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?


Barney’s Battlements 

In the west of County Durham lies a small market town that is probably best known for its nearby French chateau. Now this might seem odd, but Bowes Museum is clearly an architectural import. It’s also clearly a palace rather than a castle, though back in the days of my distant French lessons the chateau and castle were given equivalence.

Barnard Castle
Barnard Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The town is Barnard Castle, and the fact that it and its name long predate the museum suggests that there’s more here for the inquisitive visitor, yet those who arrive from the east and park in the main thoroughfares will never see it.   Skip back a couple of decades and it was a different story, for before road improvements effectively bypassed the town, the main route from North East England across to the North West ran through here, and specifically an ancient bridge across the River Tees that permits traffic in only one direction at a time.  If you cross that bridge you are dominated by towering cliffs and the remains of large defensive walls.

The strategic importance of such a site made it inevitable that some sort of fortification would be built here, and the structure we see today harks back to the 12th century (though that was predated by defensive earthworks).   It’s also a pretty exposed spot so cloaks and roaring fires would have been a necessity when the wind was blowing down the Tees Valley.

William the Conqueror’s accession to the throne wasn’t quite as simple as defeating Harold in 1066.  In the years that followed he faced a number of rebellions, mostly from the north, where the population could be described as Anglo-Scandinavian as a result of a history of Viking settlements.  Culturally and linguistically this was a very different people.  William’s response, known as the Harrying of the North, was close to genocide with wholesale slaughter and famine resulting from his destruction of crops leading to the death of tens of thousands in the winter of 1069/70.  To survive the winter some resorted to cannibalism.

William Walcher, the first non-English Bishop of Durham, was appointed as the new Earl of Northumbria.  When he was murdered a decade later in a new series of rebellions, William II broke up Northumbria into smaller baronies, establishing Guy I De Balliol here as Baron of Gainford.  He was succeeded by his nephew Bernard who built the fortification and thus gave his name to the town.

From the floor plans the complex in its entirety was quite impressive, and even though few of the walls now remain, the spaces between the buildings and the large earthworks give a sense of scale.

From :Image:Shields.tar.bz2, by Lupin Raster v...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not all of this is Norman of course.  One of the castle’s later residents was non other than Richard III, who installed this oriel window giving views up the Tees Valley.  Though badly worn now, there are still traces of his wild boar symbol on the lintel above, together with the Yorkshire rose in the bottom left.

So if you’re visiting to see Bowes, take a short detour to see Barney’s Castle.  It may not have the art, but it certainly has the history.

Brandon On The Up

I don’t know whether it was the clarification of the meaning of “gate” in my recent Ripon post but I found myself musing on another place-name that is common in the Durham area, where we have  Framwellgate Peth,  Crossgate Peth, and Peth Lane in the vicinity of the city, and just a little further afield the village of Brancepeth.

If you’re familiar with the accent in the North East of England you wouldn’t expend much effort in guessing that “peth” means path, but you’d only be half right; it also implies that it’s a steep path.  Given that Durham, like Rome, is a city on seven hills the frequency of the word is explained.

And so on one of the recent uncharacteristically sunny spring days I set out for Brancepeth with camera bag and trusty copy of Pevsner (the book is older than I am!).  I’ve passed through the village many times but never stopped.  Time to put that right.

On those earlier trips I used to enjoy the glimpses of the castle visible in the distance, yet no such reward awaited me this time.  Had I just missed it?  Had the road been slightly rerouted? New properties built to obscure what Pevsner referred to as “one of the greatest thrills one can experience in the county”?  He is less complimentary about the castle itself (which being largely 19th century he describes as “operatic scenery” than he is about that view.  Consequently I was relatively unconcerned that the stronghold is in private hands and closed to the public.  (Nice tea room in the barbican though!)

My object was much smaller; the nearby church of St Brandon.  “Aha” I thought; “Brandon’s Path – Brancepeth”.  Maybe, but a local legend tell of an enormous “brawn” (wild boar) that terrorised the area in 1208.  A stone was placed to commemorate the slaying of the beast, so there could be some truth in it, but as the church predates this I’m sticking with my preferred view.  The church tower is 12th century but there’s evidence of Anglo-Saxon origins.

With my new liking for all things carpentry I was looking forward to discovering “the glorious woodwork” in a Gothic Revival style.  Installed mid 17th century, Pevsner states that there is no better place to study the style than here in Brancepeth, which is where the age of my copy becomes a problem.

On September 16th 1998 fire swept through the church, doubtless fuelled by that glorious woodwork, and temperatures reached 1200°.  Estimates suggest that the church was 20 minutes away from complete destruction when the fire was brought under control.

Astonishingly in these days of falling attendances the building has been restored, and with craftsmanship worthy of the structure’s history.

