The Colours of the Rainbow

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It really pains me to find that I’ve not posted anything here since April. That’s six months ago! It certainly isn’t for want of opportunity. I can only really claim “other demands on my time” as some kind of excuse.

So, where are we?

Well, the reception for my Venice work (see numerous previous blogs here) has been really good. I’ve felt very flattered to have so many great comments from Venetians themselves who have seen some of the shots. Given how many images of their city they have no doubt been bombarded with over time, I am rather pleased a few of mine have made a mark. Sadly, I’ve not got another Venice visit scheduled until probably September 2019, when the European Masters Athletics Championships will be happening nearby, at Lido di Jesolo.

Aside from the routine of work here in the UK this summer – my photography has been mostly gardens and running – I got to Malaga in Spain in September. This wasn’t quite the visit I’d intended. The story is told in two blogs on my other site, here and here. The good news is that my leg is recovering well. My feet seem to be taking a bit longer. Malaga was great for culture – some great galleries, including a branch of the Pompidou Centre, but I got no time off to enjoy much away from the city centre itself, unfortunately.

I am excited at the prospect of a return visit to Florence in December (the header photo to this piece is a teaser). I had something of a love affair with the city a few years ago, and I was surprised to find that this was in the days before I’d even begun this occasional blog, which this time reaches its 54th chapter. I will make amends for that omission from here in the months to come, I promise.

I slipped a bit into the photographic doldrums after Malaga. Dealing with the (thankfully many) orders for copies of my World Masters Championships photos from there occupied many mornings, but adding in the need to catch up on other commitments rather robbed me of time behind the lens. My photographic mojo seemed to have left me a bit too, if I’m honest.

I’d been following a series of miniature “photo essays” on Twitter under the twin hashtags #LifeInColour” and #ROYGBIV for a few weeks. One needed a nomination to take part, and I was very pleased to get one, and have an opportunity to post a picture a day for seven days, covering a “spectrum” of typical stuff I shoot. The rules require each photo to major on a particular colour of the rainbow. I could have raided my archives and produced a set of photos going way back, but that would have taken time I didn’t really have. Therefore, by choice, my seven shots came from the past 12 months. Most came from the past six months, in fact.

What was unexpected was that this exercise taught me some interesting things about what I shoot. The work I do for myself remains varied, though maybe not quite so much as it once was. I definitely have colours that seem to attract me more than others. Green? No problem, I thought. But indigo? Who has a range of indigo shots to choose from? (An irritating aside was that a good few other contributors to LifeInColour didn’t seem to be able to tell indigo from violet, or vice-versa.) And shots with a predominance of red are quite rare in my recent collection. Maybe those things are not a complete surprise for someone whose roots remain in landscape photography.

Well, after that rambling intro, I thought you might like to see my chosen “rainbow”.

Red

The team from India at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga mainly wore bright red. Here is a shot of one of their stars, Hardev Singh, who is over 85 years old, taking part in one of the relay races. I realised that I could equally have used this photo in the “orange” slot.

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Orange

I love the tricks my garden sometimes plays on me. We had some beautiful crocosmia growing on a rocky patch for quite a few years. Then, about three years back, it simply disappeared. Until this summer when it came back, exactly where it had always grown! I cheated a little with this shot, and used a piece of black card to make a backdrop to the flowers, which were still growing at the time I took the shot.

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Yellow

Another colour I seem not to shoot very much as a dominant theme. My garden has given some really beautiful yellow roses this year, but when I remembered this photo, of one of the British Masters athletes hurdling in Malaga, I couldn’t resist using it. I’m proud of the composition and the colours.

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Green

Never going to be a problem for a landscape photographer, I thought. However, nothing I had to hand really screamed “Green!” at me like this close up of some fuchsia leaves in early light, after a night of rain. The symmetry is pleasing, and the photo is as shot.

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Blue

Blue troubled me too. No problem getting a load of stuff with blue skies, or even blue waters. I’d also, as you’ll have seen from the “Red” photo, recently worked in a stadium in Malaga with a bright blue track surface. However, as much for its memories of the place as anything, I chose this photo of a bicycle I saw in Padova when I was there ten months back. It may be understated, but it’s a lovely blue, nearly matched by the shop poster.

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Indigo

For those struggling to place it, indigo is a deep blue colour. Think night skies in classic paintings, etc. I’d bet there won’t be too many photographers with a large collection of indigo shots. My favourite is this one, with the indigo covers on the Venice gondolas.

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Violet

Violet is the colour of violets. That’s not actually very helpful though. I have white violets in my garden, and even the other-coloured ones are not a classic shade of true violet. However, I couldn’t resist this shot – an overload of violet. It was taken on the Venetian island of Burano, when the wisteria was in bloom. This japanese couple had come all the way from Tokyo to get married in Venice.

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Why not have a go at your own “rainbow”? If it causes you as much critical reflection on your photos as it did me with mine, I’ll probably have done you a favour.

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Pain or Paradise?

 

IMG_5841I’ve been back from my most recent trip to the charming crumbliness that is Venice for about a week now, and it’s time I put some thoughts in this blog. I have never really been one to write traditional “travelogues”. I don’t think I can muster my thoughts quickly enough to write “here’s what I’ve just done today” stuff. So, this is a blog with the benefit of a week spent letting my thoughts and impressions “marinade”, as it were. Quite a bit of that time was spent editing my photos from the trip, so my visual impressions were constantly being refreshed – and occasionally what I saw when I downloaded the images I’d taken at the time challenged my memories. Memory plays tricks, as they say, and I think that’s certainly so with colour.

It had been hardly four months since my last Venice visit. Weather conditions in late November were mostly kind, but we lacked for sunshine then, most of the time. Not so this trip. A few wispy white clouds were burning off as we waited for the boat shuttle from the airport to the City – the only way to arrive, by the way – forget the bus! The sky was pure blue an hour later when we fussed around doing all those useful jobs, like buying a week-long vaporetto pass, and studying the various offers available on admission prices to the better exhibitions etc. It was a deliciously warm late afternoon when we arrived at our hotel, buried in a quiet part of Dorsoduro. And I tell you no lie, but between arriving and leaving eight days later, we hardly saw a single cloud in the sky. Sunshine all the way.

For most of the way, when we travelled to our hotel. we were not struck by Venice really looking or feeling any busier than usual. It was basically the same journey we’d made in November. I’d estimate that more than half of visitor faces the nearer we got to the Rialto-St Marks axis were oriental – but then that too was about the same as November. However, we heard a fair bit of English being spoken. Hardly surprising, as the Easter school and college holidays at home were not quite over.

