On A Cold & Frosty Morning

Stepping away from the heat generated by my last post and into the cold of a wintry Yorkshire, I returned to the town of Whitby in the hope of shooting a beautiful sunrise over the headland where the Abbey ruins are silhouetted. At this time of year the alignment means that from just out at sea this should be possible.

There are two issues with this; the first relatively easily resolved. Shooting from the sea, even were I to charter a boat would be a technical nightmare, necessitating fast shutter speeds to cancel out the boat’s movement, but in low light that would mean very noisy low quality images. The light trail made by one small vessel demonstrates my point, and that  was from within the protection of the harbour.  Fortunately the town has a solution.

Whitby has a plethora of piers. I exaggerate of course but on either side of the mouth of the River Esk are stone piers with a history that goes back to the 16/17th Century (though there had been wooden structures to protect the port since the early 14th). In the early 1900’s these were augmented by a pair of extensions that reached further out into the North Sea.

That level of engineering is no longer justified in a town where fishing and exports of alum are no longer major industries and the piers have suffered; the bridge linking the East Pier extension to its parent is long gone so it is now accessible only by boat. Scarborough Borough Council now faces the challenge of how to maintain, repair these structures and though economically unattractive they are so much a part of the town that any proposal to scale back or abandon them would be controversial.

The West Pier extension is still intact however and so I found my spot to wait in the January cold for the sun do its job. And here was my second issue.

Being an hours drive away from Whitby requires a certain amount of commitment to be there before first light, a commitment that there is no guarantee will be repaid. Even in January I had to be up at 5.45 and as the year progresses so earlier sunrise makes a return trip less likely. So I gambled on the sun repaying my enthusiasm.

Sure enough the sky began to develop a pink tint just above the ruins. It grew brighter and spread a little further, and then… nothing. Gone. Just the clouds, the sea, the cold and the walk back to town along that pier.  


At least the tourists and Goths that throng the streets hadn’t risen yet so I could capture some more genuine local colour.

I did at least catch the golden hour around the marina as a consolation prize, and amongst the seabirds found an unexpected sight.  At least there was some red about that winter’s morning.

The Last Resort

After leaving Wells I made my way to the south coast and entered Sussex, passing Stonehenge along the way.  It may  puzzle you that I didn’t stop there, but I’ve visited before and the crowds and traffic do nothing to encourage me to return.

And so I made my way to another iconic location, one that has featured in numerous films and television programmes ranging from Brighton Rock to Harry Potter, yet its reputation is for a darker reason.  According to  some sources this is one of the top three places in the world… to commit suicide.  Beachy Head’s chalk cliffs are an obvious choice for their height, but on the day I visited, bathed in the warm light of a setting sun they were positively uplifting.  Their added draw was that they provided me with not one, but two lighthouses to add to this year’s collection.

Beachy Head Light

Beachy Head light, just offshore was built when the original cliff top lantern (Belle Tout) was found to be useless in misty or foggy conditions.  Years later it had to be moved to a more secure location in any event due to cliff erosion, but despite being decommissioned as a lighthouse, it has continued to be useful (featuring in the BBC’s adaptation of Fay Weldon’s Life & Loves of a She-Devil).  It is now in private ownership and available as holiday accommodation.

From there is was a short trip to Eastbourne, traditionally viewed as a “dormitory town”, a seaside spot to enjoy retirement and await the grim reaper (without resorting to the cliff tops).  That image is fading as the average age of the the town’s population is falls due to an influx of commuters and also immigrants.

What isn’t changing is the look of the seafront where the hotel facades are much the same as they were in the resort’s Victorian heyday.  That is largely due to a decision by the landowner to prohibit any shopfront developments here.  The hotels themselves point to that landowner’s identity as a member of the aristocracy.  The Dukes of Devonshire’s home is the Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire, and their family name is Cavendish.

There are other more interesting structures to view though.

There’s a Martello Tower, one of numerous squat circular defensive structures built across the British Empire in the 19th century.  A beautifully tiled bandstand unique in its Neo-Grec design dates back to 1935.  And then there’s the pier.

Opened in 1870, the pier has survived fires and wartime conversion to a machine gun post.  It certainly wasn’t at risk of damage by visitors on the day I was there.  The Great British Summer had put paid to that.

