Early Eccentric

Just a few weeks after my visit to Hexham and I find another great church with 7th century origins.  From the side elevation Ripon Cathedral even shares a similar look due to the squat tower at the centre, though once you understand the history of the building then you’ll understand that there was no plan that produced this.

The two churches do share origins though – both were projects of St Wilfrid, inspired by the basilicas he had seen in Rome.  Like Hexham he made use of nearby Roman masonry (in this case from Aldborough), and like Hexham the crypt survives beneath the medieval church.  Like Hexham, Wilfrid’s church here was adopted as a site to build a major centre for pilgrimage by the Normans and it is here that the stories converge significantly.

Roger de Pont l’Évêque, who was Archbishop of York in the mid 12th century began the rebuilding, but it’s clear that he was no engineer.  His insistence that the crossing (the point where the transepts, nave and choir meet) be directly above St Wilfrid’s crypt was a poor decision as it meant that the east end, the focal point of the cathedral had to be constructed on sloping ground.  The scaffolding present on the day of my visit amply demonstrated this fact centuries later.

The problem took a dramatic turn in 1280 when the eastern facade and half of the choir collapsed.  Disaster at the time but fortuitous in some ways.  The great west end is one of the best examples of Early English architecture,  but the loss of more of the same means the church also features a new altar window in the style known as Decorated.

Less than 150 years later and the central tower collapsed, ostensibly due to an earthquake, though this isn’t a seismic hotspot.  I’m no expert but surely subsidence is more likely.  Fifty years after that and the nave walls were replaced (Perpendicular was in fashion now).  Consequently there’s no uniting style, but instead you have a collection within (and without) a single structure.

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I noticed something else once I ventured inside.  Attempting to get a shot of the length of the building I was struggling to align key features in my photograph, and for good reason.  For one thing the pillars supporting the great Norman arch at the end of the nave are asymmetrical as you can see below, but more importantly, beyond the rood screen the choir runs slightly to the left.  Another consequence of the site topography?  It would be easy to assume so but I raised the matter with one of the cathedral official to check.

She told me that this was a common feature in church construction.  (Really?  How come I’d never noticed this elsewhere?)  She backed this up by saying that because the cruciform design of a church recalls Christ’s execution, the slight deviation in the line represented the tilt of his head to one side as his life ended.  Was she right? I don’t know but it’s a pretty plausible explanation.


Good things come to those who wait

In a recent conversation with my daughter Megan about the autumn foliage she had remarked that I should have plenty of opportunity to see this along the riverside in Durham, for in the days when she came to school here, she often noticed the trees as she crossed the river at Elvet.

My route in and out of the city rarely takes me here though so it seemed unlikely that I’d be there with camera in hand at the right moment when the leaves were sufficiently transformed, but before the autumn winds had plucked them from branch and twig.  As I was working from home today I felt virtuous enough to have a short burst of exercise before I began and so took a short cycle ride to the very spot that she had recommended and to be honest I was a little disappointed.  The light wasn’t right and whilst there was plenty of turning foliage it still seemed all too green, and whilst I took a couple of shots up and downstream from one of the numerous boat houses I didn’t really have much hope of finding anything useful.

I had already stowed my camera away and was remounting my trusty steed when I glimpsed a brace of clouds above me each bearing the slightest brush stroke of a dusty pink.  Nice, but not enough to make a decent image from, but then I looked down again at the waters which had donned similar raiment in tribute to their celestial neighbours.APW_0232

APW_0293-EditBy the time I resumed position by the water the pink had already taken on a more golden hue, but none the matter.  Deliberately underexposing to maximise colours and silhouettes I fired away until I thought I had sufficient.  I resumed my journey until I met an old friend given interest by the low lighting.  Much better than my torchlit plans would ever have produced.

Turning away from the beast and suddenly the green leaves around me had taken on a different colour altogether.  The rising sun was bathing everything in beautiful soft golden light that accentuated every yellow pigment in the trees and in the masonry of Durham’s magnificent Norman heritage which rose above them.  APW_0304_5_6

It was a perfect morning which unsurprisingly filled my head with an old jazz standard

Softly as in a morning sunrise

The light of love comes stealing

Into a newborn day

Softly As In A Morning Sunrise lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II


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.



At the moment it feels like that whenever it snows, it follows that I have a journey to make across the Pennines, and this usually means the A66, a road which has snow gates to prevent traffic from using it when the weather really deteriorates.  I recall a journey nearly 20 years ago before the gates were in regular use when a lorry jacknifing in front of me resulted in the road being closed and the police turning me back the way I had come to take a detour which added another 90 minutes to my journey.

Luckily this year, despite the white stuff being a regular companion on the moors, I’ve not had any problems in getting to or from my destination in the west.

I’ve travelled the A66 more times than I can count over the years, visiting former in-laws on the Cumbrian Coast, attending meetings or delivering training in Lancashire or beyond, but most frequently to visit the beautiful Lake District, but whatever the reason for my visit, one of the landmarks that bring interest to the journey has been the jagged remnants of Brough Castle.  Perched on a small hill the remaining walls are often silhouetted against mist or sunset, and so today I set off in hope that they would provide some good images if I stopped there today.

