On the day that Bernardo Bertolucci died, one of the articles I read contrasted his and Marlon Brando’s behaviour on the set of the notorious Last Tango in Paris, with a present day pairing of comparable stature; Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis.  Coincidence of course, but I’d spent a gloomy morning in Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast, where the Victoria Hotel is the setting for the protagonists meeting in Phantom Thread, ostensibly Day-Lewis final film and one written and directed by PTA.

For a film set in the world of 1950’s Haute Couture, the choice of North Yorkshire for the designer’s “place in the country” seemed a strange one (300 miles away?) but perhaps Anderson’s location scouts were concerned with the look rather than the practicality.  I’m pretty sure the film doesn’t say where this location is supposed to be, other than on some wild and windswept coast.  It certainly lived up to the billing when I was there.

Now despite the name, Robin Hood’s Bay has no proven links to Robin Hood.  (How could it when there’s no evidence that he actually existed?)  The locals make little or no reference to archer of Sherwood and in fact refer to the town simply as Baytown or Bay despite the fact that Robin Hood has been part of the name for seven centuries!

There’s been human activity here since the bronze age, but the activities that made the town were nautical; fishing and smuggling, the latter benefitting from that remote location.   In fact this tiny place was economically more important than Whitby in the 17th century.  Perhaps though I should say tiny places, for RHB is a town in two halves; one down by the sea and sheltering behind a solid sea wall, the other atop the cliffs, windswept but safe from stormy seas.

Interestingly the two halves have different personalities.  Originally the lower town was home to the fishermen and smugglers; small houses, stacked tightly on the steep contours either side of the beck that bisects Baytown.  This creates a network of narrow alleyways that were perfect for hiding from excise men or press gangs.  The town’s own website claims that “a bolt of silk could pass from the bottom of the village to the top without leaving the houses”.

In contrast, those who lived on the cliff tops were the sea captains and ship owners.  Men of greater wealth and influence whose houses were larger and spread further apart, but nowadays there has been something of an economic inversion.  Robin Hood’s Bay is now a tourist trap; the smaller dwellings are mostly holiday cottages and second homes, whereas the upper town, being more remote from the beach is less attractive B&B territory, with cafés and bistros.  And that hotel.




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!)

Adventures in Modern Photography Part II

So what’s so special about Port Mulgrave that I should risk life and limb to reach it? (An exaggeration I know, but I could easily have turned back.)  That’s a question that would have been very easy to answer 150 years ago when the little port was a very different place to now, as can be seen from this old image.

In the mid 19th Century, local landowner Sir Charles Palmer began mining for ironstone on his land (this being the same area as the workings I visited a couple of years back).  With that mine being so close to the coast he very quickly established a complex of ramps, piers and staithes that enabled him to load the ore straight onto waiting ships.  Archive images show at least four could be loaded at any one time and so the port soon became a very busy establishment.  Fifty years or so later and it was redundant as deposits were worked out and a more productive mine was established that could ship its output from the much larger port of Whitby nearby.

The entrance to the mine, now sealed up for safety, is still visible behind some of the vegetation that gave me so much trouble getting onto the beach, but there’s little evidence of the rest of the workings.  The northern pier was deliberately blown up by the army in WWII as a barrier to German invasion; the southern pier has fallen prey to natural forces.  Even so the fragments make for some interesting marine photographs, as do the rusting engines scattered amongst the rubble; this is a coastline with wrecks aplenty, including of course the Admiral Von Tromp further south at Saltwick Bay.

No, the real attractions of Port Mulgrave were onshore.  Beyond the high water mark is a remarkable collection of fishermen’s shacks which show off a great deal of creativity on the part of their owners.  They do raise a question however.  Since none of the boats dotted about on the beach actually looked seaworthy, what do the owners of these boltholes come here for?  The challenge of maintenance?  An escape from home?  A place for male bonding?

Most visitors come here for another reason (though I had the place to myself when I was there) and one that doesn’t immediately become apparent.  I often photograph the coloured patterns and random juxtapositions of rocks at the coast, and there was plenty here to stimulate.  Look more closely at those patterns and it becomes clear that they are not so random after all; they are the product of evolutionary and geological forces that have been at work for millions of years.  Port Mulgrave is a leading beach for finding fossils, and arguably the best in North Yorkshire.  I’m no fossil hunter but once I started looking more closely at the broken shales I found more and more interesting geology.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Finally in answer to the other question I posed yesterday…



Litoral-Leigh Underwhelmed?

Given my love for all things coastal; you’d think I’d be delighted by a place with four pubs each of which boasts a maritime name; a place with an award-winning beach; and a place with a reputation for the quality of its seafood (no, not plaice!)

