The Art Tardis

This isn’t my first blog about Staithes, the tiny village on the Yorkshire coast that was once home to Captain Cook, and given that it combines a built-in beauty with a shoreline location it doubtless won’t be the last.  Why this time?  Because since 2012 there has been an annual arts festival and this was my first visit.

With a number of creatives living there the town’s art gallery is always worth a visit, but as a space it’s never going to be able handle lots of visitors, and even taking into account the church hall and no less than three former Methodist chapels that would still make for a small-scale affair, albeit one that many villages would be happy with.  Not so Staithes.

The overflow car park!

To draw so much interest over 100 of the cottages in the little town are given over to pop up galleries for a couple of days, and even then the event is oversubscribed with painters, sculptors, silversmiths, potters and more.  There was even a female blacksmith taking part this year (Katie Ventress).

My motivation to be there wasn’t to buy; my walls have plenty of imagery on them already, though a monochrome watercolour by Suzanne McQuade tempted me all the same.  Instead I was there for a bit of inspiration and conversation; after all I’d spent my working week recommending that people who wanted to develop their creativity should associate with other creative people.  Suzanne’s other watercolours were of many of the same coastal scenes that have attracted me in recent years.

In contrast Rob Shaw‘s work in oils or acrylics is robust and dramatic, despite being of many of the same subjects.  His seas are grey and stormy, but in contrast his paintings of Staithes itself are bright and vibrant.

This highlights one of the areas where the artist has an advantage over the photographer; their ability to paint a scene as they would like it to be, unconstrained by the reality of obstructions, light or weather conditions.  I was shooting a lot of black and white this weekend given the flat, overcast day.

Another thing that surprised me was something I’ve long been familiar with as a photographer; duplication of images.  I’m always reluctant to take the “cliché” shot, the image that everyone already has in their portfolio, unless there is some technical challenge involved for me.  Why would I want to produce something that was already in existence?  Given the individual aspects of style I didn’t expect that the same would be a problem for the painter, and yet saw similarly sized images of the same scene, with similar colouring and composition in the galleries of Keith Blessed (in pastels) and Kate Smith (in oils), assuming my memory hasn’t deceived me!

In contrast there was one area where my camera gave me an advantage over the artist.  Portraits.  Shirley Hudson told me how long her works might take and the liberties she might take with colour (with the sitter’s agreement).  I walked out of her display and within minutes had captured multiple personalities.

And if you’re expecting to see examples of the art itself then you’re going to be disappointed.  Pictures of pictures aren’t my thing (unless by Renaissance masters!) and the spaces are often too tiny and packed with people to make this feasible.

There are of course works to see in town that are permanent features, and permanent features that have value in my eyes so I still shot plenty of images that were interesting to this artist’s eye, and to these can be added the wire and willow sculptures of Emma Stothard.

For me of course even the rocks of the breakwater have potential!


Bloodied from the Wreckage

Let’s be  clear.  I’m not seriously hurt.

If you’ve read my recent post about the clothing choices required of a wandering photographer you’ll understand that some shots require the right protective gear, and on this occasion I didn’t have it. So I didn’t yomp across wet sands at low tide. Nor did I continue my drone flight as soon as it became clear that the winds were too strong.

I was back at South Gare for that low tide, because in a small bay near the steelworks lies a wreck.  The wooden ship that met its end here at Brann Sands is sadly nameless; the circumstances of its demise have also been lost in the years that have passed since, so any romantic tales are pure speculation.  The sandy bay is fairly innocuous with no rocky outcrops to explain the vessel’s presence.  With my highly limited maritime knowledge it seems that a vessel grounded on a sandbar might have been successfully refloated at the next high tide, so of course I wanted a look so that I could formulate my own theories.  But not today.

Scanning around the bay I spotted another boat of interest at the far end of the bay.   Though clearly a more recent victim of the sea, this was no more identifiable, the bow having been badly burnt, presumably by some beach revellers rather than as part of the original accident.

I grab a few shots and make my way back to the stretch of sand dunes that separate the bay from my abandoned car, and this is when it gets tricky.   I didn’t take note of my entrance point and now I’m faced with a number of possible routes over the undulating ground, and from memory only one of them is both reasonably direct and relatively clear of the sort of flora that my bare legs would like to avoid.  I don’t find it.

