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.

 

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Subterranean Homesick Blues

On the banks of the Tyne at Jarrow stands a strange-looking building; conventional brick walls, pretty ordinary windows, but with a roof that is definitely flying saucer.

The clue to its function lies in the fact that its twin lies across the river, just visible above the bow of a tug heading upstream.  This is one of the entrances to Britain’s first purpose-built cycling tunnel, though it also serves pedestrians for like the barrels of a shotgun this is two tunnels in one.  Opened in 1951 it incorporates what were at the time the world’s highest single rise escalators, though these days they are rarely active.  Luckily there are small lifts at either end.

I first visited the tunnel as a small boy, taken there by my godmother and her then boyfriend I think as part of a child minding session.  I probably never went near it again until 20 years ago when working on North Tyneside I would regularly cycle through it, both for the enjoyment of cycling but also more practically because it was faster than sitting in the queues of traffic that built up at the Tyne Tunnel for vehicles.

The tunnel then is an old friend, and though I no longer have cause to use it practically it remains an interesting spot for photographs.  I took my youngest daughter Holly there a couple of years back and miraculously found an almost identical shoot in a local lifestyle publication a few weeks later.

Like any old friend, the tunnel is showing its age, and what were once pristine ceramics are now crazed and cracked, giving rise to all manner of excrescences upon their surfaces.  As one pedestrian remarked on see me with my camera there today:

“It’s dropping to bits isn’t it?”

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!

Aside from its visible charms, the place also has its own unique soundscape, the buzz of cycle wheels spinning in an enclosed environment, the echo of distorted voices, the ebb and flow of footsteps and in between the constant hum of the strip lights whose fluorescence also shifts, creating an eerie movement in the shadows.

As I was ready to leave today I heard another sound.  A man virtually skipping down the static wooden steps of the escalator came into view, and John became today’s portrait.  I was less sprightly as I breathlessly climbed up to daylight once more.  Heavy camera bag you know.

Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues

Welcome to McElderry Country?

To the native Celts it was Caer Urfa.  When the Roman’s sought to fortify the mouth of the Tyne with a fort, they called it Arbeia (“place of the Arabs“), a name which could have been reapplied in the 19th Century when a Yemeni community was established there.  To us it’s South Shields.  Or just Shields.

Shields lies about 5 miles north from me, and though dwarfed by nearby Sunderland is the largest town in South Tyneside.  Like much of the region its history is entwined with coal and ships, and like many it has had to face the decline and eventual passing of these industries.  Seeking to reinvent itself as a tourist destination Shields and its environs branded as Catherine Cookson Country, though after 25 years of association with the prolific writer, who was born in Shields and drew on the history of the area for inspiration, the council have recently abandoned the brand.

The sands South Shields 1903
The sands South Shields 1903 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the signposts for Cookson Country have been removed, ostensibly because the gritty realities of her books aren’t something we want to be associated with any longer, and replaced with a sunny beach scene somewhat reminiscent of a 60’s postcard.  Shields is a resort town now and rather like Amityville in Peter Benchley‘s Jaws is keen to play up the sun, sand and sea, and play down the pit heaps and poverty (though thankfully not shark attacks!)

As a brand Cookson wasn’t tied to the seasons, but I wonder, for what percentage of the year do the golden sands of South Shields beach resemble these new road signs?

It’s mid-May, and whilst not high summer, we should be seeing temperatures averaging in the high teens.  My car told me it was 9.5 today. And very wet.

The dunes were deserted, as was the shoreline but for two young lads sprinting for shelter in the greyness.

No one playing football, though three determined individuals did fight the elements.  (You’ll get your balls wet boys!)

An amusement park out of season is a sad and shuttered place, but it seems worse when those same shutters are down at this time of year.

On the plus side you wouldn’t have had much difficulty in finding a table at Minchella’s Ice Cream Parlour!

Amidst all of this dreek misery the show must go on, and so I found Allan updating one of the visitor noticeboards nearby, and his eyes were able inject a little colour into the day.

Still it could be worse; and as Shields-born Python Eric Idle put it:

Always look on the bright side of life…

Trip Trap, Trip Trap, Trip Trap

I spend a lot of time under the Tyne Bridge on the Newcastle Quayside.

It’s a place with lots of passing traffic, so great for meeting likely photographic subjects, and it naturally has great views of local landmarks like The Sage, The Baltic, The Millennium Bridge as well as the cluster of bridges more traditionally associated with this spot.

In all the times I’ve been there, including scouring those places that are off the beaten track in search of an interesting location (like those that I shot with Daria), I’ve never seen a troll.  They’re supposed to live under bridges aren’t they so why is there never a trace of the creatures.  Yes I know they’re primarily Scandinavian, but we had plenty of Viking raids along our coastline so surely a troll or two could have joined them somehow.

Of course if you know much about Norse folklore, you’ll know that trolls don’t necessarily live under bridges – you’re more likely to find them in the mountains or in caves, however one story has implanted the bridge image in our psyche – “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.”

What you will find under the bridge, and on ledges of surrounding buildings are kittiwakes, a small seabird of the gull family named after its unique call.  The birds come here to nest each year and the colony on the Tyne have the most inland nesting site in the world, and they are nothing if not persistent.

Those who formerly nested in the Baltic flour mill were rehoused when the building was renovated as a contemporary art gallery.  Now those in Newcastle are receiving unwanted attention.  The installation of spikes on the window ledges of the Guildhall failed miserably when the birds smothered them in a layer of mud before building their nests.  The City Council have retaliated by deploying swathes of net that prevent the birds from reaching their goal.

The birds have returned this week and some have managed to circumvent the defences to find a site on the roof of the Guildhall, but what impact there will be on the colony as a whole remains to be seen.

The other creature commonly found in this location is the photographer, from groups of Asian students posing their raven haired girlfriends on quayside mooring pins with the sweeping curves of the glass roofed Sage in the background, to more serious snappers seeking a new angle on the bridges or the chance of a perfect reflection in the waters of Tyne.

Millennium bridge at dusk, looking west up the...
Millennium bridge at dusk, looking west up the river Tyne, between Newcastle and Gateshead in the UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I stopped today on the way back from a client portrait shoot I found both species in place; the birds screeching their three syllables for all to hear and below them I spotted Tracy and her trusty Canon.  She told me that she was still new-fangled with it, and so as she had a bit of time had come to the river to practice her technique; good for her.Brave of her to have that red and white stripe here though!