Keeping You Waiting

Before I reach the “big reveal” about Hexham, I thought I might string you along with a couple of posts about other places in town, places that will take us a little further back in history than the Georgian and Victorian buildings that dominated my previous post.  Two of these are pretty obvious targets so let’s begin with the third.

Like me, most visitors will park in the very confusing Wentworth car park next to the town’s leisure centre where if you park in a bay painted with a red outline you must display a disk which will allow you a limited amount of free parking.  Find a blue bay, and the same disk allows you to park for a little longer.  Get there early enough and you may find a white bay and be able to park disk and payment free without limit!  Whatever your colour preference if you then start up Wentworth Place you’ll pass a whitewashed building on your right.  Its bright decor might fool you into overlooking its antiquity, but this is the 17th century Old Grammar School, though there may be earlier masonry reused in its construction.

A few years ago it was rumoured to be becoming a hotel, but that doesn’t seem to have taken place and it was marketed as a private dwelling more recently.

Near to the school building is a place where you wouldn’t have wished to dwell.  Built in 1330 this plain rectangular block is an imposing sight even if not very visually stimulating.  The Archbishop of York ordered its construction and it is the Old Gaol.  It now houses some reconstructions of medieval prison life, though the original interior is largely lost because the interior was converted into offices in the 19th century… for use by lawyers!

Naturally you wouldn’t want to keep the residents of this structure too close so it is positioned outside the old town walls which incorporated our next building, sitting astride one of the main gateways into the town.  This is Moot Hall, a term from Anglo-Saxon referring to a place where elders would meet to make decisions; an early council.  Though there was an earlier hall here that was built at a similar time to the prison, the current structure is though to date from around the early 15th century.

Through the gateway beneath the hall you enter the town’s market square, where a covered 18th Century market building called The Shambles awaits.  This being market day however it was barely visible, though the shot below reveals a little of it as well as our ultimate objective.

For now though, let’s just enjoy another angle on the Grammar School.

Hexham Old Grammar School (17th C)

Farnely? (Farne Islands)

Three years ago I posted this about an abortive trip to Seahouses on the Northumberland Coast.

With the weather still mild for the time of year, I decided to give it another go, and this time met with success.  Of a sort.

Seahouses always strikes me as a bit of a strange place; you arrive onto a main street, with increasing numbers of businesses as you approach the coast.  You make a turn at the end of the street… and it’s over.  You’re leaving.  In truth the place is a fishing village, but over the years it has morphed and evolved and feels like a busy town at the height of summer.  The reality is that the small harbour is more of an appendage than a location worthy of its own name.

The original settlement was at North Sunderland, or more accurately Sunderland – so named for being the lands south of Bamburgh, home of the Northumbrian Kings.  Sunder meaning “south” in this sense, but with the growth of another town of the same name in County Durham, this became North Sunderland to avoid confusion, though how the adoption of an oxymoron avoids confusion….?

This was primarily an agricultural village, until the 18th Century when a small harbour was developed at the rocky coast and soon fishermen and fishwives began to operate from here.

English: Lime kiln at North Sunderland Harbour...
English: Lime kiln at North Sunderland Harbour, Seahouses This 19th century industrial lime kiln is one of a number along the Northumberland coast. There are other examples on Holy Island and at Beadnall Harbour. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were also lime kilns, conveniently sited alongside the harbour so that their product could be loaded straight onto ships and transported elsewhere in the UK where lime was an important fertiliser.  Those who worked the harbour built houses here and these soon became known as the North Sunderland Sea Houses.  With the boom of herring fishing in the area that took place in the 19th Century, Seahouses became the tail that wagged the dog.

Whether true or not, the town claims to be the place where the kipper was invented, when following a fire in a herring store someone tasted the remnants.  Just down the coast, Craster claims to produce some of the UK’s best, but here in Seahouses they can still lay claim to the oldest smokery._pw_8486

The introduction of quotas to preserve stocks killed the herring fishery, and the production of quick lime in kilns (with its potential to blind those involved in its production) wouldn’t meet any modern safety legislation so you might have expected Seahouses to become completely moribund, but nowadays it prospers through tourism.

It’s just a short distance from long stretches of fabulous Northumbrian beaches, but those who come here can also indulge a love of history (MP Rory Steward described the area as “the centre of European Culture” referring to the flourishing of art and science here in Anglo-Saxon times) or wildlife (the nearby Farne Islands are home to colonies of breeding seabirds through the summer and seals in the autumn).  This is also a coastline with a history of shipwrecks on the rocks around those islands, and a Victorian heroine.  The boats that run trips to and around the islands play a major role in the local economy, the seahouses have become holiday lets.

And so having looked around, it was time for me to board one of those boats.  Posts on the history, the birds, and the seals still to come!



Worth the Effort?

A few years back, when I began blogging, I adopted the name a photogenic world because I believed that we can find beauty in so many places if we open our eyes to it, and therefore it became a challenge to me too to keep finding it.

