Baytown

On the day that Bernardo Bertolucci died, one of the articles I read contrasted his and Marlon Brando’s behaviour on the set of the notorious Last Tango in Paris, with a present day pairing of comparable stature; Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis.  Coincidence of course, but I’d spent a gloomy morning in Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast, where the Victoria Hotel is the setting for the protagonists meeting in Phantom Thread, ostensibly Day-Lewis final film and one written and directed by PTA.

For a film set in the world of 1950’s Haute Couture, the choice of North Yorkshire for the designer’s “place in the country” seemed a strange one (300 miles away?) but perhaps Anderson’s location scouts were concerned with the look rather than the practicality.  I’m pretty sure the film doesn’t say where this location is supposed to be, other than on some wild and windswept coast.  It certainly lived up to the billing when I was there.

Now despite the name, Robin Hood’s Bay has no proven links to Robin Hood.  (How could it when there’s no evidence that he actually existed?)  The locals make little or no reference to archer of Sherwood and in fact refer to the town simply as Baytown or Bay despite the fact that Robin Hood has been part of the name for seven centuries!

There’s been human activity here since the bronze age, but the activities that made the town were nautical; fishing and smuggling, the latter benefitting from that remote location.   In fact this tiny place was economically more important than Whitby in the 17th century.  Perhaps though I should say tiny places, for RHB is a town in two halves; one down by the sea and sheltering behind a solid sea wall, the other atop the cliffs, windswept but safe from stormy seas.

Interestingly the two halves have different personalities.  Originally the lower town was home to the fishermen and smugglers; small houses, stacked tightly on the steep contours either side of the beck that bisects Baytown.  This creates a network of narrow alleyways that were perfect for hiding from excise men or press gangs.  The town’s own website claims that “a bolt of silk could pass from the bottom of the village to the top without leaving the houses”.

In contrast, those who lived on the cliff tops were the sea captains and ship owners.  Men of greater wealth and influence whose houses were larger and spread further apart, but nowadays there has been something of an economic inversion.  Robin Hood’s Bay is now a tourist trap; the smaller dwellings are mostly holiday cottages and second homes, whereas the upper town, being more remote from the beach is less attractive B&B territory, with cafés and bistros.  And that hotel.

 

 

 

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The Art Tardis

This isn’t my first blog about Staithes, the tiny village on the Yorkshire coast that was once home to Captain Cook, and given that it combines a built-in beauty with a shoreline location it doubtless won’t be the last.  Why this time?  Because since 2012 there has been an annual arts festival and this was my first visit.

With a number of creatives living there the town’s art gallery is always worth a visit, but as a space it’s never going to be able handle lots of visitors, and even taking into account the church hall and no less than three former Methodist chapels that would still make for a small-scale affair, albeit one that many villages would be happy with.  Not so Staithes.

The overflow car park!

To draw so much interest over 100 of the cottages in the little town are given over to pop up galleries for a couple of days, and even then the event is oversubscribed with painters, sculptors, silversmiths, potters and more.  There was even a female blacksmith taking part this year (Katie Ventress).

My motivation to be there wasn’t to buy; my walls have plenty of imagery on them already, though a monochrome watercolour by Suzanne McQuade tempted me all the same.  Instead I was there for a bit of inspiration and conversation; after all I’d spent my working week recommending that people who wanted to develop their creativity should associate with other creative people.  Suzanne’s other watercolours were of many of the same coastal scenes that have attracted me in recent years.

In contrast Rob Shaw‘s work in oils or acrylics is robust and dramatic, despite being of many of the same subjects.  His seas are grey and stormy, but in contrast his paintings of Staithes itself are bright and vibrant.

This highlights one of the areas where the artist has an advantage over the photographer; their ability to paint a scene as they would like it to be, unconstrained by the reality of obstructions, light or weather conditions.  I was shooting a lot of black and white this weekend given the flat, overcast day.

Another thing that surprised me was something I’ve long been familiar with as a photographer; duplication of images.  I’m always reluctant to take the “cliché” shot, the image that everyone already has in their portfolio, unless there is some technical challenge involved for me.  Why would I want to produce something that was already in existence?  Given the individual aspects of style I didn’t expect that the same would be a problem for the painter, and yet saw similarly sized images of the same scene, with similar colouring and composition in the galleries of Keith Blessed (in pastels) and Kate Smith (in oils), assuming my memory hasn’t deceived me!

In contrast there was one area where my camera gave me an advantage over the artist.  Portraits.  Shirley Hudson told me how long her works might take and the liberties she might take with colour (with the sitter’s agreement).  I walked out of her display and within minutes had captured multiple personalities.

And if you’re expecting to see examples of the art itself then you’re going to be disappointed.  Pictures of pictures aren’t my thing (unless by Renaissance masters!) and the spaces are often too tiny and packed with people to make this feasible.

There are of course works to see in town that are permanent features, and permanent features that have value in my eyes so I still shot plenty of images that were interesting to this artist’s eye, and to these can be added the wire and willow sculptures of Emma Stothard.

For me of course even the rocks of the breakwater have potential!

Bloodied from the Wreckage

Let’s be  clear.  I’m not seriously hurt.

If you’ve read my recent post about the clothing choices required of a wandering photographer you’ll understand that some shots require the right protective gear, and on this occasion I didn’t have it. So I didn’t yomp across wet sands at low tide. Nor did I continue my drone flight as soon as it became clear that the winds were too strong.

I was back at South Gare for that low tide, because in a small bay near the steelworks lies a wreck.  The wooden ship that met its end here at Brann Sands is sadly nameless; the circumstances of its demise have also been lost in the years that have passed since, so any romantic tales are pure speculation.  The sandy bay is fairly innocuous with no rocky outcrops to explain the vessel’s presence.  With my highly limited maritime knowledge it seems that a vessel grounded on a sandbar might have been successfully refloated at the next high tide, so of course I wanted a look so that I could formulate my own theories.  But not today.

Scanning around the bay I spotted another boat of interest at the far end of the bay.   Though clearly a more recent victim of the sea, this was no more identifiable, the bow having been badly burnt, presumably by some beach revellers rather than as part of the original accident.

I grab a few shots and make my way back to the stretch of sand dunes that separate the bay from my abandoned car, and this is when it gets tricky.   I didn’t take note of my entrance point and now I’m faced with a number of possible routes over the undulating ground, and from memory only one of them is both reasonably direct and relatively clear of the sort of flora that my bare legs would like to avoid.  I don’t find it.

And so I’m treading gingerly through nettles and over brambles when I crest one of the dunes and hear voices.  A good sign that I’m nearing the well travelled route?  Quite the reverse.  The voices belong to a couple who had deliberately left the beaten track and are now having sex as a guy with a camera and a very obvious telephoto lens arrives.

I avoid eye contact and keep walking in a straight line.  Off any track whatsoever and down a steep slope where slow and controlled descent is impossible.  My pale flesh is sacrificed to their privacy.

I hope they had a blanket!


(I returned the following day to capture some of these images – including the drone shot at last!)

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?

Staithes

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.