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We’d got off the airport boat in Canareggio and walked to the railway station tourist office. What was striking was how empty Canareggio was, and how abrupt the change to more crowded streets came, once we were a few minutes’ walk from the Santa Lucia station. Tickets bought for the week, we hopped on a not very crowded vaporetto down the Grand Canal. This surprised us, as the big Piazzale Roma bus terminal and car park is basically the stop before we got on. But it’s just after lunchtime, we thought; people will have arrived earlier and be leaving a bit later on today.  Down the Canal, very few people got on and off the vaporetto. Mostly locals going about their daily routines. That changed the moment we pulled in to the Rialto waterbus stop. It was rammed solid with tourists. The Canal in every direction was providing good trade for the gondoliers at the regulation €80 for 30 minutes (a price, it seems, that somehow has not increased for nearly 5 years). The cafes and bars on the San Polo side were clearly in big demand. Only four more stops until we had to get off at Accademia. It’s a good job we started fighting our way forward from our seats at the back of the vaporetto when we did: we were lucky to be able to get off the thing when it reached our stop. Hard to fight the crowds when you’re carrying a suitcase. 

It took no more than a few seconds to find the street we needed to head for our hotel. This is the university part of town, and was reasonably busy with youngsters we assumed (probably correctly) to be students. Our hotel was in a back street, not on the way to or from anything else, and soon it seemed as if we had Venice to ourselves. Had the vaporetto experience just been a bad joke? We were also the hotel’s only guests for the first two days of our stay. 

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We spent our first full day in the Castello sestriere of Venice (basically the bit behind and north from St Mark’s Basilica). We walked through the Square to get there. St Mark’s was a sprawling mess of people and queues, even at 10am. The neighbouring streets of tat and trinket shops were full of window-shoppers, but once we crossed the first couple of bridges and left these behind, we were in much quieter territory. True, we’d glanced down towards the Bridge of Sighs as we’d crossed the Rio di Palazza and seen something like an illustration from Dante’s Inferno, but heading as we were, away from there in a north westerly direction, all was calm and very welcoming.

We made an early start next morning to visit the Rialto markets. I wanted some photos of the fruit and vegetable market in particular. We arrived at what seemed to be the dip between trade with the local hotels and shops etc, and the point at which the market is flooded with tourists. The many trinket stall that surround the market area were not even open. All well and good, and I got my photos (I’m from a family that ran a greengrocers, you see). We headed into the San Polo sestriere, aiming on a day spent fairly aimlessly rambling its maze of backstreets and little canals. It was there, a couple of minutes away from the market area, that we met them.

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Them? Yes, nameless hordes of tourists, many led by someone waving a flag or umbrella. You could tell those who’d recently come in by coach to Piazzale Roma, because they tended to walk four abreast, with a gap between each pair – just as they’d probably sat on the bus. And these crowds confronted us like a wave of water flooding towards us down any of the streets we tried. No one seemed to be stopping and taking in the area through which they were passing. Their focus was pretty much straight ahead, where the guide/party leader was, Pied Piper-like, hustling them onwards.

On several of the following days, we experienced something similar, whenever we were heading out through part of the city not long after 10am. There was a very clear pattern too. I’d say 80% of the hordes we encountered were heading towards Rialto or St Mark’s Square. On the day we visited Burano, there were big numbers heading to and from the glass ornament capital island of Murano too, although we had no difficulty getting seats anywhere we wanted on our waterbus heading further out to the edges of the Venetian lagoon. No one at all got on or off when it stopped at historic Torcello. We were so surprised that we almost took the opportunity ourselves, to make up for a four year absence, though the insane colours of the next stop, at Burano were too much of a pull to resist.

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Just in the last few days, I’ve read quite a bit in the media about how the Venetian authorities have erected “temporary” turnstiles in the Rialto/St Mark’s area, allegedly for the purposes of separating tourists from locals, and forcing the former on to designated “tourist routes”. Why “allegedly”? Well, I am enough of a cynic to believe that this might well be a dry run for what will eventually lead to a system of access charges for visitors to the most popular parts of Venice. These have been widely spoken about. It’s not my role, nor this the place, to debate the pros and cons of that. My only reaction to those who claim visitors are loving Venice to death is to say that their attention seems very starkly focused on a few areas in particular. Local people are worried about the “Disneyfication” of their city. It strikes me, every time I walk down streets like the Calle Largo San Marco, or San Polo’s Ruga Vecchia, that that battle was essentially lost quite a while ago when the tourist souvenir shops and fast food outlets (no mater how much of an Italian veneer they profess) became the majority. Venice, for many of its visitors, be they from trains, planes, cars, buses or the obscenely huge cruise ships, has become some kind of “experience” to be undergone; a necessary tick on life’s bucket list. 

I find myself wondering how many of those making up the sheep-like armies we dodged ever return to Venice for a second visit? I imagine that perhaps even they would say “No, it was just too full of tourists”.

There, blog done. And I didn’t even get started on another rant about “selfie” culture. That took a lot of self control, believe me!

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New Beginnings

Landscape from Radicofani (1)

A Tuscan winter’s morning

The “star” of the last episode of this blog was my big Zenza Bronica GS-1 medium format camera. However, that brute has a slightly smaller brother, and by coincidence, he’s about to undergo some road-tests after rather a long period of “hospitalization”.

When I reached the age of 40, back in 1994, it was in the heady days when 35mm photography was probably at its height, though “real” photographers still liked to say “big is better”, and medium and large format photography was still getting many pages of coverage in the camera press. These were, of course, pre internet and pre digital camera days. A last hurrah, or the calm before the storm? History will decide.

I was a regularly-published photographer of things to do with Britain’s mountains, and my “specialist” area, the Italian Dolomites. I worked almost exclusively with a really lovely Nikon F3/T camera.

My Nikon was a marvel. This wasn’t your ordinary black-bodied F3/T, but one of what was known as the “champagne T” limited editions. See photo.

Nikon-F3T-in-ChampagneThe T cameras had numerous titanium body parts. The “champagne” cameras were produced in a pinkish-grey finish, very resistant indeed to scratches and knocks. Moreover, mine had been “winterised” at some point in its life. I think this involved some special lubrication being put in, and a bit of insulation of the electrics. It was also able to take an external battery pack that could be worn inside a jacket. I never did get to find out its full history, but the guy in the shop told me he thought the previous owner had done a stint with the Antarctic Survey.

