On a bright winter morning, Terry Abraham stands at his kitchen window in Cumbria and sees a magnificent beast before him. It is smooth and gentle but its claws loom over the microscopic villagers in the valleys below. The gatekeeper to the Lake District, her name is Blencathra.
“She’s pretty to look at, which makes me think she’s a feminine mountain, but she’s brutal as well. You’ve got to take her seriously,” says Abraham, the documentary filmmaker behind Life of a Mountain: A Year on Blencathra.
“I don’t agree with Alfred Wainwright that she’s a mountaineer’s mountain, but she is iconic and beautiful,” says 40-year-old Abraham. “There’s nothing else out there like her. The way she looks and appears is completely different to any other mountain you’ll see in Britain.”
Born in Nottinghamshire and now living in the Eden Valley, Abraham’s relationship with the countryside stems from his grandparents.
“My grandfather became a gamekeeper with a large acreage of woodland on the edge of Sherwood Forest,” he says. “I used to spend lots of days with him there, running around freely, whilst my grandmother made me aware of the countryside’s history, heritage and culture. They gave me my love and appreciation of travelling to beautiful places.”
Abraham’s interest in filmmaking developed as a teenager but was sidelined after the loss of his grandparents. He instead followed a career in IT – keeping his true calling as a hobby for years – before being made redundant in 2010.
“It reignited my passion. I became acutely aware of my mortality. It was about a year and a half from that point when I had the confidence to start making my first documentary, Life of a Mountain: A Year on Scafell Pike.”
“I was on the fells for days on end to get the shots I wanted.”
Abraham self-financed this ambitious project with no end game. His plan was that the film would be the first part of a trilogy covering mountains in the Lake District over the four seasons. But the project was demanding – until a year ago Abraham wasn’t a Cumbrian resident.
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. I don’t drive, so I was regularly taking a large backpack on the train. I was on the fells for days on end to get the shots I wanted in all weathers.”
Why did he not choose to film in countryside closer to his native Nottinghamshire?
“I do feel a connection with all the countryside but there’s just something about Cumbria. It resonates with me on a profound level. I enjoyed going there and savouring every moment of the wonderful sites I witnessed. It was uplifting and cleansed the soul, so I didn’t care about the distances involved. It made me all the more determined that I would finish the project, even though I didn’t know what was going to happen afterwards.”
What happened was the reward of a BBC broadcast. After over a million viewings on iPlayer, talk of making part two of the trilogy soon became a reality and work started immediately. He had intended to film Helvellyn – which will now become the final instalment, scheduled for 2019 – but was reminded how “popular and well-loved Blencathra is” during the unsuccessful attempt to sell it by its owner, Hugh Lowther, the Earl of Lonsdale, when it became known as the “People’s Mountain”.
“I thought about things whilst camping on the mountain at Souther Fell. I got some nice shots on camera and felt ready for the challenge of doing it all again. I was hooked and couldn’t wait to get started.”
The documentary features some well-known faces accompanying Abraham on Blencathra. In a standout moment, television presenter David Powell-Thompson joins comedian Ed Byrne and writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie in ascending Sharp Edge, the notoriously difficult main route to the mountain’s summit.
“It was a very challenging day. We were unsure whether we should’ve gone ahead because of strong winds,” he recalls. “The difficult conditions really emphasised the attributes of each character, including Blencathra herself. We had the wise old sage [David], the cocky confident guy [Ed] and the uninitiated [Stuart]. It was a strong, dramatic shoot and proved to be one of the highlights of the film.”
Whilst Abraham’s camerawork is impressive, his documentary is not merely a series of panoramic views and perilous climbs up the mountain. As with Scafell Pike, he also tells the stories of those living nearby, showing life around Blencathra working in tandem with the mountain.
“I’m just as passionate about the people as I am about the landscape, so it was important for me to marry the two. I wanted the people and the visuals of the mountain to tell the story together, to get the audience to look at the area differently and be inspired to visit.”
Life of a Mountain: A Year on Blencathra is on BBC Four at 9pm on Tuesday 14 February