Dark Times

No lighthouse hunting today

Perhaps I was suffering from a degree of geographic confusion arising from the sea being to my west rather than my beloved east coast, though more likely it was the mental clouding arising from having been made redundant from my training job less than an hour previously, but in either event my usual sense of direction deserted me in Heysham and I walked as shown here.  

Perhaps in some way though I was following a historic precedent.

According to some stories, a teenage boy was kidnapped by pirates from his home in Ravenglass, Cumbria at some point in the 5th century.  He was sold into slavery in Ireland.  After a few years he escaped and boarded a boat bound for France which was blown off course with the result that he came ashore back in England.  If as some believe he landed in Heysham, then he was only 50km or so from his birthplace.

Across Morecambe Bay to Cumbria

Buildings on the site I was visiting give credence to this being his landing spot, and the legends relating to the origins of a place in Cumbria called Aspatria support his return.  The young man was St Patrick. (Or one of them as some scholars believe that tales of two different preachers have become conflated.)

Of course all of this took place in the period known pejoratively as “The Dark Ages” where we have few written records to draw upon.  What supports this story is that this small settlement on Morecambe Bay has long religious significance.

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Standing on a small headland are the remains of a tiny chapel (St Patrick’s Chapel) that dates back to the 8th century, though evidence suggests it had earlier wooden predecessors.  It is too small to have been a place of worship and so preaching is likely to have taken place outside.

National Trust Artist’s Impression

Why the building then?  Perhaps it was there to house something of importance?  Research has found lots of burials on the site including some within the chapel itself, but it is the graves outside that are most interesting.  Among them are two examples (a group of 6 and a separate pair) of graves carved into the solid rock.  Sockets at the end of each suggest that large markers were inserted at the head of these graves, so it’s thought that these were perhaps resting places for important individuals (or their bones at least).  Like the reliquaries that still draw pilgrims to many catholic churches, this was probably a place to get close to the truly holy.

Of course if you’re attracting a lot of visitors sooner or later you want a real church, and just below the chapel sits an unmistakably Anglo-Saxon church.  St Peter’s Heysham.  Consecrated in 967 AD, it too follows earlier buildings, and it has changed and developed over the centuries as evidenced by the mismatched window and door styles, and the fact that it is no longer a tall narrow structure.

More interesting graves are in the churchyard, though the most interesting of all was denied to me.  A viking style hogback grave marker was moved inside the church for its protection in 1977.  As it was nearly dusk the church was securely locked, so I was unable to photograph this record of Norse pagan imagery found in an English christian churchyard, though there are images online.

Still in the dark about my navigational error I began to retrace my steps through the gorse, brambles and nettles along the cliff tops.  At least I could be sure there would be no snakes!

Patrick’s Presence?


Interesting video featuring Heysham in the 1970’s (about 6 mins in – though I enjoyed the whole clip)


Getting Noticed

Is it time for another lighthouse?

Flamborough Head’s position protruding into the North Sea makes it a natural location for providing guidance to passing shipping and transmitting messages along the coast, so the site may have been in use this way for nearly 2000 years.  Some masonry that could have been part of a Roman beacon was discovered in the area along with Roman pottery, though the former was subsequently destroyed by quarrying.

Nowadays the promontory features a fog warning station as well as shiny white lighthouse which peers over the rooftops of nearby houses.  Built in 1806 it operated successfully for 120 years before it was decided to raise the lantern.  You can see where the additional section was inserted still.

But if we’re talking lighthouses and Flamborough Head there is a more historic column to view.  Standing further back from the cliff edge and built on commission from Charles II in 1674 this octagonal tower is believed to be the nation’s oldest surviving lighthouse.

I stress “believed” because recent restoration work found no evidence of carbon or charring that would have been left by burning coal fires on the top.  So what’s the story here?

We know that Sir John Clayton (who constructed this tower) was given permission to build a number of lighthouses around the country by the king… and that’s about it!  There are stories that he intended to build three lights to guide ships around Flamborough and effectively hold them to ransom to give them safe passage.

Other stories say that this was only ever built as a watch tower, though given his royal commission, and the fact that there was a historical precedent for burning coal and/or brushwood here, it would seem lacking in initiative if there had never been plans to keep a fire burning on the top.

But what about the lack of evidence for this?  Some stories claim that Clayton went bankrupt before the tower was ever completed, and this would certainly explain the lack of burning on top.  You’d think though that someone else might have finished the job.  Clearly those passing sailors weren’t stumping up much in tolls.

