And now for something completely different…

How ironic that the same sea that was so frustratingly calm yesterday should be so stormy this evening. 

Post Tropical Storm Nadine (there’s a title and a half) has skipped across the Atlantic to douse us in 24 hours of rain and gale force winds.  Not the sort of weather that any sane person would be out and about in.  “Not to worry” said Gill, my wife, “you took two portraits yesterday so you have a blog in hand.”

And yet this daily portraiture can be addictive.  Can I brave the elements beneath the darkening sky to find another fool to photograph and without resorting to flash if at all possible?

You have to try don’t you, so fully waterproofed off I go, trying to compromise the safety of my camera with the need to be ready for that unlikely encounter.

No one on the beach.  Or the lower prom.  The occasional runner on the upper prom, but would you want to stop for a picture when out in soggy running shorts?

Where can I guarantee success?  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs gives priority to physiological needs over safety, so food before comfort.  And so it proves as I stand in wait beside Minchella’s Fish & Chip shop.  A candid, and an angle that gives little of his features away, but it tells a story.  And I did tell Rob that I’d taken it!

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Welcome to McElderry Country?

To the native Celts it was Caer Urfa.  When the Roman’s sought to fortify the mouth of the Tyne with a fort, they called it Arbeia (“place of the Arabs“), a name which could have been reapplied in the 19th Century when a Yemeni community was established there.  To us it’s South Shields.  Or just Shields.

Shields lies about 5 miles north from me, and though dwarfed by nearby Sunderland is the largest town in South Tyneside.  Like much of the region its history is entwined with coal and ships, and like many it has had to face the decline and eventual passing of these industries.  Seeking to reinvent itself as a tourist destination Shields and its environs branded as Catherine Cookson Country, though after 25 years of association with the prolific writer, who was born in Shields and drew on the history of the area for inspiration, the council have recently abandoned the brand.

The sands South Shields 1903
The sands South Shields 1903 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the signposts for Cookson Country have been removed, ostensibly because the gritty realities of her books aren’t something we want to be associated with any longer, and replaced with a sunny beach scene somewhat reminiscent of a 60’s postcard.  Shields is a resort town now and rather like Amityville in Peter Benchley‘s Jaws is keen to play up the sun, sand and sea, and play down the pit heaps and poverty (though thankfully not shark attacks!)

As a brand Cookson wasn’t tied to the seasons, but I wonder, for what percentage of the year do the golden sands of South Shields beach resemble these new road signs?

It’s mid-May, and whilst not high summer, we should be seeing temperatures averaging in the high teens.  My car told me it was 9.5 today. And very wet.

The dunes were deserted, as was the shoreline but for two young lads sprinting for shelter in the greyness.

No one playing football, though three determined individuals did fight the elements.  (You’ll get your balls wet boys!)

An amusement park out of season is a sad and shuttered place, but it seems worse when those same shutters are down at this time of year.

On the plus side you wouldn’t have had much difficulty in finding a table at Minchella’s Ice Cream Parlour!

Amidst all of this dreek misery the show must go on, and so I found Allan updating one of the visitor noticeboards nearby, and his eyes were able inject a little colour into the day.

Still it could be worse; and as Shields-born Python Eric Idle put it:

Always look on the bright side of life…

Alien encounter

In the early 1990’s I recall a certain amount of local press outcry that a short stretch of the north-east coastline was being used as a location for shooting a major Hollywood film.  A strange reaction you might think, since film locations are often celebrated as tourist attractions.

The film was Alien³, for me the weakest story in the Aliens vs Ellen Ripley canon – creating an alien style whippet* (or should that be a whippet style alien) was plumbing the depths, but this wasn’t the reason for the hubbub.  After all, at the time it was assumed that this was going to continue the box office success of its predecessors, though it lacked the directorial might of a Ridley Scott (who was born in this region) or a James Cameron.  No, the reason for the outrage was that Blast Beach at Dawdon was to chosen because it was so polluted that it was felt it looked other-worldly.  The sands there were blackened by the colliery spoils that had been dumped into the sea for a century at nearby Blackhall (appropriate place name!) and other collieries of the Durham coalfield.

The extent of the pollution (which can be seen taking place at the denouement of another celluloid vision, Get Carter) was such that damage to the ecosystem extended offshore for four miles.

Two decades later and a huge clean up operation has tackled a 12 mile stretch of the coastline to regenerate the damaged landscape during which over 2 million tonnes of coal were removed.  It has been a huge effort, but one still dwarfed by the forces of nature that work the local coastlines.  Coastal erosion is commonplace, requiring the National Trust to fence off long stretches of otherwise beautiful cliff-top here in South Tyneside to protect walkers from succumbing to the crumbling cliffs and emerging blow-holes.

So when the combined might of wind and wave are felt it is no surprise that the beautiful beaches of Whitburn and Seaburn are often coated in seaweed torn from its littoral moorings, but this week we have that combined with a heavy layer of black coal dust, though we are a dozen or so miles north of the former dumping grounds.

The rains today have been so heavy that the beaches and cliff-tops have been largely deserted. Bad news for me as a photographer, good news for the man tasked with clearing the sands of the marine debris.  The gardens must be welcoming it too.

Anyway, for most of the day my portraiture prospects were looking as grim as the skies above, but persistence paid off, and another natural force brought a surprise to our coastline.  Standing at Minchella’s ice-cream kiosk were an attractive couple called Stuart and Julie, and when asked if either would be my subject for the day both agreed.  It turns out that Julie originates from here, but they now live in Portsmouth.

Toney Minchella’s recipe must be pretty special to get customers from 350 miles away!

*Thinking about it, perhaps the whippet was an attempt to curry favour with the locals of East Durham, who in my experience love this breed!