Photographer Simon Roberts spent a year travelling the length and breadth of England to document how we spend our leisure time. He tells Helen Barnes about his new exhibition, We English.
What inspired the road trip and the theme of the exhibition?
I was inspired by a trip I did around Russia between 2004-05 with my wife. It looked at the connection that Russians have to their “motherland”. There’s this real strong sense of belonging to the Russian landscape. It got me thinking about my relationship to Britain – or England. I thought it would be interesting to spend a year travelling about my homeland. I felt pretty ambivalent towards my relationship to England. I thought it would be interesting to explore this notion of identity and relationship to place.
This idea of travelling around one’s homeland is nothing new in photography. However, my generation has very much gone abroad with cheap flights and the appeal of the exotic.
How much planning was involved or did the destinations you visited evolve more by chance?
It was a bit of both really. I spent time researching and looking at what other people had done. I wrote to tourist information centres asking about things going on in their region. I set up a website before the journey where people could upload their ideas of where I could photograph. I was trying to engage with the community I was about to photograph. It wasn’t just my representation of England – it became, in some ways, a collaboration. There were also things that we just discovered driving around.
Were you surprised by some the leisure activities people take part in?
Some of it is really quite bizarre. In Haxey, Lincolnshire, there is a 700-year-old tradition where the villagers run around tussling with a leather strap, which turns into a rugby match. It started when 700 years ago Lady Mowbray lost her hat riding through the village and all the villagers ran to return it. A fight started and one of the villagers hands it back. The village re-enacts this event to this day – something like that is so far removed from my past-times. Now it’s a bit of fun but it’s steeped in history. There is also the Mad Maldon Mud Race. But I didn’t want it to become a catalogue of weird and wonderful things because a lot of the time the things that we do are really quite mundane.
How much of an impact do our surroundings and the landscape have on what we do?
A huge amount. The reason I wanted to do a year was to look at the climatic differences. It’s very different to Russia where there is winter and summer – there is no spring or autumn.
What was it like doing the road trip with the family? Did it pose any difficulties?
It’s like any journey – a journey strengthens the soul, it’s exciting. It’s every emotion you can imagine but it’s played out in a 3m sq motor home with an energetic two-year-old. The family didn’t join me for the whole time – just six months of it, by which time my wife was eight months’ pregnant. It threw up plenty of challenges along the way but at the same time it was extremely rewarding.
What was the highlight of the trip for you?
Just looking back it’s so difficult to just spend that amount of time constantly travelling around a place, particularly your own country. It’s an experience I will always cherish. We have another child now, so life takes over a little bit. This was an opportunity to do something fascinating. I discovered places around the country that I never knew of which will hold great memories.
How many photographs did you take over the course of the year?
Not that many – about 2,000 in the year. I use a plate camera - one where you put the whole hood on your head – on a tripod. It’s an old-fashioned camera. I took the photographs on the top of the motor home. I wanted the people to be relatively small in the frame and to have a slightly raised perspective. You’re an observer having a bird’s eye perspective.
Do you have a favourite image? If so, why that particular one?
The Holkham beach image where you can see a pilgrimage of people who have walked up and down the beach. The reason being it is one of our favourite places. At the time I remember I had my two-year-old at my feet rocking my tripod. I didn’t expect it to come out given the challenges of my little assistant.
The image taken at the Croydon Summer Festival - how did that come about?
I have always wanted to do a new photograph in the place where my work is being exhibited – a contemporary image. People do not necessarily think of Croydon as somewhere with green space so I wanted it to be a park. Researching the project I saw an exhibition at Croydon Clocktower and George Hawkins’ painting of Croydon Fair in the 1800s. It’s a lively scene with a merry-go-round in the background and people at the fair. I thought it would be interesting to recreate the scene.
How does it feel to be exhibiting your work in Croydon?
SR: It’s great. I have never had an exhibition in the town where I was born.