So, I had the ideal mountain camera. However, I was well aware that 35mm format was limiting so far as the purer forms of landscape photography went. Large format cameras were beyond my price range, and impractical for my needs. Medium format was dominated by various forms of Rollei and Mamiya cameras, and Hassleblads for those with the money. There was a strong following for Bronica cameras too. A used camera dealership about 20 miles from where I lived had a service whereby they would search out and put together mint or near-mint condition camera outfits, to order. I gave them a specification for what I thought I wanted, and a week before my 40th birthday, my collection of “big boy’s toys” was ready to collect.

I’d bought a basic kit. Think big, modular single lens reflex camera. Camera body, film back, basic lens, prism meter/viewfinder and general-purpose standard lens. I loved it, and it wasn’t long before I began searching the shops and magazine ads (no such thing as eBay back then) to add useful accessories to my outfit. I was also loving the results from a film format (6cm x 4.5cm negatives and slides) that is quite a bit larger than 35mm. OK, there are only 15 shots per roll of 120 film, but while I could get through a couple of 36 exposure rolls of 35mm film on a day out in the mountains, the smaller number was fine for the situations I used the Bronica in. It was too big and clumsy, in my opinion, to take up high in the hills, and totally, totally impractical for rock-climbing photography.

Reading “Amateur Photographer” magazine one day, several months after buying my Bronica outfit, I came across a short piece about the delights of the “135” film backs made for my Bronica model. These take a cassette of 35mm film. There’s one that takes the standard 36mm x 24mm frames, and a “W” model that shoots 52mm x 24mm panoramic format frames, achieving 23 of such frames to a roll of 36 exposure 35mm film. I was immediately interested in the ‘W’. Here was a brilliant crossover option between my 35mm and medium format needs. There was one problem. The 135 series backs had only ever been made in small numbers, and the W backs in particular were allegedly, said the magazine article, as rare as hen’s teeth.

I rang the used equipment dealer from whom I’d bought my outfit, to check this out. “Yes”, he said, “they don’t turn up very often, but by coincidence, we’ve just got one in. If you want it, you’ll need to be quick, because it’ll be advertised in ‘Amateur Photographer’ next week, and be sold immediately.” I needed no other prompting. I bought it sight-unseen, and collected it that weekend. I don’t recall that the fact for, back then, it was quite expensive, ever came into the equation. I don’t scour the used equipment ads in print, (or on eBay) much these days, but ever since buying my 135W back over 20 years ago, I think I have only ever seen one or two advertised. I was that fortunate. The last one I saw was on eBay and it attracted hundreds of bids. I can’t begin to think what price it went for!

Anyhow, me and the Bronica ETRSi went on some superb outings. I was fortunate to have a series of Christmas/New Year trips to Tuscany, and it was the ideal camera for everything I wanted there. The big GS-1 Bronica would have been even better, but I hadn’t bought it then!

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Then came the fateful day. We’d stopped off in the lovely little walled town of Monteriggioni for coffee on our last afternoon. I parked the Bronica on the cafe’s high counter while paying for coffees, and, as I lifted them on their tray, I up-ended the camera, which headed straight for the cafe’s stone-tiled floor. My hands were full of a tray and coffees etc, and I had no chance to catch it. The crash brought silence to the whole cafe. Yes, it even sounded to others as near-fatal as it sounded to me.

The Bronica’s 75mm lens was totally smashed and the lens body horribly distorted. The floor came off far better, without even a mark! The impact had parted the lens from the camera body. The viewing prism was similarly cast adrift, though apparently undamaged. The 120 format film back I’d been using at the time had burst open, immediately ruining the ten or so shots taken on it. Maybe everything would have survived a fall on to a wooden floor, but four feet or so directly down on to Tuscan stonework was far too much. It was a disaster.

I didn’t get a real chance to study the damage until we were back in the UK. There was nothing to salvage of the lens, which had clearly taken the main impact. It went in the bin without much ceremony. The film back seemed none the worse for the fall, the force which had caused its latches to open. In normal operation it seemed fine. The metering and viewing prism was an expensive later addition I’d bought. It didn’t seem to be damaged or marked at all, but wouldn’t lock properly on to the camera body. This was traced to a hairline crack along a length of a plastic casing to the body, which was made of very firm plastic, around a strong metal chassis. The metal chassis seemed fine. A replacement lens fitted to the lens mount perfectly. The 75mm lens had, in effect, acted as a crumple zone! The impact had also dislodged the internal mirror mechanism.

The box of bits languished untouched for several years in my office, a constant reminder of bad luck and clumsiness. I was using digital SLRs for most work by now, but still had a freezer full of film that needed using. The Bronica had been reserved for special trips. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I had the entirely unexpected chance to buy a very complete outfit built around the ETRSi’s big brother, the GS-1 for really not a great deal of money. I’m glad I did, because the GS1 has given me great service – see this blog, for example. However, the damage to the ETRSi still irked. However, an experiment had shown that the camera’s metering electrics still worked, and eventually I decided to drop it in to a now much-missed local repair workshop for a look.

Professional attention fixed the mirror without difficulty, but the advice was that the crack in the camera body wasn’t capable of being mended. It was a stressed section that helped hold the viewfinder prism firmly in place. Options were to find a way to tape it up, or stump up the cost of a new camera body. Once the mirror was working again, I was able to confirm everything in the camera worked, but the viewing prism would not stay fixed on. Everything went back in that box in the office. While I could have sold the individual components, with its crack, the body wasn’t saleable. Heart ruled head.

It wasn’t until late 2017, around ten years since the accident, that I finally got around to having a serious look at how to repair that split. To my surprise, by discreetly taping the viewfinder to the camera body, I had something that stayed firmly in place and allowed full functionality. With the use of just a couple of inches of good quality, carefully-positioned mending tape, I had a complete ETRSi outfit again. I was glad the camera hadn’t had its rather expensive 50mm wide angle lens fitted when it was dropped. I can’t justify replacing the 75mm “workhorse” lens, so the 50 looks like it might become the new standard. It gives a view approximately equivalent to 28mm on a 35mm format camera or digital slr.

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Not to be dropped!

Well, today I finished the job of cleaning and fettling all parts of the ETRSi kit. It looks wonderful. The wide angle lens will bring out the best from the 135W film back, and I still have more than a dozen rolls of 35mm film in the fridge. Stand by for some experimentation!

My title this time is a Strawbs song, which will be unknown to almost everyone likely to read this piece!

 

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“And He Marched Them Down Again…”

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The Tre Cime di Lavaredo

This instalment of the blog isn’t about Venice, nor about mobile phone photography, some may be relieved to hear! No, it’s a little bit of a trip down memory lane that needs to be read in conjunction with this episode that I wrote back in September 2013 . I’ll pause for a bit while you have a quick read.

