The 4am Project: A magical hour…of missed opportunities

After my experience of April’s 4am Project, I was really fired up for the Summer Solstice event. And this time, rather than sticking to the safe confines of my village, I planned to meet my best friend, Phil, so that we could bimble around with our cameras together in Stratford-upon-Avon.Bike shadow 4am

I was planning to head out just after 3am on Sunday morning, and had also decided that it might be quite exciting to cycle into Stratford (about five and a half miles). I can’t quite recall why I thought that was a good idea. However, as I’d gone to the trouble of inflating my tyres and dusting the cobwebs and skittery spiders from my bike earlier in the day, I felt I should commit to what was essentially a foolish idea.

So, at 3am I made my way down to the garage to retrieve my bike and set off on my journey (pausing only briefly to record an Audioboo on my iPhone, like some kind of low rent James T. Kirk recording observations in his communicator).

It felt quite bizarre to be cycling down the A422 Banbury Road at that time in the morning. Normally, cars fly past me at such a speed that I have to wrestle for control of my bike to prevent myself from being sucked into their debris-strewn wake. At 3:30am on Sunday morning, however, not a single vehicle passed me. 

Unfortunately, as the journey into Stratford is a fairly speedy downhill affair for the most part, my head ached with the near constant roar of air rushing past my ears. But even though the peace and stillness of the early morning had temporarily abandoned me, I still had the joy of seeing beautiful strips of lilac tearing through the dawn sky.

Just before 4am, when I was almost upon Stratford town centre, I cycled past Stratford-upon-Avon Business and Technology Park, which is a brightly lit office complex. I noticed that it was producing some good shadows (one of the themes for the June 21st 4am Project) so I did a nifty U-turn in the road and decided to take a photo of my bike leaning against a ‘No Turning’ sign. It wasn’t too bad a photo to start with. Although, rather annoyingly, I’d taken it eight minutes too early for it to be considered an official 4am photo!

While snapping the bike photos I also heard my phone bleep with a text message, which I assumed would be Phil telling me where he’d parked. Unfortunately, I was only half right. It was Phil, but his text message read: “Shit, slept thru my alarm. Sorry to leave you on your own.” So with the news that I’d be flying solo, I hopped on my bike and continued towards Stratford.

It was at this point that I saw the first signs of life, when I noticed a fairly young girl walking down Banbury Road in the dark. She was dragging her feet along the pavement as if she’d been walking for ten days straight, and was also shining a torch on her face from below – like when dads scare their kid’s on Halloween – rather than illuminating the path before her. Like a concerned father, I really felt like asking her what on earth she was doing wandering around on her own at that time in the morning. However, to ensure that my face wasn’t coated in goopy self-defence spray, I didn’t offer so much as a “good morning”. She subsequently wandered past me, like an apparition slightly the worse for wear after Saturday night’s excesses, and I cycled onwards.

Stratford-upon-Avon 30Shortly after this, I decided to take a photo of a Stratford-upon-Avon 30mph sign (street signs was the other 4am theme). For this low-angled shot, I had my tripod on its lowest setting and was actually lying down on the grass verge to look through my camera’s viewfinder. It was at this point that I heard a car drive past me, circle the roundabout ahead, and then return to where I was lying. With the distinctive sound of a diesel engine ticking over to my right, I felt sure that I would look up to see a police car looming large over me. With my high-visibility waistcoat, cycling helmet, rucksack and equipment, they might have believed me to be some kind of safety conscious terrorist planting a roadside bomb to take out a convoy of caravans later that day (no bad thing, really).

However, when I looked up I was relieved to see a slightly startled taxi driver looking down at me through his open window. And in a moment that partly restored my faith in humankind, he explained that he thought I’d been knocked off my bike. “Oh, sorry mate. No, I’m fine, thanks,” I said reassuringly. “I’m just taking photos of…erm…stuff.” He then apologised for disturbing me, performed a 360-point turn in the middle of the road, and drove away.

As I took the photo of the road sign and got to my feet, it had only just turned 4am. We had officially entered the golden hour! However, this brought with it a sense of panic. Because unlike my 4am experience back in April – when I wandered the streets under a comforting blanket of darkness from start to finish – the rapidly encroaching early morning light on the Solstice felt like something of an unwelcome party crasher. Even though my tiny corner of the world at 4am was wonderfully peaceful and blissfully devoid of the usual hustle and bustle of the later hours, it just didn’t feel quite so secret when everything was bathed in light.

Furthermore, as one of the themes for the 4am Project was ‘shadows’ it felt like a race against time to capture something interesting before they all disappeared with the dawn. All around me street lights had begun to flicker and switch themselves off, which felt like the visual manifestation of the countdown I’d initiated in my head (I also had this tune ringing in my ears).

