Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Longest Day Up

When avid biker and Advanced Motorcyclist Keith Bartlett suggested to his biker son-in-law Ben Smither, that they should sign up for The Longest Day Up Challenge, they saw it as a way of enjoying some motorbike riding time together. Little did they realise what it would really entail.

The Longest Day Up Challenge, is now in its fifth year, having raised over £75,000 so far for Cancer Research UK. The event format is for a signed up group of motor-bikers to set out from Lands End at sunrise on the longest day, the 21st June, and to ride to John O'Groats, arriving before sunrise on 22nd June, some 900+ miles later. It is important to point out now, that this is not a race as the challenge can be completed without breaking any laws. This is an endurance challenge and if that isn't enough, then each participant must have bought a machine, have it prepared, legal and ready to ride specifically for the challenge. No favourite, comfortable fast machines here, in a word "cheap" and that meant costing no more than £300. 


It was at the end of 2016 that Keith and Ben, at 30, the youngest rider taking part in this years challenge, began their search for a suitable machine and they realised that finding a working bike for £300 was more difficult than expected. Eventually, Keith, a RoSPA Gold rider and volunteer Bloodrunner, located a Kawasaki ZZR400 for sale in north London. Sold as a 'runner' it took many hours of TLC to bring it back to life after having lived under a Leylandi hedge for the previous two years. There were several surprises during the 'recovery', even finding the underside of the exhaust pipe patched up with gaffer tape.

Ben, whose grandfather Malcolm Smither was well known in the motorbike trade before his retirement, found a larger Yamaha XJ600 but it needed some major tinkering. Thankfully, between Keith and Ben, each of them being capable engineers, they were able to fix the bike. 

By January, both machines were road legal and the serious testing started...and then it dawned! What had they let themselves in for? Would it be a dry ride? What should they eat? What would be the most comfortable clothes for their backsides but most of all, how would they keep awake for all those hours riding between checkpoints?

Sleep deprivation will be a huge challenge and so they have sought advice from previous participants as well as record breaking Rhys Lawrey, who rode non-stop around the world. His advice, should they choose to follow it is: "Water, Snickers bars and power naps."

Keith from Saffron Walden, a LeJog veteran from a previous charity ride in 2005, and Ben who lives in Leigh on Sea with his wife Frankie, will set off for Cornwall on Monday 19th June before the start of their challenge. They will follow the set route, which actively avoids motorways and have purposely not set themselves any personal targets for the day. It is more important for them both just to finish the ride, and complete it safely. This is particularly so for Ben who will fly straight back from Scotland to be home with his young son and wife, who is soon to give birth to their second child.


Ben said: “Keith and I will be riding together but my biggest worry is waiting for him to have his power naps. Short sleeps is not something he is known for! We will have to set a 15 minute alarm or we might get left behind.”
Keith, who hopes for a double celebration in John O'Groats, both for his birthday and arriving in one tired piece said: "We would like to raise as much as we can for Cancer Research UK as we all have friends and family who have been affected by this awful disease."

If you would like to support the riders you can visit their JustGiving pages by following the links below.
Do please leave any good wishes for the guys in the comments box below - they will need all the encouragement they can get.

Many thanks.

Keiths JustGiving

For more about the challenge go to

Oh, and I will be on hand at the end of their ride, covering the story for the press so will bring you an update on this 'midsummer madness' challenge. Keep an eye on Twitter too https://twitter.com/ailecphoto

Meanwhile here is the online press version of this post

Sunday, 9 April 2017

One Day Photography Workshop

The Old Sun Inn is an ideal photographic subject

Today found us enjoying the warmest day of the year so far, and what a day to be out and about in Saffron Walden with my clients, on a one day beginners and improvers photography workshop. Only ever taking a maximum of four people, I like to keep the workshops small so that each person can have the attention they require. Sadly today one client was unable to make it at the last minute, and one place had remained unfilled, which meant my time was divided between these two lovely people. One had been given a gift voucher as a birthday present, the other had been promising themselves a workshop day for a long time. Both, however, had the same aim -  to understand more about their camera and to feel happy about moving off auto.