Right. With me? We’re in the Dolomites, visiting the area around the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. It’s strange, but perhaps revealing in the light of events I’ll relate here, that I didn’t mention at all in that blog you’ve just read what camera gear I was carrying that particular day. Why strange? Because there have not been many days when I have toted a full medium format film camera outfit up into the the high parts of the Dolomites. For the thick end of 10 years, mine has been a Bronica GS-1 6cm x 7cm set-up, with a full complement of lenses, and spare film backs. For sheer pack-weight alone the stuff ought to have got a mention back then.

IMG_2767The camera body, when mounted with the loveliest wide angle lens in the world, the Bronica 50mm job made for the GS, plus a viewfinder prism and a film back, sits on the scales at almost 3 kilograms The whole thing is big, heavy and made to last. The 50mm lens takes a 95mm filter. I often comment that, in extremis, you could eat a meal off one of those. So, take it from me: whether it’s in transit in a rucksack on your back, or ready for action on a strap over your shoulder, you certainly know you have it with you.

6 x 7 frames on 120 roll film means just 10 frames to a spool of film before the cumbersome job of changing film begins. It’s all proper “old-school” photography.

Now, fast forward to a couple of weeks into 2018. For one reason or another, the Bronica hadn’t seen too many outings for a couple of years. I’d not made it to Venice for a couple of years, where I simply love to use it. My running commitments, and injury related to these (!) had kept me off the mountains too often, and such other trips away I’d fitted in had tended to be lightweight affairs, constrained by what could realistically be carried by one or two people on a motorbike.

I had promised my other half that I’d seriously get down to some medium format photography this year. Why was it an issue of concern to her? Well, my stock of medium format roll film all lives in our fridge or the freezer at home and, let’s admit it, some of it had been in there quite a while. So, there came a day when I decided to give the whole Bronica outfit a good inspection and clean. I was impressed how it all still looked – for a film camera from the mid 1980s. I bought mine as a pretty large kit that I’ve added to over time, back in about 2001. I bought it from an old gent in North London, who had used it pretty much exclusively for taking shots of sample perfume bottles for the business he ran. It hadn’t, as a result, had anything like the hard life that might otherwise have been its fate. It was all in its original boxes and had possibly never even been used out of doors!

Suitably cleaned, I went to put everything back in the big camera rucksack it lives in/ At at the last moment, I decided that “if a job’s worth doing…etc”, the bag needed a clean as well. Its interior is made up of adjustable modular compartments etc, fitted to a surrounding frame. I took out all the compartments and, to my big surprise, found two film cassettes tucked away deep in the recesses of the base of the bag. I always cary my roll film in plastic cassettes made from two of the things 35mm film used to come in, stuck together with tape. It was two of these that were playing hide and seek.

Now, I had no idea at all a) how long they’d been there, b) whether they were used, c) what might have been on them if they were, and d) whether the passage of time was going to mean they’d come back spoiled from the developers. The second point was quickly resolved. Yes, they were used rolls of colour negative film. 120 film ends with a piece of adhesive tape that secures it tightly on the plastic film spool when finished. On both, the adhesive tape was neatly in place. What was missing was any identification on or in the cassettes as to when the stuff had been shot. I’m normally pretty good at adding something like that, but not for these.

Those great people at Peak Imaging, in Stockport, replied to my e-mail about my chances of getting images from these films with optimism. Provided the films had been stored dry, they should be ok if they were, say, about three to five years old. I’d guessed that this might have been their age, but I had no idea at all how old the films had been when I used them.

Why so? Well, in about 2008, an old professional photographer friend and mentor of mine had given up the game through ill-health, and I’d bought his remaining stocks of roll film from him. I’d actually bought the small freezer he kept it all in too, but we had no sensible room at home for that, and pretty soon the film all got transferred to our domestic freezer and kitchen fridge. We’re talking about perhaps 100 rolls of film all told. It had all been kept immaculately before I got it, so I wasn’t worried to see that some of it was at the point (back then) of date-expiring. Thus, if I’d used the film in, say, 2012, it might already have been 4 years out of date, and then spent the best part of five years hiding in a never-before-visited corner of my camera rucksack. How it had actually found its way there, goodness knows.

So, the films went off to Peak Imaging, and returned in the post a couple of days later. Joy of joys: the negatives looked crisp and full of detail. And I could tell immediately that the photos on both rolls were of the Dolomites. Now, you’ll maybe be ahead of me by now, and I’m getting a bit slow, but it wasn’t until I’d run a couple of frames through my film scanner and studied them on screen that it dawned on me – these were the rolls of film I must have shot on that irritating day in September 2013 that I directed you to read about when I started this piece.

Why I’d not missed them at the end of the day I shot them, I do not know. Why I seem to have no recollection of even having shot them at all is even more of a mystery. All I can suppose is that the events of that day had annoyed me so much that I’d pretty much blanked them by the time I next got the Bronica out to use. And how the films had become mislaid in the lining of the camera rucksack must forever remain a complete enigma.

It’s all been a bit like finding money down the back of the sofa. It’s also given me the reassurance that properly stored colour negative film, even if about four years out of date when shot, and even if then left undiscovered for at least that same amount of time again, will return good results without any of the forensic techniques you might have read about not long ago, when they salvaged film from an early Antarctic expedition.

Nevertheless, I’m not banking on my good luck holding indefinitely, so I will be making a while lot more use of my Bronica outfit over the next few months – at very least until my present ancient stocks of film are used up.

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The Rifugio Locatelli, or Dreizinnenhutte, visited on the day in question

Added note. I later realised that this isn’t the first chapter of this blog that covers stuff related to lost film. I am trying not to make a habit of it!

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Through a Window

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Another Venice blog. Proof of the spell my recent visit to “La Serenissima” cast on me. Oh, and also evidence I’ve had a little bit of time on my hands this year over the Christmas period!

I wrote in the previous chapter of this blog about the book “Dream of Venice Architecture” which I received as a Christmas present, and about the comment in one of its short chapters, regarding Venetian doors. This struck a particular chord with me, not only because I had taken a very similar picture of the same door featured in that chapter, but because for some time I had been thinking about making a small gallery of photos on the general theme of the doors and windows of Venice and the islands of Murano and Burano.

Well, the book gave me the spur to pull that gallery together. In truth, it covers a bit more than just doors and windows, as you’ll see.

The gallery is here. Enjoy.

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Comfort & Joy

 

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Not far from Rialto

Stand by. This is another Venice-related blog. Well, despite a pleasant pre-Christmas week in a cold and mostly overcast Derbyshire, Venice is where my photographic heart and soul has been for the past few weeks, since we returned from our recent visit there.

