How to Capture the Sun

A feast for water readers: Glen Dye

I’m just back from Kincaldineshire. A big thank you to the extraordinary Charlie and Caroline Gladstone for inviting me to run a couple of mini courses at their brilliant new micro -festival, Camp Glen Dye. (This first one sold out months ahead of time, but look out for future dates and get in quick for the next one.)

A lovelier group of people it would be hard to imagine. I can’t be the only person who has noticed that people who are passionate about the outdoors are noticeably nicer than the population as a whole? I’m an optimist, I expect strangers of all walks to be nice people, but it gets near a certainty if they choose to spend their free time in the freshest air.

It was a real honour and privilege to meet so many interesting people and to work alongside legends like Alex Gregory MBE and Dee Rettali and Jorge Fernandez.

(During my stay, Charlie interviewed me around the campfire for his popular Mavericks podcast series and we dug a bit deeper into my approach, background and philosophy than most interviews. I’ll post again when that is out.)


During our natural navigation and water reading walks, we looked at dozens of clues and signs; some old favourites – from cloud to leaf compasses – and a couple of rarer ones – flotsam gathering at a pond edge and the Thalweg – too.

One I forgot to mention, but used lots when out and about was the ‘capturing the sun’ technique. It is a form of landmark navigation, very simple and powerful.

We experienced three if not four seasons every few hours during our days in Kincaldineshire, with warm sunshine and proper hail within the same hour twice. This sort of weather keeps us on our toes, not least when it comes to natural navigation.

When the sun is out, there is a temptation to get lazy and assume nature’s best compass will make everything a doddle. But when it disappears for periods, it can lead to a sense of wasted opportunity.

What I try to do is use the times when the sun is out to lock its help into the landscape. What does that even mean?? Well, if there are any distinctive landmarks then it’s a great idea to get the best possible idea of their bearing and this is easiest to do when the sun is out.

If you look at the picture above, you’ll see a range of hills punctuating the landscape. Near the middle of the photo, there is a very distinctive rocky summit, unmistakeable from most perspectives for miles around.

When the sun was out, it gave me my bearings, literally, and this allowed me to note that this bold landmark was due west of me. When the sun went back in for an hour, the hills remained visible and I was grateful to have locked the sun’s wisdom into the summit.

Of course, if the cloud lowers you will lose the higher landmarks, so for belt and braces you might want to pick a lower one too. You’ll never regret capturing the sun in this way, if you never need it, you might need suntan lotion instead; a nice problem to have near Aberdeen.

On a related note, I spotted lots of trentepohlia on the trees, which surprised me this far north. It is an algae that and likes warm damp environments and with practice makes a fine compass. As it marches north up the UK, some researchers use it to map climate change.

Summer comes later as we move north too, which has some benefits. It means we can watch the bluebells come in and out of bloom in the south, before heading north of the border to enjoy a second show.

Bluebells still in full bloom at the end of May
With practice, Trentepohlia can be used to find North
Making a compass out of pond flotsam

Tags