Peak Photo Centre's Simon Watkinson
Mike Smith meets photographer Simon Watkinson who relocated from London 11 years ago and now runs specialist courses from his Peak District home
Those of us who live and work in the Peak District are apt to forget that our way of life is the stuff of dreams for many city dwellers. Of course, most of the people who would love to exchange their frenetic urban existence for life in the wide open spaces know that they will never convert their reveries into reality, because they realise that moving to the countryside is one thing, but earning a living there is another matter entirely.
When Simon Watkinson decided to take the plunge by leaving his job as a professional photographic printer in London, he was well aware that there were no guarantees that he would stay afloat financially when he relocated to the Peak District. However, as a natural risk-taker with a taste for adventure, he was more than happy to make the move. Eleven years on from this life-changing decision, he is living his dream in a remote farmhouse in the heart of the national park.
Testing my satellite navigation system to its limit, I travelled to meet Simon at his isolated house in order to discover the secret of his successful relocation. We began our conversation by talking about one of his earlier life-changing moves. Simon has loved taking photographs since childhood, but he began his working life as a maker of musical instruments. Although this job fitted in quite nicely with his passion for music, he soon found that he was spending much of his spare time taking photographs and processing them in his own dark room. At the age of 21, he decided that it was time to convert his hobby into a job.
Despite being entirely self-taught, Simon managed to obtain a post as a photographer with a food research company in Surrey and spent the next four years ‘taking arty shots of everything from food packaging to company directors in their offices and cows in fields’. After this valuable experience as a taker of images, he switched to a job that involved developing photographs for a printing company that ran the largest professional processing laboratory in Europe.
Recalling his attempt to find new work when he and his wife made their move to Derbyshire, Simon said: ‘Our first house in the Peak District was a cottage in Longnor. Although it was very small, it had a garage that could easily be converted into a dark room, so I decided that I would set up as a photographer specialising in weddings and portraits. I soon realised that weddings among the “Cheshire Set” offered the best opportunities and I ended up covering some pretty high-profile ceremonies and receptions.’
When the Watkinsons began to look for a bigger property, they were lucky enough to find Spout Farm, which is located eight miles from Buxton in the heart of unspoilt countryside. The house was available for rent to anyone who could prove that they would use it for a rural business, and when Simon saw the farm’s dilapidated 300-year-old barn with its mezzanine and exposed rafters, he knew that it had the potential to become a terrific photographic studio.
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A new business plan began to form in his mind: he would set up a digital studio and use Spout Farm as the base for courses in digital, wedding and landscape photography. Participants would stay in local hostelries, receive instruction at Spout Farm and then try out their photographic skills in the beautiful countryside surrounding his home.
As well as winning over the Peak District National Park Authority with his plans, Simon managed to obtain grants from the Rural Regeneration Programme and the Environmental Economy Grant Scheme. As soon as his new venture was advertised on the web, people began arriving from all over the country to learn new skills whilst enjoying the delights of the Peak District.
Even though digital photography was in its infancy at that time and somewhat frowned upon by the purists, Simon made a decision from the start to work exclusively in the digital mode. One again, his risk-taking paid off. For a time, his enterprise was the only one in the country offering digital courses. As a result, business boomed and he was soon looking for extra premises in Buxton where he could establish a portrait studio and a state-of-the-art computer room with a series of workstations.
As well as offering photographic and digital workshops to beginners and budding professionals, the Peak Photo Centre provides courses for photographers who simply wish to improve their technique. Simon runs 120 courses per year, covering 29 different aspects of photography, and provides tuition by top photographers such as Fran Halsall, Ben Hall, Mark Williams, Mark Wood, Alex Hyde and our own Karen Frenkel. In fact, he now runs the largest independent photographic training centre in Europe.
Participants who sign up for courses in portrait photography work in the studio with a model, while those wishing to take up wedding photography work in suitable locations where they photograph a couple of models who pose as the bride and groom. Lightroom and digital imaging courses have proved to be very popular and the recession has actually increased business for Simon, because many people who have been made redundant are looking to photography as a new career. This also applies to people leaving the armed forces and returning to civilian life.
Although there is no shortage of photographers who are keen to practise their skills as landscape photographers in the Peak District, the minibus that stands in the grounds of Spout Farm is also available to take groups on regular courses to the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. Seasonal locations for those interested in wildlife photography include Lyme Park during the rutting season, when students can take ‘behavioural shots of stags as they strut their stuff’; the Lincolnshire coast in December, when the seals come ashore to give birth to their pups, and Skomer Island in late May, when there are great opportunities to take photographs of puffins.
Simon even organises ‘Classic Journeys’ to far flung destinations, where he can not only provide his students with fabulous subjects, but also exercise his own considerable skills as a photographer. His Moroccan tour provides opportunities to capture an exotic mix of European and African influences, and his Indian tour includes visits to shrines and palaces, as well as the world’s largest camel fair at Pushkar.
Simon is planning to add Namibia to his portfolio, because it will provide subjects ranging from shifting sand dunes and dramatic mountains to wildlife in the bush and grasslands, but Nepal continues to be his preferred tour destination. He says, ‘It is my favourite country on the entire planet: it contains eight of the world’s ten highest mountains, a world heritage site in Kathmandu Valley and a multitude of wonderful temples and shrines.’
Although Simon’s sense of adventure has contributed to the development of his business, it is his willingness to take risks and his entrepreneurial skills that have ensured its success. He now shares Spout Farm with his new partner Tammy, who also acts as his business manager, and the couple have a young child. With a thriving business and a house in an idyllic location, Simon is understandably pleased with his life in the Peak District. ‘It’s peaceful and safe here,’ he says. ‘Wild horses wouldn’t drag me back to London.’
Peak Photo Centre is based at 11 Eagle Parade, Market Place, Buxton SK17 6EQ. (01298 214438). www.peakphotocentre.com