I’m writing the first draft of this on Christmas Day. As a gift, I got given a copy of a 2016 book called “Dream of Venice Architecture” (Bella Figura Publications ISBN 978-0-9907725-1-4) which has me entranced. I didn’t get to spend much time in bookshops when in Venice recently, otherwise I might have seen it for sale. I found out about it from the lovely community of Venice-lovers I’ve joined on Twitter, since I got home, and mail-ordered a copy.

Why “entranced”? Well, it’s a book of short essays on Venetian architectural themes, each accompanied by a photo by Riccardo De Cal. To add to the charm (for me, at least) none of the photos are captioned as such, but they are all exactly the kind of generic shots of Venetian detail that I love to take myself. I found I had several of exactly the same topic. This door (my shot appears here), for example, features in a chapter in the book about Venetian doors.

There’s a suggestion that someone needs to produce some kind of “taxonomy” of its doors. I agree. Over the years, on my travels, I’ve seen books and posters about “The Doors of Ireland”, “The Doors of Tuscany” etc, but never one on “The Doors of Venice”. They come in all different kinds and styles, as befits the age of the city, and in Venice, doors serve a multitude of purposes, including many designed specifically to keep water out from the lower reaches of canal-side properties.

I’d be happy to contribute some of my own photos on exactly that theme, too! Like the one below. 1518 is the property number, but the door could easily date from then, too – apart from the tell-tale digital lock!

 

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In San Polo

As a Christmas present to myself – no expense spared -and courtesy of a £7 bargain find in one of my local second-hand bookshops, I’m also now the proud possessor of a near-mint copy of the 1989 book “Venice”, by the late and occasionally controversial photographer David Hamilton. He’s not controversial for his Venice photos, but from the days when he used to produce highly “arty”, very soft focus, near-nude studies of teenage girls. He fell from grace. The Venice book uses his trademark soft focus style almost to a fault. I found myself almost shouting at the book, about some shots that would have been brilliant in sharp focus!

A couple of blogs ago, I wrote, in the context that it is so photographed, by so many people, that “unique photos of Venice are pretty much unheard of”. And guess what? Dating from a visit way back in the 1990s, probably when Cokin filters were all the rage, I found I had my own “David Hamilton” image. As if to prove my point.

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My inadvertent “homage” to David Hamilton

Suffice it to say, my Christmas Day was full of delightful reminiscence and wonderful discoveries and rediscoveries from the two books.

 

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Me, Myself, I

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Gondolas, but not a selfie stick in sight

I promised you a follow up to may last blog, once the trip to Venice and Padua was done. This is it. Thanks for your patience.

I liked our time in Padua (Padova to the Italians), mostly for the sumptuous art we saw there, particularly in the Museo Eremitani, and in the fabulous Scrovegni Chapel, which is rated in the top 5 of Europe’s top art treasures. Access to the Scrovegni is strictly controlled, to protect the Giotto fresco cycle it contains across its walls. At peak times, I gather this can mean waiting a couple of days to get on the list. Only about 25 people at a time are allowed in, and each group only gets about 15 minutes there. We were fortunate. On a November Tuesday morning, we were first in the queue and the group we went in with got almost half an hour.

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Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel. All selfie-takers cropped off

Not that this was really any benefit to, I’m afraid, far too many of them. The place is one of only a few I can honestly remember that literally took my breath away on first sight. However, to most of the other visitors, it was nothing more than an excuse for a bout of  “selfie” photos, with the astonishing frescoes as little more than an incidental backdrop. Sad.

There was something of a slight “homecoming” feeling, a couple of days later, when we left the Santa Lucia rail terminus in Venice and walked out into the familiar world of waterways. True, we’d passed through ever so briefly on our way to Padua, but only for about 10 minutes. I was hugely looking forward this “out of season” visit for several days.

As I alluded to in the previous blog, despite the huge volume of photos people (me included) have taken of Venice, it’s actually a difficult place to photograph in ways that catch the atmosphere away from the tourist honeypots. Places like St Mark’s Square and Rialto Bridge have become immense “selfie” fodder.

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St Mark’s Square. Wet.

We couldn’t completely avoid St Mark’s, as we were staying very nearby. We had good weather (for November), so it’s a bit ironic that one of my favourite photos of the trip turned out to be this shot of that very place we generally steered clear of, and in the rain.

There’s a lovely spin off for the photographer of Venetian backstreets etc in the late autumn. Daylight is ample, but in many of the ‘canyons” off the beaten track, there is an absence of the deep, dark shadows which can make photography at sunnier times much more of a challenge.

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One of the many “canyons”

Venetian sunsets are hard to get, mainly because the sun sets behind the docks and cruise-liner terminal, offering little by way of foreground to even the most dramatic skies. I’m no early riser, either, but with sunrise being at about 7.30, it was a great gift, at a time well before the majority of selfie-takers were out and about.

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Sunrise over San Georgio Maggiore from near St Mark’s

We walked miles – when we got home, I found that my iPhone pedometer app-thing had recorded we’d walked up to 15km on most days. That’s a lot in Venice, taking into account the hopping on and off vaporettos on the Grand Canal, and the time spent eyeing up spots for good photos. We made a conscious decision not to visit the islands on this trip. It meant we avoided “death by glass ornaments” on Murano, but also that we forewent time on Burano, with its insanely garishly-painted houses. On reflection, I really missed Burano.

If you’ve been following this blog, and reading me on Twitter (@Tomsprints), you’ll know that I’ve been using my iPhone 7 Plus for a lot of photography this year. Although I carried my Lumix and two lenses with me every day in Padua and Venice, the truth is that I shot a scarcely a couple of dozen shots on it during the whole of our stay. All photos in this blog episode are from the iPhone.

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Close to St Mark’s

I’ve become fascinated to see what the iPhone can do, particularly when pushed into tricky situations. It seemed to lap up everything Venice could throw at it. I do almost no heavy-duty editing of my photos – not enough time, and too few skills. A commitment to post stuff on Twitter while in Venice meant posting often quite soon after some shots were taken. So, a tweak of brightness or saturation here and there, a few straightened horizons, and a bit of image cropping to bring out the best in a view, had to suffice. It was all done on the ‘phone itself, too – no downloading to anything more (allegedly) powerful.

It was while shooting a sunrise near the gondolas on the edge of St Mark’s that I had a ridiculous and insulting encounter. I was about to take a couple of shots on the iPhone, when a guy (an American by the sound of him), simply walked in front of me, and began setting up his tripod and digital camera. “Excuse me..” I said, in a justifiably indignant tone. “You don’t need to stand right in front of me.” He turned and sneered “Well, if you were using a proper camera, perhaps people wouldn’t stand in front of you.” Heavy emphasis on the word “proper”. “Keep your prejudices at home” I told him, and stood my ground. He walked away to obstruct someone else, and I was left astonished at the depth of his dismissal of phone cameras!

