One tripod, one full frame camera, one alarm clock set to 3am, two tired, red, bleary eyes and 888,246 red flowers.
I wasn't quite so enthusiastic about them at first. The first I knew of them was early November, on the daily cycle into the city. Weaving my way through the 'sea of tourists' that had descended on East London to glimpse the 'sea of poppies'; being shepherded and directed by policemen in HI Vis jackets with megaphones. Hastily erected street barriers doing little to stop the flood of people spilling from the pavement. But then after a few mornings of battling my way through the crowds, I relented and thought maybe I should take a look for myself; and I'm glad I did.
It was Saturday 6.30am. I parked the bike and scanned the length of the Tower, looking for a good vantage point. I jostled for space amongst the mounting crowds, took out my trusty compact camera, fired off five frames, then hoped back on my bike. It was when I got home and downloaded the pictures, that I realised this was something pretty special, and I knew I'd have to go back with the proper camera to get the shot.
I set out at 5am the next day; camera, tripod, hat and gloves; seemingly well prepared and knowing the picture I wanted. The same composition, just with a bit more colour in the early morning sky. With the flood lit illuminated poppies, and a 20 second exposure, It would be easy. A few frames and I could get back home, finish my editing, and have breakfast in time for my first shoot of the day. But then as I approached the Tower ,something was wrong. The floodlights weren't on and the Tower was in darkness! I found my spot, set up the tripod and waited. It was only 5.15am; fingers crossed they'd come on at 6...... I waited...but nothing! I pressed the shutter, held my breath and tried to avoid shivering in the cold so I could get the shot sharp, but with the tower in darkness and without one vital bit of kit I had forgotten that day, it was impossible! As the first trickle of morning spectators arrived, I was already packing up and heading home.
I left early the following morning with my camera bag full, and was already setup and in position for 4.30am. The weather was perfect - a bit cloudy with pockets of clear night sky in between. But then the cloud started to dissipate and by 6am, with the first hint of morning light, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I knew before I pressed the shutter the poppies looked great, but the sky was dead with no detail. As the crowds arrived I packed up and left, to try again another day!
This time I was leaving nothing to chance - I had everything I needed; including a hot thermos flask, flapjacks and bananas to keep me going until sunrise! I was setup by 4am. I wouldn't leave without getting the shot I envisaged, or something very close! It was looking good and by 5.30, I already had a few pictures in the bag. Then I got it, one shot I was happy with. It was only then, tired and cold, that I relaxed, sat back and really looked at the poppies for the first time, and finally felt their true significance. 888,246 flowers to represent the British soldiers that lost their lives in the four years of the First World War. This figure doesn't even include those killed from countries all over the world, with total worldwide fatalities between 1914 and 1918 being approximated at nine million with a further 37 million casualties.
Who would have thought in May 1915, that a red flower growing in the wasteland of the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli, would come to have such significance today. Definitely not one Canadian soldier, called John McCrae, who was believed to have composed this poem following the burial of a good friend, killed alongside him in Ypres.
'In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That Mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below'
[In Flanders Fields - John McCrae]
In memory of all those who lost their lives in the First World War between 1914 - 1918.