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.
Today’s post was going to be entitled “Where do you stand on babies’ bottoms?” following a frustrating 24 hours negotiating the terms of a model release form which accompanied a session of baby photography. I had my usual 500 words or so all written, trying to take a balanced view (and of course failing miserably) of where the line should be drawn between the rights of an understandably protective parent, and the needs of a photographer to be able function in business.
Between downpours I ventured out to find today’s portrait, expecting this to be the final part of getting the irritation out of my system, and found myself on the beach in the most wonderful conditions. The tide was well out, leaving the saturated sands mirroring the skies, and what skies. Out to sea was a heavy blue grey from heavens to horizon, the gap between cloud and sea bridged by curtains of gun-metal rain, yet behind me the skies were blue, and between the occasional white cloud, bright sunshine poured down onto the shoreline, turning wave crests a brilliant white.
The contrast was beautiful and these were skies that Turner would have had a field day painting; the wet sand probably more suited to Jack Vettriano. Not surprisingly there were few people about so soon after the rainfall, but right at the water’s edge a man and his small dog were heading north.
His name is Richard and he has just taken ownership of one of the fisherman’s cottages overlooking this stretch of the coast, so naturally we chatted about the vista he had just acquired.
He too loved the light, and went on to tell me how 12 years ago a previous property project of his had featured on Channel 4’sGrand Designs. He and his wife had converted an electricity substation into a Moroccan themed home, leading Kevin McCloud to shoot a piece to camera on the same stretch of beach musing on how appropriate such vibrant colours were when taken from the rich, warm North African light and deposited into cold North East England. I recall one of the particular features being stained glass panel that was commissioned from a glass artist – that at least had local relevance.
The Whitburn Bents cottages are very compact dwellings, which from distance are seen as a long, uniformly white building, but from the rear where they face the sea, they reveal a surprising diversity from Mediterranean terracotta to Tibetan prayer flags. I wonder what details Richard will bring to impose his own particular vision. Having watched his previous project on TV, I’m sure my wife Gill will be watching this development first hand on her walking route.