Continuing my exploration of the long exposure technique with another lighthouse – sort of.

I’ve come to the mouth of the Tyne where lights are in abundance.  Glance across to the north bank of the river and you see the high lights and low lights of North Shields.

In contrast to many stories of the destruction wrought by Henry VIII in these posts, this time he was responsible for something positive.  In 1536 he granted permission for the construction of a pair of leading lights to enable shipping entering the Tyne to avoid the rocks of Black Middens just below the ruins of Tynemouth Priory and the shifting sands of South Shields.  Two fortified towers were constructed (the originals served a defensive as well as a navigational purpose), and by aligning the lights one above the other the sailor could find a safe route when the hazards were hidden by the high tides.  Since the lights within were provided by tallow candles I suspect they were limited in their usefulness when conditions were harsh.

Two hundred years later it was necessary to build new towers when a dispute arose between the company managing the lights, and the governor of the fortification that had been built in the 17th century.  His decision to build a house that obscured on of the two lights must have angered many, but when you’re sitting in a fortification with troops and cannon you have the upper hand in negotiations.

The shifting course of the river meant that the High and Low Lights were rebuilt once more in 1808 and the old buildings decommissioned though in the picture you can still see the old High Light, helpfully painted in cream.  It’s partner was painted over in darker colours to prevent confusion with their successors.

Of course if asked about the Tyne lighthouses, most would think of the structures that mark the ends of the guardian piers.  I opted to save myself a couple of miles of walking by heading elsewhere.  Herd Groyne was built in the late 19th century when those piers changed the flow of currents at the river mouth, threatening the shifting sands with erosion.  Adding another light here gave a further navigational option, and one which in time supplanted the twin towers opposite.  Vessels entering the river on the correct course are shown a white spotlight, those that veer south a red light, those heading too far north, a green.

I could have done with some guidance too as I encountered new frustrations in the terra nova of long exposure shots.  I’m getting some light leaks at present (than heavens for Photoshop) and though today the wind was non-existent my heavy lens was too much for a tripod on sand so that the image blurred as my equipment sank lower.  At 10 minutes per exposure I was continually frustrated that the camera was out of action as other things happened around me – dippers emboldened by my lack of movement came incredibly close, but I was unable to take advantage.  I vented by shooting abstracts of the water’s edge.

Another 10 minutes wasted when I found my resultant image was pure white – I forgot to fit the filter!  Too much light.

Finally I nailed it, and with such long exposures was able to ignore the others milling around the sea wall in the knowledge they would blur into nothingness.  It seems however that I was shooting the wrong thing – this guy took ages setting up his tripod so that he could get the perfect shot of….

His footwear?

Maybe I was on the right track after all.



Scratching the Groyne Itch

From an aerial view, the mouth of the River Tyne looks like the head of an enormous sperm; the river forming the tail behind the pointed bulge created by the two long sweeping piers that stretch out from Tynemouth and South Shields.  At the end of each pier stands a lighthouse to guide shipping between these long defensive walls, and then the navigator can line up the high and low lights at North Shields to direct them into the deep water channel to take them upstream.

In the midst of these imposing structures is another, more modest piece of building work, yet photographically it steals the show to the extent that it could probably be classified as a cliché, i.e one of those images that every visitor to the area would create.  At the southern tip of that deep water channel there is what can only be described as a short bulge that extends seawards from South Shields.  Too short and broad to be properly seen as a pier or a sea wall it is nevertheless an important element in the design of the river mouth, for this bulge helps to divert the flow of the Tyne and prevent erosion of the shoreline that could otherwise result.  It is what is known as a groyne.

What makes the groyne at Shields so special however is the light at the end.  A beacon rather than a lighthouse, it is housed in what appears to be an octagonal shed atop a series of sloping legs that give it the appearance of something between the Martian tripods in The War of the Worlds and the lunar landing craft used in the Apollo missions to the moon.  What gives the light its particular appeal is that it is painted a vivid red colour.

With green bents grasses, blue skies, yellow sands and white clouds to give contrast it cannot help but be eye-catching.  That it has as its backdrop the equally dramatic ruins of Tynemouth Priory and the Collingwood monument simply adds to its appeal.  Today I was attracted by the opportunity to light the scene with the warm glow of the dying sun.  As you can see from the images I was occasionally lucky, and occasionally frustrated by the intermittent interference of clouds.  Some of the images are very much of that cliché category, some I hope are not, in particular the portrait of Alan who was fishing from the end of the groyne and enjoying the efforts that his friend was putting into the landing of his catch.  A very small crab.


Hidden Gems on the Smugglers’ Coast

I was in the mood for a change from my usual patch today, but with little time to spare I turned to Sunderland’s near neighbour South Shields for somewhere to train my lens.  I’ve written about Shields before, but today I was specifically in search of art in the “Land of the Sandancer“.

I’ve been fairly critical of some of the attempts at public art in Sunderland, so how would South Tyneside compare?  I knew there were a number of works around the river mouth so set off to begin my survey at the Customs House and the Merchant Navy Memorial, sculpted by Robert Olley.


A major civil engineering project is underway there, and to protect the memorial it has been encased in tall wooden panels.  Not the stuff of interesting photographs.

Things soon improved when I reached what was the old Market Dry Dock and two pieces by Irene Brown.  Fleet, installed in 2004, may be a little tarnished now, but in contrast to the steel shapes of Sunderland’s Ambit it remains an attractive piece.  Nearby, casting her eyes over the Tyne is Spirit of South Shields (2000), a guardian for shipping that became symbolic of the town for a number of years.  In tiny detail at her feet are landmarks of Shields; the original lighthouse, a colliery, and the gates of Arbeia Roman Fort among them.

Moving on I managed to miss my next goal – a statue of local fishwife, nurse and smuggler Dolly Peel, who lived here in the 18th Century.  Perhaps it’s no surprise since she was skilled at hiding local seamen from visiting press gangs.

Reaching the coast I stopped at the “weebles” or more properly Conversation Piece by Juan Munoz (1998).  Another success, they engage with passing pedestrians and blend seamlessly into their environment.  But this is where I went off track a bit.

That splash of red, marking the Groyne lighthouse demanded more of my attention, and soon I’d forgotten art in favour of architecture.  More pictures of the Groyne, and then turning to look across the river to North Shields a wonderful sky crowned the view of the Fish Quay.  The two white towers are the High Light and Low Light, navigational aids that, when aligned by an approaching skipper, allow him to follow the safe channel into the river mouth.  As the course of the Tyne has changed over the years so has this channel, and you can see an earlier High Light on the hill-top between the two current structures.

And so with the bit between my teeth for navigational aids, where else would I head but for Souter Lighthouse, where I hoped to find a portrait too.  In this “contrasty” light, Souter did not disappoint, but I thought I’d missed most of the people as the car park was emptying as I arrived.I was in luck though and met a very friendly Hindu family, with Rathna agreeing to be photographed.  In Hindi, her name means gem, or pearl, (like my daughter Megan).  A gem of a smile certainly.