Initially my posts were via a different site and were largely a vehicle for posting photographs that I took each weekend whilst walking along my local beach, but over the years it has become part soapbox, part diary and part travelogue too, but as I near 1000 posts I’m still finding plenty to photograph.

However, every so often I find myself a little dissatisfied with the quality of the imagery that I post; the concept of capturing things in the world around me being naturally reactive it takes away some of the creative process.  Yes I might think about composition or various technical details to capture what is before me, but I rarely set out to plan a particular outcome.  Yes, I often set out to shoot specific subjects and locations but until I get there often have no idea what I’ll find; my visit to Ely earlier this year being a case in point.  I love some of those pictures, but if returning now would do things rather differently.

The boudoir shoot I did recently was rewarding because it challenged me to be creative with lighting and location in a building I had previously recce’d.  Luxury.

The shots on my ViewBug page have garnered a number of awards from my peers, which is nice but also a little disconcerting when the shot that is gathering awards most rapidly was taken at my first real studio workshop several years ago.  Have I made no progress since then?  (Or is it simple because the shot in question was lit by erotic photographer John Tisbury and features a striking nude?)

I tell you all of this because I had a bit of spare time this weekend with no one to please but myself and so set out to create some real quality.  A single piece of work to stir some pride and banish the frustration that the images here don’t always demonstrate my capabilities.

Which is why I rose at 4.50am this morning, and after breakfast drove some miles to a deserted part of Hartlepool, walked briskly through Spion Kop cemetery (surely interring 26,000 bodies on sand dunes is asking for trouble) and down, inevitably, to a rendezvous with the North Sea, though my timing was intent on capturing the sunrise over the water.

I’d spied a broken pier (piers are magnetic to photographers) on the horizon in between the downpours referred to in my previous post, so wanted to incorporate this into my shot.  Getting to it took longer than anticipated however and so the sky was already lightening by the time I scrambled down the dunes to the deserted sands, where the plan was to shoot long exposure shots that blurred the water to milky whiteness around the  man-made elements, the darkness allowing the appropriate shutter speeds.

High winds and boiling waves weren’t part of my plan however and soon I was back in reactive mode, changing composition to avoid a soaking, lowering my tripod to gain stability and more of the wet sand into the images.  A few shots showed promise so I persevered, shooting the structure and its surroundings for about an hour before the cold in my hands defeated me.

I’d wanted a shot that had the dramatic colour of the rising sun painted across the cloudy skies, or a shot that captured the movement of the water.  I was lucky.  Or creative.

Either way, I got both.



A Harr

UK enjoys a warm end to the Easter weekend

BBC News Website 7th April 2015


Not all of the UK was so fortunate; arriving at Saltburn-by-the-Sea to begin a sunny day by the sea it was clear (unfortunate choice of word) that the plan wasn’t going to be realised when the start of the famous pier was barely visible, never mind the end.

It was cold too; time to add extra layers to the polo shirt that I’d hoped would suffice for the day.

Off then to Staithes, just a short trip down the coast and where there might be distractions from the murky chills.

It’s hard to believe that this tiny fishing port was once one of the largest in the North East, in fact the town’s own website proclaims that it was once the largest.  It seems incredible that the fleet on the Tyne was dwarfed by Staithes, especially as you approach down the steep hill from above and appreciate how few dwellings there are here and what little supporting infrastructure, but that wasn’t always the case.  Evidence remains of a rail viaduct (dismantled half a century ago) that once connected the town to Middlesbrough and Whitby.  All the same, the short walk down the only narrow road leaves you in no doubt as to the town’s history.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say one history, for the town has several.  Captain Cook was once a resident, born in Middlesbrough he developed his love of the sea here, before moving south again to Whitby to join the Royal Navy.  Why the developers of the Assassin’s Creed games chose to give him a Scottish accent is beyond me.

To the left and right of the small harbour are huge cliffs which apart from providing shelter have a story of their own to tell.  The stone under your feet and the towering walls of rock above are full of fossils from the Jurassic period; ammonites being particularly prevalent.  Any fresh rockfall, whilst extremely hazardous, attracts keen geologists and palaeontologists in the hope of new revelations.  Though cold today this was once a tropical lagoon whose sediments are now visible as layer upon layer of shale and mudstone.

Combined with the lugubrious swell of waves whose energy is damped by dense beds of kelp, the fog served to create an otherworldly vista, that were it not for the water would have felt almost lunar.

Not surprising then that mineral mining has also formed part of the industrial heritage hereabouts, but there’s another strand to the story of Staithes.  The jumbled rooftops, the coloured renders, the boats, the ever-changing coastal light…  these are a magnet for visual artists, and so in many ways Staithes has been a smaller echo of St Ives in Cornwall.  The BBC made a children’s TV series here, though the only trace of Bernard Cribbins was in a cutout standee by the lifeboat station.

