Thursday, 4 June 2015

Hadrian's Wall - after the dust has settled.

Look at this lot - they have no idea what they have let themselves in for! The fools!
Since posting my account of the Hadrian's Walk, I have had some feedback from people who have had an opportunity to read it. Generally, those responses have been positive, and quite a few people have made the same observation - a variation on the theme of "Sounds like you had a good time".

Now that some time has passed, and the aches and pains have subsided, I am able to look back and reflect on the overall experience. And having thought about it, I am prepared to say that I did indeed have a good time; but I would not go so far as to say that I enjoyed the walking.  My main problem was not fitness per se. I was fit enough to survive the ordeal, without being fit enough to find it easy. Couple that to the fact that, in my younger days, I was fit enough to achieve more with less effort, and I have to acknowledge that I am not as young as I once was.

However, that wasn't the problem. The thing that gave me most trouble was meralgia paraesthetica. This is a condition caused by the hip belt of a rucksack compressing the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve (which runs over the hip). This results in altered sensation in the thigh and hip of the affected nerve (or nerves). This sensation can apparently range from discomfort, through burning, right up to electric shock-like pains. I find it rather ironic that it gave me so much trouble on Hadrian's Walk, when as a much younger backpacker I used to carry much heavier rucksacks much more often without difficulty. The discomfort started on Day 1, and continued right through to the end of the walk (and beyond). I have only myself to blame; because I wanted to photograph the journey, I carried with me my camera, lenses, and small tripod, thus adding to the overall weight on my back. I (foolishly) assumed that, because I used to do it with such impunity, I would still be able to do it today.

Tricky lighting under broken cloudy skies
 Anyway, as already stated, one of my principal aims in embarking on the Walk was to photograph the journey. I am not at heart a 'documentary' photographer, or a photographer of people, or of activities. So why, you might ask, did you set out to make a photographic record of a walk across the North of England along the line of the Roman Wall? Good question. In days of yore, it was one of my greatest pleasures to spend nights out on the summits of mountains, and photograph the sun going down, then rising again the following morning. In landscape photography circles, that last hour around sunset and that first hour of dawn is often referred to as the 'magic hour'. The sun is low in the sky, the light is usually warmly coloured, and there are often attractive atmospheric effects like clouds or haze to enhance the appearance of the scenery. It occurred to me that, in the same way as staying out on mountain summits, walking along the Wall would put me in the ideal position to photograph the landscape of the Roman Wall in the best possible circumstances. What I singularly failed to anticipate was the fact that I am not actually prepared to stay out late any more. Once I had reached our destination each evening, I felt very little inclination to go back outside to take photographs. I was much more interested in having my dinner and a few beers in the comfort of a warm pub.

Disappointingly unsharp, one of the risks of not using a tripod
But that's why I planned the Walk from East to West, so that I could take advantage of the better lighting offered towards the end of each day as the Sun got lower in the western sky. In actuality, the weather proved more challenging than I had wished for. To be fair, as mentioned in the daily accounts, our Roman weather god Deus Meteorologicus was pretty forgiving, and we had more sunshine and less rain (and snow!) than we might have expected. However, the rapidly-changing lighting conditions, dark cloud turning rapidly to bright sunshine and back again, did cause me problems with camera exposure. You see, I had chosen this week to begin experimenting with the manual exposure controls of my digital SLR!

Before and after Photoshop - manual exposure error
In the olden days of film, all my chosen cameras were manual exposure. I was thus very familiar with using manual exposure in whatever lighting conditions, and anyway, you expected to get a proportion of your exposures wrong (we called it bracketing!) I used the technique all the time, and I never had to think about it. Then along comes an all-singing, all-dancing electronic camera. Before I knew what was happening, I was using the digital SLR in Programme mode, not only allowing the camera to make exposure decisions on my behalf, but to do all the focussing, too! The automation certainly makes life a whole lot simpler when I am photographing the car trial events that I go to watch (see the 'Links' page of my Trial Car Photos website to see my online photo galleries). But having grown reliant on those automatic features, I have to some extent lost whatever abilities I may have had in using the camera manually, particularly with regard to responding to fast-changing conditions. So - perhaps the one week of the year when I was going to be taking photographs of a never-to-be-repeated, once-in-a-lifetime trek across Hadrian's Wall was not the ideal time to choose to start messing about with camera exposure settings!

The upshot of all this has been to leave me a little disappointed with my photographs. I can't think of a single, outstanding, classic shot out of all of them; there are many with inaccurate exposure, which will require a lot of work within Photoshop to bring them closer to "the picture in my head"; there are many shots "missing" - I can remember being there, but I don't seem to have a picture of that place or that incident; and, perhaps most damningly of all, it seems that I have lost that urge to be there at the dying of the light, and so I have no sunset or sunrise shots. However, as and when time permits, I intend to go through all the photos of the trip. I want to weed out the unworthy, tweak the fair-to-middling ones into some semblance of acceptability, and eventually to re-upload the improved versions into the day-by-day albums on my Picasa gallery. In which case, I hope that interested parties will check back now and again to see what progress has been made.

So to return to the original question: did I have a good time? On the final day of the Walk, as we were crossing the fields into Glasson I think, I asked the question of my fellow Wallers Hadriani:

"Ignoring all other commitments, work, family and so on, if you could have two days of complete rest at Bowness-on-Solway, would you just turn around and walk all the way back to Newcastle?"

Everybody said no. But I would have been prepared to do so, which must say something about whether or not I had a good time an the Wall. It may also say something about my fundamental inability to face-up to real life and the real world; but despite all the discomfort, the poor weather, the strong winds, even my disappointment with the photographs, I did have a memorable Walk along the Wall.

Where the broad wall meets the narrow wall at Planetrees
I wouldn't want to do it again, though. Basically, the three days in the middle (where some actual Roman Wall still exists) are good. The other four days, the two out of Newcastle, and the two past Carlisle, are a bit of a waste of time. I am pleased to have done it once (because now I know that I don't have to go back). When I do return, it will be to spend time visiting the forts and the museums, and not worrying so much about walking along the Wall. I know the parts of the Wall that are most interesting, and I will return to them for photographs, at better times of the day when the light may be better.

Corbridge Church
And I definitely wish to go back to Corbridge. It will make a good base from which to get to see more of the area, and certainly has pubs to which I would like to return. And who knows, with the pressure off, I may find that the desire to stay out late returns and I finally find some of those pictures that I didn't get this time.

Whilst writing up the story of our Wall Walk, I discovered the following websites, some of which you might find interesting:

Per Lineam Valli Along the line of the Wall
Hadrian's Wall - Guide Vallum Hadriani - Itinerarium
Hadrian's Wall Camera
The Walking Englishman Hadrian's Wall Path general information site
The Walking Englishman Hadrian's Wall Path
Stage 1 of an account of three blokes walking the Wall in 2012. The person writing the account makes frequent reference to 'the Vallum', when he is mostly actually talking about the North Ditch. Otherwise, the account is quite interesting. To see further stages, scroll to the bottom of each page and click on the 'Continue along Hadrian's Wall' button.
The National Trail Hadrian's Wall Path guide

No comments:

Post a Comment