Dawn Days Of May

The month is May, the year is two thousand and twenty and the UK is approximately four weeks into lockdown as a result of the global Coronavirus pandemic. Cornish photographer and story-teller Nick Pumphrey begins a daily ritual... Dawn Days of May.

Hi Nick, thanks for taking time out to chat with us about Dawn Days of May. Please can you start at the beginning...

Nick: Thank you very much for giving us this space to chat about our story. Dawn Days of May for me was a way to deal with the initial Covid situation. Through March and April I struggled with my thoughts at times and realised that I had to change something. I read a lot of books on the power of being present (trying to be) and the rewards of chasing the things you love, as well as the importance of connection to nature. The idea to swim every dawn with my camera started to float around my brain towards the end of April, and the beginning of May felt like the perfect time to bring forward this new mindset. My alarm clock got set for an hour before sunrise, and bedtime started to happen an hour before sunset! I was interested to see if I could commit to 31 days of early starts. That alone was an accomplishment for me as I’m pretty damn lazy and do like the old sleep in.

~ Photos by Nick Pumphrey ~

By the 3rd of May after a phone chat and catch up, Mike Guest became interested and started to join by swimming and filming in the more frigid waters of Edinburgh, with even earlier starts due its more Northern latitude. Greg Dennis joined me on the 14th morning and I was stoked to have some company to share the experience with. It wasn’t too long until Greg’s creative ideas were flowing and the thoughts of a short film started to come to him, which then led to me suggesting my friend Pete Leakey as the fine human to create a soundtrack. Last but most definitely not least was James Warbey who joined on the 19th dawn and became my partner-in-creative-crime until the 31st. What a pleasure that was to witness huge transformation in a friend through simply floating in the sea and taking some photos - followed by the standard flask of Warbey brewed coffee! The beauty of this whole movement was that it was totally organic, nothing planned or forced from the get-go. It sparked interest in us all and that was the thread of inspiration that led to everything that it has become today.

~ Photo by Nick Pumphrey ~

How would you say friendship shaped Dawn Days of May? Did taking part bring you closer not only as a group, but to people across Cornwall & around the world? 

Nick: Dawn Days would not exist without our friendship, it would otherwise have been just myself and some photographic memories to show. I consider everyone in this conversation to be a good friend, and our story has become so much richer because of this. Through social media a buzz was created, and we were all able to connect to more friends from here in Cornwall and around the world.

A full snowball effect was created,

or a ‘Mad Spiral of Goodness’ as I like to call it - Nick


Mike: One of the best things that has come out of Dawn Days is my friendship with Barry Jackson. He lives all of 500m from my house and ended up making almost 80% of the music for my films, not to mention going down and recording the sea, the birds and the silence as the streets of Edinburgh were taken back by wildlife, and not cars. I can share some of my daftest thoughts or darkest thoughts with him and feel safe to do that. Myself and Nick talked weekly, if not more - and I've got to know him so much better. I have had some ace phone calls with Warbey, getting to know his story. Likewise with Greg. We all know of eachother due to social media, but to have a phone call and a video chat is so much more than a 'like' or a 'comment' on any of the platforms. What it taught me is that face-to-face human connection is so important to me. You know what I'm looking forward to most next year? It's hugs. Watch out world - when it's safe, I'm coming to hug you.

~ Photos by Mike Guest ~

Warbey: I knew Pumps and Greg before I took part in Dawn Days and once the movement had started and I got amongst it I then started to chat to Mike. I do feel it brought me closer to the guys though for sure, spending those mornings together witnessing nature do its thing was just incredible, then the coffee ritual after speaking about what we had witnessed was always a great end to the morning before parting ways. The best moments that I won't forget for a long, long time. It was an amazing thing to be a small part of.

Mike, being locked down in Scotland, how was Dawn Days instrumental in making sure you still felt connected?

Mike: More than making me feel connected, it gave me a focus and a creative routine to help me cope with what was going on around me (both in the world and in my personal life), to make me hone in on how to be with myself. I have spent the past 21 years working away from home, on the move all the time. Dawn Days gave me a purpose at a time when I really needed it.

~ Photo by Mike Guest ~

Do you believe in the benefits of blue space and in turn, blue health? Is there anything you would encourage for those who might not have access to the coast so readily?

Mike: It could be the sea, a river or a loch. I just love to be in it, on it or around it. So much so that I can find peace of mind floating in a bath, or under the shower. I'm also still one of those (40 year old) kids that likes to jump in puddles. Keep it simple, keep it safe and have fun in the water. 

~ Photo by James Warbey ~

It can sometimes be easy to fall into the pitfalls of social media & its potential toxicity. When sharing your captured images each morning via Instagram, how did you make sure the joy you’d experienced in the water wasn’t negatively affected? Do you feel social media can be used as a force for good? 

