Early Eccentric

Just a few weeks after my visit to Hexham and I find another great church with 7th century origins.  From the side elevation Ripon Cathedral even shares a similar look due to the squat tower at the centre, though once you understand the history of the building then you’ll understand that there was no plan that produced this.

The two churches do share origins though – both were projects of St Wilfrid, inspired by the basilicas he had seen in Rome.  Like Hexham he made use of nearby Roman masonry (in this case from Aldborough), and like Hexham the crypt survives beneath the medieval church.  Like Hexham, Wilfrid’s church here was adopted as a site to build a major centre for pilgrimage by the Normans and it is here that the stories converge significantly.

Roger de Pont l’Évêque, who was Archbishop of York in the mid 12th century began the rebuilding, but it’s clear that he was no engineer.  His insistence that the crossing (the point where the transepts, nave and choir meet) be directly above St Wilfrid’s crypt was a poor decision as it meant that the east end, the focal point of the cathedral had to be constructed on sloping ground.  The scaffolding present on the day of my visit amply demonstrated this fact centuries later.

The problem took a dramatic turn in 1280 when the eastern facade and half of the choir collapsed.  Disaster at the time but fortuitous in some ways.  The great west end is one of the best examples of Early English architecture,  but the loss of more of the same means the church also features a new altar window in the style known as Decorated.

Less than 150 years later and the central tower collapsed, ostensibly due to an earthquake, though this isn’t a seismic hotspot.  I’m no expert but surely subsidence is more likely.  Fifty years after that and the nave walls were replaced (Perpendicular was in fashion now).  Consequently there’s no uniting style, but instead you have a collection within (and without) a single structure.

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I noticed something else once I ventured inside.  Attempting to get a shot of the length of the building I was struggling to align key features in my photograph, and for good reason.  For one thing the pillars supporting the great Norman arch at the end of the nave are asymmetrical as you can see below, but more importantly, beyond the rood screen the choir runs slightly to the left.  Another consequence of the site topography?  It would be easy to assume so but I raised the matter with one of the cathedral official to check.

She told me that this was a common feature in church construction.  (Really?  How come I’d never noticed this elsewhere?)  She backed this up by saying that because the cruciform design of a church recalls Christ’s execution, the slight deviation in the line represented the tilt of his head to one side as his life ended.  Was she right? I don’t know but it’s a pretty plausible explanation.

Trenches, strings, and roof wraggles!

Long before Channel 4 unleashed Tony Robinson and the rest of the Time Team crew upon us I was interested in archaeology, (studying Latin and Ancient History at school has that effect) and so when there was a dig taking place locally I was excited to see what was going on.

This was in the mid 70’s, when a team led by the formidably-named Professor Rosemary Cramp of Durham University‘s Archaeology Department excavated the site of the former monastic buildings to the south of St Peter’s Church, the monastery that gave name to this part of Sunderland; Monkwearmouth.  The site was 1300 years old.

I remember looking forward to visiting the dig one weekend, but when the day came it was cold and wet, miserable conditions for digging and scraping at ancient stones.  I don’t recall whether it was my own reaction to the conditions, or the lack of geniality on the part of Professor Cramp et al, but I didn’t stay long!

Today, despite being one of the most historically significant buildings in the area (together with St Paul’s at Jarrow it is seeking World Heritage Site status due to their links with St Bede) St Peter’s is overlooked by many.  In fact when I showed one of today’s photographs to my younger daughter she had no idea where it was.  To many now the name is more associated with the nearby campus of the university and the sixth form college which adjoins it.

Visiting today I found similar conditions to the day of the dig.  Whilst the church is intact, little of the original Anglo Saxon structure remains, other than the west wall and the porch, though the characteristic steep sloping roof profile is retained and continues to influence other buildings nearby.  The intertwined serpents that once guarded the entrance arebarely visible, as it the statue set into the wall above the porch, which was presumably damaged during the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII.  It’s a pity that this little gem seems so forgotten by the hundreds who commute past it every day.