A place where sailboats rest between tides as they do in Norfolk or Northumberland.   A place with charming seaside dwellings old and new.

What’s not to like?

Well, in truth nothing, yet I need to be careful where I tread here, for lovely as this location is I had my reservations when I visited , and it is the birthplace of my friend and follower of this blog, Bee. 

The Saxons loved it enough to establish a settlement here (though if you’re arriving from the continent it’s an easy option) and the Normans seemed to like it too as the Domesday Book records.  There may even have been people here before the Romans arrived so Leigh has a long history.  Somehow I was still unmoved.  Even writing this piece has proved a struggle, and for a long time I couldn’t understand quite why.

And then it hit me.  It was no single thing.  It was the cumulative toll of a number of “close but no cigar” moments.

I didn’t try all of those pubs, but opted for the Peterboat, named after a small vessel once common on the Thames and originally designed for ferrying passengers across the river, most notably to Westminster Abbey.  I’ve no idea how many such a boat could hold, but the pub that bears the name might have sunk from overcrowding.  Seeking to capitalise on a prime location on the prom it had even converted the car park into an outside dining area.  Quantity took precedence over quantity, and the extensive menu featured only one fish dish.

Then there was the “award-winning beach”.  I know I’ve been spoilt by growing up with the sandy beaches of my home town, and the beautiful coastline of Northumberland at hand.  Consequently this didn’t look like an award winner to me…

So how about the famous seafood.  Both of my daughters worked in a seafood deli so of course I had high expectations.  The old High Street, a narrow lane squeezed between railway and shore, is lined with cockle sheds, an Essex characteristic according to Bee.  This is a major industry for the town, producing mountains of shells in the process.

They are served in small pots seasoned with vinegar; a far cry from the spaghetti alle vongole I enjoyed on my first day in Venice so once again I was disappointed.

I started to take issue even with the name; Leigh on Sea.  This isn’t the sea.  At least not as I know it, a place of ever-changing moods, textures, colours and sounds.  This is an estuary.  The River Thames… and a healthy supply of mud.

Leigh is apparently the happiest place to live in the UK, so they were probably glad to see me leave before I brought their scores down, but then I got it.  I should stop griping about what it wasn’t, and capture the opportunity of what it is…

Addiction? Affliction? Or Going With The Flow?

Can I confess something to you?

You might already suspect as much but I think I’m gradually becoming aware of a problem.

I’m taking too many photographs.  The combination of intellectual challenge in planning an image, the excitement of loading my results for viewing onto a larger screen and then the satisfaction of having produced something that I find pleasing to the eye (well my eye at least) is clearly releasing too many endorphins.

I’ve recently been corresponding with an adviser to Durham University about something called “flow”, a term used by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the ultimate state of job satisfaction (though it isn’t restricted to work).  Co-incidentally the man in question, Simon Williams, shares not just my surname, but also my interest in cycling, music and photography!

So I’m blaming flow for the fact that as I walked along the beach this morning I realised that I had at least two blog posts to accompany images from Fleetwood that I haven’t written yet, one from the Berwickshire coastline, half a dozen from various National Trust properties and their surroundings, and three from a Sunday morning at High Force.  And that’s before I think about the remaining blog posts from Genoa which should take me up to the end of the year (at which point I’ll be in Rome and about to start over!).  Somebody board up my doors and throw away the key!!!

The trouble is that I like to photograph almost anything.  And so in the couple of hours that I spent on the beach at Blackhall I was at it again…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Actually I blame wedding photographer Jasmine Star, who asked where we find inspiration on an Instagram post this weekend.  I had to go looking!

Life At World’s End

Emerging from my car when I parked near the end of the road to Spurn Head, I was accosted by a cheery soul who had just left his at the same time.

“Have you seen it yet?” he asked.  “Or heard it?”

I looked puzzled for a moment and listened.  There was nothing but birdsong in the air, which for my questioner was the whole point.  He had seen the long lens of my camera and assumed that I was, like him, a “twitcher”, a bird-watching enthusiast.  It wasn’t an unreasonable query for we were at the edge of Spurn National Nature Reserve.

English: Spurn Pilot Jetty (1979) From the air...
English: Spurn from the air. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spurn, or Spurn Head Spit as it is also known, is a sliver of land that continues the East Yorkshire coastline down into the mouth of the Humber, the estuary formed at the confluence of two great English rivers, the Trent from the south and the Ouse from the north.  This marked the southernmost border of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria (North of the Humber).

Spurn reaches nearly half way into that estuary, but being only about 50 metres wide at its narrowest point is a fragile yet strategic location for several reasons.