Nick: To be honest there was no consideration on my part that there would be any negativity associated with the posting of imagery on my Instagram. I personally could not focus on any form of negativity at that point in time, so it all felt positive from my point of view. Social media is a kind of exchange of energy, a full spectrum of light to dark. It most definitely can be a force for good as there are so many amazing accounts that provide positive information on the daily, I suppose it’s up to us to take personal responsibility as to what we want to let into our thoughts. 

Warbey: I am a firm believer in social media being what you want it to be, it can be negative if you allow it to be. I try to focus on the positive sides of it as much as possible, like the photographers I admire or watching my friends' creativity/ talent grow and inspire me/ everyone else. I had some amazing messages from Dawn Days, really personal ones from people who I know and complete strangers as well. The great thing about swimming is that you can't help but be in the moment, holding a camera or not, you are present. Just capturing what the eye is seeing, and sometimes more. I think it's really hard to be negative towards such a positive movement like the one Pumps (Nick) created. I saw and experienced nothing but good energy from this, life changing. So yes, absolutely it can be a force for good, you just have to filter it to make sure what you're seeing doesn't bring you down or affect you negatively.

~ Photos by Nick Pumphrey ~

Can you tell us a little about the process of how the short film 'Be There, Be Present' came to life…

Greg: I was swimming in the sea with my camera exactly as Nick was, except rather than sharing my imagery each day on Instagram I was saving it up to form what ended up being Be There, Be Present. In terms of the ethos and message, I don’t think it was until after the month was over that I really appreciated the impact that Dawn Days had / was having, and that was when I really started to focus in on bringing the story to life with the film.

BE THERE, BE PRESENT from Greg Dennis on Vimeo.

Pete - you found yourself locked down in France. How did soundtracking Dawn Days help you in your own creativity and mental health?

Pete: We had a pretty strict lockdown here in France, the measures taken were enforced and people were pretty spun out by the whole thing really. After the initial - and I’m sure relatable - period of frustration and indulgence at the beginning there, my mind was definitely switching towards music and more creative endeavours. The decision to use this time in a productive manner and involving something that I’m passionate about undoubtedly helped my mental health. Then when it came to working on what would become Be There Be Present, it felt like it came pretty naturally. Nick is a good pal and I had been loving the output and the tangible froth levels from his daily swims during confinement, probably more so because surfing and even beach access had been banned over here in France. When Greg got in touch and sent me the footage he had been capturing, I felt pretty moved by it. I just sat down with a guitar and an early edit and it started coming out. The imagery was so expressive and at the beginning I just tried to dial in to the pacing and the movement of the water. So I guess the main factor was that the music should feel connected to this whole thing, as I did, I suppose.

~ Photo by Nick Pumphrey ~

We’re sure each early start made a lasting impression - but were there any Dawns that resonated with you in particular?

Nick: My whole idea from the beginning was to just go to the sea and photograph whatever happens in front of me during that period of time, from the blue hour into sunrise. No brief to work towards, no expectation, just turn up and see what nature gives. With this in mind I soon came to realise that the magic moments, the ones that stayed with me more vividly were those surprise moments, the totally unexpected colours and scenes that would pass by. Every morning, all thirty one dawns would give these experiences and I learnt that by being more in the moment I was able to see it more, my senses became more acute to my surroundings, my eye, camera and hands worked with the movement of the sea and sky. 

I have two Dawns that resonated with me for two totally different reasons, one was pure excitement and the other was a lesson to learn. The Lesson was to listen to myself. I turned up at Godrevy beach towards the end of the month to be greeted by heavy sea fog. I knew there was swell around but could not see, my gut feeling was to not go in but I felt like I had to take some photos so that I would have something to ‘show’. So I forced the issue, the sea kept pushing me back to shore, so many signs that I ignored. Eventually I got caught in a rip and was out beyond the waves. During this time I got swept north, I lost reference to the land and only when I decided to swim back in did I notice that the beach was now a rock ledge. I got in and called it coffee time with a lesson learnt to listen to myself more and above all respect the Sea. The second memorable dawn was way more enjoyable, a swim at a certain little sheltered high tide spot in St Ives bay. I swam out into torrential rain with a focus problem on my camera. Half an hour later the storm had passed and so had the camera issue. I was alone with these beautiful ocean pyramids bouncing off the cliff and colliding with the next wave. The winds were offshore and the light was just before sunrise and rich in color. The energy in the sea was non stop, and I found myself totally absorbed into the present moment, I found myself just reacting to the details and the relentless movement and shapes that were going off in front of me, a cool inner feeling of being totally in sync with nature and time.

