Four tonight.
So, how are you feeling about the documentary airing on TV?
Apprehensive, nervous. I’m acutely aware of the expectations from Scafell Pike when that aired a couple of years ago. It was an unexpected hit – it certainly was for me. I set about producing the documentary with no intention of it going on the television or even DVD – I just did it for me and hoped for the best. I managed to get it on DVD with help from broadcaster Eric Robson and a few months after its release, I got several calls from a withheld number that I kept ignoring because I thought it was cold callers, but it transpired to be the BBC trying to get in touch with me. I had to condense it to a TV-friendly cut of 60 minutes. But I didn’t like it, so I kept quiet about it going on the telly. The weekend before I started getting fans on social media posting reviews from the press. They were full of praise and it went on to break records for BBC Four – it was life-changing.
Out of all the mountains in the Lake District, what made you pick Blencathra?
I had the idea of doing Blencathra and Skiddaw together, but I wanted to do Helvellyn next. Because of the possible sale of the mountain [Blencathra], which isn’t happening now, it was very topical. Eric Robson, who’s a friend of mine now, sat me down and said: ‘I don’t think you realise how life changing it’s going to be when Scafell Pike airs and I think you need to strike whilst the iron’s hot, don’t take a year off doing other projects – get on with the next one. Don’t bother with Helvellyn, I think you should do Blencathra.’
So I went out on a wild camp on Souther Fell, got some nice shots and got bitten by the bug. I thought: ‘Ok I’m ready, physically and mentally ready, to undertake the challenge [of]going about producing the documentary all on my tod again.’ I put word out on social media and it went nuts. Becoming acutely aware of the sheer amount of love and affection for Blencathra, combined with Scafell Pike being a hit on the television, was like a hanging cloud over me for those next 14 months. Even though terrain-wise filming Blencathra wasn’t any way nearly as difficult, it was arguably more difficult in other ways trying to fulfill people’s expectations. She’s a beautiful mountain, she’s iconic, there’s no other mountain that looks like her anywhere in the UK, but all the drama, all the action is on her southern face: all those ridges and claws that reach down to the valley below.
What was day-to-day filming like?
With Scafell Pike I’d camp out for nights on end with absolutely everything with me. I’d pop back down to film people in the valleys or get food supplies – and sometimes beer I have to add. I became good friends with The Blencathra Field Centre, with the manager Tim Foster and the team there. They were fantastic and offered me accommodation, so I could be based there and store my equipment, rather than travelling up from Nottinghamshire with hundreds of kilos of equipment on the trains.
One of the hardest weeks I ever did was in January, not long after the Cumbria floods, and the winter wasn’t very good. I’d got all these shots I’d worked so hard for through the previous 10, 11 months, and I was frightened to death that I wasn’t going to be able to get spectacular winter scenes of Blencathra. Being a bit of a weather geek, I’d anticipated [when in] January there was going to be a three-week spell of wintery conditions. It proved to be a lot shorter – about 12 days – and so I panicked; I had all these dates I’d booked with people filming. I managed to bring all those shoots forwards: it was a 12-day period where I’d set off at four in the morning and return to the cottage at 10 o’clock at night. I’ll be honest, getting tanked up on a bottle of wine and having a big hearty meal would knock me out for three or four hours before I’d be out the door again. I look back now – I don’t even know how I did it. I am bloody-minded, I’m carrying 50-odd kilos up and down the fells which isn’t easy, but I’m always focused on nailing those shots. Even though I cuss, or I hate it at the time when I’m pouring with sweat, or shivering and freezing, it’s all forgotten about when I’ve got those shots. That’s what it’s always about.
Are there any particularly memorable moments?
A bad moment was when I went to do a shoot with guide David Powell-Thompson, who opens and closes the documentary, and I wanted to film specific scenes with him on the summit. The snow was waist and armpit deep in places – we needed snow shoes. What would normally take a couple of hours on a particular route to get to the top took up four hours, and when we got higher and higher there was a horrendous storm. We were crawling for yards to get to positions – and I realised I wasn’t going to get the shots I wanted. Blencathra does look benign but she’s got a real sting in her tail if you’re not careful.
So is Helvellyn next up in the trilogy?
Yes definitely. I hope with Helvellyn I’ll add a few other surprises people won’t be expecting. It’ll bring it all together as a trilogy: she’s the most popular fell in the Lake District: she’s grand, dramatic – a real queen.
Catch Life of a Mountain: A Year on Blencathra on BBC Four at 9pm on 14 February. If you’d like to watch the extended version, the full two-hour documentary is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.