Even the perimeter wall has character,  I have no idea when it was built but the variety of masonry used in its construction would not be considered nowadays.

Just beyond the perimeter I prematurely met today’s portrait subject; Winter.  It was almost inevitable that I should meet an Asian student with the university so close at hand.  I wonder if she has any idea of the history she was passing.

A tale of two settlements

The coastal scene was very different this morning – blue skies and sunshine replaced by a thick fog, leaving everywhere damp grey and autumnal.  Even the fog was insufficient to hide the devastation of the beach.  The weekend has probably seen more visitors to the beach than any other outside of the Sunderland International Airshow weekends but they haven’t treated it kindly.

Whether brought by tide or human traffic the rubbish on Whitburn Beach was widespread, and it was easy to see where it had originated.

The fact that this devastation is not a regular problem suggests that it isn’t those who live on the coast who are responsible; it’s someone else that has a complete disregard for the environment.

Just 3 miles inland from the coast lies the village of Southwick.  It has some things in common with Whitburn, each centres around a village green with listed buildings.  Each can trace its history back to Saxon times, and for each the local collieries were once the major employers.

That is probably where the similarities end.  Whitburn sports its affluence openly;

Southwick is the most deprived area of Sunderland.  Here you see the evidence of those who don’t care for their own environment.

What factors have led to the disparity between the two?  Largely financial – the owners of those same collieries lived in Whitburn, yet this doesn’t fully explain the attitudes of those who leave graffiti and litter.

My mother-in-law originates from Southwick and a more house-proud and responsible person you couldn’t want to meet.  Today’s subject Jean was out walking her dog in Southwick this morning, fastidiously clearing up after him.  Talking to her she was a genuine “salt of the earth” individual. 

Perhaps the attitude is more generational then, but what would explain the lack of any social conscience that has grown up in some of the area’s inhabitants.  I’m no sociologist so have no theory, but it does worry me that society does seem to be polarising.

Of the three listed buildings and monuments in Southwick, one is the war memorial, another is a pub, the Tram Car Inn, and last of the three is right in the centre of the village green.

It is a large and ornate memorial lamppost; covered in generations of repainting, it probably never warrants a second glance from those who pass by.  Yet the inscription plate, though cracked from top to bottom, is still legible and reads:

In memory of

Robert Thompson Esq.

of West Hall, Whitburn,

for 25 years,

chairman of the local council,

this green

was restored by his sons

It’s just a rumour that’s been spread around town*

The City of Sunderland grew out of the merger of three separate settlements of Anglo-Saxon origin, although the fishing village that originally bore the name wasn’t officially recognised until a century after the arrival of the Normans.  The name Sunderland probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon word soender, meaning to part or separate, and refers to the gorge carved by the River Wear as it reaches the sea.  (The other two settlements were Monkwearmouth, site of a monastery since 674 AD, and Bishopwearmouth, founded in 930 AD when King Athelstan donated the land to the Bishop of Durham)

The first Wear Bridge in what was then a small town, was built in 1796 and was a catalyst in the development of the community.  The present bridge is much more recent having been built in the 1920’s.  Most people who cross the bridge will do so without noticing that there is a set of steps on either side giving direct access to the riverside.  Those on the south side are gated and locked, but on the north side there is still access.  In the heyday of shipbuilding this stairway would have seen a lot of use, giving easy access to what was North Sands shipyard.  Nowadays it probably sees more graffiti artists, though I was surprised to see these lads dismount to carry bike and fishing tackle down, instead of the easier option of cycling slightly further downhill to the riverside.

Before beginning my first “real” job, I worked in the shipyards for about three months after leaving school.  I spent most of my time at Deptford further upstream, where the vessels first took shape, though I also visited North Sands, where they were moored for fitting out after the initial launching.  The SD14 cargo ships designed and built in Sunderland were produced on an almost monthly basis for 20 years.

All of that is gone now; the great concrete base of one of the cranes supports a sculpture representing the regeneration of the area.  Etched into the ground, an anamorphic projection reveals the shadow of the crane that once stood in that spot.