With panic taking a firm hold of me, I grabbed a couple of photos of the armillary (a controversial £100,000 sculpture that sits at the junction of Trinity Road and Banbury Road in Stratford-upon-Avon) and then cycled at top speed into the centre of Stratford, passing a surprisingly busy garage forecourt and a gaggle of increasingly vocal geese on the River Avon.

As I cycled into Stratford Town centre down Bridge Street, I noticed that the remaining street lights were casting a fantastic shadow of a pedestrian railing onto the road. I just knew there was a great photo in it. However, as I prepared to dismount and set up my camera and tripod, I noticed a small group of lads across the road (presumably, they’d just emerged from the Caz Bar, Stratford’s Moroccan-themed gentlemen’s club). Don’t get me wrong, they were perfectly well behaved. But as their boisterous laughter cut through the relative quiet of the early morning hour, I subsequently lost my nerve to start taking photos in the road.  Regrettably, I made the decision to cycle past the shadows. An opportunity denied.

After this, I don’t really know what happened. I was in the centre of the world’s most charming town, yet inspiration had abandoned me and I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. And all the while, the clock was ticking.

At one point, I heard beeping and the whirring of bristles on concrete. And to my curious delight, I saw a small street-cleaning vehicle sweeping up the pavement outside No.1 Shakespeare Street. I subsequently became obsessed with trying to take a photo of this little vehicle. However, in the time it took me to take my camera and tripod out of my bag (nearly garrotting myself in the process) it had actually managed to outrun me! (Yes, I know, they only have a top speed of about 5mph, which makes it all the more astounding.)

From that moment on, I decided to wear my camera and attached tripod round my neck – while cycling – to ensure that I could hop off my bike and snap photos at a moments notice. I then cycled around the streets of Stratford like François, the postman from Jour de fête, looking like Flavor Flav’s poor relation.

With only half an hour of the golden hour left, I found myself on Henley Street taking a photo of the half-timbered building where Shakespeare was born and raised. It wasn’t at all relevant to the 4am Project’s chosen themes, but it was better than nothing. I then worked my way down the street taking distinctly average photos of street signs (I also got a photo of a binman – result!) However, the last half hour just fell away.

Cafe Nero's Sunday morning newspapersPerhaps my favourite photo from Henley Street was a pile of Sunday newspapers that had been delivered to Caffè Nero. Again, it was nothing to do with the 4am Project’s chosen themes, but it was an early morning observation nonetheless. Unfortunately, as time had slipped away from me, I hadn’t noticed that I’d taken the photo at 5:05am. I’d finished the morning as I’d started; snapping photos that weren’t officially 4am photos!

As I cycled out of Stratford, bracing myself for the gruelling uphill journey back home, I felt somewhat disappointed with how things had gone. I was glad I’d made the effort, but it just seemed like I’d not captured anything…great. Should I have had more of a plan? Was I too restricted by the themes? Or am I just a bad photographer, bereft of inspiration? (Please, nobody answer that last one.)

I even pulled over on the way home to see if I could take a photo of the sunrise. However, it was largely obscured by clouds that looked white hot as they cloaked the rising sun. So I packed up my camera and tripod for the last time and went home. I hobbled through the door (with heavy legs and painful calf muscles) at 6:15am.

I love the 4am Project, and there are some truly brilliant photos in its Flickr pool that have been submitted from all over the world (my personal set is here). Fair enough, things went slightly awry this time around. However, I’m fairly certain that I’ll be out and about in the wee small hours when the next event is announced. And next time will be better! You never know, I may even make a plan.



Filed under 4am Project, Photography

2 responses to “The 4am Project: A magical hour…of missed opportunities

  1. Oh, you’re not the only one – I felt a bit short of inspiration, too, as did Matt, who I went with (and he’s a pro photographer!)

    Like you, I enjoyed the experience but don’t feel I got many good pics out of it. Sometimes you’re just not in the zone. *sigh*

    Still, I like your newspapers shot and I love the B&W bike shadow one. Who cares that it wasn’t taken within the hour? At least you got a few on theme, which is more than I did!

  2. andytoots

    You’re absolutely right about needing to be in the zone. I suppose getting out there and enjoying actually doing it is the main thing. (And to be honest, I think I prefer slinking about in the dark!)

    Your 4am experience sounded fantastic (with the couple that arrived to watch the sunrise). I favourited your ‘solstice‘ photo on Flickr. I thought it was lovely. Furthermore, you managed to capture the sunrise (and accompanying horn blowing!)

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