And so I’m treading gingerly through nettles and over brambles when I crest one of the dunes and hear voices.  A good sign that I’m nearing the well travelled route?  Quite the reverse.  The voices belong to a couple who had deliberately left the beaten track and are now having sex as a guy with a camera and a very obvious telephoto lens arrives.

I avoid eye contact and keep walking in a straight line.  Off any track whatsoever and down a steep slope where slow and controlled descent is impossible.  My pale flesh is sacrificed to their privacy.

I hope they had a blanket!

(I returned the following day to capture some of these images – including the drone shot at last!)

Foss & Nonsense

It’s a pity that global warming is the culprit, but something remarkable has happened in the UK and we’ve had a real summer (and it’s still only July at the time of writing).   At the risk of sounding ungrateful, this has had the effect of rendering almost everywhere I’ve been pleasurable and photogenic, with the consequence that my hard drive is bulging and I’m losing track of where I’ve written about and where remains on the to do list!  Buttermere in the Lake District has seen me loitering on its shores day and night twice this month and won’t make it to the blog, though here’s a sample of my time there.

Yesterday for example I went out to recce locations for a forthcoming model shoot, and based on her recommendation I went to a tiny hamlet called Beck Hole.  Actually I went to Goathland because the roads to Beck Hole were closed as a result of a landslip into the same valley where I wanted to go shooting.

Goathland is well-known to many people (not including me) as the location where the TV series Heartbeat was filmed, but you won’t be finding shots of its quaint retro look here because I was after somewhere more secluded.

And so I toiled up and down the slopes of Eller Beck in search of interesting waterside settings and was in need of new energy supplies before I even reached Beck Hole and the tiny 19th century Birch Hall Inn.   Sitting outside with a pint of Black Sheep was idyllic and I could easily have been tempted to another had I not been driving later.  I wonder if I would have felt the same had it not been a glorious summer’s day though.

In any event the restorative powers of a pint of bitter and dappled sunshine were enough to persuade me to try the opposite bank, where I saw both the scale of the landslip and the mountain rescue volunteers practicing for the worst should there be a repeat.    Upstream I went until I found exactly what I was looking for, a collection of boulders that would add interest to my shoot and provide contrast to the soft fragility of Mischkah, the model I’ll be shooting.

I also found Thomason Foss, or as it is tautologically described on the Ordnance Survey map of the area  Thomason Foss (Waterfall).  As any good Viking will tell you, a foss IS a waterfall, and of course this part of the country was once home to Norse settlers.

It may not have the drama of its numerous Icelandic cousins but it will do very nicely as a backdrop for my shoot.

Of course there’s every chance that normal British conditions will reassert themselves and it will be too cold and wet on the day we have booked.  Just as well Mother Nature agreed to pose for me in the meantime.


TA & the NT. An Open Letter.

Dear National Trust

On my recent visit to Hardwick Hall I wanted to get a photograph that included both the shell of the old hall and the Elizabethan structure that superseded it, but of course the topography of the site, combined with the plentiful trees makes that virtually impossible from the ground. Which is why I found a space at the edge of the car park, away from both buildings and people to launch my drone.

Not long afterwards one of the Trust volunteers appeared to ask if I was flying a drone which of course I confirmed. Her response was to demand that I return it and land immediately, informing me that drone flight was not permitted on any Trust property and that it was stated as such on their website. I had broken the rules and was treated accordingly.

A subtle deterrent to getting comfortable

I explained to her that I was already returning to land but she stayed to make sure the transgressor kept to his word. As I’d already explored the halls and grounds on foot I packed and left. Though the Trust are good at indicating areas where photography is not permitted in buildings, or seating that must not be used to aid in its preservation, there had been nothing to alert me to this ruling, so that evening I visited your website. Again the message was clear that permission for drone flights over properties would not be granted and a list of reasons was given. Reasons which were exaggerated to justify your case, for example:

National Trust: “CAA regulations state that drones should not be flown above or near to people. As our properties often have staff living or working on site, visitors present or have open access, unauthorised drone flying is both illegal and potentially puts people at risk.”