~ Photos by James Warbey ~

Mike: The mornings I would wake to a message with some music from a friend, and a story of why it meant so much to them to see my videos each day, would give me such a buzz and the push to get back out there. To know it was helping not just me, but friends and strangers around the world. Come to think of it the most touching day was a message from my friend Nick... his wife was bed-ridden and through all of lockdown he was working at night so he could care for both her and his daughter in the daytime. This is what he sent me: “I've just been so loving your Dawn Days films man, they're kind of saving my life at times!! So thanks for that! It just struck me one of our mammal tunes might feed well into the beautiful shit you're doing. We recorded it in my pal's cottage which is at the end of Coldingham Beach...” I found myself half dressed in my wetsuit, cup of tea in hand and tears running down my cheeks as I listened to the music and read Nick's mail. This is the video from that day.

~ Photo by Mike Guest ~

Greg: My first morning with Nick stands out for me. It was the most pristine conditions, no wind, perfect sky, small clean waves and absolutely freezing. There was ice on the dunes as we walked down to the beach. Crazy to be so cold half way through May, but it could have been because of the valley that Godrevy Beach sits in. I didn’t quite anticipate how cold it would be and hadn’t brought gloves. As the session went on I was having to constantly jump up and down to keep warm (which you can see Nick doing around 1 minute into the film) and by the end after the sun had risen and we were getting out, I could no longer press record on my camera and Nick had to carry it back for me as I couldn’t feel my hands! I won’t forget it.

Warbey: The morning that stands out for me was the “Backwash Machine”. Myself, Pumps and Greg met in St Ives harbour at 4am and made our way through the fishing boats that were stranded on the sand due to the low tide towards the sea, it took us around 10 minutes to realise what was actually happening in front of us (sleepy eyes). Waves smashing into Smeatons Pier then heading back out to sea to collide with one heading the opposite way, creating incredible backwash shapes. The sunrise was absolutely mind blowing as well. What a Dawn Day that was. 

~ Photo by Nick Pumphrey ~

Do you have any further plans for Dawn Days?

Nick: Definitely some ideas brewing. Creativity and connection to nature are two very powerful movements, so I think we would love to find a way to get more people inspired to tap into the accessible feelings that we have experienced. Mike has some cool ideas to move forward with!

Mike: I would love to see us grow the network of men and women going out and shooting all over the globe. Imagine a map with pins joining all around the globe, people showing us their dawns from the tropical waters of Bali to the frigid north of Norway and Iceland. Something I'd love to see is helping a young lad or lady - giving them the kit they need to go and shoot in the water and have this ever growing group. Sort of mentors, I guess. 

~ Photos by Mike Guest ~

And finally, have you any words of encouragement for readers who might want to get involved in Dawn Days?

Nick: I think there are three factors here that work so well together and that is being creative, connecting to nature and doing it first thing in the morning. There is something so powerful about kick starting your day this way. I’m pretty sure that you will take away similar feelings if you were writing poetry under a tree at sunrise or painting a picture of a lake. It’s all about that positive start and being true to yourself. If it’s swimming in St Ives bay with a camera that revs your engine then get in touch with me and I’ll be more than happy to swim with you!

Mike: Whatever it is that floats your boat and gets you buzzing, get out there and do it first thing in the morning - go and see that big ball of flames and energy pop up from the horizon. On the days you don't see it, just know that it's still up there doing its thing, day in day out. Like they say... there is always blue sky above the clouds. Having a pal to do it with is also so much fun and as I learned, you don't need to be in the same place - Nick and I were 600 miles away but we would talk once or twice each week and catch up!

~ Photo by Nick Pumphrey ~

Greg: At first it seems crazy (particularly near the summer equinox!) to be getting up so early to just swim in the sea, but once you’ve done it once you’ll be hooked. Getting into the sea is an incredible thing to do, but just getting out early and doing something is the key. Have a walk, watch the sunrise, do some exercise - whatever it is. That commitment to the early start and getting the day started right is life changing.

Warbey: I hadn't been in the sea for nearly 20 years due to battles with my mind. I am so glad that I managed to overcome those thanks to Dawn Days. I genuinely couldn't recommend doing it more, it has changed my life. As I write this I am trying to figure out where I am going to swim tomorrow morning. Once you start it you will be drawn back to it time and time again. Watching the sun come up, creativity and presence, things that have become really important to me and that I will continue to chase for a long time to come! One thing I have noticed is that there seems to be a lot of sea swimming groups around, so if you are nervous about going at it alone, try and find one and tag along. You won't regret it.

~ Photo by James Warbey ~

So whether it's in the sea, on land or in your mind - if you're feeling inspired to create your own 'mad spiral of goodness' make sure to let Nick and the boys know using #DawnDaysOfMay


Free ride

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