With my eldest daughter Megan home from London for Easter, and her sister Holly free for a day, we enjoyed the opportunity of a rare day with all three of us, and at Megan’s suggestion we returned to Wallington, a place that was a regular haunt when they were both children.

The challenge for me was to find something different to photograph, having blogged about previous visits in the last two or three years.  Inspired by a recent photowalk (which I might fit into the schedule of these posts sometime around July as things stand) I decided to get in close, using both a macro lens and my trusty telephoto.

Either of these would have been a great choice for portraiture, but Megan’s decision to wear no make up and tie her hair back was a statement of intent not to be photographed.  Holly soon followed suit when the pallor resulting from a night out partying with her sister the previous evening began to make its presence felt.  And so it was time to rely on nature to supply my subject matter.

As with my last visit in the autumn, it was the wildlife hide and the woodland that were most productive, but the tone of the imagery is very different.  Spring is at its height and both in the natural setting of the riverside and the formal horticulture of Wallington’s walled garden there was plenty of vibrant colour; sometimes too vibrant.  Camera sensors have their limitations and I’m used to working within them now, but I always get caught out by the way in which reds oversaturate and “blow out” the details when they are the dominant colour in any given shot.  Luckily I was able to restore their glory in post processing.

With a woodland shoot featuring a red-headed model looming, I’d better get my act together!

Anyway without further ado I think it’s time to let nature do the talking…

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Screen Shots

And so ignorant myopia of my teenage self is corrected – the elements of Hexham Abbey which were of no interest to me then but which entranced me on my recent visit to the church. I wasn’t alone either, for on my arrival one of the women running the gift shop asked if I was there to meet the photography group, and no sooner had I entered that I came upon a group wielding what seemed to be the largest number of tripods I’d ever encountered in one place! Led by a local professional they soon disappeared, presumably to scout the exterior, giving me the freedom to explore and frame my shots without external influence.

My recent visit to Manchester Cathedral converted me to the art of the carpenter, and it was the wooden elements in Hexham that really captivated me (and later the other photographers).  Like Manchester the choir is separated from the nave by a wooden screen which I assumed to be a rood screen but apparently is some different; a pulpitum, which not only kept the canons apart from the hoi-polloi but proved a barrier against draughts too!  So many English churches, that were colourfully decorated in medieval times fell victim to the Reformation or to the later Victorian restoration movement.  Hexham gives some hint of what might have been, though the artwork was restored in the 20th century, and the structure has seen a number of alterations in its lifetime such as the removal of the wooden staircases used by readers and preachers, now replaced by the metal spiral.

Elsewhere there are other wooden treats; an older screen featuring pained panels depicting the “Dance of Death”, a towering font cover, even the doors that greet your arrival.  It’s not all wood that impresses of course, but Hexham seems to be a real treasury of the material.

Older than all of these are the triptych of panels in the tiny wooden chapel known as the Ogle Chantry, erected to pray for the soul of Northumbrian nobleman Sir Robert Ogle in the early 1400’s.

For the photographers present that day (what is the collective noun for us?) there seemed to be one feature that proved more attractive than any other.  The panelled pulpit.




Q. When is an Abbey not an Abbey?

No, not a return to Finchale, but a continuation of my Hexham visit.  Hexham Abbey is the town’s crown jewel, though technically it’s a misnomer.  An Abbey was a monastery with an Abbot or Abbess at its head, whereas when the monks were led by a Prior then the term Priory should be used.  Of the two, a priory is seen as slightly inferior, though I don’t know why.

To add to the confusion, there is an Abbey there, but the Priory is on top of it.  Let me explain.

Back in the 7th Century there was no England as we now know it, instead the area was comprised of a number of smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  Northumbria was one of these, and as I have suggested in previous posts was arguably the cultural capital of Europe at this point thanks to the Northumbrian saints Cuthbert and Bede.

Let’s introduce another saint into the equation.