After spending a while in the classroom getting to know the desires and needs of each of the attendees, then looking into the basics about the exposure triangle, it was time to get onto the real practical nitty-gritty.

First, it was about getting to grips with handling the camera - here, a Sony Alpha 200 which had been put to one side in favour of a point and shoot which "appears to give me just as good results, with less mucking around" but was given a second chance for the workshop.

Here a reflection of the landmark golden bunch of grapes which hang in the market square, was spotted high up in a window and was lined up for a photo on a Fuji M-X1. The strong sunlight caused a slight issue with this otherwise great little camera as it lacks a view finder.

Woaaahh!! Don't lean back any more!!!

As well as trying out camera settings, which today was mostly concentrating on understanding aperture, there were also opportunities to look at different aspects of seeing a picture and the beginnings of the art of composition.

...The art of looking, and simplifying an image.

...The art of looking where perhaps you wouldn't normally look for a picture

...The art of creeping up on the subject.

OK this one wasn't going to go anywhere but gave an ideal opportunity to spend time looking for the best angle to view, and the place which would give the best lighting, given the powerful sunlight creating great contrast.

By following the Town Trail, it provided the opportunity for the local to see and learn new things about Saffron Walden, and the visitor, who was new to the town, to discover what a photogenic place our north Essex town is.

Finishing up at the impressive St Mary's Church, with the clock saying it was time to return home for lunch, this left time to spend the rest of the afternoon reviewing the images from the day, learning from the successes, and valuable lessons from the failures too.

In the words of Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins:

"Study and theory is useful but you learn most by doing. Take photographs, lots of them, be depressed by them, take more, hone your skills and get out there in the world and interact."

The reactions at the end of the afternoon were greatly encouraging...

"Well I think I know which camera I'm going to use from now on. Just a shame I'm working tomorrow and won't be able to take my camera - I'm itching to get going with it now!"

"I shall take my camera out on my dog walk tomorrow and try out all I have learnt today."

Thank you both for being such lovely company - I'm just delighted I can pass on a measure of enthusiasm for the art of photography which I have enjoyed for so long.

And what of these sugary confections?
I actually use them as a teaching aid and clearing up at the end of the day, discovered this lady who was enjoying them so much that she didn't want to fly away home!

If you missed this workshop (and want to find out how the Skittles get brought into the teaching!) there will be further opportunities throughout the year to join another one day workshop. Just keep an eye on my website, Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Wild Ireland - Basking Sharks

As many of you know, I have an interest and involvement in marine activities in the waters of West Cork. Some days the weather is just gruesome, other days it is just amazing, and so I look back with joy at a 'flaming first of June' last year. This was a day when basking shark activity was particularly spectacular, as was the minke whale activity but it was the former that was creating the headlines.

For a couple of weeks last summer, basking sharks were being seen off the coast, just outside Castlehaven harbour and also in Toehead Bay, my home patch. Each evening we could watch upwards of a dozen 'baskers' skulking around the waters in an effort to make the most of the feeding in the plankton-rich water. This activity came to the attention of a great Irish naturalist, film-maker, and regular visitor to West Cork, Colin Stafford-Johnson

I too was making the most of the increased activity and was getting out with Cork Whale Watch on the Holly Jo as much as I could, and on this particular day, we had to wait for the boat to come in, as yer man had grabbed the opportunity to get out early on the water with the film crew and his curragh, in search of these basking sharks.

Needless to say, a successful morning out filming rendered a slightly later than planned return to Reen Pier, thus pushing the start of our own trip on a bit but we didn't mind. Pádraig Whooley of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group launched into an impromptu and entertaining pier-side seminar on cetaceans for the benefit of those who hadn't been whale, or indeed, basking shark watching before.

With Colin no.2 now safely back onto land, (a sunny backdrop of Castletownshend behind him) we were able to look forward to going out on our own trip with Colin no.1. With the Holly Jo dwarfing the curragh which Colin Stafford-Johnson was using as his signature filming platform, we were content with the relatively larger viewing platform from which to make our observations

With the drone having done its' work for the day, it was packed carefully away into the box, the aerial shots providing an even better perspective than ever I could manage of these gentle giants of the sea, from the viewing platform on the Holly Jo.