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There has even been a silver lining.  Medieval decoration has been revealed by the loss of plaster coverings and a multitude of medieval grave slabs that had been repurposed as window lintels were discovered in the debris and now displayed prominently on the church walls.

The imagery of these slabs used to cover graves is interesting.  All bear a central cross running the length of the slab, though some of these crosses are elaborately decorated, perhaps to resemble a “tree of life”.

The additional engraving of a sword to one side of the cross is clear indication that the man beneath the slab was a warrior, but several also bore a smaller symbol on the opposite side.

At first I thought these were mason’s compasses, but I later learned they were shears symbolic of a woman being buried beneath the slab.  Men as protectors, women as providers of clothing.

Sexual stereotypes of the middle ages!

Fit for a Prince

Though most of its citizens are doubtless unaware of this, Durham has a pretty special history.  There was probably an earlier settlement here, but the place was really put on the map when the monks of Lindisfarne arrived with the bones of St Cuthbert (hermit of the Farne Islands) 300 years after his death to keep him safe from Viking raiders.  I say bones, but one of the features of Cuthbert’s body was that is was supposedly incorruptible.

Durham was England’s greatest pilgrimage site until the murder of St Thomas a Becket gave Canterbury a claim to fame (and an easier journey from the capital for the pilgrims).  Nevertheless Durham continued to draw in the crowds until the monastery was stripped by our old friend Henry VIII.

But let’s rewind a little.  When the Normans invaded, they placed great importance on Cuthbert’s shrine and built the great cathedral that houses his bones and those of St Bede.  Two saints for the price of one and two of the figures that made Northumbria the century of European culture in the dark ages.  Given its distance from London, and the unruly nature of the north they made the bishop a very powerful man, second only to the King.  Thus Durham became the land of the Prince Bishops – a title that into the 19th Century, and a castle was built alongside the cathedral to house the potentate._pw_3843_hdr

I tend to undervalue the castle and for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s difficult to view it all in one go, therefore difficult to envisage its size unless you resort untitled-8236to a drone (or the view from the cathedral tower)
  • From the Palace Green, where the gatehouse stands,  the keep atop its hill (motte to be accurate) seems insignificant when  you have the towering mass of the great church to your back.

From the riverside it has a more imposing aspect, given greater prominence by the hill on which it stands (Durham has seven like Rome), and some streets do their bit in blocking out the larger neighbour, but from most places there’s no getting away from the fact that the castle is the junior partner in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Which is a pity, because the building embodies some rich architectural heritage; inevitable given that it was home to a series of princes.  The original builders were Anglo-Saxon and so there are traces of Anglian styling.  Romanesque arches imported by the Normans are topped with characteristically English Gothic windows.  The courtyard beyond the gatehouse feels like an Elizabethan palace, and the Great Hall, built in the 14th century, was Britain’s largest until shortened towards the end of the 15th!

Another claim to fame; it is the only Norman castle in England not to have been breeched in combat.  A Scottish invasion in 1346 was routed at the nearby Battle of Neville’s Cross and the Scots King David II was captured, apparently after the divine intervention of Cuthbert.

When the Bishops decamped to a new home in Bishop Auckland, Durham Castle became home to students of the university, who have been in residence ever since.  Consequently access to the interior is limited and on the day I visited not allowed.  It seems the young from the around the world are the new princes.  And princesses._pw_3941


A Song of Ice and Fire

Feeling sufficiently motivated to head out on my bike before breakfast I expected that I might also capture some moody images along the river.

It had been a bitterly cold night and the cars were still thickly covered in frost, so perhaps the difference in temperature between air and water might create some murky conditions where I might shoot an early morning rower or two emerging from the mist.

Well that was the theory anyway.  As soon as I reached the water’s edge I realised that two other factors had come into play; a breeze over the water that might have whisked away any hint of vapour, but more importantly a blazing bright morning sun that was raising the air temperature enough to prevent the mist from forming the first place.

So now what?   I fired off a couple of shots that benefited from the golden morning light, and they’re pleasant enough in a rustic sort of way, but really, they’re just a bit too twee.

Durham from the River Wear
Durham from the River Wear

_PW_5621-EditThe bright sun behind me perhaps offered some possibilities, but was so low in the sky that I could see little beyond the glare off the water.  The bandstand roof offered some shade but little else of interest.

Switching banks to make use of the trees gave me more hope, though again the sun was too bright for me to look at directly through my lens, so I shot blindly, hoping for luck rather than expecting a great composition.

Making my way back for my breakfast it seemed that Durham City Council were adding insult to injury.  Preparations were underway for a Festival of Fire and Ice (the very combination of elements that I’d already been experiencing).  The sculptors who supplied the various pieces around  the city centre were apparently the same group who worked on sets for Game of Thrones.  Ten of these pieces would be lit by flaming beacons in the evening, though I suspect many passers-by would be praying for one in particular to melt long before that.