Audrey/Etheldreda/Æthelthryth (according to how simplified you want her name) was a princess in the kingdom of East Anglia who in a piece of political manoeuvring was married to the Northumbrian King.  (We don’t need to go into his details at this point)  Whilst queen she granted Wilfrid, Bishop of York, land to build an Abbey in Hexham in 674.  (On the king’s death Æthelthryth retired to Ely, though the monasteries she founded there were destroyed by vikings before the construction of the present cathedral).  That Benedictine Abbey was razed to the ground (yes, those vikings again) two hundred years later, but of course “to the ground” leaves the subterranean untouched.  The crypt remains preserved and can be accessed down a flight of steep stone steps from the nave of the present church.

Here are a number of small chambers, all constructed from stone “borrowed” from Roman sites nearby, including one with an inscription in which reference to Emperor Geta has been “redacted”, an act carried out under orders from his brother Caracalla who had murdered him.

But I digress.  Enter the Normans who build an Augustinian Priory on this site in the 12th century, and much of the present church dates back to that period, though as you can see there is a fairly visible join where the present nave was built at the turn of the 20th Century.

If you have read any of my previous posts about monastic buildings you’ll know what became of the monastery during the rein of Henry VIII, however a stroll around the perimeter of the building still reveals a number of features from that complex, as well as some more recent, but nonetheless historic tombstone designs.

But still I’m teasing you, because the best of the Priory known as an Abbey is within those walls.

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)

Frutti di Bosco (Allen Banks II)

It’s impossible to say which is my favourite gelato flavour; the artisan producers of Italy can create delights from a vast range of ingredients (it is the only country where sales of the hand-made product exceed the mass-produced).  Elsewhere however (are you listening Croatia?) they rarely achieve the same intensity of flavour and so my fallback option is Frutti di Bosco, the berries usually survive the limitations of the producer, but if all else fails I have the pleasure of rolling my tongue around those three words which virtually demand a flourish in their pronunciation.

None of which has any bearing on today’s post except that within minutes of beginning my walk the title was already in mind; it means woodland fruits.

Woodland walks usually cause me to bemoan my complete inability to identify trees; yes I can spot an oak, a sycamore or a chestnut by the shape of their leaves and fruits but beyond this I’m on shaky ground.  If you can recall the Monty Python Highwayman sketch you’ll know I’m not the one to spot a hornbeam!  Nor were there any lupins on my agenda.  Nevertheless, weighed down by the amount of equipment I’d opted to bring I quickly concluded that paying attention to the botany gave me plenty of opportunities to rest.  When I stopped I paid more attention to my surroundings and suddenly a new world of autumn opened up to me.  I may have needed no more than a macro lens, but would probably have walked past so many gems had I been travelling lightly.

_mg_2889Instead I found myself learning about the berries of the highly poisonous arum maculate (thank you Google) even before I noticed the abundance of fungi around me.

There are apparently 181 different types to be found in the area – I simply scratched the surface.  None looked particularly edible I’m pleased to say, because one of the species found here is the deathcap, supposedly used by Agrippina to poison her husband the emperor Claudius Caesar.  (Another memory of my youth seeing Derek Jacobi stutter and stumble his way through the sex and slaughter of 1st Century Rome).

The area is full of wildlife too, though that proved harder to capture.  Roe deer, otters and Daubenton’s bats remained in hiding, jumping fish, speedy wrens and erratic dragonflies eluded me too, leaving me with poor pickings.

Never mind, the flora were magnificent.  I only wish I knew what they were!_pw_7508-edit-edit



Agley (Hadrian’s Wall part 1)

Apologies if I’ve mentioned this before, but after more than a thousand posts it’s possible that some sort of blogger dementia has kicked in. In any event I occasionally need to remind myself that this all began as a vehicle to host photographs that I thought were worth sharing.

Now though, the self-imposed pressure to keep posting, and the rush to capture images in short windows of free time I have when working means that the pictures are often little more than snaps, one step removed from the holiday album. Occasionally I’ve managed to plan a shoot, produce a worthwhile image and then describe the process such as those about the pier near Hartlepool, or the wreck at Saltwick Bay, but most of the time the pictures are simply reactive, which defeats the original objective of trying to improve my photographic skills.