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To me, this is often the “real Venice”

Many years ago, we got a free gondola ride as compensation from a hotel we’d booked into, which, for a couple of nights, wasn’t able to offer us the standard of room we thought we’d booked. I hated the experience. It was like being in a goldfish bowl, with everyone watching you, thinking “There go the rich gits”. Even more true now than back then, that this is something for the rich, with even the shortest trip starting at 80 euros (nearly 80 quid on the almost 1:1 exchange rate we got this trip). However, most participants seemed oblivious to that, and most other things beside. The majority we saw sat in their gondola, filming each other and taking selfies.

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No selfie sticks here, though

The musical title to this blog comes from Joan Armatrading, and was a real no-brainer choice.

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Down To The Waterline

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Calle de la Canonica

I’ve not written about Italian things for quite a while here. I’ll put that to rights now.

Venice and Siena vie for the honour of being my two most favourite cities, anywhere. Venice just wins, I think, mostly by dint of having more variety to offer the visitor. It doesn’t win by a huge amount, though, when things like charm and overall atmosphere come into it. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Venice. However, it surprises even me to realise I’ve never actually spent any length of time there. How so?

Well, back in the day that I had very regular commitments leading walking and scrambling parties in the Italian Dolomites, we flew there via Innsbruck for a good many years. Then things changed, and it became more convenient to fly in and out via Marco Polo airport, which serves Venice and the surrounding area. I frequently had a “changeover” day, when one group went home, but the next didn’t come in until a good bit later the same day. I always took the opportunity to grab half a day in “La Serenissima” herself. It made for some pretty focussed tourism, with an absolute deadline to catch a water taxi to the airport curtailing my fun.

That all ended, though. It was quite a few years before I got to make a “proper” visit to Venice – a week, with commitments to nobody but myself. Since then, I’ve been back maybe five or six times for similar visits, though it pained me to realise not long ago that the last time was just before Easter 2013. More than four years ago. That failing is being corrected in a few weeks from now, as I write.

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Venice “rush-hour”

Some people seem to have a real downer on Venice. Too busy, too many tourists, too expensive, and so on. I can only agree. Nevertheless, I think that there must be something in the frequent short visits I’ve made there that has in some way inoculated me against its excesses. That’s unusual, because my hatred of crowds and crowded places is well known, but I seem to be able to forgive Venice for its failings. Siena too, I think, although, unlike Venice, Siena has definite off-peak times, and I’ve been good at catching these.

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St Marks Umbrella Parade

 

 

 

 

 

The portfolio of anyone who takes a lot of photographs of Venice will always share a huge similarity with that of anyone else doing likewise. The place has a habit of channelling the visitor to certain key points, down common corridors, be they waterways or the delectable maze of backstreets that make up the real city. Nothing ever really looks the same each time, or to each visitor but let’s say that “unique” photos of anything in Venice are pretty much unheard of.

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The Red Umbrellas

To split a few more hairs, I’ve long been a photographer of landscapes. I’ve never really seen myself as a “travel photographer” in the currently acknowledged sense, however. There’s a big chunk of overlap, of course, especially when the “landscape” you’re photographing is part of a city. Venice, possibly uniquely out of all the places I love to visit, narrows the gap between “landscape” and “travel” photography the most. Not much “land” but lots of “scape”, I suppose.

Here’s my collection of images from 2013, called “City of Water”. You’ll probably see what I mean.

 

 

 

 

My upcoming visit to Venice will be prefaced by a couple of days in Padua. Padua (Padova) has been on my wish list for a while, and I only realised recently how close it actually was to Venice, and how short a train journey it was. Bring it on! The next episode of this blog will probably tell you how it went.

 

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To finish, here’s one of my very occasional “daubs”. I don’t think I’ve posted one here before. This is Santa Maria della Salute, from the Accademia Bridge.

 

(Having recently been to see a very good Dire Straits tribute band, it was a bit easy to choose my title for this blog.)

 

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Riding on a Railroad

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It’s strange the memories and stuff that come at you when you revisit somewhere you’ve not been for a while. It’s several years since I spent time in Chamonix, “capital” of the French Alps. I passed through ten days ago, on a diversion from somewhere else I’d been staying, and stopped for lunch.

“Cham” on a bright sunny day was as it always is – rammed. I managed to find a parking spot near the apartment I used to rent occasionally, and somewhere to sit for lunch. So, not too rammed on a September Thursday, I guess.

There was a very excitable young english couple on a table near to me. It was apparent from their conversation that they had recently had some kind of “near death experience” in the mountains, involving a thunderstorm. They’d clearly lived to tell the tale. It had me thinking about the occasions I could remember when an electrical storm added a certain something to a day out from Chamonix. Happily, I too had lived to tell the tales (such as they were) each time. I was probably never in real danger on either occasion, although it really didn’t feel like it at the time.

My private reminiscences continues on as I hit the motorways and began my journey home. and a thought began to puzzle me. We’ll come back to that.

One of my favourite spots of all in the French Alps is Le Signal. It’s the top of a broad, sloping pass, about 30 minutes walk above the Montenvers mountain railway station, or a couple of hours away, if coming from the west, from the middle station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car.

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Mont Blanc & the Aiguille du Midi cablecar, from path to Le Signal on a good day!

Le Signal is the place to view the famous Mer de Glace glacier, with its famous view up to the Grandes Jorasses. The view isn’t half what it probably was a hundred and more years ago, because of the pace that the glacier has retreated, but it’s still a very fine view indeed, which I have photographed often.

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Panorama south from Le Signal on a good day. Petit Dru far left of shot

Le Signal is also the place par excellence to gawp at the west face Petit Dru. The Dru is a shapely flying buttress on the side of the taller Aiguille Verte, but the top of the Verte is almost completely hidden in the view from Le Signal, which emphasises what a shapely, fairytale peak the Dru actually is.

Now, a slight diversion. I don’t shoot much film any more. I was a latecomer to digital photography, and for quite a few years, used my film and digital cameras side by side for landscape work. However, for reasons I now forget – other than the bargain price – in about 2008 I sank all of my investment in film cameras into one extensive Zenza Bronica GS-1 outfit. This camera and the bits and pieces that go with it is, in my view, the un-sung king of medium format film cameras, save for one thing: its bulk and weight. The GS is made to last. Even a bog-standard kit of body, basic lens, film back and prism viewfinder weighs in at almost 3 kilos. That’s before you’ve added to your bag an extra film back or two, a couple of other lenses, a handgrip and, more often than not, a pretty sturdy tripod. I was even more of a latecomer to the concept that it’s not what you put in the bag that matters, it’s what you decide to leave out.

