Illuminating Hadrian’s Wall

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 15th, 2010 in Photos, Shoot.

The Line Of Light

On Saturday March 13th 2010, the ancient Roman monument of Hadrian’s Wall was illuminated end to end in an ambitious project to celebrate the 1,600 anniversary of the Romans leaving the wall they built at the northern extreme of their once-mighty empire. Kristi and I were both there, and we managed to capture a little bit of the event ourselves.

The Photos

Here are the photos that Kristi and I took on the day, Kristi shooting on her new Canon rig, and me with my trusty Nikon kit. Kristi has only just switched to Canon, and this weekend away was her first opportunity to spend time with the gear. I think she did brilliantly for a first night shoot, and of course with her stunning artist’s eye managed to pick out many excellent photos that I never spotted.

As the light began to draw in, the crowds began to gather around each of the beacons along the Wall. Those beacons placed higher up were easy to spot, with their audiences silhouetted in the background 🙂 The lady in the foreground is the Chief Executive of the company that organised the event.

Waiting For The Beacons To Be Lit

Whilst everyone waited for the Line of Light to reach us, there was a steady stream of people looking to get themselves photographed next to one of the beacons. The two volunteers at this beacon were extremely gracious throughout!

The Unlit Beacon

With dusk falling, everyone’s eyes were on the beacons, waiting to see them lit.

Slowly but surely, the Line of Light marched towards us. The anticipation built as each beacon in turn was lit.

Christine Reaches Up To Light The Beacon

The lighting of this beacon was being broadcast live on the BBC. This is the moment that Christine, one of the many volunteers who made this possible, reached up to light the beacon, live on national TV.

And The Beacon Is Lit!

One click from the ignitor, and the beacon is lit … live on national TV. Christine, understandably, wanted to get her arm away from the burning flame as quickly as possible!

The Burning Beacon

This is what we’d all come to see … history in the making as a line of beacons lights the length of Hadrian’s Wall for the first time in 1,600 years. And boy, was it worth the wait!

Powered By Gas

Each of the beacons used to illuminate Hadrian’s Wall was powered by its own gas canister. An army of volunteers had had the horrible job of carrying these up onto the Wall and then along to their allotted spots. I’m sure all that heavy lifting was forgotten though as they enjoyed what they had accomplished together.

Whilst the crowds looked on at the lighting of the beacons, the road that runs parallel to the Wall put on an unexpected show of its own, with traffic going bumper to bumper as far as the eye could see in each direction. I’ve been up here at the height of the season and hardly seen a soul or a car; to see the place as busy as this was quite amazing.

The Organisers Enjoy The Moment

One of the great sights of the day was the look of utter joy as organiser after organiser posed for their picture beside the beacon. I dread to think of how stressful it must have been to put on this event; I hope they were able to enjoy it as much as we did once it began.

The BBC Broadcast Crew Hard At Work

The BBC had a live broadcast team at this beacon, and after showing the lighting of the beacon live on national TV, they spent the evening doing interviews with volunteers and the organisers. They worked extremely hard, and the cameraman did a first rate job of marshalling his younger colleagues throughout the day.

The BBC Crew Hard At Work

Here’s another shot of the BBC team interviewing one of the crew who staged this historic event. Boy doesn’t she look cold!

There was no doubting what the money shot of the night was, and an army of professional and amateur photographers and cameramen alike did their best to capture it.

It seemed like everyone had a camera or camcorder of some description with them, with the vast majority of people sporting the sort of kit that used to only be used by professionals. On tonight’s evidence, the digital age of photography really has brought photography to the masses in a way that chemical film never managed. Having said that, I sincerely doubt that the Once Brewed car park has ever seen as many Audis, BMWs and Mercedes in one go before, so perhaps this wasn’t a particularly representative crowd 😉

Like Moths To A Flame

As the darkness drew in, and the cold wind really began to bite, it was no surprise that the burning beacons became the focal point for everyone shivering up on the Wall.

Young Girl Looking At The Beacon

In the midst of all the crowds milling around, I spotted this young girl staring up at the burning beacon. The secondary flame on the photo spoils it a bit, sadly, but I thought it was still a strong image worth sharing.

Burning Beacon In The Night

It might not look it from the other photos I’ve uploaded, but it was really dark up there on the Wall before too long. That made for a great backdrop of the beacon burning brightly though 🙂

Burning Beacon

Another shot of the beacon burning in the night sky. I particularly like how the focus is on the flame rather than the beacon itself.

There 'Til The Last

The volunteers stayed with their beacon throughout the evening. We’d left before the beacons finally burned out, but I imagine they were still there, all alone in the dark.

The Line Of Light

This is what it was all about: the Line of Light running the whole length of Hadrian’s Wall, from Segedunum on the eastern coast of England to Borrow-in-Furness on the western coast. Said to be the first time that the Wall has been lit in 1,600 years. History in the making.

Tips From The Shoot

Looking at the photos others have taken, the one thing I’m sure about is that I have a lot to learn about this sort of photography: shooting lit objects in dusk and at night. Here’s how I approached the shoot.