Something else struck me though.  The Fog station and the new lighthouse are both painted brilliant white, matching the chalk from which the old tower is built.  It makes them highly visible, but then the cliffs on which all of these structures stand are made from the same white stone.  By day and by moonlight surely there was little need for further assistance, and perhaps this is why Clayton couldn’t raise the funds?

Just a thought.



As far as the eye can. Sea.

Abstract panorama from Spurn Lighthouse

There are peninsulas and there are peninsulas.  The narrowness of the fragile spit that links Spurn Head to the mainland means it is easy to stand with water visible on either side of you.  Proceed south and the Head itself is more substantial, but climb to one of the highpoints and you now have a third watery vista ahead where the  North Sea’s salty waters blend with the silts, muds and fresh water that the Rivers Ouse and Trent feed into the Humber.    A sailors playground.

Yet in the 85 miles or so between here and Whitby, the East Yorkshire coastline is believed to have 50,000 shipwrecks, of which the most famous is probably the Bonhomme Richard.  Remarkably this was as a result of a sea battle in the American War of Independence.

Now I’d always assumed that the hostilities were confined to the far side of the Atlantic, but American naval hero John Paul Jones brought the fight to the British and engaged HMS Seraphis.  Though the British ship had the upper hand for most of this single vessel conflict, a falling mast from the Bonhomme Richard crashed into the British frigate’s hold and ignited the gunpowder there.  Most of the other vessels that lie on the seabed here didn’t have such spectacular ends, and fell victim to the rocks and heavy seas that crash against them.

Naturally Spurn has a part to play in protecting mariners and their craft and it does so in several ways.  Let’s begin with the lighthouses since they are my theme for the year.  Two of them.  One raised up, the other living dangerously by dipping a toe into the waters at each high tide.

There are records of lighthouses at Spurn dating back to the 15th century though the present examples are far more recent.  The lower light was originally one of a pair that would be aligned to mark the safe passage, though the original was washed away and this continued to be a problem until 1852 when the present design proved strong enough to survive the forces of nature.  Now the highlight’s days were numbered for 40 years later a single light was brought into service (the current black & white tower).  Nothing remains of the highlight that it replaced but the lower light stands defiantly in the Humber, though with a curious piece of redesign.  The lantern has been removed and replaced with a water tank.

The lights are augmented by another life saver.  Or several.

Spurn Head’s position makes it a good place to establish a lifeboat station to rescue those in difficulty whether at sea or in the estuary, but it’s remoteness and the transient existence of roads and paths from the mainland, renders that same location impractical in the event of “a shout”.  It would take too long to get there even on those occasions when it is possible.  Spurn is therefore home to the only permanently resident lifeboat crew in the UK.  Even with a team permanently at hand there are practical issues.

Their craft are moored on the Humber where the shallow mud flats mean that the high and low water marks are some distance apart.  No use anchoring your vessel after a high-water rescue and then finding it stranded on a mudflat next time you need it.  Instead the vessels stay some distance offshore, and the crew have a purpose built pier allowing them to reach them at any point in the tidal cycle.

Yet another organisation plays a part in the safety of shipping here though.  Another large structure, akin to an air traffic control tower looks out over the river mouth.  And that’s pretty much what they are: Vessel Traffic Services.

So plenty of help for the sailor.  But the lighthouse is surely the most elegant.


English: Red Rose of Lancaster
English: Red Rose of Lancaster (Photo credit: Wikipedia

On my numerous journeys up and down the M6 motorway over the years, I’ve long been intrigued by an elegant domed structure that looks down from a hilltop in the city of Lancaster.  What’s more I’ve never been to the city that spawned the House of Lancaster, one of the protagonists of the Wars of the Roses, a key period in English history.  So you’d think that if I was going to visit this area, Lancaster would be a must.

Well perhaps it will be another day.  Instead I visited the tiny fishing village just to the south called Glasson, for reasons which will become clear later.

As I neared the quay which is central to the village’s existence, I was aware that this was an unusual landscape, where large stretches of land were clearly subject to regular flooding, though I was unsure whether this due to the nearness of the sea and the tidal effects on the River Lune, or variations in the river’s levels due to rainfall from the nearby hills.  Combined with the single-track roads that took me there, the place had a remote, neglected feel that the grounded vessels amplified.