Not knowing the actual schedule for the resulting programmes, I was delighted to see part 1 of Wild Ireland: The Edge of the World scheduled, appropriately for St Patricks' Day last week, with part 2 to be shown tonight at 9pm on BBC2. This week, showing the basking sharks in Donegal, in the north. A quick message to Colin Stafford-Johnson checking to see if the West Cork 'baskers' would also feature rendered this reply.

"Hi Celia.
Sharks were filmed in several places but could only be shown in one as it were.....I think they placed them in Donegal in this episode...Colin."

So you never know, it might be this one above which features this evening...well I would like to think so!

Do try to catch Wild Ireland: The Edge of the World tonight, or on catch up iPlayer - wonderful escapism in a week that will be memorable for tragic reasons.

Friday, 24 February 2017

West Cork Photography Breaks - Young success

For many children, these past couple of weeks have been the school half-term holidays, with many kids either complaining of boredom or spending their whole time glued to assorted gaming or video screens. It was during a half-term last week, that I ran a special and early West Cork Photography Breaks workshop. No boredom encountered here and indeed, one student had reason to be extra happy. Why would that be? After only four days of beginning to learn the art of photography, this young lad became a published photographer!

At just 7 and three-quarters years old (yes, that three-quarters is important at his age although his birthday isn't far off) Sam was my youngest and most inexperienced photographer to come along and take in the new (to him) sights of West Cork. Indeed, so new was it, it was his first time to travel on a ferry, his first time to Ireland, his first time being able to visit beaches AND his first time to pick up a camera. To date, he had snapped a few selfies on his tablet he used to play games on but to start to understand what makes a picture began the day he arrived at WCPB HQ.

Without too much thought, he was snapping away on his tablet, taking pictures of those around him, until a passing suggestion was made.
"Do you focus on the eyes?"
He happened to be left to his own devices for a while and when I returned I was greeted with,
"Look! I have taken a picture of Bullseye* I set him up on the table and focused on his eyes"
(*Bullseye is his 15" tall soft toy of the horse from Toy Story, which currently travels everywhere with him)
Wow! this kid was quick and I had just the perfect camera I could offer him to use in his little hands, in the form of an Olympus E-M10 + 14-42mm pancake lens. He didn't take too much persuading, and with the camera set to auto, as it was his first experience, we set off to the beach in search of new things.

He soon learnt how to hold the camera and how to focus, and he snapped away on each new thing he saw - barnacles, limpets, seaweed...and we all encounter things for the first time at some point. At one end of the beach we came across a piece of driftwood, this flotsam covered in something I had myself, only encountered a few years before on a West Cork beach. Getting into the swing of things by now, I suggested Sam should get down to a lower viewpoint. With an air of confidence, he laid down and rattled off a couple of shots (whilst I snapped him at work!)

Returning back to the house, he was keen to look over my shoulder as I loaded the results of his snapping onto my laptop. I was impressed! Sam clearly had an eye for a picture and had captured a great shot of these strange creatures, which he identified himself by looking up and comparing pictures in a super book by Maya Plass - RSPB Handbook of the Seashore
We later used the same really comprehensive book to identify his other 'finds' too. (More of those in the next blog)

Gooseneck barnacles - Lepas anatifera (Yes, he learnt that living things also have Latin names too, even if he couldn't get his tongue around some of them!) These were what he had found, probably washed up a few days before as they were no longer alive, unlike the live examples I had found back in 2011.

As with all of my West Cork Photography Breaks workshops, I encourage the students to select a favourite image from the first two days, which, on the Monday morning, is prepared and sent to the local newspaper, The Southern Star. This is then considered for their 'Reader's Picture of the Week' slot, with the possible accolade of becoming published, and winning a canvas print too.
...Roll on to Thursday, publication day, and I dashed into the local shop to turn down the corner of the newspaper to reveal the picture on the back page.
'Fist pump'
My novice photographer had impressed the editor, and I was so delighted for him.
How many of his school friends could go back to school with such a great 'what I did in my holidays' story to tell!

West Cork Photography Breaks runs for 4 weekends in the spring** and again for four weekend in the autumn.