  • Get there early, and pick your spot. We arrived about five hours before the event, so that we could take a good look around and plan our shots. Mind you, as we’re both nursing injured knees right now, we needed that long just to hobble to and from where we managed to get parked!
  • Use manual focus, and set the focus on all your lenses before the light fades. With an event at dusk, as the light goes so does the camera’s ability to auto-focus reliably. A hunting lens not only means missed opportunities, it also eats into your battery life. Having picked my spot during daylight, I went through all of my lenses in turn and made sure they were focused sharp on the beacon I planned on photographing. Once the action started, all I needed to do was switch lenses to select my shot.
  • Use fast (f/1.4 if possible) lenses rather than VR lenses as the light goes. VR is a great addition to the photographer’s kit bag, and several of my shots on the night were done using a VR lens. But as the light went, the VR lens needed longer and longer exposures to take each shot, and with so many people milling about, getting shots where everyone was sharp just wasn’t possible. Switching to the fast prime lens I have solved that problem … for a while at least.
  • Bring a tripod, or beg, steal or borrow one if you didn’t. Even with a last lens, eventually it was too dark to shoot handheld at all. The last shot of the day, of the Line of Light stretching across the Northumberland countryside, was a 10 second exposure. If I hadn’t been able to borrow Kristi’s tripod for that shot, I probably would never have taken it. My own tripod didn’t survive last year’s car accident; I’ll be replacing it soon.

Thoughts From The Day

We hadn’t heard of the Illuminating Hadrian’s Wall event in advance, but by chance we were up in the North East this weekend intending to spend the weekend exploring the ruins of the old Steetley Magnesite in Hartlepool. Those plans lasted about five minutes before we decided to raid the local Asda for food for a pack-up and head on up to the Wall.

Our destination was the visitors’ centre at Once Brewed. Pretty central, it sits close to one of the best preserved (and most photographed) sections of Hadrian’s Wall, and it seemed to be the best bet for us to find a great opportunity or two to get some photos. That turned out to be a good guess; we joined a large crowd and several live broadcast crews in watching the march of the beacons westwards along the wall.

We arrived early afternoon, but not quite early enough to get parked up in the visitors centre’s car park, just missing out on the last parking bay. No matter, we pottered over to the other side of the B6318 and joined the small group of cars starting to gather on the grass verges. With plenty of time to kill before the event started, we nursed our collective knee injuries east along the wall to take some photos of the sycamore tree famously used in the Kevin Costner film, Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves. Along the way, we got to watch the teams of volunteers carting the gas canisters up onto the Wall, giving us plenty of options to think about where to go to try our hand at photographing this “once in a lifetime” event.

Finally, as dusk approached, the air was abuzz with excitement as everyone picked their spot and waited for the beacons to be lit. The plan was that the first beacon would be lit in Segedunum (the Roman fort uncovered near where Sting was born) at around 5:45pm, and then the line of light would march westward until it reached Carlisle about an hour later. It was timed to co-incide with a fly past by a helicopter film crew … presumably there’ll be a DVD of the event on sale in due course.

I was surprised at how the vast majority of the crowd was ignoring one of the beacons nearest them, instead all aiming their kit at the cliff opposite, so I picked that beacon as the one I wanted to try my luck with. Kristi had very sensibly brought a tripod with her (I’d bought a Nikon 50mm f/1.4D lens instead of a new tripod the week before), and she headed a bit further back to higher ground aiming to capture crowd shots, which she did a great job of. I found myself about 10 ft away from the BBC live broadcast team, with a great view of the beacon they planned on filming plus the opposite beacon in the distance, and also able to clearly hear their conversations as they discussed what was about to happen and when. Pretty much the perfect spot.

Everyone was clapping and cheering as the line of beacons approached … and then, just as I was about to take my shots, having patiently waited for some time, someone who appeared to be part of the BBC crew (I think he was the producer, but I can’t be certain), rudely stepped right in front of me … to shoot with a frickin’ iPhone. The iPhone is a wonderful gadget (mine goes everywhere with me), but one thing it isn’t is a passable camera. Writing up this blog post about it now, I’m still really angry with what a rude and pointless action it was by this gentleman. And if he was part of the BBC team, he should have been working, not playing tourist. Grrr.

(I’d also had a couple of the professional photographers covering the event step in front of me in the build up. By contrast, they were careful to only do so when I wasn’t taking a shot, and polite enough to apologise or nod in acknowledgement before moving on afterwards. None of them stopped me taking any of the shots I wanted at any time).

Then Christine – the volunteer lighting the beacon that the BBC team was broadcasting live – got the nod from the BBC cameraman (a real old hand who seemed to be doing an excellent job of directing his younger colleagues throughout the evening), and she reached up to light the beacon. Shooting handheld with the Nikon 70-300mm VR before switching to my new Nikon 50mm f/1.4D, I managed to capture the moment she lit the beacon (by shooting over the head of the rude BBC man), before wandering around bagging a few shots before the light completely faded.

All day, I’d been hoping for the opportunity to get a photo of a Roman soldier lit by the beacons. There was a re-enactor around, but by the time I’d spotted him at one of the other beacons and made my way down, it was simply too dark for me to get a shot handheld with my skills. This shot in The Guardian however is perfect, and shows what I miserably failed to photograph!

Finally, with darkness having fallen, I borrowed Kristi’s tripod for some speculative shots of the beacons lighting up the wall into the distance, before we made our way back to the car. We sat there for a good half an hour, eating our pack-up whilst everyone queued to get away from the site. The road that runs parallel to the Wall was just bumper to bumper in both directions, forming a very pretty line of lights of their own too.

We were there simply by good fortune, and we both had an amazing time. It was billed as a “once in a lifetime” event by the organisers, and whether or not that turns out to be true, it was a great privilege to be there to see, and record, a tiny piece of history.

Other Coverage

People came from all over the world to take part in this event, and it was well covered in the media on Sunday.

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Lighting The Harbour As Night Falls

Sunset at Barry Docks. Handheld with my new Nikon 50mm f/1.4.

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