Firstly as a landing stage for migrating birds crossing the North Sea.  My new friend was excited at the arrival of Savi’s Warbler, and went to tell me that the nearby bushes were already full of visitors keen to catch a glimpse of this small brown bird that is virtually unknown so far north.  Breeding pairs in the UK usually reach as far as Norfolk and number in single figures.

No chance of me seeing it, as my need to walk the 3.5 miles down to the end of the spit meant a noisy stride as loose change and lens cover rattled rhythmically to mark my passing.  My wildlife observations were mostly confined to gulls and sparrows.  Further down the strip of land, which changes shape according to tidal forces as attempts at sea defences have been abandoned, another twitcher pointed out a wheatear to me and explained how its name was a corruption of white arse!  The bird was gone before he finished his sentence.  Even the weasel that crossed the path right in front of me did so with such speed that there was never a chance of a photograph.

The other reasons that Spurn is important are for military reasons and navigationally, factors I shall cover in subsequent posts here, but for now let’s focus on the element of wildlife that was in no hurry to get away.   In fact I was keener to get away from it.  There were signs along the way warning of the hazards arising from collapsing pathways and lost roads (there used to be a railway that ran the length but what traces remain show tracks heading off into the sea to one side and the estuary to the other).  There was though a more prevalent hazard.

As the spit grew wider there was more plant life, and stretched between twigs were dried out structures, thicker than web and clearly fairly robust as these were from previous seasons, but further south there were more and fresher examples.  Fresher because they were still occupied, and occupied by a writhing mass of… caterpillars.  That may not sound hazardous, but these are the offspring of the brown tail moth and they pack a serious punch.  The tiny hairs that cover their bodies break off and can cause rashes, headaches and breathing difficulties.  You don’t want to mess with these little guys (unless you’re wearing gloves).

Perhaps I should have saved them for my next post about Defence on Spurn!

Travelling Hopefully

What is the difference between passion and obsession?  The argument is a subjective one and people I’ve been in relationships with have taken both sides in describing my love of photography and my drive to blog about it.

I ask the question having spent a weekend exploring the coastline of East Yorkshire; exploring with an open mind to what I might find, but with a very specific objective in mind.

Some time ago I was inspired by photographs in another photographer’s gallery on Viewbug, and in particular one long exposure image of an unusually shaped line of sea defences.  Since it combined both my love of things marine with the technique that I’m trying to perfect at the moment I was keen to know where it was.  The photographer had posted no details so I messaged the question.  No response.

Which is the point at which that “obsession” kicked in.  I knew from the rest of his imagery that he was based in the north of England, and in all likelihood Yorkshire.  (The best landscapes are usually shot by those who live there and know the way in which light and weather interact as well as being near enough to be there during the golden hours at dawn and sunset).

Yorkshire is England’s largest county; historically divided into three “ridings”, North, West and East.  Those who wondered why there wasn’t a South Riding (other than as the title of novel) overlook the meaning of “riding”.  The Vikings, who settled in the region, had a word “thridding” which meant “a third”.  Of those thirds only the East Riding had coastline, so that narrowed down the possibilities.

Enter Google Earth!  I scanned the satellite shots of that coastline in search of the particular feature and as I worked my way south I passed other geographic features of note; Flamborough Head and Spurn Head in particular.  The place names had a common theme too; Hornsea, Kilnsea, Withernsea… only Ursula le Guin was needed to complete the picture.  I didn’t spot the groyne I wanted but there were so many along this shoreline that I might have missed it.  My interest was truly whetted nevertheless, which is why at 9.00am on Saturday I found myself 150 miles from my bed on Humberside and stopping at a church in village called Patrington.

St Patrick’s church was not on my agenda but the impudence of that spire demanded my attention.  I discovered a Grade I listed building built in the Decorated Gothic style (early 14th century).  The similarity between the name of the village is a curious one, but apparently without explanation, though the church has another name too; the Queen of Holderness, Holderness being the peninsula on which it stands.  Which brings me back to that outstanding spire.  Whether built with the purpose in mind or not, it has proved a useful navigational aid in an area where the sea was crucial to the lives of those who lived here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

But on with my quest and I eventually reached the spit of land leading to Spurn Point.  Miles of boulder clay deposited by natural forces creating an ever-changing land and seascape similar to the shingle at Orford Ness.  No route for cars so it was time to walk those miles once the tide had subsided to allow passage through the “washover” section.

And here I found wooden posts emerging from the sea as those waters receded.  Hundreds of them.  None forming the structure that had inspired my trip* but enough to produce some interesting shots, and one that I absolutely loved.

  1. It is better to travel hopefully…
  2. …than to arrive

Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice, part titles.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I may not have arrived at the source of my original inspiration, but my hopes were fulfilled.

*I subsequently rediscovered the image – taken in Caister, Norfolk, but now that I have, I think I prefer my own shot above!