Foss & Nonsense

It’s a pity that global warming is the culprit, but something remarkable has happened in the UK and we’ve had a real summer (and it’s still only July at the time of writing).   At the risk of sounding ungrateful, this has had the effect of rendering almost everywhere I’ve been pleasurable and photogenic, with the consequence that my hard drive is bulging and I’m losing track of where I’ve written about and where remains on the to do list!  Buttermere in the Lake District has seen me loitering on its shores day and night twice this month and won’t make it to the blog, though here’s a sample of my time there.

Yesterday for example I went out to recce locations for a forthcoming model shoot, and based on her recommendation I went to a tiny hamlet called Beck Hole.  Actually I went to Goathland because the roads to Beck Hole were closed as a result of a landslip into the same valley where I wanted to go shooting.

Goathland is well-known to many people (not including me) as the location where the TV series Heartbeat was filmed, but you won’t be finding shots of its quaint retro look here because I was after somewhere more secluded.

And so I toiled up and down the slopes of Eller Beck in search of interesting waterside settings and was in need of new energy supplies before I even reached Beck Hole and the tiny 19th century Birch Hall Inn.   Sitting outside with a pint of Black Sheep was idyllic and I could easily have been tempted to another had I not been driving later.  I wonder if I would have felt the same had it not been a glorious summer’s day though.

In any event the restorative powers of a pint of bitter and dappled sunshine were enough to persuade me to try the opposite bank, where I saw both the scale of the landslip and the mountain rescue volunteers practicing for the worst should there be a repeat.    Upstream I went until I found exactly what I was looking for, a collection of boulders that would add interest to my shoot and provide contrast to the soft fragility of Mischkah, the model I’ll be shooting.

I also found Thomason Foss, or as it is tautologically described on the Ordnance Survey map of the area  Thomason Foss (Waterfall).  As any good Viking will tell you, a foss IS a waterfall, and of course this part of the country was once home to Norse settlers.

It may not have the drama of its numerous Icelandic cousins but it will do very nicely as a backdrop for my shoot.

Of course there’s every chance that normal British conditions will reassert themselves and it will be too cold and wet on the day we have booked.  Just as well Mother Nature agreed to pose for me in the meantime.




When you visit a museum that incorporates items of military history such as Les Invalides in Paris, or less romantically the Royal Armouries in Leeds, then you’re likely to be overwhelmed by the sheer volumes of weaponry and armour on display there, and picture huge forces of well prepared men whose equipment glinted in the morning sunlight on the day of a great battle.

But think about this for a moment.

Many of the “landed gentry” of England were raised in status as thanks for their support in such conflicts, and whereas they may have had the wealth to furnish their men with purpose made armaments once they had achieved some status, when they first committed themselves to one side or another in say the English Civil War, they were probably farmers with a small force of labourers who had no choice but to fall in with their employer or face financial ruin. (Historians please correct me if I’ve got this wrong!)

One such family who lived in North Yorkshire were the Pennymans, and although they bet on the wrong side during the time of Henry VIII by supporting a Catholic protest against the reformation, they were firmly on the side of Royalty in the century that followed.  As reward for this, one branch of the family were given the status of Baronet by Charles II and took up residence in Ormesby, which is now part of Middlesbrough.
In the years since then the Baronetcy died out and the estate diminished (the stable block was given over to the horses of Cleveland Police) but members of the Pennyman family continued to live there so consequently the house feels like a family home to a large degree, albeit one with some rather splendid plasterwork.

There is a real surprise in store however, and one of the National Trust’s making rather than the Pennyman’s.

Faced with large unfurnished spaces in what had been servants quarters someone decided that the perfect solution would be to install some model railways.  Advertising for donations they were delighted when one of the country’s leading modellers was persuaded by his daughter to donate his entire layout, and so the house contains a miniature England in gentler times when milk was still delivered in churns and before Beeching savaged the rail network.
Model trains were never my thing, but you can’t help but be impressed by the craftsmanship that was put into this recreation over 35 years.  It seems there are easier ways of acquiring land than entering into a civil war.

Adventures in Modern Photography Part II

So what’s so special about Port Mulgrave that I should risk life and limb to reach it? (An exaggeration I know, but I could easily have turned back.)  That’s a question that would have been very easy to answer 150 years ago when the little port was a very different place to now, as can be seen from this old image.

In the mid 19th Century, local landowner Sir Charles Palmer began mining for ironstone on his land (this being the same area as the workings I visited a couple of years back).  With that mine being so close to the coast he very quickly established a complex of ramps, piers and staithes that enabled him to load the ore straight onto waiting ships.  Archive images show at least four could be loaded at any one time and so the port soon became a very busy establishment.  Fifty years or so later and it was redundant as deposits were worked out and a more productive mine was established that could ship its output from the much larger port of Whitby nearby.

