Pancake Day

Shrove Tuesday in England means one thing – pancake races. Starting (as I was reminded in the Lady Mayoress’s speech at the Guildhall today) in Olney in 1445 when a housewife late for the Shriving service ran down the High St clutching her frying pan and wearing her apron, in recent years the observance has grown exponentially, and is now observed in shopping centres and other venues across the land.

I could indeed have stayed home and photographed such an event in one of the local shopping centres ten minutes walk from my house, but there were other races around central London that I was sure would be of great interest.

© 2013, Peter Marshall

There are five that get into our main listings online and in print, starting at around 10.15 next to the Houses of Parliament. Here teams from the House of Lords, House of Commons and the Parliamentary Press battle it out on a course in Victoria Gardens. I photographed this in 2008 and haven’t felt moved to return since. It involves just a little of a rush for me, as the first train I can get to London without paying excessively high fares gets in at 10.04. If it gets in on time (and often it is just a few minutes late) this gives me 11 minutes to cover the almost a mile to the venue in Victoria Tower Gardens. Easy if I take my bicycle, but a little of a rush on foot.

Today it wasn’t great cycling weather, with a temperature in the early morning at home around zero, and I wasn’t feeling like rushing, so I opted to start at the Guildhall in the City of London, where people were gathering at 11.30 for a start to the event at 12 noon. A train and a bus got me there nicely in time.

It was hard to choose what equipment to take. The more interesting pictures are the kind of thing that a Leica would be great at, drifting easily around more or less unnoticed, and a 24mm or 28mm would have been fine. But the M8 unfortnately just isn’t up to the job (or at least not in my hands), and though the Fuji X100 would have been good in some ways, its fixed 35mm lens is just not wide enough. And I did also want to be able to photograph the actual races, where a longer lens and an SLR would do much better, and there are also situations where something wider than 24mm helps. So in the end I went with my standard camera bag, the two Nikons and a few lenses. Actually the cameras – and particularly the 16-35mm lens –  did do a pretty good job but having the largish bag on my shoulder did restrict movement through the loosely packed crowd.

© 2013, Peter Marshall

Looking at my three favourite images there, they were taken at focal lengths (35mm equiv for the DX lens) of 22mm, 42mm and 25mm and I could have worked quite happily with – for example – a 24mm and a 50mm lens.

I’d decided to leave the Guildhall event early to cover a very different pancake race in Spitalfields. 1.14 miles is not a great distance to cover in 15 mins, though doing so in part through pedestrian clotted streets, with a number of major roads to cross and carrying a heavy camera bag makes it just a little more of a challenge, and I was just a little out of breath when I got there, just as the races were about to start. Ideally I like to be at events early, as often the best opportunities for photography come before the actual start – and that was certainly true with the Guildhall event, where the actual races were hardly enthralling.

© 2013, Peter Marshall

But at Spitalfields, with its lighter touch organisation (which threatens at times to become chaos) and people very much more prepared to let their hair down, there isn’t really the same problem, and there were plenty of opportunities between the races and probably the most interesting part of the event is the prize-giving ceremony.

© 2013, Peter Marshall

I didn’t do very well at photographing the actual races. Dray Walk is a fairly narrow street between some tall buildings, and on a truly gloomy day like this was, is pretty Stygian in terms of lighting. Being close to the action as I was requires a pretty high shutter speed or flash to avoid blur, and I just hadn’t thought enough about it. Or at least had just somehow thought that ISO1600 should have been good enough in the middle of the day. But with the 18-105mm even with the the ISO at 3200 I managed to get some things unsharp. It’s a while since I’ve really done much real action photography and I wasn’t in any case interested enough to really think about it.

More on the two events at Great Spitalfields Pancake Race and Poulters Pancake Race.


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated are by Peter Marshall and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

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