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.



On the many occasions that I’ve driven to and from Edinburgh, one of the highlights of the route is the stretch just north of Berwick, where the road follows the line of the clifftops and the untamed North Sea is close at hand.  It’s not in the same league as Amalfi’s Nastro Azzurro for drama, but it has some magic all the same.  Then when my journeys took me north by train, the rails ran even closer to the edge and I was able to concentrate on the rocky coves and inlets here.  One in particular caught my attention for the presence of a ruined building perched above the waters.

Luckily there is another route that runs even nearer to cliff’s edge; a footpath that allowed me to indulge my curiosity, and there is much to be curious about.

This stretch of what is known as the Berwickshire Coastal Path includes a nature reserve where peregrines fly (though the low grey clouds that accompanied my visit meant there was little chance for me to see them or them to see prey).  The fulmar nesting in the cliffs are so numerous that they were no compensation.

Those cliffs, and more specifically their geological formation, are historically important.  The sea has exposed a number of patterns in the strata over the centuries, revealing folds in the layers and junctions between different formations.  

In the 18th century a merchant’s son inherited some farms in Berwickshire and was fascinated by these formations (and the fossils within them).  That man was James Hutton, and the theories he published based on what he saw here and elsewhere along the coast were the first steps towards understanding how the crust of the earth was formed.  Hutton was the “father of geology”.

But on to my objective and the ruined house.  This was not part of Hutton’s estate but rather the enterprise of a less esteemed individual.  A coastline like this, with a national border nearby?  This is a location ripe for smuggling.

Further north of here in Eyemouth stands Gunsgreen House, the most audacious statement of ill-gotten gains.  Whilst not quite equivalent to Pablo Escobar’s Naples Estate, Gunsgreen was designed by the leading architect John Adams for the notorious Nisbet family.  The structure here on the cliffs was rather more modest, though built in the same era as Nisbet’s show of wealth and Hutton’s meanderings.

The “cover” that John Robertson used here at the “Smuggler’s Bothy” as it is now known, was that he was running a fishing business, though in fact he was in partnership with a Swedish shipping line in the lucrative business of importing that highly addictive substance… tea!  (Of course the duty on this product was the cause of problems elsewhere in the 18th century)

Down on the shore you can see a net winch and a storage cave which add to the romance, but sadly these are remnants from a later period; when there actually was a fishery among these stones that have been a draw for so many reasons.


Getting Noticed

Is it time for another lighthouse?

Flamborough Head’s position protruding into the North Sea makes it a natural location for providing guidance to passing shipping and transmitting messages along the coast, so the site may have been in use this way for nearly 2000 years.  Some masonry that could have been part of a Roman beacon was discovered in the area along with Roman pottery, though the former was subsequently destroyed by quarrying.

Nowadays the promontory features a fog warning station as well as shiny white lighthouse which peers over the rooftops of nearby houses.  Built in 1806 it operated successfully for 120 years before it was decided to raise the lantern.  You can see where the additional section was inserted still.

But if we’re talking lighthouses and Flamborough Head there is a more historic column to view.  Standing further back from the cliff edge and built on commission from Charles II in 1674 this octagonal tower is believed to be the nation’s oldest surviving lighthouse.

I stress “believed” because recent restoration work found no evidence of carbon or charring that would have been left by burning coal fires on the top.  So what’s the story here?

We know that Sir John Clayton (who constructed this tower) was given permission to build a number of lighthouses around the country by the king… and that’s about it!  There are stories that he intended to build three lights to guide ships around Flamborough and effectively hold them to ransom to give them safe passage.

Other stories say that this was only ever built as a watch tower, though given his royal commission, and the fact that there was a historical precedent for burning coal and/or brushwood here, it would seem lacking in initiative if there had never been plans to keep a fire burning on the top.

But what about the lack of evidence for this?  Some stories claim that Clayton went bankrupt before the tower was ever completed, and this would certainly explain the lack of burning on top.  You’d think though that someone else might have finished the job.  Clearly those passing sailors weren’t stumping up much in tolls.

Something else struck me though.  The Fog station and the new lighthouse are both painted brilliant white, matching the chalk from which the old tower is built.  It makes them highly visible, but then the cliffs on which all of these structures stand are made from the same white stone.  By day and by moonlight surely there was little need for further assistance, and perhaps this is why Clayton couldn’t raise the funds?

