Screen Shots

And so ignorant myopia of my teenage self is corrected – the elements of Hexham Abbey which were of no interest to me then but which entranced me on my recent visit to the church. I wasn’t alone either, for on my arrival one of the women running the gift shop asked if I was there to meet the photography group, and no sooner had I entered that I came upon a group wielding what seemed to be the largest number of tripods I’d ever encountered in one place! Led by a local professional they soon disappeared, presumably to scout the exterior, giving me the freedom to explore and frame my shots without external influence.

My recent visit to Manchester Cathedral converted me to the art of the carpenter, and it was the wooden elements in Hexham that really captivated me (and later the other photographers).  Like Manchester the choir is separated from the nave by a wooden screen which I assumed to be a rood screen but apparently is some different; a pulpitum, which not only kept the canons apart from the hoi-polloi but proved a barrier against draughts too!  So many English churches, that were colourfully decorated in medieval times fell victim to the Reformation or to the later Victorian restoration movement.  Hexham gives some hint of what might have been, though the artwork was restored in the 20th century, and the structure has seen a number of alterations in its lifetime such as the removal of the wooden staircases used by readers and preachers, now replaced by the metal spiral.

Elsewhere there are other wooden treats; an older screen featuring pained panels depicting the “Dance of Death”, a towering font cover, even the doors that greet your arrival.  It’s not all wood that impresses of course, but Hexham seems to be a real treasury of the material.

Older than all of these are the triptych of panels in the tiny wooden chapel known as the Ogle Chantry, erected to pray for the soul of Northumbrian nobleman Sir Robert Ogle in the early 1400’s.

For the photographers present that day (what is the collective noun for us?) there seemed to be one feature that proved more attractive than any other.  The panelled pulpit.





Twin Towers

I used to have a beautiful photograph of the Tuscan hill town San Gimignano (I think by Andrea Rontini) bathed in the golden hour light of the setting sun.  Sadly in “the great divide” my ex won that particular toss of the coin and the image of a town known as the “Medieval Manhattan” because of its multitude of towers that sprang up in a kind of one-upmanship.  (When the town imposed a height limit to curb this, one family then built two!)

Bologna has its own claim to being New York’s twin however.  The skyline of the old city is dominated by a tower both taller and more slender than those of San Gimignano.  Get closer to it and you’ll see that it has a partner, a squatter and somewhat stunted neighbour._PW_4058

The city once sported 180 such towers, but now only about twenty remain and none so notorious as these two.  Their proximity to one another is one factor in their favour, their location at the junction of five of the main routes of the walled city is another, yet they are emblematic of the city for another reason.  They both lean.

Torre Asinelli is the taller, and much straighter of the two, but having ascended the 498 worn wooden steps to the top it would definitely benefit from some right angles. It’s diminutive neighbour, Torre Garisenda, leans at an altogether more precarious angle, which when combined with the diagonals of Asinelli creates a disturbing visual effect.

Built in the early 12th Century both towers began to list shortly afterwards, with Garisenda quickly assuming it’s present stoop, inspiring Dante’s description

As when one sees the tower called Garisenda from underneath its leaning side, and then a cloud passes over and it seems to lean the more,thus did Antaeus seem to my fixed gaze as I watched him bend…

Divine Comedy, Inferno, XXXI, 136-140


Originally 60m in height, it was shorn of 20% of its stature in the 14th Century as a result of safety concerns.  How much greater must the contrast of the two sets of angles seemed before that?_PW_4695-2

I have seen artists impressions of the city bristling with 180 similarly tall structures, yet surely this can’t have been the case.  The rivals that remain around the city lack the same impact, but there is another clue that suggests these two were always the dominant pair.
It was customary in religious paintings for the city’s patron saint to be portrayed holding Bologna safely in his hands.  In all of these the two towers stand proud, almost as an early form of trademarking.