To compromise, I stopped carrying a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera for landscape work. My Nikon DSLR is a bruiser, and its quality lenses are heavy too. I was glad to be persuaded to buy a Panasonic Lumix GF-1, compact digital camera with a range of interchangeable lenses. It’s a camera known as “the poor man’s Leica”. Seven or so years down the line, I have two of these in regular use. Great cameras, but more to the point here, they extended the time that I could justify the effort and sweat of lugging my Bronica GS outfit up into the mountains.

The Bronica, like nearly all medium format cameras, uses 120 roll film. The negatives/transparencies it shoots are 6cm by 7cm. In other words, pretty big. this means I get precisely ten shots to a roll of film before needing to go through the rigmarole of rewinding and changing the film, or digging out a second, pre-loaded film back. Medium format photography is a slow and very deliberate business, key to which is as much deciding which shots not to take, as it is deciding which ones to shoot.

Now, Le Signal is one of those spots where it is possible to justify packing a medium format outfit. The walk from the Aiguille du Midi cable car middle station is mostly a broad, undulating mountainside path, albeit with a half-hour brutal uphill finish. The walk up from Montenvers station is on a mess of paths, steep but direct, for about 30 minutes on a good day.

The occasion I have in mind was not, to begin with, a good day. Overnight rain had lingered, and, as September became October, unsettled autumn weather was taking control. Getting the most out of my stay in Chamonix involved spotting the weather windows and trusting to luck. By 11am, it looked like luck was heading my way, but it was early afternoon before I plucked up the courage to hop on board the Aiguille du Midi lift and head for Le Signal.

The walk-in had become very familiar. I’d been this way twice before during my current stay in Chamonix. This would be the last, as I was heading home in a week. Behind me, the summit of Mont Blanc stayed hidden in cloud, but I was treated to an afternoon of rapidly warming and fast-moving weather. I was happy to be out later than usual, having the backup of a return to Chamonix on the Montenvers railway.

Upon reaching Le Signal, the conditions were disappointing. There was a fairly poor view up the Mer de Glace, and the clouds were swirling around, making any photography hit and miss. This is really not what you want with medium format stuff. With digital, it’s usually a case of shoot away, and then delete the poor shots. At ten to a roll of film, to the cost of which needs to be added that of developing, the weather rather encouraged me to keep the camera in my rucksack and be philosophical about things. I’d at least brought a book with me to read while waiting for the train back, so I settled down in the shelter of some rocks, broke out the flask of tea and what was left of some pastries bought in the town that morning, opened the book, and waited to see what the weather would do.

What it did, within half an hour, was get quite dark. This sort of crept up on me, as it came from the east, and the lowering cloud was initially concealed by the bulk of the Aiguille Verte and the Dru, immediately across the valley from my seat. There was something else, too. Initially a bit intangible, but it was almost as if there was a humming in the air. Before I could dwell too much on that, however, the late afternoon sun dipped below the bottom edge of the clouds to the east that had been hiding Mont Blanc. The light was focussed like a giant torch beam from the east, over the saddle of Le Signal, and straight at the Petit Dru.

The Bronica had been on the tripod for some time, armed with its 50mm wide angle lens (which needs a 90mm filter, would you believe? You could eat your dinner off it!). Across on the Dru, the light was giving the clouds hovering around the summit a yellow tinge. I could tell by the shape of them that the mountain was attracting a storm all of its own. I took five shots. Half a roll of film.

Then…CRACK-BOOOOM. No gap between the lightning and the thunder. This wasn’t good. There was no immediate sign of rain, but the air was highly charged, and self-preservation demanded immediate descent. Things were thrown in my rucksack, and carrying the still-extended tripod, I made a heavy-laden run for it downhill towards the Montenvers railway station, as further bolts of lightning illuminated the afternoon. I’d be early for the 5pm train, but not by a great deal.

There was a different kind of shock waiting for me at Montenvers. Today was the first of October. The Montenvers railway, from here to Chamonix has its annual closure every year, for maintenance work, during October. There were no trains. The rain came an hour or so later, as I was trudging endlessly down through the forests back towards Chamonix. Aside from the tripod, my gear was safe inside several layers of waterproof bag. I had a jacket, but no over-trousers, and my boots had filled with rain many times over by the time I reached my apartment. The electrical storm had been violent but short-lived, fortunately. The rain carried on all night.

Fully two years later, I found that half-used roll of film still in the film back in my camera bag. I quickly frittered away the other five shots and sent the roll off for developing. The puzzle I’d mentioned earlier was that I had no idea at all where those photos had subsequently gone. When I arrived back in the UK from my recent trip, I nearly took my office apart in my search, until there, tucked into the back of a negative folder, was the plastic strip which I’d done nothing with since the day it had returned from the processing lab. Taking the film strip from the plastic was the start of a trip back down memory lane which has become the blog you’re now reading.

The photo at the head of this blog is one of the five I shot at Le Signal that day. As good as, if not better than I remember it!

My blog title this time is a James Taylor song. Of course, I didn’t.

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Lonesome Road

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I was asked an interesting, though perhaps impertinent question recently.

A friend asked “When do you think you were in your prime?” The impertinence is, of course, in the assumption that I might not think I’m there yet! I managed to dodge the point, but it nonetheless exercised me a lot on my 1,000km road journey from home out to the French Alps recently. Once I’d arrived, (and adapted to life with snapped tendons in one hand, as a result of a stupid mishap -packing a bag, of all things!) it was a few days more before some kind of answer dawned on me. If it turns out to be the right answer, I can pinpoint “my prime” to two or three days in September 2011. Yes, that precisely!

The trigger for coming to this particular conclusion was revisiting the Col d’Iseran, above Val d’Isere, on the edge of the Vanoise Alps. It’s the highest paved road in the Alps, at 2,770m, and the fifth highest in Europe .  As my photo at the head of this piece shows, the summit’s nothing beautiful, and it’s little-changed since my first visit, in September 2011. That visit was a rushed job, as I’ll explain, in what might be a bit of a meandering blog. Bear with me.

I was in the Alps back then on the nearest I’ve ever come to “an escape”. I’d just managed to get early retirement from “real work”, I was at last making a good recovery from clinical depression, and, after a few setbacks, I was finally off antidepressants. I was otherwise physically well, and I seized my chance. I found myself with just over two weeks free before the European Masters Games, in Lignano, near Venice in Italy, where I was due to race in the 200 metres, and six weeks completely blank in the diary after that.