Just a thought.




My East Yorkshire adventure continues…

After a good night’s sleep in Beverley it was time for a very scenic journey north and east until I reached the coast and my next objective; Flamborough Head.

Courtesy of Vera Lynn and decades of subsequent WWII nostalgia, most people associate English white cliffs with one particular location, but Dover doesn’t have exclusive claim upon sea-washed chalk.  The song’s writer, Walter Kent, was American, which is why he pictured bluebirds in his lyrics.  Sorry Mr Kent, but they’re not indigenous here.  Still we might stretch a point and assume he meant martins and swallows which do at least have a hint of blue.

Flamborough too has calcium carbonate and birdlife, but here the North Sea replaces the English Channel, a sea that has carved, undermined and pierced the chalk into a variety of shapes and in doing so created a habitat for seabirds.

Before I could explore the avian colonies though I had a decision to make; make my way to the large arrowhead shaped outcrop of land that forms the “head” or to the bays that lie to the north and south.  With so much of my photography this year at sea level I decided to maintain that approach and drove to North Landing; where the steep slipway that once provided the launching point for the local lifeboat still exists and fishing boats in various states of disrepair sit precariously on the slope facing the water.

The birds however were too far away so I climbed up to the clifftops – an area I was reluctant to explore too closely due to the obvious risks of walking on soft rock above active water.

Still, it turned out to be the best place.  When I later visited the South Landing I was able to get closer to the shoreline species, but as soon as I unpacked my camera they were scattered by an enthusiastic bulldog thrilled to be off the leash.  I did at least capture one shot of what I think was a sandpiper.

And so to the clifftops.  I’d come hoping for puffins but not a trace (unless they were amongst the swarms of black shapes gathering and diving out at sea).  Instead I got the inevitable gulls and kittiwakes but lots of razorbills too.  Almost as comical as puffins but without the technicolour bill.

Altogether now:

There’ll be black birds over, the white cliffs of Flamorough…

Oh, and the odd wheatear.

Addiction? Affliction? Or Going With The Flow?

Can I confess something to you?

You might already suspect as much but I think I’m gradually becoming aware of a problem.

I’m taking too many photographs.  The combination of intellectual challenge in planning an image, the excitement of loading my results for viewing onto a larger screen and then the satisfaction of having produced something that I find pleasing to the eye (well my eye at least) is clearly releasing too many endorphins.

I’ve recently been corresponding with an adviser to Durham University about something called “flow”, a term used by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the ultimate state of job satisfaction (though it isn’t restricted to work).  Co-incidentally the man in question, Simon Williams, shares not just my surname, but also my interest in cycling, music and photography!

So I’m blaming flow for the fact that as I walked along the beach this morning I realised that I had at least two blog posts to accompany images from Fleetwood that I haven’t written yet, one from the Berwickshire coastline, half a dozen from various National Trust properties and their surroundings, and three from a Sunday morning at High Force.  And that’s before I think about the remaining blog posts from Genoa which should take me up to the end of the year (at which point I’ll be in Rome and about to start over!).  Somebody board up my doors and throw away the key!!!

The trouble is that I like to photograph almost anything.  And so in the couple of hours that I spent on the beach at Blackhall I was at it again…

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Actually I blame wedding photographer Jasmine Star, who asked where we find inspiration on an Instagram post this weekend.  I had to go looking!

As far as the eye can. Sea.

Abstract panorama from Spurn Lighthouse

There are peninsulas and there are peninsulas.  The narrowness of the fragile spit that links Spurn Head to the mainland means it is easy to stand with water visible on either side of you.  Proceed south and the Head itself is more substantial, but climb to one of the highpoints and you now have a third watery vista ahead where the  North Sea’s salty waters blend with the silts, muds and fresh water that the Rivers Ouse and Trent feed into the Humber.    A sailors playground.

Yet in the 85 miles or so between here and Whitby, the East Yorkshire coastline is believed to have 50,000 shipwrecks, of which the most famous is probably the Bonhomme Richard.  Remarkably this was as a result of a sea battle in the American War of Independence.

Now I’d always assumed that the hostilities were confined to the far side of the Atlantic, but American naval hero John Paul Jones brought the fight to the British and engaged HMS Seraphis.  Though the British ship had the upper hand for most of this single vessel conflict, a falling mast from the Bonhomme Richard crashed into the British frigate’s hold and ignited the gunpowder there.  Most of the other vessels that lie on the seabed here didn’t have such spectacular ends, and fell victim to the rocks and heavy seas that crash against them.

