Class in a Glass

A long weekend.

So it rains.


J and I had planned a stroll along the seaside, maybe with a spot of kite-flying too to pander to our competitive instincts, and when we were ready to go it was still bright and dry.

When we parked our car it was still bright and dry.

But then we reached the coast, and the heavens opened.  Ever optimistic we stopped for a coffee to allow the clouds to pass, which they did… to make way for larger and even more generous clouds.  Just as well I’d forgotten the kite!

But what to do?  The National Glass Centre has undergone a bit of recycling since I last visited, and Jane has never been so a solution was at hand, and a dry one at that.

Of course we couldn’t take shelter immediately; the signs on the roof request that you “Please walk on the glass”, which means a stroll on the roof to test the mettle of anyone with vertigo, for amongst the more traditionally made panels are sections of reinforced glass that offer views of the restaurant below and reflections of the sky above.

The highest point affords some shelter so we stopped to take in the river view before exploring the interior.

A new gallery offered the chance to view the work of three artists working in glass, though it was Mexican brothers Jamex and Einar de la Torre who were the most memorable, though not in a good way!  That’s not a criticism of their craft, but their subject matter is curiously disturbing; the butterflies that we spotted on entering the building were revealed to be patterned with human eyes upon their wings and bodies formed from identical Crucifixions.  Nevertheless the degree of detail was inevitably absorbing.untitled-2

Of course there was light relief at hand too; the rippling backdrop to some of the displays provide a chance for a bit of Hall of Mirrors type distortion.

Down to the ground floor and you have the inevitable shop and restaurant offering, but also the chance to see some artists at work.  The work of glass blowing and large-scale sculpture might feature here later in the year, but a craftsman producing miniatures of the Angel of the North at fairly high-speed attracted several spectators.


X-Men: First Class
X-Men: First Class (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So a worthwhile afternoon after all, but that shiny roof still had possibilities.  Having seen the latest X-Men film only days before, J’s blue outfit and red hair were always going to be reminiscent of Mystique, so here is our take on the X-Men First Class poster!


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Both sides now

The mouth of the River Wear is a place of contrasts.  On the south bank; the docks and quays of the Port of Sunderland, a commercial port providing berthing, loading and repair services for a variety of vessels like this Japanese multi-purpose heavy-load transport ship Kurobe.

The north bank is a more relaxed place, home to a campus of the University, an Anglo-Saxon church, the National Glass Centre and the marina with its Marine Activities Centre.I love to stroll around here and enjoy the sights and sounds, though I am puzzled as to who owns the dozens of boats; trawlers, inflatables, yachts, canoes etc., that are moored here, because I only seem to ever see a very small number of them in use, by which I mean actually leaving the marina.  I’m sure some  are like floating garden sheds, a male drinking refuge, rather than actively functioning vessels.

Here there are always possibilities; abstract patterns of light and water waiting to be photographed.

Here art imitates life imitates art.

And alongside the boats?  (Apart from an anamorphically projected door carved out of a wall of rock)

Well what else would you expect to find here but a hairdresser and an aromatherapy studio – just what every seafarer needs!  The coffee shop does well too, especially on such a fine August morning.  I wonder if Fiona was headed there after walking her dog?

Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now

Mesopotamia to Monkwearmouth


Something we largely take for granted; a material superseded by plastic in many uses, but nevertheless an important part of our lives.  Though naturally occurring glass was believed to have been traded in neolithic societies for its ability to produce a sharp cutting edge, glass making can be traced back to the cradle of civilisation.  Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and some of the lands that border it) can be shown to have produced glass over 5,500 years ago.

In that time frame the introduction of glass making to Sunderland (which I described in an earlier blog) seems relatively recent although it was 1500 years ago). Nevertheless it became the most important industry on Wearside after ships and coal, particularly when the famous “Pyrex” brand of cookware was made here at the James A Jobling glassworks.

