When Ed Hudspeth, Geographic Information Systems Officer (we know, catchy job title) at Northumberland National Park applied online to borrow a kit Google uses to make their maps, he didn’t think anything would come of it. Anyone worldwide could apply. Places already mapped that way include the Grand Canyon and Great Barrier Reef. However, he got the go-ahead. A year and a half later, he and his colleagues along with volunteers are spending their days trekking through Northumberland National Park with a 20-kilogram backpack full of Google technology to make the beautiful Hadrian’s Wall accessible to the world.
The backpack contains Google’s Trekker, a ball of 15 cameras pointing in every direction which takes snaps every two and a half seconds. The images are then stitched together by the clever people at Google to make panoramic, street-level (or rather wall-level) imagery, which will be available for everyone to see via Google Maps.
‘Hadrian’s wall is an iconic heritage site so I thought it would be a good place,’ says Ed, ‘And it obviously caught their attention. They got back in touch and said they would like to explore a project so I wrote up some details about the area, about Hadrian’s Wall, and gave them some sample photos so they could see what the imagery would look like.’
Google soon agreed to loan the kit to the National Park team for a month, with the promise that they would do the ground work and gather the images. ‘We realised the part of Hadrian’s Wall in the park should only really take a couple of days so we started thinking about other areas in the park we could cover,’ explains Ed. ‘We chose the Pennine Way because it’s the 50th anniversary this year and has been in the press quite a lot. It runs from north to south through the park and Hadrian’s Wall runs from east to west along the bottom so it’s a good cross section through Northumberland.’
Before the photography began, Ed went to collect the kit in London and he was trained how to use it via video – but this was the easy part. The difficulty came when they started using it in the park. The backpack itself was a lot heavier than they had imagined. ‘I thought it would be like going for a day’s walk with your backpack on, but it weighs about 20 kilos, so that cut down the number of volunteers who were interested or able to do it,’ says Ed, ‘And we are definitely limited to shorter distances because of it, so we had to adjust what we expected to cover each day and reduce the distances we had initially aimed for!’
Another issue has been the unpredictable, and frequently damp, British weather. ‘We want to make as much use of it as we can in the month but we can’t use it in the rain. It is weather-proof but you wouldn’t get your camera out and start taking photos in the rain because you’ll get raindrops on the lens,’ says Ed. ‘The kit is made up of a bundle of about 15 cameras all in a ball pointing in different directions, so one of them is always facing the rain. If it starts raining you’ve got to cover the thing up and sit and wait it out. Another thing is breaking the walks up into sections and being able to get to a nearby car park or lay-by for example. It’s more of an issue in the north of the park where we’re having to walk in for a mile or two with the kit. There’s a lot of logistics – organising people, time and vehicles.’
They’ve also bumped into a few concerned visitors. ‘We’ve met a lot of people on the way, especially on Hadrian’s Wall which is a touristy bit of the park, and although most of them were positive and posed for the camera, we met one or two people who were concerned about privacy, but we did reassure them by saying their faces will be blurred out.’
So has it been worth the time and the back ache? ‘Initially it just seemed like an interesting project to get involved with,’ admits Ed, ‘But once we signed up for it we realised it would be a useful tool for us to promote areas of the National Park, especially for less able people who can’t go exploring up a hill. To get the most use out of it we are embedding bits into our website too, so if we’ve got a section on Hadrian’s Wall for instance, instead of just having a picture we will embed this Street View image so people will be able to explore along the path and back up the other way.’
The imagery is due to be released in September. Until then visit www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk to find out more about the park.