In all my travels along the route, I’ve never visited the castle before, so I was unsure how accessible it would be, but once parked among the charming cottages in the centre of the village that neighbours the structure it was just a short walk to find the castle open to visitors with free access.  This wasn’t enough to attract the crowds however.  I had the place entirely to myself.

To begin with I wasn’t sure how I was going to come up with anything dramatic.  I would love to have shot with a wide-angle lens and polarising filter to bring drama to the skies, but I’m still waiting for my insurers to replace the lens recently damaged during one of my beach shoots.  I was restricted therefore to a 50mm prime, which for the non photographers means it is neither wide-angle nor telephoto and lacks any zoom option so often useful in framing an image.

The castle is surrounded by a ditch and earth ramparts, and as I skirted around these I initially suspected that I would fail to find anything with impact.  Even the keep, riven open not by Scots gunpowder but by subsidence during years of neglect was difficult to frame in an interesting way with the equipment at hand.  I gave it my best shot (excuse the pun) and then climbed the banks to enter the bailey, at which point the sun decided to make its presence felt.

It was not yet the “Golden Hour” but the solar light was seasonally low in the sky so I was presented with deep shadows contrasting strongly with beautiful warm tones from the reddish colour of the masonry.  That was the only warmth on offer, for despite the sunshine the temperature guage was sitting firmly on the fence between freezing and thawing.  The wind chill however left the outcome of that contest in no doubt.  It was lip-splittingly cold.

Those who manned this fortification have my admiration for this exposed setting must rarely feel welcoming.  Although the castle was established by the Normans, it occupies a site where a much larger Roman fort (Verteris) was located, probably from the time of Agricola.  It’s location makes perfect sense strategically, overseeing a critical cross-country route, but on a day like to day you might have wondered if that was enough!  The original Roman troops garrisoned here were Thracian.  I wonder how much of a contrast to their native Turkey they found Brough.

As the cold continued to bite I understood why I was so fortunate to have sole occupancy of the castle, though not quite as luxurious as Lumley.  No chance of a portrait today, unless you count a cheesy selfie using timed shutter release.

Watering Hole

Note to self; summer solstice long gone, days getting shorter. Considerably, it seems.

Worked all day at a new piece of training, fed, watered and out in search of a portrait at 19.52. Sunset time 20.09.

With conditions that could only be described as squally, there weren’t many options to speak to someone about a picture before the light was gone. I wasted valuable time walking down to the shoreline only to be warned by the woman’s dog not to venture any closer.

Behind me a man who I had no hope of catching multi-tasked running for cover whilst battling to regain control of a coat that flapped and snapped in his wake.

A group of coloured blobs in the distance could have been a fanatical pack of boot campers, but I wasn’t headed their way. This was not a night to be on the beach. This was a night to be in the pub.

Which is a problem these days, for the institution referred to as the “heart of England” by Samuel Pepys, is in sad decline. Until recently inns, ale houses, taverns, and other variations of the pub were closing at a rate of 52 a week. Now that has slowed to 12, but that’s still a drastic number.

One of those still open was across the road from me. The Promenade, as it is now, formerly the Henry VIII, came up trumps and I met Norman on his way to a taxi. Is it my memory or was this place called the Norseman in my formative years?

In the time it takes to recross the road the boot campers had disappeared into the night. And who could blame then while there’s still a pub to go to?

Overseas visitors

The North Sea coastline is sparsely populated for much of its course and consequently has been an attractive landing spot for invasions from mainland Europe. The Angles, Jutes and Saxons that rushed to Britain to fill the void left by the collapse of the Roman Empire supplanted much of Celtic culture (the Celts being earlier invaders themselves).

Then came the Norsemen, vikings who struggled for supremacy over Britain for a couple of centuries, giving us a Danish King (Canute), and a potential Norwegian monarch in Harald Hardrada, who was defeated at Stamford Bridge by Harold Godwinson. Weakened by this Harold went on to face the Norman invasion across the English Channel and the rest, as they say, is history.

For the thousand years that have followed we have been free of further naval incursion, though we had our moments when the Spanish Armada reached our shores and more recently when in 1940 German forces planned Operation Sea Lion.  The precautions we took against this last threat are still visible up and down the coast in artillery platforms, tank defences and pillboxes. One of the houses in Whitburn still incorporates a gun embrasure in its garden wall.

Nowadays the threats to national security don’t emanate from Europe; we’re told to be on the alert against Islamist threats to our infrastructure, while the cultural invasion of America continues in our headphones and on our TV and cinema screens.

During another extremely low tide this morning, when the fishing boats were left high and dry, another vessel came ashore.  I spotted some kayak anglers for the first time a few weeks back, but today a lone figure dragged his boat ashore.  It hadn’t been the most productive of days, but I spotted a couple of beautifully iridescent mackerel in a compartment to the stern.

His name was Norbert, a name that in this country conjures up images of a World Cup winning footballer with no front teeth; the inimitable Nobby Stiles.  Ironic given that this Norbert was German.

This was no invasion landing though – Norbert had launched here, paddled about a mile offshore and fished from there.  I can imagine that you must have a totally different perspective on angling from the very surface of the water, and the paddling gives a different dimension.  All the same the hundreds of pounds of investment for one of these craft and the ancillary equipment required to use it safely surely need more than a couple of mackerel in repayment!