BBC Wales has recently completed the story arc of its excellent crime series Hinterland*, in which half the residents of the Aberystwyth area seem to live in shacks that incorporate elements of boats and caravans.  This part of Lancashire could be a similarly haunting location.  There’s clearly something about these half land, half sea places that inspires a sense of unease; I was reminded of the island residents on the fringes of the Venetian Lagoon.

Those narrow roads meant that it was unlikely I’d be able to park near to my objective, so had to opt for Glasson Quay and then walk the two or three miles through farmland, where barely repaired styles and bridges hidden in hedgerows gave the impression that visitors weren’t actively encouraged.  The lapwings weren’t very happy to see me in their vicinity either.

Finally I reached the coast, specifically Morecambe Bay, though again the first signs weren’t promising!  Following the seawall south I found a clue to one of two features that were the real reason for my expedition, wondering as I did so what the gunners might be hunting.  Surely the birds in this murmuration were too small to be of interest?


And then I arrived.

To this.

And before you disparage my choice of image, look closely at the red circled area.  Might this be the attraction for local hunters?


English: Plover scar range front lighthouse. B...
English: Plover scar range front lighthouse. Built 1847. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway to the lighthouse.  This relatively tiny structure has been under the weather for a year or so after it was struck by a passing vessel (local views vary as to whether the ship was too large or the captain too inebriated).  I knew it was being repaired when I planned my visit, thinking that the spectacle of a crane built onto the structure might provide a unique opportunity to record something a little different about Plover Scar Light (also known as Abbey Light), which was originally one of a pair of guiding lights for the entrance to the Lune.  Typically I learnt that the day before my visit, the cap had been restored to the tower and the crane removed, leaving me with the worst of both worlds; a repaired lighthouse, but clothed in scaffolding.

Plover Scar Lighthouse

I still like it!


*The TV Series was unusual since it was recorded in Welsh and recorded in English allowing it to be marketed in different territories.  The version I watched combined both with the Welsh being subtitled.  The Welsh title is different.  Y Gwyll means “dusk” and though that hints at the darkness of the series I feel Hinterland captured more of the bleakness.


With the Flow

Reflecting on my recent comment about the frequency of lighthouse appearances this year, I’ve decided to embrace the possibilities and seek out the structures when I’m out and about on my travels.  This time though there was very little travelling involved.

My adoptive father was born in a town that whose beaches have appeared here before, a place that he invariably referred to as “The Harbour”.  He meant Seaham, though I can’t recall him ever referring to the town by name.  He was correct of course.  When he was born early in the 20th century the full name was Seaham Harbour, the harbour of the hamlet by the sea.  That hamlet, dating back to at least the 7th century was a little further inland, but in the early 19th century the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry set about the construction of the harbour and surrounding town as he wished to facilitate the transportation of coal from the numerous collieries in the area.

At some point the Harbour element was dropped (though not by my father) and it is now simply Seaham one again.

My motivation wasn’t originally the lighthouse; I just wanted to get to the coast to try out a new super-stopper filter, which for the uninitiated allows very little light to pass so that conditions that might require a shutter speed of 1/15 of a second are now extended to over half an hour.  Under these circumstances moving objects disappear, or as in the case of water, smooth out the flows to leave structural details as the only textures in the shot.  Of course the camera must be absolutely still and the photographer patient for all of this time, so I mounted the camera on a tripod (essential) and hung my camera bag from it to give ballast.

Embed from Getty Images

I was to be frustrated in my trial by Doris.  Storm Doris.  Though I wasn’t on the pot as she vented her full fury here I did experience the periphery of her arrival.  The tripod was stable enough but the power of the wind was vibrating the camera fixed to it.  To add to my frustration the bag hanging for weight began to swing which can’t have helped either.  Consequently what should have been pin sharp imagery was hazy and unusable.

Spotting a wall at the top of the nearby limekilns (another industry necessitating a good port) I wondered if this might provide some shelter but the exposed position was even worse.  Climbing to the crenellated battlements (the product of a scheme to keep the unemployed active in the 1980’s)  I fired off another couple of shots of the harbour light.  As I did so I was unaware that the clifftop where I stood was where the original lighthouse was sited and though it stood as a landmark until 1940, it had been usurped 35 years earlier when it was realised that a light was needed to mark the entrance to the harbour.

The original structure had been tall and proud, it’s replacement that you see here is a diminutive 10 metres in height.

What I would have given for such a short climb when I was counting the steps to the top of St Mary’s!