CAA graphic

CAA: stay 150ft (50m) away from people and property.

Now I get it.  The Trust’s prime objective is “to promote and look after places of historic beauty permanently for the benefit of the nation across England, Wales and Northern Island. Our core purpose is to look after special places for ever, for everyone.”   You are concerned that a drone hitting one of your properties would cause irreparable damage or serious injury to an employee or visitor, yet risk assessments have found that the size and weight of drones generally used by the public make this extremely unlikely (especially when flying with rotor guards as I was doing).  Add in the fact that they aren’t cheap so the pilot is no more likely to want that to happen either.

But of course a small risk can be completely removed with a blanket ban, and it’s your right to do so.  I’d just like to think that in this day and age you may be a bit more polite and adult in the way you do so.   Perhaps you should read Eric Berne or Thomas Harris on Transactional Analysis.  The “Controlling Parent” attitude you display may well produce a “Rebellious Child”. 

Oh, and a final thought.  Perhaps an article on your magazine, or more prominent signposting on your vast website might have saved me from my ignorance.

The Second Elizabeth.

Portrait of Elizabeth I at Hardwick Hall

For centuries England had been ruled by kings, and then Henry VIII produced two daughters who would each sit on the throne. Mary’s rein was relatively short and largely forgotten by many but for her persecution of religious dissenters. Her sister Elizabeth’s era is legendary by comparison. She was an exceptional woman.  And yet there was another Elizabeth whose life overlapped the Virgin Queen’s and who also exercised a great deal of power.

Bess of Hardwick

Elizabeth Cavendish gained wealth and influence through a series of high-profile husbands becoming the richest woman in the country after her queen.   Amongst her many accomplishments she built is associated with not one, but three great houses.  Her final home, Chatsworth, is perhaps Britain’s best known stately home and continues to be inhabited by the Cavendish family to this day.

Old Hardwick Hall

She is better known as Bess of Hardwick, and it was at Hardwick Hall, in the same county as Chatsworth, that she was born, but there are two Hardwick Halls here.  The original is now an empty shell, but alongside it is the replacement that Bess had built as a more fitting statement of her power.

This is amply demonstrated by the number of windows in the structure, despite glass being an extravagance at the time.  The chimneys are built into internal walls to provide more glazing opportunity so that it was said of Hardwick:

Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall

The title she acquired from her fourth husband (Cavendish was the second) was Countess of Shrewsbury, and the exterior of the building leaves no doubt that this was Elizabeth Shrewsbury’s project.  Look closely at the roofline and the letters ES are far from subtly displayed.

Internally there are the usual furnishings of the period (though understandably of better quality than average) and a great number of tapestries, many of which it is believed she worked on herself.  (Mary, Queen of Scots, was at one time held at Chatsworth under house arrest and the two apparently sewed together.)  Most notable are the “fyve pieces of hangings” representing noble women who Bess perhaps saw as role models.

These are now part of an intricate restoration project which will hopefully see all back on display at Hardwick, though appropriately one of those already there is of Penelope, wife of Ulysses who refused to consider suitors until she had finished her own tapestry (which she unpicked every night until her husbands return, 10 years late, from the Trojan War).

The Cavendish arms feature three stags or bucks heads, and stag references are prominent throughout the building, though when you reach the Great Gallery, the deer are joined by elephants, camels and more in a stunning plaster frieze around the room.  There is little doubt that this was a room designed in hope of a visit from Bess’s namesake given the decoration over the fireplace.  Even the second richest woman in England had her betters!

Get your clicks (on Route 66)

Passing the ruins of Brough Castle
The Teesside end of the route is marked by an artwork commemorating the area’s steelmaking history

America’s Route 66 may be one of the most famous highways in the world (thanks in no small part to Nat King Cole and others who have covered Bob Troup’s song over the last 70+ years), but England has its own cross-country highway, and one with a considerably longer history.