The entrance to the mine, now sealed up for safety, is still visible behind some of the vegetation that gave me so much trouble getting onto the beach, but there’s little evidence of the rest of the workings.  The northern pier was deliberately blown up by the army in WWII as a barrier to German invasion; the southern pier has fallen prey to natural forces.  Even so the fragments make for some interesting marine photographs, as do the rusting engines scattered amongst the rubble; this is a coastline with wrecks aplenty, including of course the Admiral Von Tromp further south at Saltwick Bay.

No, the real attractions of Port Mulgrave were onshore.  Beyond the high water mark is a remarkable collection of fishermen’s shacks which show off a great deal of creativity on the part of their owners.  They do raise a question however.  Since none of the boats dotted about on the beach actually looked seaworthy, what do the owners of these boltholes come here for?  The challenge of maintenance?  An escape from home?  A place for male bonding?

Most visitors come here for another reason (though I had the place to myself when I was there) and one that doesn’t immediately become apparent.  I often photograph the coloured patterns and random juxtapositions of rocks at the coast, and there was plenty here to stimulate.  Look more closely at those patterns and it becomes clear that they are not so random after all; they are the product of evolutionary and geological forces that have been at work for millions of years.  Port Mulgrave is a leading beach for finding fossils, and arguably the best in North Yorkshire.  I’m no fossil hunter but once I started looking more closely at the broken shales I found more and more interesting geology.

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Finally in answer to the other question I posed yesterday…



Adventures in Modern Photography Part I

Whenever one of my photographs has received any sort of special recognition on the site ViewBug, I am asked to complete a short biographical questionnaire about the image and my approach to photography, and one of the questions asked is:

What do you carry in your camera bag?


I must confess that I find the question a bit of a pain to answer, because apart from my camera body and two “go to” lenses the answer to the rest is “it depends”.  If I’m shooting people I may opt shallow depth of field, whereas if I’m heading out doors a wide-angle could be handy.  Wildlife may need more zoom so time to pack a teleconverter.  Shooting on a beach?  Take the “snowshoes” that fit the tripod so it doesn’t sink into the surface or collapse, and so on.  I have what amounts to a plastic bag that would enable me to submerge the camera into the waves or rock pools.  Never used it.

Gisborough on a snowier day?

For my most recent shoot though, there were more important considerations.  My plan was to shoot a nearby abbey at sunrise, drive to Staithes where I would walk part of the Cleveland Way before a short detour down onto a beach and then back to my car via a cup of tea and a sandwich in the small town.  Nothing particularly challenging there yet I wish I’d been better equipped.

I arrived at Gisborough Priory at about 6.45am.  I knew that it adjoined the small church in the town of Guisborough (different spelling) and didn’t anticipate any difficulty in making my way to the one wall that still stands.  First mistake.  There was a wall around the ruin, for though only one wall still stands, enough remains at ground level for English Heritage to seek to maintain it and therefore you can only visit during opening hours.  Hardly conducive to shooting a sunrise when you can’t get onsite until 10.00am.  The solid metal doorway embedded in the wall was firmly locked too.  Further along there was an emergency entrance with a wooden gate and pointed wooden palings.  It was low enough to lift that camera bag and tripod over, but just too tall to step over without injury on those wooden points.  Would there be some purchase where the fence met the wall?  No, and besides which I’d be trespassing if I entered.  Did I find a way in despite my lack of ladders, ropes or crampons?  I couldn’t possibly comment.

The church clock chimed for 7.00 as I put my gear back in the car and left for Staithes.  But then church clocks are often inaccurate and this one seemed to be well adrift of reality.

And so onto my coastal stroll.  The profile of my walk shows it wasn’t a long one so I was wearing walking shoes rather than boots but being winter I had lots of layers.  Layers which I regretted as I ascended those steep climbs with 12kg of that camera bag, but was glad of when standing on wind blasted cliff tops.  All the same once again I was badly prepared for what faced me.

The paths along the route were muddy; and this wasn’t a problem as I began my walk because the ground was hardened by the sub-zero temperatures overnight.   The rains responsible for that mud were to through me a new challenge when I reached my objective at Port Mulgrave however. There was a sign across my path advising that the route was closed due to landslip.  No matter I knew from my map that there was an alternative so followed the road a little further and joined that.  Soon I encountered another of those signs, but at a point where the track diverged so naturally I followed the branch that bore no warnings.

There was still lots of mud here, but also patches of bracken which seemed to offer a firmer footing, though that was

undermined by the trip wires of briar that snagged feet and clothing.  Grabbing at bushes and small trees to stabilise myself when sliding or pitching forward from the long trailing bramble stems around my feet soon left me with torn gloves and flesh.  Most of them were thorns.  I’d neglected to include chain mail among my layers.