Perhaps they feared completion for the tourist market from Pisa!_PW_3472_3_4


Solent Running (Soton Part I)

If I’m completely honest I wasn’t thrilled when my employer told me I was off to Southampton this week. The distance played a part; the 300 mile drive was going to consume a big part of my Sunday, but aside from that the place itself didn’t have any positive associations. I’ve only been on two prior occasions; once flying in before then driving onto a different location, and the other, driving in before sailing onto a different location. You get the picture; I’d never felt the need to linger. Consequently, when I had no choice but to spend some time here as a result of my work, I had my eyes opened. Given the port’s location as an ideal embarkation point for Normandy and the success of the invasion that took place in 1066 it was bound to prosper at least in the short-term, so no surprises that Southampton achieved significance then. In fact, that prosperity continued long after the Normans had blended into our multi-cultural cocktail, the strange tidal patterns of the Solent giving the town a competitive edge for those trading by sea. What is more surprising is how much of the history remains, and what’s more, remains largely intact. You don’t have to walk far to encounter Medieval, Tudor, Regency and Victorian buildings, liberally peppered amongst the more modern constructions.

Like any other city, Southampton has seen its fair share of 21st Century carpetbaggers; the property developers building block after block of modern apartments, which here doubtless provide temporary accommodation for those needing a base of operations for their sailing exploits.

The affluence hasn’t percolated however, I was approached by more beggars on my stay than I can recall since I visited Nairobi or Kathmandu. The pubs are invariably out of the ordinary, with fascinating stories to tell. The Duke of Wellington goes back some 800 years, the Red Lion likewise, but with the added interest that Henry V held the trial of three conspirators in the building before sailing to Agincourt. The conspirators were not so lucky and were executed at the Bargate, an entrance to the old town which is also intact.

There there is the Juniper Berry, standing in the spot where Jane Austen lived, and the Grapes, a pub notorious for the fact that a handful of guests became so drunk there that they missed the departure of their ship. Nothing very remarkable there, but for the fact that the ship was The Titanic. Never has a hangover been so welcome. The Mayflower and the QEII are other maritime celebrities with strong associations. Even the hotel in which I find myself has played host to both Benjamin Franklin and Queen Victoria in its day. I just wish they’d decorated since.APW_5771_2_3 It seems then that I was wrong to underestimate Southampton. There’s more to the place than a football team that witnessed the golden years of Mick Channon.

Near the bendy spring?

The village of Bywell in Northumberland was once a busy medieval market town, yet little remains of the settlement now.  I was told many years ago this was due to the plague, though I haven’t been able to confirm this by any recent research – it may have been cleared by the landowner for agricultural purposes at some point in history. What makes the place remarkable is what does remain.

The medieval market cross still stands atop a stepped plinth but where shops and houses may have crowded together behind it there is now just green fields.  A little way to the north lies the 15th Century gatehouse tower of Bywell Castle, but it is to the South and West of the cross that you may find something extraordinary for separated by no more than a few yards you will find not one, but two churches with Anglo-Saxon origins.

St Andrew’s has the more complete features of the period; the high pointing roof, defensively thick walls, and the best Anglo-Saxon tower in all of Northumberland.  It is no longer used as a church though the building is conserved.  Although improved and extended in the medieval period its origins go back to the mid ninth century.

St Peter’s was the reason for my visit today as I will be photographing a wedding there very soon.  It was probably built even earlier than its neighbour and is believed to be the site where Bishop Egbert of Lindisfarne was consecrated.  There is less evidence of the Saxon church left here, it having been substantially altered in the 13th Century.

Trying to understand the meaning of old names is often a challenge.  I grew up in a part of Sunderland (another Saxon settlement originally) called Fulwell.  Some would tell you that this means exactly what it says; that there was plentiful water there, whilst others would say that it derived from “foul well”, meaning that the water was poisoned or unclean.  Two very different interpretations!

Bywell is not quite so extreme, but good old Wikipedia states that it means “bend in the river”, which would make sense since it is situated precisely at such a location, where as others take it more literally to mean “by the spring”.  Personally I would question the latter  – why would a spring have such significance with the river so close at hand?

Anyway back to St Peter’s where I was meeting bride and groom to look at the possibilities for photography that the church provided.  This would have gone very smoothly… had we not activated the security alarm as soon as we opened the door!  There may not be many people in the area, but they all knew we had arrived!  Just as the alarm reset itself we were joined by Maddy and Joe who will be singing at the wedding.  They rehearsed a couple of songs and were doubtless glad not to be accompanied by the wailing of the alarm.

They will sound great on the day.  Maddy’s voice is as beautiful as her smile, and Joe’s guitar playing is as understated as his!  I can’t wait to hear more.