At that moment, I hear the ring of a shotgun and ask myself, was that aimed at me? Being shot at wasn't the welcome I expected when visiting Mont St Michel in Normandy, France!
My photographic journey in capturing the landscape beauty of Brittany and Normandy started two years ago in 2020, just before the pandemic. It was a location I knew I wanted to visit because of the rugged granite shoreline and characterful coastal dwellings that litter this famous region. It's also renowned for unpredictable weather conditions that roll off the Atlantic Ocean. This is all part of the attraction to me, so I began the process of researching locations for a new photography project, saving them as 'favorites' on Google Maps. From an early age, I've been fascinated with the coast; so many of the saved pins followed the outline of the French peninsular. In total, I select over sixty potential sites. All that was left to do now was to book the flights and accommodation. But, then, the world changed, and travel was a thing of the past
Fast-forward to March 2022, I finally see a window, book my flight to Nantes in Northern France and leave within days. I decided to hire a car, allowing me the freedom to explore all the locations I'd previously researched. Over the next nine days, I explore stunning locations that include Saint-Malo, the beaches close to Saint Pabu, île-de-Bréhat, Kermorvan Lighthouse, and Mont Saint Michel.
Originally, the Mont occupied dry land during prehistoric times, but as sea levels rose, coastal erosion took place, leaving the outcrops of granite in the bay. As a tidal island, it is now only accessible when the tide retreats via a newly constructed lightweight bridge, allowing waters to flow freely around the island, reducing the build-up of silt. When scouting photographic locations around the Mont, I decided I didn't want to join the thousands of tourists who access the island via the causeway. Instead, I was hoping to capture the remoteness of the Mont by using the vast emptiness of the low tide sandbanks. But in practice, achieving this image proved to be a much more significant challenge than I expected.
If you've visited Mont St Michel, you will know that East of the island, along the coastal edge, lie salt marsh meadows formed by polderisation and occasional flooding. The distance between the nearest road and access to the foreshore is approx. 2.5km as the crow flies. So you have to cross these marshes to gain any chance of capturing the Mont from the beach. So I arrive fully prepared; water, food, boots, appropriate all-weather clothing, and my camera gear, a total of 25Kg's of equipment. It's early morning, and I leave my car in a designated car park next to the road and set off following yellow footpath markers. These markers soon disappear, and I find myself traversing a rickety farmers' fence into the open plains of the salt meadows. These marshes are ideally suited for grazing sheep, and the resulting diet produces unique, well-flavored meat, which is found on many of the menus of local restaurants. I then begin to question if these marshes are private land, and at that moment, a shotgun rings out! I spin 180 degrees expecting to see an angry farmer heading my way. Wearing a luminous green puffer jacket isn't helping me blend into the natural environment. However, the armed agriculturalist didn't make an appearance, so I decided to continue my quest. Please don't think I was irresponsible, I'd checked online before venturing out, and there was nothing to suggest this land was private. But you question yourself when you feel isolated and exposed due to the lack of other human presence.
I began to relent to the occasionally shotgun outburst, but navigating the many salt marsh tributaries was to be my next contention. Some of the streams could be stepped over or even jumped, but on many occasions, I'd reach a brook too wide to cross and then have to backtrack to find a suitable crossing point. It reminded me of a labyrinth, a maze you'd find in a children's puzzle book. My GPS history probably resembled a vigorous scribble, but it didn't deter me. I'd come too far to turn back now. I was adamant I was going to get this shot.
The coastline is in view, Mont Saint Michel looks majestic, with foreboding clouds blanketing the sky above. I looked down at my Apple watch, and I'd already walked 4.5kms due to the haphazard trek out. The fictitious assault course then offered up an electric fence that mirrors the shoreline; I presumed to stop inquisitive sheep from launching themselves into the quicksand below. Of course, the quick sand! Popularly nicknamed 'St Michel in peril of the sea' by medieval pilgrims, the sandy flats can still pose dangers to visitors who attempt the potentially hazardous walk across the bay. As I navigate the electric fence, I'm hoping that my YouTube research of 'How to get out of quicksand' will do me proud if I find myself in trouble.
I reach the bay and check the time; the tide is now at its lowest; luckily, my timing calculation is correct. The tides can vary greatly, at approximately 14 meters (46ft) between the highest and lowest water levels. I step onto the alien landscape, where the cold North Atlantic waters had occupied only hours ago. The sand is soft, but I'm not sinking. I choose a path out into the bay that looks relatively dry to limit the chances of encountering quicksand. After another short trek, I decide on a shoot location. The composition promises a minimalist landscape that isolates the Mont through the negative space of the sand flats and large overcast sky. I set my tripod up at waist height to minimize the distraction the manmade causeway can pose to the left of the island. I place a CD under each tripod leg to distribute the camera's weight to stop the legs from sinking into the unstable silt. The wind is gusting at 20-30kph, so I have to shelter my camera using my body; I disregarded using long exposures for this reason. I fire off 20 frames with a mix of compositions and focal lengths, checking for sharpness each time I release the shutter. I'm in awe of this beautiful island. Saint Michel is one of those locations that takes your breath away. I begin to think of its history, its 29 inhabitants, and how lucky I am to experience this historic site from a solitary standing point. I capture my last few frames, take a moment to say my goodbyes, pick up my camera bag and head back to the shoreline.
The walk back doesn't seem quite as challenging; sobriety and contentment washes over me, knowing I've managed to capture the photograph I thought about taking two years ago. OK, so it's not like I'm the only person to take this type of image at Saint Michel, far from it, but it's the experience, the challenge, the narrative, and the memories. That's what matters to me. Making an effort somehow makes it feel more authentic; I feel more connected to the landscape. The pre-trip research, physical exertion, and immersion within the elements all accumulate and often re-emerge into the aesthetic and emotion of the final edit.
This all-encompassing sense of achievement drives me to experience these moments; it's why I'm passionate about photography. It's not just about the image, which can effectively only be one photograph. The story lies in the emotional connection you take from visiting these places. But on occasion, I have found myself asking, 'why am I doing this for one photograph'.