Part of the way down I wondered whether it was even possible to proceed further and stopped to shoot the bay from above, before carefully packing my gear way again in case of fall.  That was enough to convince that there was a way for there was smoke rising from one of the shacks in the small bay.  I recall from a brief dalliance with orienteering some decades ago that this sort of terrain is called “fight”.  I was participating without weaponry.
I eventually emerged from the undergrowth directly behind one of the shacks where no path existed, but as I worked my way around to a more open space its occupant emerged to hear me express my disbelief at a broad route upwards, roughly stepped with large stones.

“I wouldn’t bother with that on the way back up.” he told me.  “The mud’s so deep it’ll come over the top of your boots.”

He was right of course, but thanks to planks, fixed ropes and a point where the slope had an embedded wooden ladder of sorts I was glad that I ignored his advice on the way back.  As I reached the top I had to step over a small barrier.  It bore one of those signs that advised me of the path closure.

Were my trials and tribulations worth it?  I’ll share some images in my next post to help you decide.


The Air on the Gare

Having written recently about the man-made extension to the mouth of the Tees behind Redcar steelworks (South Gare), I felt in the interests of balance that I should venture across the river to its northern counterpart.
The area directly north of the Tees mouth features two nature reserves, and having been freshly inspired by my daughter Megan’s discovery of Xavi Bou’s Ornitographs, it seemed a promising location for capturing birds in flight; perhaps with the interesting background of a sunrise over the industry of the area.

Of course these things never go to plan do they?
The first site I visited was Seal Sands, where I soon found the path that would lead me past a couple of hides along Greatham Creek to an area where seals were a dead certainty.

The path was closed for constructing flood defences.  To be fair one of the hides was still accessible, but there was another factor in play.  A thick layer of freezing fog that obscured anything at distance, including the rising sun 93 million miles away.  A few ducks, a couple of geese and a seagull swam by, though the eery calls of curlew made it clear that more interesting quarry was enjoying my failure.

A backdrop for Brooke Shaden?

So onto North Gare, a spit of land built in the same way as its southern neighbour (slag from the steelworks) that nature had clothed with drifting sands and dune grasses around a curving bay known locally as The Blue Lagoon.  Populated by lapwings, curlew, redshank and wigeon this might have been my chance to emulate Signor Bou but I quickly realised that some knowledge of likely flight paths was required in order to anticipate with appropriate camera settings.  Maybe next time I go then!

I left the birds on their patch of grassy common and traversed the inevitable golf course towards the sea and that lagoon.  The copious fog rendered it anything but blue, but then it occurred to me that I might just be missing the point.  Iceland’s blue lagoon is known for its steaming waters as much as its colour and today the fog emulated that effect.  What’s more the Icelandic original features as it’s backdrop the geothermal plant that creates the warm waters as a by-product.

Here we have the shadow of Hartlepool Nuclear Power station, the decommissioned Brent Delta oil rig which is slowly being scrapped and the steelworks across the river.  Everything was in place except the warming waters.  Instead the sands around the lagoon were coated in frost.
In this area where iron and steel were once the lifeblood it seems I had unsurprisingly encountered irony!

Glutton for Punishment

One of the advantages of living on your own is the freedom to indulge in whims.

This why only a couple of weeks after my unsuccessful attempt to find a beautiful sunrise over a frost covered Whitby I was setting my alarm for another 5.45 start, this time to try the coastal hamlet of Staithes.


I’ve been here before in the company of “one who got away” and so the town’s cobbled alleyways had nothing new to offer me beyond their emptiness so early in the morning, and consequently I found myself gingerly picking my way through brambles and briars on a hilltop called Cowbar Nab. Though owned by the National Trust I’m guessing they don’t want to give visitors encouragement as it’s predominantly a seabird colony.

Down below in the harbour I could see I wasn’t the first here. A man leaning over his tripod was presumably shooting the dockside buildings including the Cod & Lobster in the glow of the lamps that are dotted through the little town. No matter I was in good time for my objective; to see a sunrise breaking over the hills bathe the rooftops in warm, golden-hour light.

Instead my vantage point proved the perfect place to watch the clouds coalesce over those same hills so that any hope of seeing that golden light was completely extinguished. I know that you should never leave a sunrise too soon and so was patient enough to catch a trace of colour through the rain veiling the horizon, and again through the occasional fissures in the cloud but this wasn’t the scene I envisaged. I shot dozens of images but know all along that it would be question of choosing only one from among so many that differed only slightly as I tracked the light moving to the right.

Satisfied there was no more to be achieved I made my way down to the town in the vain hope of finding something interesting.  It’s hard to believe now looking at the handful of vessels that shelter behind the harbour walls or further up the Staithes Beck, but in the early part of the last century there were about 80 fishing boats operating here.

I reached the spot where my fellow photographer had stood earlier and tried a couple of long exposure images.  That’s when those clouds burst. First with rain, but then with hail driving from the North Sea.

One of the disadvantages of living on your own is the freedom to indulge in whims.

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.