**Sadly due to unforseen circumstances, the spring series has had to be cancelled.
However, the autumn weekends are still going ahead as scheduled...with the autumn being peak season for whale watching (subject to weather conditions)

Monday, 19 December 2016

Cambridge Bikers Christmas Toy Run 2016

A group of 33 members of the Walden Bikers group gathered in the bright winter sunshine on Saffron Walden Common recently, ready to leave on a 9am to ride to Halton in Cambridgeshire. This was the RV point for motorcyclists from all over the CB postcode area, to gather for the annual Cambridge Bikers Christmas Toy Run to Addenbrookes Hospital.

The carpark was filled to overflowing as hundreds of bikers and their families gathered for refreshments and to hear Pete Vasey give the briefing.

This was the biker who rekindled the event back in 2013 and has organised it every year since, along with the full support of Sgt Gareth Williams and his team of Police riders. Sadly, for Sgt Williams it was to be his last Toy Run as he will be moving on to a new role. It was down to PC Simon Burgin to present Sgt Williams with a special momento of his time with the event - a snug-fitting golden santa hat!

At 10 o'clock, a tally of 377 bikes set off in convoy, escorted by the police outriders, and assisted by the safety riders, on route along the A603 through Harston and on into Cambridge. 

The roar of the hundreds of bikes brought out householders in their Sunday-morning attire (including slippers and pyjamas!) who all waved and filmed on their mobile phones. Cars passing the other way tooted and waved and those cars wishing to join the carriageway had a wait in excess of 7 minutes to allow all of the motorbikes in the convoy to pass by.

There were motorbikes of all sizes, including bike and sidecar outfits along with trikes and also a contingent of scooters. Some rode as they were, others went to great lengths to decorate their machines with tinsel and santas and indeed, some spectators might have been mistaken for thinking it was a continuation of the Santacon from Saturday, by the amount of santa-clad bikers that passed in front of them.

The convoy wound its way through the streets of central Cambridge, stopping briefly to regroup at the end of Downing Street, and then progressing along St Andrew's Street where the rumble once again drew out curious onlookers, this time, the congregation of the Baptist Church came spilling onto the pavement. Pressing on directly into the sunshine along Hills Road, the bystanders continued to wave and film the roaring, snaking trail.

Arriving at Addenbrookes Hospital roundabout, the buses were kept from their schedule as the convoy wound its way into the carpark past a mixture of bemused bystanders, and those who were similarly dressed in seasonal outfits. Waving and cheering, staff from the childrens wards had brought some of their patients down to watch the arrival of these albeit, temporary bearers of joy and respite. 

With crash helmets swapped for santa hats, a red trail of santas made their way into the hospital concourse where the generous and kind-hearted bikers handed their gifts to the waiting elves. Sorting as they went, 15 cages of gifts were collected, everything from dolls both big and small to vehicles, again, big and small. There were books, games, toddler toys, stocking fillers and of course, soft toys. 

Talking to student nurse Abby Jones, from ward C3 she said
"I watched the arrival of the bikers with two of my patients, I was welling up. Now collecting all these gifts it is making me so emotional"
She said that "All the staff will work out what will be suitable to give to each child."

Judging by the generosity of the bikers, they were going need some time to do this! Meanwhile all the favourite seasonal tunes were being played by a local wind band who were tucked into a corner of the dining area. Sadly, due to the occurrence of winter viruses on the wards, no children were able to come and watch the event as in previous years but Im sure they will all be delighted. It can never be nice having to stay in hospital but to be a child in hospital over the festive season really is no fun. Families with children in hospital now will be pleased to know that a little bit of extra joy has been brought to their children this Christmas. This is all courtesy of the one group of road-users who often have a bad press. Far from it! They are some of the kindest and most generous people around...I think I can speak from experience there!

Thanks must go to all the riders, the volunteers both on the road and at the hospital. The police - PC Simon Burgin, PC Andy Loop, PC Keith Emerson and Sgt Gareth Williams (who are "allowed a bit of fun and enjoyment too!"). And finally, Pete Vasey aka Chief Santa, who once again organised the event.

May we wish as Happy a Christmas as possible to all the children who are in hospital at this time.

For the full gallery http://www.celiabartlettphotography.co.uk/public-gallery
Saffron Walden Reporter gallery