And so with the rare opportunity of a free weekend and a favourable weather forecast it was time to go out with the sole purpose of capturing something artistic.

I remember reading an interview many years ago with John Entwistle of The Who in which he was asked about the Young Turks of bass playing such as Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke.  His response was slightly dismissive; not of their talent but of their threat, and suggested that whenever someone was brought to his attention he’d listen to a recording, pick up his bass, make sure he could emulate whatever techniques he heard, and then go back to playing in his own style.

Thus with nothing innovative in mind, I adopted a similar approach.  I mentioned a couple of weeks back the number of clichés that beset online photo galleries.  Well with nothing else in mind I decided to have a stab at something that was growing in popularity but to combine it with an iconic location in the hope of producing something beautiful.

And so a plan was formed.  I’d drive 50 miles to Hadrian’s Wall, walk to Crag Lough, the lake beneath one of the higher stretches, and shoot the sunset reflected in the waters with the added drama of the cliffs above.  Then I’d return via Sycamore Gap, beloved of Kevin Costner fans as one of the locations used in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, wait for the sky to darken and frame the tree’s silhouette with the Milky Way visible in the skies beyond.  (Shooting the Milky Way being one of those things that it seems every photographer must include in their portfolio). With plenty of food and coffee to sustain me through the evening, what could go wrong?

Given that I was headed to an early border that hints at the divide between England and Scotland I should have heeded the Scots’ national poet Robbie Burns:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley

To a Mouse, Robert Burns, 1785

Traffic was my first problem.  Having newly opened a 3rd lane of the main road north days before my journey, someone thought it a good idea to reduce a section back down to one lane.  I arrived with barely enough time to make it to my objective before sunset and so grabbed my camera bag in a hurry and set off at speed, only later realising that in my haste I’d left my tripod in the car.

As I neared my objective, I passed a group of young cattle who turned as one to eye me suspiciously, and a little further a mixture of cows and sheep, none of which concerned me.  It was as I crested the next rise that I saw the missing parent in this equation standing squarely and very solidly between me and my objective.   I didn’t waste too much time in abandoning my objective for the evening!

_PW_3699-EditSo without much chance of achieving either of my objectives I shot Sycamore Gap from a distance (thereby avoiding the cliché shot) and made the most of the glorious sunset as I returned to my car.  I even grabbed an image of the Milky Way in the distance as I resolved to return the following day for a second attempt.  At least my coffee was good.



Tern, Tern, Tern

In Northumberland for the wedding celebrations of my friends Shirley and Ian, a walk on the beach was the perfect recipe to clear heads and feel human again.  I’d thought that Amble might have provided an option but the landlady at the farmhouse where we stayed suggested that Druridge Bay was close at hand.APW_3956-Edit

Now I love Druridge Bay and have lots of memories of great times amongst the dunes there, including a spot of practical creative thinking during an Open University summer school, but I really wanted somewhere new to walk.  However as we had been given directions to a different access point to the 7 mile bay we gave it a go.  Good decision because with a new starting point Julie and I walked north rather than south to the more popular end of the bay.APW_4105-Edit

Northumberland beaches are so extensive that it’s easy to find a little personal space but on a Sunday morning it felt like we had miles of coastline to ourselves.

I’ve missed living on the North Sea coast for the last couple of years so this was a great treat for me and my camera, a smörgåsbord of options; miles of beach, wildlife (and death), geology, driftwood, an island nature reserve, views north to Bamburgh… where to start?

My favourites were the terns.  I’m not enough of an ornithologist to know if they were arctic, common or roseate terns, but the way these small sea birds hover over shallow waters before dropping vertically with a sharp plop in pursuit of the sand eels that support them and the visiting puffins on Coquet Island has entertained me since my time living at Whitburn.  The way they hover reminds me of kestrels in search of mice.

Oh and in case you don’t know, the title of this post is a pun on Turn, Turn, Turn, which of course was recorded by The Byrds!APW_4046