Then, my Swiss friend Pino asked whether I wanted to race in a track meeting in Bellinzona, on the edge Italian Lakes, on the weekend before the Games, and a plan quickly fell into place. I’d take my big motorbike, loaded up with luggage, cameras, and running gear, and set off for Lignano via Bellinzona. Just about the only intermediate pre-planned point was to be a Friday night stay at Pino’s house in Luzern, from where we’d head south next morning to Bellinzona, conveniently just the other side of the Gotthard Pass.

Fast forward a week after I’d set off from home. I’d called in on friends in Annecy. I’d ridden my motorbike over the Col du Galibier (a long-time ambition), and I was having fun. I’d been given three months paid leave in lieu of notice when I left my job. Therefore, I was even being paid for all this!

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Top of the Galibier

I’d reached Briançon. I had a long day planned from there, across a couple of big road passes, through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, and thence on to the Swiss motorway system, aiming to arrive at Pino’s in Luzern for dinner. Very do-able, but without much of a time contingency should I encounter delays.

It was bright and sunny as I drove from Briançon, over into Italy to Bardonècchia, to take the Fréjus tunnel – a necessary and useful short-cut back to France onto the first stage of my route. The first warning sign I saw was a couple of kilometres from the end of the motorway into Bardonècchia. “Tunnel Chiuso”. Closed. Closed?? It was true, too. There was a train jammed in the tunnel. It would be closed all day, at the very least. Suddenly I faced a 100 kilometre diversion, via the Col du Mont Cenis, to get back on track. Strangely, I have no recollection of that piece of road at all. It was just a case of get on and do it.

I took a brief lunch in Bonneval sur Arc, smugly patting myself on the back for surviving the tunnel misfortune, but very aware that any time contingency on the journey had now almost vanished. The Col d’Iseran, where this blog began, was next. From south to north it’s steep but not a hard route. I hardly even paused at the top, and dropped down the innumerable hairpins and crazy pieces of road through Val d’Isère, past Tignes, and on to the foot of the Col du Petit St Bernard, my last challenge before the Mont Blanc Tunnel from Courmeyeur to Chamonix.

I don’t like the Petit St Bernard Pass. It’s very twisty and 30 km from bottom to top. They don’t even bother to number the hairpins on it, something which often, because they usually number from the top downwards, gives a good idea how you’re progressing. The road over it has been there certainly since the Romans. As has some of its current surface, I think. The next setback was at the 2,188m summit of the pass, just back over in Italy. It was a large, hand-written sign in the window of the café beside the road. “Tunnel Monte Bianco Chiuso” it pronounced. What? I parked up and went in to ask. Yes, there had been a vehicle fire in the tunnel earlier in the day. There were no signs about this on the French side of the Petit St Bernard. The Italian café guy just shrugged in a very French way.

Over a strong “doppio”, I sat with map and satnav, working out my options. I realise only now, that the thought of simply giving it all up as a bad job never once occurred to me.

GPS Jane selected a shortcut avoiding Courmayeur, by descending the Col d’Arpi road, to Morgex in the Aosta Valley, and thence via Aosta and the Grand St Bernard Tunnel. From there it would be downhill all the way to Martigny, and those Swiss motorways. I’d done Aosta to Martigny a few years before. It would be hard work, and add maybe another 100km to my ever-lengthening day.

The Italian descent of the Petit San Bernard Pass is steep and convoluted, but the Col d’Arpi as an alternative was a mistake. A tiny road, through forests, with more hairpins, and more blind, tight hairpins, than I could ever have imagined. It was, to be frank, scary and the thought of that descent scares me still. I hit all the rest of the traffic displaced by the Mont Blanc Tunnel closure on the road from Morgex to Aosta. The traffic jams, on top of normal Friday evening, late holiday-season rush-hour, were grim, but at least the Grand St Bernard Tunnel was definitely open!

I rang Pino from Martigny. It was already gone 7pm and I’d missed the dinner his wife Barbara had prepared for us. Pino advised me to avoid any route to Luzern that went via the Swiss capital, Berne. A bee-line would have taken me through Berne and, as a result, I discovered that I had about four hours on the Swiss motorways ahead of me. The route GPS Jane plotted across Switzerland remains a bit of a mystery to me to this day. I was beyond arguing with her, and just followed every instruction. My body and mind had, it seemed, gone to some other, non-worldly place. If I’d become tired by the journey to this point, I now seemed to have transcended that. I was alert, and it wasn’t coffee! I had total “tunnel vision” on the motorways, to the extent of almost forgetting to stop for fuel. Normal bodily functions had suspended themselves. I’d only eaten a bar of chocolate and downed a double espresso since lunchtime, but I had no thirst or hunger that I recall. I’d been riding my motorbike for ten hours with hardly a break, yet I felt totally focussed and comfortable. This had never happened to me before, and certainly never has since!

I recall endless miles of overnight motorway roadworks on the final stretch to Luzern. Then I arrived. I dragged some luggage off the bike, made my apologies to Barbara for my late arrival. Although it was now after 11pm, Pino announced that he was going to take me on a quick tour of Luzern. We could take in a beer and a burger on the way, he promised! The man is nothing if not an enthusiast in everything he does – a medal-winning decathlete and (in the years after what I’m describing here) also a cancer survivor. Of course, all I really wanted was a bed and oblivion! I got that at about 1.30am, after a day some of which has since seared itself into my memory.

Breakfast was at 7.30. Pino and I were due to be racing (and in his case, throwing too) in Bellinzona in the early afternoon, remember? We got there on time – yet more miles on the clock for me.

I felt strangely relaxed and focussed while warming up on the track. I assumed it was a result of accumulated mental and physical fatigue preventing me from sharpening up before my first race, but my results said otherwise. That afternoon, I placed second in a classy 100 metres race, and an hour or so later won the 200 metres convincingly. Both of my race times were my personal bests for the 2011 season. This was itself a shock and surprise, given that a month previously, I’d been racing in the World Masters Championships in California. There, I’d contributed second leg to our silver medal-winning Great Britain sprint relay squad, so I’d had a good year up to this point.

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Pino and I after the 200m. My prize was several litres of local apple juice!

And I still had it in me to stay awake through a big get-together with many Swiss and German masters athletes in Bellinzona that evening, and to drive mountainous miles on the Sunday to the fringes of the Italian Dolomites. I expected supreme fatigue to overtake me in a day or so. It never did! I still look back on that weekend in 2011 with wonderment. Revisiting parts of the route in the last week or so has impressed on me that it really was a journey out of the ordinary.

So, back to the impertinent question: when was I “in my prime”? One weekend in September 2011 is going to be a very strong contender!

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