Police question and take down details of two protesters who have marked the
Old War Office with charcoal crosses and supporters stand in solidarity.

I’d arrived just minutes late to get a picture on Ash Wednesday when two Christian peace activists were  being questioned by police after having scrawled charcoal crosses on the pillars of the Old War Office in Whitehall. More pictures of the whole event at Ash Wednesday – Ministry of Defence.

I’d come down by bus from North London, where I’d been photographing a protest  Victimisation at London Met on a cold pavement outside London Metropolitan University where two employees have been suspended on very dubious grounds. After an hour standing on a cold pavement and another half hour on a bus travelling to Trafalgar Square I needed to pay a brief visit to the toilets there before rushing down Whitehall.

Had I not paused I might have got pictures of those writing on the wall actually being stopped by police. But more likely I would have hurried past just before it happened, on my way to the main body of worshippers at this regular Ash Wednesday event around the Ministry of Defence.

I could instead have travelled by Underground – the earlier protest was very close to Holloway Road station – and would probably have shaved ten minutes off my journey time – and certainly missed this particular part the Ash Wednesday protest. But so long as I’ve time I prefer to travel by bus. The upper deck of a double-decker gives you a great view of London, and on many occasions I’ve seen things happening and got off to take pictures. It’s sometimes frustrating that it’s difficult to get drivers to let you off the bus except at stops (the old Routemasters, now only on a couple of ‘heritage’ routes had a great advantage in this respect.)

It’s even possible to take pictures from the bus, though reflections in the windows are often annoying. But on many journeys buses are about as quick, and they reach places untouched by the tube, often taking you more or less to the door. And a particular advantage for me is that I have a pass that gives me free travel on the buses but not on the Underground or Overground rail. Public transport in London is relatively expensive compared to most cities around the world.

But back to Ash Wednesday, the ritual marking of the buildings is an annual ‘cat and mouse’ game between police and protesters. You know it will happen, but not exactly where and when, with around a third of a mile of wall on three streets and an hour and a half or so.  There are police spaced out at intervals, spread thinly all along the walls, but large gaps allow the protesters to at least start the marking, though I don’t think this year any of them managed to complete the word ‘Repent!’ after making their crosses.

Ash and water on the pavement – impossible to claim it causes any damage

Charcoal – like chalk also often favoured by demonstrators – is easily removed, and this makes charges of ‘criminal damage’ hard to sustain and the costs of the removal miniscule, but is of course chosen because of its connection to Ash Wednesday. Most of the protesters are there to make a completely legal protest, with a service of worship at various ‘stations’ around the Orwellian-named Ministry of Defence, which includes the marking with water and ash in large letters of the word REPENT! on the pavement in front of the main entrance (in some previous years they put their own sackcloth on the pavement to do so.)

© 2013, Peter Marshall
The writing is under the name plate at right – but I failed to photograph it properly

Previously one protester had managed to leave his charcoal mark next to the name plate for the ministry, but it was now surrounded by barriers and police. I didn’t have a long enough lens to get a good picture, and had thought about going back on my way home as the protesters were dispersing and asking to go inside the barriers to take a picture. But I stopped to talk with a police officer a little down the road and then forgot all about it.

Placards also spelt out the message ‘No Trident – Repent’

At the very end of the protest, I missed another protester who had vaulted over the low fence and rushed across the short stretch of grass to write on the wall. She did it while my back was turned as I was photographing the final service a few yards away, and again all I could photograph was the police talking with her. They released her after a few minutes and she vaulted back over the fence to rejoin her friends.

In some previous years I’d experienced just a little hostility photographing this event, being angrily reminded by one person at one point that this was an act of worship. Of course I was trying hard to cover it in a suitably reverent fashion, but my actions had still upset her. A few years on, with now so many of those taking part also taking out their digital cameras and phones and taking pictures, often in a rather more intrusive way than I would have chosen, I had no such problems. Just occasionally there are advantages for photographers in everyone having a camera.


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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