The Staithes Group were artists who worked in the town in the early part of the 20th Century, and though their time has gone there are still plenty of colourful sights to inspire now, especially in Dotty About Vintage and their adjoining tea room.

Not sure what inspired this in nearby Skinningrove however…

APW_8500_HDRScary as it is, this is just a small detail from a much more extensive whole!

*Harr is a word for sea mist or fog according to a dictionary of the North East dialect.


And the wind cries…

My former spouse was one for frequently bemoaning the weather we experienced on the North East coast;  it was always warmer inland, or drier in the South, that sort of thing.   Personally I loved the coast in all weathers so was happier with my meteorological lot, but even so this was a week in which those in the North and East must surely have been relieved to be here.  Britain has been lashed by storms from the South and West, with homes hit by power cuts after high winds, floods after heavy rains, and lives lost as spectators have been swept out to sea by waves magnified by a combination of high tides and gales.

We’ve had our fair share of rain in our corner of the UK, but have been relatively unaffected by the storms.

If I’m honest, I would have love the opportunity to photograph some of the gargantuan seas, but our shores remained calm.  Nevertheless, my passion for seascapes reawakened by my recent trip up the Northumbrian coastline, I was drawn back to St Mary’s Island, near Whitley Bay.  I’ll blog more tomorrow about the nearby Seaton Delaval Hall that was my main objective, but couldn’t resist the chance to combine sky, sea, and structure while in the area.

Perhaps the wind brought me back.

Somewhere a Queen is weeping,
Somewhere a King has no wife.
And the wind it cries Mary.

Jimi Hendrix – The Wind Cries Mary.

St Mary’s Island
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About a Boy

The novelist Helen Fielding recently caused outrage amongst her fans when it was announced that in her latest book she had killed off one of the main characters of her hugely successful Bridget Jones series.  Bridget was now a widow, having lost her husband five years ago.

Why should this cause such dismay?  The man in question was no ordinary spouse.  He was a Mr Darcy.

By replicating the surname of Jane Austen’s romantic hero, she automatically transferred some of his cachet to her character, albeit that the two are barely alike.  Or were, when confined to the page.  The duo were further conflated when Colin Firth, who in the eyes (and hearts) of many Englishwomen was the quintessential Fitzwilliam Darcy due to his role in a BBC production of Austen’s novel, was cast as Mark Darcy in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary six years later.

That he should have captured the affections of so many was perhaps more due to Firth’s looks and an infamous wet shirt, than to the charm of the character.  Austen’s creation is rude and stand-offish for much of the novel.

I met my friend Nicola who was in the role of agony aunt recently, and finding a walk to be a good vehicle for our talking we set off up the Derwent Valley with her young boxer. The valley is a wildlife haven, particularly noted for its population of red kites which have been successfully reintroduced to the area and so they and other fauna are represented in a series of sculptures that hide amongst the trees.

But our afternoon wasn’t about the kites. It was the utter ebullience of Darcy.  You could hardly call him stand offish!

Natural Beauty

My friend J has been a great support to me over recent months and so yesterday I took her to Alnwick Castle and Gardens as she had never been before.  Each of these in its own right is a feast for the eyes, the grand designs of the Duchess of Northumberland‘s great project always impress, as do the great stone walls and the artworks within them of her family’s home.  Plenty to photograph?  Undoubtedly.  Yet I barely flexed my trigger finger in the gardens, and not at all when we reached the castle.

Why not?

APW_8196Well partly because it might have tested even J’s patience when we were here to enjoy a picnic, but also because the two sites are the stuff of photographic cliché.  They are so beautiful that they have been shot many times before, and unless you find some new angle, or are blessed with fantastic weather and lighting opportunities, you’re going to produce images that have been seen so many times before.  In the case of the castle, it is not only frequently photographed, but is also something of a film star, having appeared not only in the Harry Potter series, but also in an attempted reworking of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court starring Jim Dale which Disney are probably still trying to forget.  I know I am. 

Consequently the few shots I did take, could have been shot anywhere, but at least they weren’t going to be seen on picture postcards any time soon.  The star of the show was this dove, or rather the double act between it and Jane (henceforth “The Dove Whisperer”) for as she began her dove impression one occupant of the dovecote began to respond in kind, and as the Indian Love Call proceeded the bird’s eyes began to close, so I you have need of an avian hypnotist I know just the woman.

The horticultural theme must have made an impression on me though, for when I thought about where to shoot today I was drawn to Durham‘s Botanic Garden, not the carefully manicured and landscaped site that I’d experienced the day before; this is predominantly woodland and meadow, though with a very pleasant formal garden in one corner.  This is not the place to shoot beautiful vistas, it’s about the individual beauty of each specimen and photographically there is much on offer here; contrasts of colour and texture, interesting shapes, intriguing variations of light.  Even the fountains seem more unruly than their Northumbrian counterparts.  The trouble was that I shot so many images that I had difficulty knowing which to include here.  Hard to see the wood for the trees you might say.