One More Flash of Light in the Crowd: Photographing the Hadrian’s Wall Illumination

Last weekend I went to Hadrian’s Wall to document what turned out to be a remarkable event. The plan was to shoot as many great photos as I could. But when your subject stretches across 84 miles, and includes 20,000 people, not to mention millennia of history… where does a photographer start? Here are the results of my attempts to capture Illuminating Hadrian’s Wall on camera. (Heritage Key also took the video camera along, watch the report here.)

As I entered Segedunum Roman fort in Wallsend, Newcastle, I was met by half a dozen armour-clad Roman soldiers wielding spears, swords and shields. This was no time for sightseeing though, as the area surrounding the fort was being primed with hundreds of huge fireworks. This ambitious event involved the lighting of some 500 volunteer-manned gas beacons across the entire length of the wall, spanning the width of the country, from Tyneside to Cumbria.

The whole thing was to begin in Wallsend, where the first beacon would be lit. The spectating public began to arrive in droves, and within an hour the 2000 capacity of the fort was met. Armed with my Canon 450D I got some shots of people arriving that I think really capture the building sense of unknown excitement. A spectacular turnout meant that another 2000 crowded alongside the adjacent road to view the show. From the glass observation tower above the fort, local musicians played and narrated whilst from the rooftop, costumed actors responded in turn.

One of my favourite shots is of a couple watching the act from a window in the fort’s museum. I was perched up on the balcony of the tower taking photos for much of the celebration. As a photographer covering the event I’d managed to gain access to the tower and had an excellent vantage point. Some of the images demonstrate this sense of height, whilst exhibiting the crowds engagement with the musicians playing high above them.

Something to contend with facing the crowds was the glaring sun. However, the occasional cloud and different angles allowed for some shots with deeper colour and texture. At 5.45pm, the finale began with the emergence of costumed angels from the very top of the 100ft glass tower. As they towered above the cheering crowd the procession of soldiers escorted a blazing torch to light the first of 500 beacons. I managed to capture the soldiers in procession with torches in hand.

From this first beacon the fireworks lit the sky and a crescendo of light and sound ran along the wall while a hovering helicopter began its coast to coast journey documenting the chain reaction. For the next hour the beacons, at 250m intervals, would be lit one after the other, culminating at the other side of the country. The illumination of Hadrians Wall had begun.

Driving away from Segedunum my route was ablaze as I followed the route of the former wall. Even where the wall doesnt physically exist today, it was reconstructed for that night. The lighting-up of the wall gave a tangible reminder of how close the history of Roman Britain is to us. Being half-Scottish I wasnt chased away by the Roman soldiers that had greeted me, as I might have been 1600 years ago, nor was I dismayed at the celebration of Europes largest ancient monument, that kept my countrymen out. On the contrary, I must admit a certain amount of pride exists; after all it was here that the mighty Roman Empire was held-back! Either way, this history is something to be celebrated, and the illumination of Hadrians Wall did just that.

Next: For more on this event, get tips from photographer Derry Brabbs, see photos from other Heritage Key explorers here, or a Top 10 images from the event from Flickr, and watch our video of the trip.

If you love photography and want to see your images on screen, you can always add them to our Flickr pool. You can win points and prizes by taking part in our Ancient World in London series of quests. Find out what’s happening now, and start earning your way towards the grand prize.