This area of heavy industry is now given over to education and culture;  the former being the St Peter’s Campus of Sunderland University, the latter in the modernist architecture of the National Glass Centre

This is an appropriate location for the Centre; Sunderland has a long tradition of glass- making which goes back to that monastery established in 674.  Part of the design of the building required specialist glaziers to be brought from France and this was when glass making was introduced to Britain.

Most of the visitors to the Centre probably give that little thought, being drawn primarily by the quirkily named “Throwing Stones” restaurant, and the glass roof which you are encouraged to walk upon.  Those not of a nervous disposition can look down onto the diners two stories below.

Here it was that I met the Scots trio of Sarah, Allan and Bill just as they were leaving the building.  Whilst I prefer solo shots I saw an opportunity to group them using the ramp to bring them close enough to leave no gaps in the composition. I fired a half a dozen frames as they laughed, but in one of them I caught this expression from Bill which I felt deserved to be processed as today’s main image.  I trust his friends will forgive me.

* Lyric fromShipbuilding written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer, recorded by Robert Wyatt.

Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding

Near the bendy spring?

The village of Bywell in Northumberland was once a busy medieval market town, yet little remains of the settlement now.  I was told many years ago this was due to the plague, though I haven’t been able to confirm this by any recent research – it may have been cleared by the landowner for agricultural purposes at some point in history. What makes the place remarkable is what does remain.

The medieval market cross still stands atop a stepped plinth but where shops and houses may have crowded together behind it there is now just green fields.  A little way to the north lies the 15th Century gatehouse tower of Bywell Castle, but it is to the South and West of the cross that you may find something extraordinary for separated by no more than a few yards you will find not one, but two churches with Anglo-Saxon origins.

St Andrew’s has the more complete features of the period; the high pointing roof, defensively thick walls, and the best Anglo-Saxon tower in all of Northumberland.  It is no longer used as a church though the building is conserved.  Although improved and extended in the medieval period its origins go back to the mid ninth century.

St Peter’s was the reason for my visit today as I will be photographing a wedding there very soon.  It was probably built even earlier than its neighbour and is believed to be the site where Bishop Egbert of Lindisfarne was consecrated.  There is less evidence of the Saxon church left here, it having been substantially altered in the 13th Century.

Trying to understand the meaning of old names is often a challenge.  I grew up in a part of Sunderland (another Saxon settlement originally) called Fulwell.  Some would tell you that this means exactly what it says; that there was plentiful water there, whilst others would say that it derived from “foul well”, meaning that the water was poisoned or unclean.  Two very different interpretations!

Bywell is not quite so extreme, but good old Wikipedia states that it means “bend in the river”, which would make sense since it is situated precisely at such a location, where as others take it more literally to mean “by the spring”.  Personally I would question the latter  – why would a spring have such significance with the river so close at hand?

Anyway back to St Peter’s where I was meeting bride and groom to look at the possibilities for photography that the church provided.  This would have gone very smoothly… had we not activated the security alarm as soon as we opened the door!  There may not be many people in the area, but they all knew we had arrived!  Just as the alarm reset itself we were joined by Maddy and Joe who will be singing at the wedding.  They rehearsed a couple of songs and were doubtless glad not to be accompanied by the wailing of the alarm.

They will sound great on the day.  Maddy’s voice is as beautiful as her smile, and Joe’s guitar playing is as understated as his!  I can’t wait to hear more.

La petite anglaise et la petite francaise

On the day that Anders Behring Breivik is put on trial in Norway for “self defence” against multi-culturalism, I find myself writing once more about the multitude of cultures that make up British society, an inevitable consequence of our days of Empire, and one that makes it far less likely that we will see such an atrocity on our soil.  Whilst I am not so complacent as to believe that violent racism cannot happen here, the very fact that we are daily exposed to the different faces, views, beliefs and religions that make up our society must be an aid to mutual understanding.

(Norway has none of these advantages, it’s remote position and lack of historic acquisitiveness contributing perhaps to more right-wing views.  I’m not categorising the Norwegians as fascists, but there were many who sympathised and collaborated with German forces in WWII.  The word quisling, meaning a traitor, has its origins with the Norwegian politician of that name.)