Many of our uses of glass are obvious, but some we never notice.

The skylight that illuminates an underground toilet is walked over by those oblivious to its existence. 

The bulb that lights the lighthouses, the mirrors that reflect it and the lenses that focus the light are replicated in the camera and flash unit that captures the image. 

In truth it’s very translucency adds to its anonymity – we just look right through it.

Every house, every car, even every CD in every car, relies on glass, and yet despite our continuing need for the material the industry in Sunderland is no more, like so much of this country’s manufacturing, a victim to lower labour rates in a global economy.

The National Glass Centre continues to make and display glass, though from an artistic perspective rather than commercial; it is part of the University of Sunderland now.

I met a friend for coffee in the restaurant there today; the quirkily named “Throwing Stones”, as its glass walls and roof make it a lighter and airier space on an otherwise grey and rainy day.  We were served by Zainab, whose Arabic name, according to some sources, means “a flower of the desert”.

The name brought to mind the Sudanese journalist Zeinab Badawi

GPDRR2011 - Day 1

who would certainly fit this description, but then the EastEnders character Zainab Masood (played by Nina Wadia) who might be considered more cactus like!

I’m pleased to say that this Zainab was more like the former!

It’s just a rumour that’s been spread around town*

The City of Sunderland grew out of the merger of three separate settlements of Anglo-Saxon origin, although the fishing village that originally bore the name wasn’t officially recognised until a century after the arrival of the Normans.  The name Sunderland probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon word soender, meaning to part or separate, and refers to the gorge carved by the River Wear as it reaches the sea.  (The other two settlements were Monkwearmouth, site of a monastery since 674 AD, and Bishopwearmouth, founded in 930 AD when King Athelstan donated the land to the Bishop of Durham)

The first Wear Bridge in what was then a small town, was built in 1796 and was a catalyst in the development of the community.  The present bridge is much more recent having been built in the 1920’s.  Most people who cross the bridge will do so without noticing that there is a set of steps on either side giving direct access to the riverside.  Those on the south side are gated and locked, but on the north side there is still access.  In the heyday of shipbuilding this stairway would have seen a lot of use, giving easy access to what was North Sands shipyard.  Nowadays it probably sees more graffiti artists, though I was surprised to see these lads dismount to carry bike and fishing tackle down, instead of the easier option of cycling slightly further downhill to the riverside.

Before beginning my first “real” job, I worked in the shipyards for about three months after leaving school.  I spent most of my time at Deptford further upstream, where the vessels first took shape, though I also visited North Sands, where they were moored for fitting out after the initial launching.  The SD14 cargo ships designed and built in Sunderland were produced on an almost monthly basis for 20 years.

All of that is gone now; the great concrete base of one of the cranes supports a sculpture representing the regeneration of the area.  Etched into the ground, an anamorphic projection reveals the shadow of the crane that once stood in that spot.


This area of heavy industry is now given over to education and culture;  the former being the St Peter’s Campus of Sunderland University, the latter in the modernist architecture of the National Glass Centre

This is an appropriate location for the Centre; Sunderland has a long tradition of glass- making which goes back to that monastery established in 674.  Part of the design of the building required specialist glaziers to be brought from France and this was when glass making was introduced to Britain.

Most of the visitors to the Centre probably give that little thought, being drawn primarily by the quirkily named “Throwing Stones” restaurant, and the glass roof which you are encouraged to walk upon.  Those not of a nervous disposition can look down onto the diners two stories below.

Here it was that I met the Scots trio of Sarah, Allan and Bill just as they were leaving the building.  Whilst I prefer solo shots I saw an opportunity to group them using the ramp to bring them close enough to leave no gaps in the composition. I fired a half a dozen frames as they laughed, but in one of them I caught this expression from Bill which I felt deserved to be processed as today’s main image.  I trust his friends will forgive me.

* Lyric fromShipbuilding written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer, recorded by Robert Wyatt.

Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding