Colour Amidst the Coal Dust

Just before I left Durham, I made sure of one final trip on my bucket list of significant buildings on my patch.

On the face of it, a tiny pit village to the west of the city should have little to offer other than its industrial heritage, but for some reason it was singled out for siting a Roman Catholic Seminary at the start of the 19th century.  When you consider that the seminary had its origins in France it’s all the more remarkable that it ended up here.

The English College, Douai was established in the mid 16th century, which was long after the periods of English occupation in Northern France, so you might wonder what led to its creation, but given that this was a period of great religious turbulence on this side of the English channel the location makes a lot of sense.  Or it did until Napoleon and the French Revolution, at which point the college and its students were no longer welcome.  Catholic persecution was over by now and so the school returned to England and ended up in Durham; initially at Crook Hall (one on the bucket list that remained unticked) until building work commenced in Ushaw.

An interesting enough story but it could have ended there with a bunch of religious students in some Victorian college buildings.  Except that these Victorian college buildings were designed by an architectural dynasty of great repute.  The Pugins.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was a leading gothic revivalist, most famous for designing the interiors of the Palace of Westminster, which few of us have seen, and the clock tower known as Big Ben (though that is actually the name of its largest bell) which everyone has seen!  He and his sons Peter Paul Pugin and Edward Welby (known as E.W.) Pugin have run riot at Ushaw College, recreating a medieval look which at times is breathtaking, and at others borders on pastiche.

This latter description is perhaps given weight by the quality of the work.  It is clear that the Pugin’s understood theatrical design; created for effect rather than accuracy.  Whereas medieval statuary would be carved to perfection under the eye of a master mason, and in the belief that the almighty would also be scrutinising the workmanship, the Pugin angels are quite rough-looking when viewed through a telephoto lens, but perched on high above the chapel nave they are far enough away from the worshipper to have the desired effect.

Despite the visual opulence the seminary was not successful in continuing to draw students in these more secular times and it closed in 2011, and was acquired by Durham University who have intentions to establish it as a research centre.   It strikes me that even the most diligent researcher might just be a little distracted here!


Show Time

I’m a townie. No doubt about it, for much as I love the countryside, my cultural background and understanding is rooted in towns and cities; how they work and how they people behave, and whilst I write this from the comfort of a farmhouse bedroom, I can see the traffic of the M1 in the distance and know that tomorrow I’ll be working in an office in Milton Keynes.

On the first Saturday in September I heard a woman called Sarah Walker  on the radio talking about how she’d taken over writing his “Countryman” column in the Darlington & Stockton Times. She described how she felt exposed as she lacked his country lore or knowledge of Yorkshire. Her father (who also wrote the novels which became TV’s Heartbeat) may have been from Yorkshire, but Darlington is a County Durham, rather than Yorkshire market town so she’d needn’t have worried.

All of this resonated with me as later that day I was planning to attend Wolsingham Show, an annual event that has been run formally for nearly 250 years, but as this has been an agricultural settlement since at least Norman times probably goes back longer in some format.  I’ve always lived by the River Wear (though that is due to change this month) and Wolsingham is only 15 miles from me up the river valley, but this was an unfamiliar world to me, one that even The Archers  had not prepared me for.

I’d expected livestock of course, and serious judging of prize specimens.  I’d expected a Flower and Produce Tent full of cakes, flowers and vegetables (it might have been there in the 36 acres but if it was I missed it!)

What I hadn’t expected was the scale of the Fur & Feather Tent.  Hundreds of birds of all shapes and sizes (even within the same species) plus rabbits and guinea pigs galore.  I imagined how long it would have taken to examine had I come with my daughters in their childhood!

The animals weren’t all just for looking at either; sheep dog trials in an adjoining field came as no surprise; donkey rides did as I associate them with seaside outings.

Then there are the entertainments for kids of all ages.  I’d expected some shiny “boy toys”, but a Bond Bug, a vintage Roller, and a Hydra assault vehicle?

But it was the people I found most interesting; there are some looks, some fashions that set you apart from the townies like me.

Plus you don’t come across male and female tug of war champions very often in my normal circles.

I wonder if Sarah Walker was there?

Billy No Mates

The mining town of Easington Colliery has had a relatively short existence, originating in 1899 when the pit shaft was sunk.  It was one of many mines along the Durham Coast; Seaham, Dawdon, Vane Tempest, Blackhall, Hawthorn… Every settlement had a coal mine.

The coal wasn’t easily won here either.  Whereas further north in Northumberland it lies relatively near the surface, leading to open cast mining, here it was deep below the sea.  Dangerous work in one of Europe’s most productive mines_pw_8360

In the early hours of the 29th May 1951 the 38 men who had worked the night shift were coming to the end of their working day. The 43 men who were to replace them had already descended the shaft and were also 900 feet below ground when the coal face cutting machine struck iron pyrite, the mineral we generally refer to as fool’s gold.  Few consider the original derivation of the word from the Greek pyr, meaning fire.  Perhaps not even the miners who were aware of its properties.  _pw_8359

Pyrites creates sparks when struck with steel, and was incorporated into the firing mechanism of early firearms for this purpose.  Now a naked flame isn’t necessarily a problem in a mine, candles were used before the invention of the safety lamp in 1815, but bring that flame into contact with a pocket of gas and the scenario changes.  Quickly.  Especially if that gas was methane.

All 81 men were killed in the explosion as over 100m of roof collapsed and buried them.  The death toll was to increase in the coming days as two rescue workers died of carbon monoxide poisoning in separate incidents – the lungs of miners being so full of coal dust that they were more prone to breathing difficulties.

_pw_8381-editDespite this, the pit continued to be a source of pride to the local workforce, until it’s closure in 1993 when a third of the town’s population were made redundant at a stroke.  A second disaster.

Though given a pseudonym in the film, the stage musical is clear that the story takes place in Easington.  This is the setting for Billy Elliot.

Two decades later and there is still deprivation here; the derelict school is testament to that.  Though born only a dozen miles or so away from here I felt like an outsider when I came to explore the beach for something as trivial as a picture.

Perhaps it was the weather.  Or the cliffs that make the beach difficult to reach.  The rocky nature of the shoreline maybe?  The lasting debris of an industrial past on this coast? Or was it the inherent joylessness of the town that meant the place was deserted?

I’m usually glad of such opportunities to photograph the environment without waiting for people to move out of shot, but today the seascape felt as if it needed something to complete the scene.  A boat perhaps, or some birds to add interest.

There were neither to break my solitude.  Life had been sucked out._pw_8337-edit-edit


Ironically for a photographer, I’ve lacked focus this week.  Nothing inspired me to go and point a lens at it.

This may have been because I’ve been working in a location that I’m very familiar with, and where I’ve been out to shoot the things that interest me already, but I have to question my motivation.

This isn't my bike btw!
This isn’t my bike btw!

I did take some pictures while out cycling last weekend, as I further explored my new home in Durham, but I managed to time this with the only few hours in days where the skies were overcast.  Perhaps that contributed to my torpor.

Shincliffe was my destination.  I’d been there the previous day to drop my friend Elaine off at the garden centre.  It is a village that consists largely of two perpendicular roads that both join a more major route that forms the hypotenuse of a small triangle.  Consequently, with no through traffic other than the green-fingered and its own residents, Shincliffe is a quiet spot that seems almost timeless.  This sense was compounded by the fact that due to the spending restrictions that local authorities are imposing the verges of the village high street have not been cut, leading to an almost meadow-like quality.

Shincliffe High Street
Shincliffe High Street

The effect is noticeable in many locations around the county, but here in Shincliffe it seems almost appropriate and creates a scene that may go back to when this chapel was built and earlier.

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Shincliffe
Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Shincliffe

The village certainly has a history – the bridge over the Wear here may be built on Roman origins, though it was properly established in the middle ages, flourished briefly following the industrial revolution due the nearby collieries and then declined one again as they closed.

I’ve always associated the history of this area with the majesty of the Norman buildings on Durham’s Palace Green, but there is so much more scattered around here.  The remains of the most northerly villa in all of the Roman Empire were found nearby.