Returning home I uploaded my shots and found the image that I had been unable to view due to the brightness of the sun.  It’s not a classic, but its colours do seem right for my appropriated title.  I don’t suppose Mr Martin will mind too much as he counts his royalties.


Times Change Whilst Time Stands Still

A few weeks ago I was cycling in Durham when I took a different route to explore some cobbled back streets beside St Godrics, the church named after the hermit who was effectively the first monk of Finchale Priory.  Though a listed building in its own right, the church didn’t interest me, but looking in the opposite direction I spotted a more intriguing structure over the rooftops and my curiosity was piqued.

Was there another small church or chapel nearby whose tower I’d never noticed?  I didn’t have time to explore further and put it from my mind.

I don’t usually visit the North Road area of Durham; it’s a tired, run down part of the city featuring lots of coffee shops, a handful of small supermarkets and an architectural classic – a 1970’s bus station!  Redevelopment is long overdue._PW_5069

The place clearly had a more illustrious past though, for there are still a few gems that would benefit from a little polish.

The youngest of these was built as the Regal Cinema in the art deco style of the 1930’s.  After surviving 5 different owners with it’s original features intact these were all lost  as recently as 2003 when it was refitted as an Australian themed bar.  As you can see the sacrifice didn’t guarantee success._PW_5091

_PW_5076Another imposing structure that has seen some changes seems to be faring better, at least at the moment.  What was originally the offices of the Weardale & Shildon Water Company evolved at about the same time as the Regal Cinema was opening opposite into the Durham County WaterBoard.  It’s now an appropriately named watering hole – The Water House.

_PW_5054_5_6The third building’s occupants would be appalled at the thought of their edifice enduring such a fate.  Built in 1853 as The Bethel Chapel, it is now the prosaically named North Road Methodist Church.  A grade II listed building it still bears the grime of Durham’s industrial past; much of which would have been deposited by the trains of the nearby railway viaduct leading to Durham Station.

But none of these featured that impudent digit that had caught my attention earlier.

Built in 1875, the Durham Miners’ Hall’s location near the chapel and water board offices was evidence of the importance and standing of that industry.  Effectively a union meeting place for pit representatives, the building was originally graced by four statues of regional miners leaders within the first floor arched niches, but so ubiquitous was the colliery in these parts that the hall was quickly judged too small.  By 1915 the Durham Miners Association had a new hall further up the road, and the statues joined them there.  (I was sure I’d already blogged some shots of them, but no trace was found so there’s a future subject!)

The old hall draws little attention now, largely because the ground floor is a fruit and veg market, and the roof home wind-blown weeds.  From ground level you might not notice the clock tower.  Like the industry itself, its time has gone (and the clock is dormant).


Take the time to find a different angle though and that tower, like the last truly vocal miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, refuses to be ignored.


Extraordinary (Pun narrowly avoided)


A long weekend.

No pressure.

Not much to do.

Not likely to find any shots to blog.

A weekend for a bit of diy perhaps?  Shopping? Visiting friends?  A little chocolate egg consumption?

APW_8068Let’s get the first one out of the way.  Call it vanity if you will, but with a week in Havana less than a month away this is a time for restraint.  Have to rediscover my bikini body somehow, so I’ll be skipping the eggs until this guy lays me some!



Yes, I did a bit of that.  With a bit of inspiration from Kevin Kubota, and assorted lengths of toilet overflow pipe I made a frame for a scrim.  (A large panel for diffusing light to the uninitiated).  Fabric to cover it bought online; I’d already saved a couple of hundred pounds, but now we hit a snag.  Fabric needs cutting, hemming, and elasticating to fit the frame.  Possessing neither the skills nor the equipment for the job, it was time to go shopping.  Into a fancy dress shop in Durham where the man behind the counter solved my problem for the princely sum of £6.50.  There is clearly profit to be made in manufacturing scrims!

Unexpectedly the shopping trip also provided an image.  Ascending the stairs in the city car park I looked out over a parapet and saw this umbrella.  Who could resist?APW_7985-Edit

So to the visiting friends.  I’ve been commissioned to shoot a boudoir set, but with a difference.  My client told me that whilst she would be happy to shoot some of it in the cottage where she lives, some friends of hers had a property that they had offered to her if I felt it had possibilities, so I went for a bit of a recce.

Which is how I came to be sitting in the living room of a successful couple of entrepreneurs who own a country house in Northumberland.  Does it have possibilities as a photogenic venue?  I spotted one or two.

APW_8006I even found time to do some test shots for my client… didn’t use the scrim though!