Last April’s 4am Project was a bit of a washout for me. I didn’t plan anything and didn’t even give the idea of leaving the house a second thought. Instead, I woke up at about twenty to five, stumbled to the window, took a blurry shot of the street and went straight back to bed.
This time, though, was different.
I went to bed at about ten o’clock last night; set the alarm for two forty-five and actually managed to get up and out of the house by three. Nick Lockey drove us down to Balsall Heath where we picked up Matt Murtagh – and then we set off for the Lickey Hills.
Turns out Birmingham’s pretty busy at twenty past three on a Saturday night. The fast food restaurants were still serving and we saw lots of people zig-zagging their way home from all sorts of nights out. It wasn’t until we reached the city boundaries and the time crept nearer to four o’clock that we started to feel a bit more like we were doing something out of the ordinary.
As we passed the site of the former Rover Works at Longbridge – now an empty site surrounded by hoardings – I got a sense of what Karen must have had in mind when she first came up with the idea for the 4am Project. Seeing rows of diggers silently lined up in the gloom where the massive factory used to be was eerie, and the jaunty marketing notices on the site’s advertising boards seemed… well, a bit apocalyptic, quite honestly, without the bustle of the Bristol Road’s daytime traffic to give them some context.
At the Lickeys we left the car just outside the visitors’ centre car park (which is locked at night) and walked up the path to a vantage point that we’d already researched as suitable, because it faces East. We’d brought torches, but didn’t really need them – it was light enough to see where we were going.
By four o’clock we had set up our tripods and started taking photos – mostly of the city spread out below us (and of course, a few of each other, taking photos). Nick took some long exposures of himself swinging torches around and made some cool spun-sugar-esque light trail photos. We didn’t really talk – we were just enjoying the feeling that Karen writes about in her description of her inspiration for the project: “The city was asleep and it felt like I had it all to myself.”
At first, the only sounds were the odd chirrup of birdsong and the faint rustling of the bushes and trees – but within ten minutes, the birdsong had escalated into a full dawn chorus. Blackbirds sang in the trees above our heads, flitted around the undergrowth and perched on benches in the murky light. It was lovely.
At half past four, we heard voices – a couple had come to the same spot to enjoy the sunrise. They said a cheery “morning!” but then stood quietly watching the sky brighten in front of us.
Although it had been a dry night, the sun itself didn’t really appear until it had gone five – but when it did, through a thin horizontal gap in the clouds, it was magical. The couple who’d come to watch were delighted too. The man said, “here she is!” and I realised that they weren’t just enjoying a daily constitutional; they were here for the solstice.
To our surprise, on seeing the sun for the first time, our new companion produced a cow horn and blew it three times, like a bugle. He went for a fourth, but fumbled it and made a noise like a dying duck – but it didn’t matter. We knew what he meant.
As the sun rose higher the world began to feel normal again. The couple left us (“see you next year!”), we sipped tea from a flask (thanks, Nick!), then we packed up and wandered back to the car. The city was just as we’d left it – busy – but with joggers in the place of wandering drunks. I got home just after six and went to bed – then slept for a few hours and woke wondering if it had all been a dream.
So that was my 4am Project. Although I didn’t get many good pictures, I’m really glad I made it out this time – mostly thanks to Nick and his infectious enthusiasm for just about everything. And despite my cynicism for most things spiritual, I’m glad I saw the sun rise on the solstice and shared it with the mystery horn-blowing man, for whom it obviously meant a lot.