UK Part 2 – The South

Our second phase of travel in the UK was to be primarily focussed on London but, since we were on the road anyway, I hit on the idea of visiting the earliest known grave of my father’s British ancestors. My research confirmed that the gravestone of John Fletcher, my great, great, great grandfather, stood in the small graveyard of St Helen’s church in Abingdon near Oxford. With the assistance of genealogist Charlotte Williams, I planned to contextualise this tangible evidence of my history with all the branches of family tree I was to date unaware of.

Abingdon proved to be exactly what I imagined the ideal English village to be. Charming in every aspect with a modest but significant spiritual heart in the St Helen’s Church grounds and chapel. Pastor Philip Atkinson gave me a tremendous insight into the rich history of the church and it’s most significant features while Charlotte simply astounded me with the complex genealogical research she had completed. This was an experience to treasure but how to capture it through the lens? Of course there was the grave itself tho explore from every angle but it was ultimately a documentary style record shot. Here is the grave of such and such etc. The image I took of one wall hanging drew my close attention and became the photo to sum up this experience, much to Stig’s ire and astonishment. I suspect the choosing of this photo was close to his breaking point in terms of curating photos on the show!

London has to be one of the most photogenic cities I have ever visited primarily because of its extraordinary cultural and architectural diversity. The best way to explore these photographic opportunities is with some insider information so I teamed up with photographer and blogger Matt Spracklen from @London instagram account to explore some angles on the city that aren’t immediately obvious to the eye. Matt and I resolved to see London from the air and the water taking to the skies in a helicopter with The London Helicopter tracking down the Thames and then repeat the journey on a boat with The Silver Darling. Besides the obvious thrill of a helicopter flight over London our cameraman very quickly discovered that photography from a fast moving aircraft is very challenging. As did I, this wasn’t just a simple point and shoot proposition. Grabbing a correctly exposed well framed aerial shot was intense and difficult. However, the view was unparalleled and some of my images are now proudly displayed on the walls at home. The last leg of our ‘London from the Air’ adventure was spent in the Emirates Air Line cable car crossing the Thames between Greenwich and the Royal Docks. This is a marvellous trip that affords splendid views of the O2 arena.
London by sea was a completely different proposition. Most tourists see London from the banks of the Thames. Sailing down the centre of this bustling waterway gives you a completely different perspective, particularly as you pass under iconic locations such as Tower Bridge and Westminster Bridge.
To round off our photographing London experience we caught up with Dave Burt from @London who had organised an Instameet on the banks of gathered Thames. Instameets have become hugely popular giving photographers of all standards a social focus to capture great images and share them in a collective themed environment. Dave lighted on the idea to challenge the Instameet, frame the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in one of the large bubbles being blown by a busker. Great fun and very challenging!

Having traversed London in the air, on water and by land the obvious next choice was to go underground! Underneath London streets there are thousands of tunnels carrying train loads of people, water, power, communication cables etc. I had read about one tunnel complex that housed the now defunct Mail Rail operated by the postal service from 1927 to 2003. In order to bypass heavy traffic small driverless wagons would speed between mail depots across Northern London. Since it’s closure the system has been maintained by a dedicated team of engineers like Darren Casey. We were lucky enough to gain access to the dark and mysterious tunnels of the closed rail service for a tour. Now I love trains and particularly historic trains but this was a step up in my mind. Imagining these driverless miniature trains hurtling through dark tunnels one-third the size of those carrying passenger trains was thrilling. As we stood in the small tunnels we could hear the sounds of tube trains rushing by all around us. Next we moved upstairs to the Mount Pleasant Post Office Depot where a small section of the railway has been opened for tourism. Specially designed carriages take passengers on a circular immersive experience under London streets. The tour started just after our visit so I haven’t experienced it yet but it’s on the list for my next trip!

London is an international hotspot for music with amazing gigs on every night all over the city. To practice another photography skill, and have a bit of R&R, I organised to photograph a punk band from Exeter, called White Trash, at the launch of their new album. But here at Photo Number 6 we love to add in challenges so I suggested writing a song with the band in 24 hours! When I put the idea to lead singer Alex Kershaw he seemed politely enthusiastic about the idea so I handed over my lyrics and waited patiently to see what the band came up with. On the day of the gig progress was a little modest to be honest. I got together with Alex and band mate Aidan Sinclair and we entered power songwriting mode completing the composition in 20 minutes. The song didn’t premiere that night, sadly, but I did get to belt it out before the crowd arrived. The gig itself was smashing and I was quite happy with some of my shots.

In the vein of mixing up my photography challenges we then headed out of London to the village of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire to do a spot of wildlife photography in the Paradise Wildlife Park. Wildlife photography in zoos presents wonderful opportunities to get close up shots of animals that are elusive in the wild. Also you can get great shots without super telephoto lenses that will break the bank for most photographers. Paradise Wildlife Park is a private zoo run by the Sampson Family. Peter Sampson explained that the family had purchased the Broxbourne Zoo in 1984 and had been working tirelessly ever since to improve the size of the enclosures and make the habitats that housed the animals better mimic their natural environment. The team at Paradise have developed a reputation for conservation and they also operate a sister site in Kent called the Wildlife Heritage Foundation that specialises in breeding endangered species.

We had a fabulous day at Paradise getting up close and personal with many of the animals. My day was totally made when Peter granted us access to see the baby Jaguar that was newly born and still in isolation. A rare treat indeed.

Another wonderful episode packed with variety, fun and marvellous photographic opportunities.