On my way home I passed through Sherburn House, a tiny cluster of houses on one side of the road and an imposing gatehouse on the other.  These old stones now form part of a residential home for the elderly, but in their time they were part of a medieval hospital established in the 12th century providing care to a large group of lepers.APW_3910

And yet for all of this opportunity to shoot something historic, it was a more modern image that provided my favourite.  This was regatta weekend in Durham, the Wear thronged with racing rowers and their supporters.  It might have been a great place to take pictures, but the cycle path I would have needed to get there has been swept away by heavy rain in recent months.  Nevertheless the boat houses, which populate the river banks face no such restrictions.  The picture I got isn’t high quality, because I needed to crop away most of it to get to the detail that caught my eye.  A simple study in straight lines.  The purple blades just give it a little oomph!APW_3884



Bobby Shafto’s gone to seed

Three hundred and sixty four days before I was born, Groucho Marx was hosting an episode of an early TV comedy quiz show called You Bet Your Lifewhen he stumped a contestant with the question:

Who went to sea, silver buckles at his knee?

The answer of course is Bobby Shafto.  A folk song that I’d always associated with the North East of England or maybe Scotland because of the dialect in which it is sung has clearly travelled far beyond this region.  The man who is the subject of the song is thought to be a former Member of Parliament, born in 1732 in Whitworth Hall in County Durham, and although there is some speculation that the song could have been written about his son, that is less likely for the references to marriage in the song point to the father’s story.

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,

Silver buckles at his knee;

He’ll come back and marry me,

Bonny Bobby Shafto!

At nearby Brancepeth Castle, where Shafto’s brother Thomas was rector, Bridget Belasyse died, supposedly of a broken heart within two weeks of hearing the news of Robert (Bobby) Shafto’s marriage.

Little remains of his ancestral home as much was destroyed in a fire, but the surviving library wing now forms part of a hotel within Whitworth Hall Park.  A separate pub and restaurant that was very successful a couple of decades back now lies boarded up at the entrance to the Park, and it appears that the security measures taken to prevent trespass in the decaying building interfere with one of the attractions of the Park; a walled garden containing Britain’s most northerly vineyard.

APW_3796So when my  friend J and I had afternoon tea at the hotel, she had planned to show me this hidden gem.  Sadly it remained hidden, but the other attraction of the park did not; the deer park.  There was some confusion amongst the hotel staff as to whether the park was due to close as we bought our tickets, and when we first approached the gate we failed to open it.  Looking for another way in proved difficult but we eventually found a scaleable gate!  In no time we were mobbed by hungry juveniles, whose eagerness to be fed the pellets we had bought in the hotel led them to tread on Jane’s unprotected toes with their cloven hooves.  No fun if you haven’t tried it!


Nevertheless we got some nice pictures, and it felt only right to take J’s portrait to reward her sense of adventure!


Connect And Be Receptive

The rock band Queen began their career by famously proclaiming on every album cover “No Synthesizers”, not because they objected to the instruments, but to clarify that their rich, textured sound was achieved with guitars and vocals instead. Midway through their career they released The Game, which proclaimed something along the lines of “This albums marks the first appearance of a synthesizer on a Queen album”.

The photographs that have appeared on this blog have thus far all been shot using a digital single lens reflex camera, mostly a Canon 5d Mk 2 (though sadly this is still being repaired), and with a few additions from an old Olympus.

I’ve referred before to the precept of creativity that forms the title of this piece. It’s about keeping your eyes open to the potential of everything around you to solve problems, provide inspiration, make connections and so on, so today I was sitting in a training room, in a manufacturing plant in County Durham at 7.45 am. The sun was still low in the sky, and was streaming into the room casting interesting shadows.

I didn’t realise at first that there was something out of the ordinary, but as I looked further, it dawned on me (sorry for the pun) that the light was travelling in two opposite directions. I understood that one was the sun coming directly through windows, but how was there a second? Simply because in a privacy measure all of the windows in the building had been treated with a reflective film, and the room I was in was close to the junction of another part of the building at right angles to mine. The run of windows continued around this corner, so the sunlight, striking the other building obliquely, was reflected straight back into my room where the forest of chair and table legs provided an abstract image.

Of course I wasn’t sitting with SLR to hand, but the iphone came to the rescue.

Today’s blog marks the first appearance of a photograph taken on a camera phone in a photogenic world!