One of those “different” faces that I have been enjoying recently is that of Rachel Khoo, the British food writer who achieved recognition when to finance the ingredients she needed to write a French cookbook for the British market, she opened up her apartment as a restaurant.  To be fair it was a very small restaurant, serving only two covers, but nevertheless it proved to be a popular move.

I referred to Rachel as British, which she is having grown up in Croydon, but her surname and looks point to a more exotic heritage.  Her mother is Austrian and her father Chinese Malaysian, yet despite this genetic cocktail, her love of red lipstick and vintage clothes does give her a very French aura on-screen.

It might seem strange to think that our nearest neighbours are so different that we can identify “Frenchness”, particularly when you think that amongst the waves of invaders that have come to these shores over the centuries, the last successful cross-channel raid was that carried out by William of Normandy.  Many of us must be able to trace our ancestry back to Gallic roots, yet we often refer to ourselves as Anglo Saxons in preference.

This is doubtless the result of centuries of anti-French propaganda; we did fight the Hundred Years War against them, they aided the fledgling American forces in their fight for independence, and then came the French Revolution leading to further differences in constitution and politics.

So despite our common ancestry we have kept each other at arms length for centuries, until the early 1900’s when a mutual interest in each others’ cultures created what became known as the Entente cordiale.

Britannia and Marianne dancing together on a 1...
Britannia and Marianne dancing together on a 1904 French postcard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now if you’re resilient enough to have followed this blog all year, you’ll know that I’ve already photographed a French subject when I met Justine in Darlington, but just as Rachel Khoo is so much more than British, so Justine clearly had more than just French genes.  In contrast today when I saw Rose Elisa I was almost certain of her origins, yet I couldn’t tell you why; her hairstyle, her complexion, her glasses?!?!?!  She told me she was from Tours, a city in central France renowned apparently for the perfection of its spoken French (her accent beat me when she introduced herself), so perhaps she was archetypally Gallic.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad she agreed to be photographed. Merci encore.

Crossword clue; GEGS (9,4)*

Today it’s Easter Day, the Christian celebration of egg dispensing rabbits.  If that sounds a little confused then the very fact that Christians in many parts of the world choose to celebrate one of their most important holy days with a festival named after an Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess, (and one which some scholars suggest may derive from an Indo-European source which long predates Christianity.)

If you’re Jewish, the festival happens to coincide with the Passover, and in fact in many languages the words for Easter and Passover are similar or the same.

The Anglo-Saxon goddess was Eostre (also called Ostara) a lunar goddess after whom the month of April

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. ...
"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

was named in the Germanic calendar, according to none other than local literary great Saint Bede, who lived just a few miles from where I am writing now.  Eostre was often symbolised as a hare, (Lunar, lunacy, mad March hare?).

The egg (which Christians have claimed to symbolise the empty tomb of the risen Christ) is of course a symbol of new life and Spring and according to some was also a symbol of Eostre.  Many people have written of a link between Eostre and the female hormone oestrogen which would add further meaning to the egg as symbol of life associated with Spring.  The trouble with this though is that oestrogen has an ancient Greek origin rather than Germanic putting paid to that theoretical link.  Not quite.

What if both the Greek and Germanic words have their roots in the same language and culture?  Well we’re back to the Indo-European link where a goddess of the dawn called Hausos seems to provide the template for Oestre.

Religions are a messy business – hence the title for today, which if you haven’t worked it out yet is a clue to scrambled eggs.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the holiday weekend is no guarantee of good weather, and so it was this morning.  Damp, grey and drizzly, which despite the lively yellows of Spring blossoms was no encouragement to the wearing of Easter Bonnets.  (Now where does that tradition stem from?).  Instead my only companions on the beach were the gulls, exercising dogs, and fellow waterproof wearers.

Enter David, who was one of those dressed for the weather, but as my first male subject for a few days, a suitable antidote to all this oestrogen.

  • Easter (languagetechnologies.wordpress.com)