Billingham Stowaway Pola

Introduction

A couple of years ago, I found myself needing a new hybrid waist pack-small shoulder bag for travel, and those times I can’t take a big bag with me. Due to my experiences with their Hadley Pro, I turned straight to Billingham to find a new small bag. I had the choice of the Hadley Digital, or the Stowaway range. Due to the fact that the Hadley Digital lacked belt loops for waist mounting, I was left with choosing between the three members (Compact, Airline, and Pola) of the Stowaway range. I settled on the Stowaway Pola, as it is the largest bag in the Stowaway range, and thus offers the most load carrying capability. Because the bag was going to be spending time in hot climates, I opted to get it in khaki canvas with tan leather, for this promised the lowest heat absorption levels of any of the colours available.

The Billingham Stowaway Pola is a good size for a compact bag. It's also compact enough to fit on  my very cramped desk.
The Billingham Stowaway Pola is a good size for a compact bag. It’s also compact enough to fit on what little free desk space I have.

Quality

Like all Billingham bags, the canvas is soft and durable, the leather thick and well tanned, and the brass fixtures cleanly cast with no evidence of burrs. Stitching is tight, doubled for strength as appropriate, and very neatly finished.

A close-up of the shoulder strap where it attaches to the bag. The leather fastened around the brass loop is sturdy, but also allows for the strap to be rapidly fitted and removed.
A close-up of the shoulder strap where it attaches to the bag. The leather fastened around the brass loop is sturdy, but also allows for the strap to be rapidly fitted and removed.

The strap is made of the same woven cotton as that of the larger Billingham bags, although it is somewhat narrower. Belt loops, and the short straps which hold the D-shaped brass rings for the shoulder strap to the sides of the bag, are made of the same material as the shoulder strap. Saddlery-inspired fastenings are used to attached the strap to the bag, with leather flaps fastened around the brass D-rings by way of a brass stud. Even under a full load, I haven’t found any issues with this system. I think it’s a more elegant, durable and secure way of fastening the strap than plastic clips or cam fasteners; so much so, in fact, that I had to include a close-up picture of it.

Utility

Obviously, it’s a small bag, so it’s somewhat limited in what it can carry. However, besides the padded main compartment (accessed using the zipper on the top), there are zippered pockets on the side and in the front flap, as well as open pockets at the front and rear, and pen pockets on each side below the strap fastening point. Sadly, the main compartment is limited in its flexibility by the absence of a divider system. It turns out that the compartment is large enough to accept the dividers from the Hadley Pro, so I added a strip of velcro at the front and rear of the compartment to secure the divider in place. This is something which should be addressed permanently, by way of incorporating the soft lining material of the larger camera bags, which would add the ability to use dividers, as well as providing a softer surface for camera gear to rest on.

As with the Hadley Pro review, the easiest way to showcase the bag’s utility is through a series of photos:

The Olympus PEN E-P5, fitted with the VF-4 viewfinder, 17 mm f/1.8, and lens hood, fit comfortably in the main compartment.  Not the velcro strip (corresponding strip out of frame), which I added to improve the versatility of the bag.
The Olympus PEN E-P5, fitted with the VF-4 viewfinder, 17 mm f/1.8, and lens hood, fit comfortably in the main compartment. Note the velcro strip (corresponding strip obscured), which I added to improve the versatility of the bag.
Top view of the bag, with the divider from the Hadley Pro inserted in the main compartment. The main compartment contains the E-P5 sans viewfinder and lens hood, and the OM-2n with 50 mm lens (sans hood). Underneath the cameras are the 28 mm f/3.5 and 17 mm f/3.5 for the OM-2n (both without lens hoods).
Top view of the bag, with the divider from the Hadley Pro inserted in the main compartment. The main compartment contains the E-P5 sans viewfinder and lens hood, and the OM-2n with 50 mm lens (sans hood). Underneath the cameras are the 28 mm f/3.5 and 17 mm f/3.5 for the OM-2n (both without lens hoods).
The front flap contains a zippered pocket, which can hold film, and small documents like tickets.
The front flap contains a zippered pocket, which can hold items such as film, keys, and small documents.
The front compartment is concealed under the front flap, and secured with the leather strap and brass stud.
The front compartment is concealed under the front flap, and secured with the leather strap and brass stud. it is good for film, and larger documents.
The bag also contains a side compartment, which will fit passports and smartphones. This is quicker to access, though no less secure, than the front compartment.
The bag also contains a side compartment, which will fit passports and smartphones. This is as easy to access, and as secure, as the front compartment
A large open pocket at the rear of the bag can hold larger or awkwardly shaped items, or things that you'll frequently need to access.
A large open pocket at the rear of the bag can hold larger or awkwardly shaped items, or things that you’ll frequently need to access.

 The pockets accommodate all manner of items, and the main compartment is capable of holding a reasonably comprehensive camera kit, especially if velcro is fitted to allow for the use of a divider system. There is sufficient room allowed in the design of the pockets to cope with them all being fully loaded at once, without compromising the stitching, canvas, or leather.

Comfort

I wore this bag on my waist every day for a month while travelling through Cambodia. The bag was loaded with two cameras, two extra lenses, travel documents, small personal items, and as much film as I could cram into it. There was no back pain associated with the load – the bag wrapped itself around my hip, and hung low enough to put the bulk of the load on my thigh. However, this varies depending on the belt – I used a looser fitting second belt, which did cause issues with the load moving around while walking. I’d recommend a tight fitting second belt and belt keepers, or wearing it on your main belt if that’s practical for you.

As a shoulder bag, I find the Stowaway Pola is as comfortable as the Hadley Pro: it tends to ride inboard with the strap properly adjusted, and conforms to the waist, which helps to distribute weight more evenly over the entire body. What’s more, the Stowaway Pola is compatible with the full range of Billingham shoulder pads, so should long term comfort be an issue (especially with a heavier camera), there is provision for spreading the weight over a larger area.

Conclusion

The Stowaway Pola is a versatile bag, which yields nothing to larger bags in terms of utility, and is imbued with the quality of materials and craftsmanship which are hallmarks of Billingham bags. Due to my shooting style, the Stowaway Pola sees less use than my larger bags. However, when it does get used, I’m glad I settled on a bag that does so much, in so little space.

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