Rokeby Church

The A66, like its namesake runs east/west (or vice versa if you prefer) and links Cumbria to Teesside.  It’s one of the worst roads in the UK in terms of safety and there are a number of reasons for this.
For one, it’s the main route to The Lake District for many, so trippers and holiday makers hurry along it all year round keen to get to their hotel or guest house, or home to put the kettle on.  A good proportion of those travellers will be towing caravans, and as there are many stretches on the road where dual carriageways revert to single it the journey can be a frustrating one; always a recipe for unnecessary risks.  Add in the agricultural vehicles that are an outcome of the road cutting swathes through a lot of farmland, and the commercial vehicles struggling up the numerous hills as they traverse the country and the death toll is hardly surprising.  Coat the road with snow drifts blown in by high winds….   There are snow gates now that prevent access during such conditions but 20 years ago I had just reached the high point when the lorry in front of me jack-knifed and closed the road.  A long detour ensued.

Brougham Castle and the River Eamont

There’s another risk/frustration factor though, albeit one that only affects drivers rather than passengers.  The environment.

It’s an area rich in wildlife, where curlew, lapwing, oyster-catchers, buzzards and sparrow hawks are often spotted, whilst dippers and kingfishers are not.

The road has been here for millennia.  The Romans of course didn’t call it the A66, and they may not have established the route either.  They did build camps along the way though so recognised the value of the route, as did some other travellers from bygone days.

The road passes through gentle rolling fields, past Yorkshire Dales and Pennine moorland, skirts the lakeland fells of Blencathra and Skiddaw, and along the way passes castles, manor houses and farmsteads in various stages of dereliction or preservation.  The transition from east to west marked by changes in the stone used to build these structures; cold hard greys and ochres in the east; warm reddish browns in the west.

One of those manor houses is hidden by the landscape around it, but the perimeter fencing gives it away.  Rokeby Park is an 18th century Palladian villa designed by its architect owner Sir Thomas Robinson, who sold it later to the Morritt family who filled it with artistic treasures (but don’t permit photography).  Of these one gained some notoriety; a Velázquez originally titled “Toilet of Venus”, but now better known as the “Rokeby Venus”.  Sold to the National Gallery in the early 20th Century it was famously attacked by Mary Richardson, the suffragette, who badly slashed the work, though it has been successfully restored.
Velázquez supposedly based his work on a famous statue from antiquity (Hermaphroditus) so I feel fully justified in taking him as inspiration for my own pastiche.  Who knows where the road of creativity will take you?


When you visit a museum that incorporates items of military history such as Les Invalides in Paris, or less romantically the Royal Armouries in Leeds, then you’re likely to be overwhelmed by the sheer volumes of weaponry and armour on display there, and picture huge forces of well prepared men whose equipment glinted in the morning sunlight on the day of a great battle.

But think about this for a moment.

Many of the “landed gentry” of England were raised in status as thanks for their support in such conflicts, and whereas they may have had the wealth to furnish their men with purpose made armaments once they had achieved some status, when they first committed themselves to one side or another in say the English Civil War, they were probably farmers with a small force of labourers who had no choice but to fall in with their employer or face financial ruin. (Historians please correct me if I’ve got this wrong!)

One such family who lived in North Yorkshire were the Pennymans, and although they bet on the wrong side during the time of Henry VIII by supporting a Catholic protest against the reformation, they were firmly on the side of Royalty in the century that followed.  As reward for this, one branch of the family were given the status of Baronet by Charles II and took up residence in Ormesby, which is now part of Middlesbrough.
In the years since then the Baronetcy died out and the estate diminished (the stable block was given over to the horses of Cleveland Police) but members of the Pennyman family continued to live there so consequently the house feels like a family home to a large degree, albeit one with some rather splendid plasterwork.

There is a real surprise in store however, and one of the National Trust’s making rather than the Pennyman’s.

Faced with large unfurnished spaces in what had been servants quarters someone decided that the perfect solution would be to install some model railways.  Advertising for donations they were delighted when one of the country’s leading modellers was persuaded by his daughter to donate his entire layout, and so the house contains a miniature England in gentler times when milk was still delivered in churns and before Beeching savaged the rail network.
Model trains were never my thing, but you can’t help but be impressed by the craftsmanship that was put into this recreation over 35 years.  It seems there are easier ways of acquiring land than entering into a civil war.