Naturally Spurn has a part to play in protecting mariners and their craft and it does so in several ways.  Let’s begin with the lighthouses since they are my theme for the year.  Two of them.  One raised up, the other living dangerously by dipping a toe into the waters at each high tide.

There are records of lighthouses at Spurn dating back to the 15th century though the present examples are far more recent.  The lower light was originally one of a pair that would be aligned to mark the safe passage, though the original was washed away and this continued to be a problem until 1852 when the present design proved strong enough to survive the forces of nature.  Now the highlight’s days were numbered for 40 years later a single light was brought into service (the current black & white tower).  Nothing remains of the highlight that it replaced but the lower light stands defiantly in the Humber, though with a curious piece of redesign.  The lantern has been removed and replaced with a water tank.

The lights are augmented by another life saver.  Or several.

Spurn Head’s position makes it a good place to establish a lifeboat station to rescue those in difficulty whether at sea or in the estuary, but it’s remoteness and the transient existence of roads and paths from the mainland, renders that same location impractical in the event of “a shout”.  It would take too long to get there even on those occasions when it is possible.  Spurn is therefore home to the only permanently resident lifeboat crew in the UK.  Even with a team permanently at hand there are practical issues.

Their craft are moored on the Humber where the shallow mud flats mean that the high and low water marks are some distance apart.  No use anchoring your vessel after a high-water rescue and then finding it stranded on a mudflat next time you need it.  Instead the vessels stay some distance offshore, and the crew have a purpose built pier allowing them to reach them at any point in the tidal cycle.

Yet another organisation plays a part in the safety of shipping here though.  Another large structure, akin to an air traffic control tower looks out over the river mouth.  And that’s pretty much what they are: Vessel Traffic Services.

So plenty of help for the sailor.  But the lighthouse is surely the most elegant.

Fort & Folly

Humber Estuary

Spurn Head Spit may now be significant as a natural habitat, but this sliver of shifting clay has military value too.  The Humber gives access to a number of major docks (though even in total they handle but a fraction of the traffic seen on the Thames) and so for an invading force coming by sea it provides an attractive objective for a fleet of ships, and so Spurn would make a convenient muster point for ground forces to disembark and attack Hull from both sides.

This was demonstrated in the late 14th century when Henry IV landed his forces here at the port of Ravenspurn (referred to by Shakespeare in his histories as Ravenspurgh) before going on to depose his cousin Richard II.  Seventy years later Edward IV repeated the act when he sought (and achieved) restoration to the throne which was then held by Henry VI.  There is no longer any trace of Ravenspurn.  It is one of 30 settlements along the East Yorkshire coastline that have been consumed by the North Sea in the centuries that have followed.

Jump forwards to the First World War and the estuary’s strategic importance resulted in new plans for its defence.  Construction work began in 1915 of two forts in the mouth of the river.  Each would be garrisoned by 200 troops and provide artillery fire to deter any waterborne forces.  Due to the challenges of their construction on sandbanks (one of which was a few meters underwater) they were not completed until the war was already over.

World War II saw the forts reinstated and this time face enemy fire, though a very different enemy to that envisaged when they were built.  They were regularly targeted by German aircraft who were perhaps seeking to destroy the new defence that they provided; a boom stretched between the forts and on to Spurn Head with a net to prevent attacks from the Nazi U-boat fleet.  

Spurn Head had two further forts, also constructed in the First World War, and placed at either end of the “head”.  These coastal artillery batteries were augmented by smaller gun emplacements in between.  At the southern end the fort is well preserved but a different tale is evident at the northern fort which has been completely devastated.  Foundations have been overturned, revealing the imprint of sandbags long since turned to solid concrete.  Bricks are scattered liberally and reveal the “LBC” makers mark (London Brick Company) that was evidence of the capital’s dominance.  Huge slabs of concrete stand at a variety of different angles and crumble around the edges in surrender.

No navy wrought this destruction with large calibre shells.  No land forces planted charges to undermine the defence.  This is the work of a greater power; the sea.  For centuries man has sought to battle this invader too and stabilise the shoreline, but in recent years the decision has been taken to let nature take her course; the spit will move, break and reform from time to time as a result, but to try to prevent it would always be a losing battle.