Wait for the sky*

It is 18 years since Sunderland last had illuminations, an annual event which, whilst smaller than the Blackpool equivalent, still involved miles of lights strung across the coast road, and a number of installations in Roker Park, including the floating tap that I referred to recently.

I was surprised then when Steve (who I photographed last weekend) emailed me to tell me that there were to be some illuminations once more this year, though confined to the park, a decision doubtless welcomed by some of the Seaburn residents who found themselves gridlocked every year.

With the official opening due for 7.00pm I made my way along the coast on foot, expecting that parking would be difficult, and though I was distracted by the combination of a setting sun to the west which bathed the eastern sky in a pink glow I just about made in in time.  Except that the park was closed until 7.25 to allow the gathering crowds an opportunity to “enjoy” the performances of a local school choir and a theatre group from York.  Eventually the gates were opened and we were led into the park by strange umbrella wielding fairies to see the wonders that were in store.It didn’t take long.

A few strings of coloured lights above the pathway, a small coloured fountain in a multi-coloured grotto, the bandstand strung with lights around its canopy, two static tableaux and a few lights in the trees.  Oh, and the ravine bridge, also picked out in white lighting (nothing special, but one of my favourite elements.)  Perhaps the famous tap would be the centrepiece?

I made my way to the boating lake to find a row of half a dozen coloured jets with accompanying music.  Quite pleasant, but not enough to float my boat.  Even in the short time I was there, one of the jets seemed to develop a mind of its own.  Doesn’t bode well!

Still Sue and Abbie seemed to be having fun when Sue asked me to take their picture.  Really don’t like shooting with on camera flash, but I didn’t have an extension cable, and this wasn’t really the time to start setting up pocket wizards.

A little later I decided to try without flash and positioned this couple under a light to give me a fighting chance.  Dragging the shutter to blur the passing crowds was a bigger risk, but I seem to have managed to hold the Canon steady enough, even at 1/25 of a second. Not perfect but I quite like it.

Cutting my losses I walked the 2 miles or so home along a brilliantly moonlit beach.  This was the real illumination event – I just wish I’d brought a tripod!  My favourite picture of the night was one of those that nearly made me late.  Perhaps I should have stuck with the bird in the hand.

*not quite a Jackson Browne song!

Roker Requiem

Summer is over, at least in astrological terms, and from the perspective of those who have returned to school, so seaside resorts take on a different character.  There’s an air of sadness and resignation about the place as people come to terms with the heatwave that didn’t happen again this year, and the days that grow ever shorter until the winter solstice.

The park bandstand lies silent and empty, the boating lake is unperturbed by boat or bird,

and the bowling greens live up to only half their name.

The sand pit craves attentionthe civic beach cleaners have no deadline for completion,and there’s more than enough ice cream to go around.With no one to disturb them the scavengers arrive to clean up.

The place feels as discarded as these sandals, waiting in vain to be loved once again.

And then, like an Indian summer, there is a fresh spark as Ruth stops me to admit to camera envy.  A student from Nigeria, she is touring the country having completed her studies in Wales, and with that smile she will bring brightness wherever she goes.


For many outside the North East, Roker Park refers to the former home of Sunderland football club, the ground being replaced by The Stadium of Light after 100 years of service in 1997.  There are houses now standing in its place.

There is however another, and older Roker Park; a recreation park that pre-dates the football ground by almost 20 years.  The park centres around a ravine that was once the course of the River Wear.  In my youth it was a place of adventure, cycling back and forth across the rickety wooden ravine bridge that was closed for many years due to safety concerns!

Taking samples from small ponds to look at under a Christmas microscope, playing tennis very badly, and watching steam trains circuit the miniature rail track.  Wikipedia claims the track was built in the 70’s yet I’m sure I can recall sitting astride the small carriages for a circuit or two when smaller.  Perhaps that was at some other track that I have mentally conflated with Roker over the intervening years.

However there is one memory that always springs to mind first.  The boating lake.  Once a favourite haunt of small boys with radio controlled speedboats or elegant yachts, it is not afloat with seagulls, though it did enjoy something of a renaissance during the 1990’s when Sunderland tried to rival Blackpool with its annual illuminations.  The “floating” tap pouring continuously into the lake was a favourite for many.

But for me it was about a small yacht, a vessel that I had only been allowed to sail under paternal supervision until one Saturday when my mother uncharacteristically decided to accompany me.  I was a little afraid of leaning over the wall to give the boat its initial impetus, but was assured that there was nothing to worry about.

I lowered the yacht onto the water by its mast and then crouched at the lakeside, reached for the stern and gave a push.  I’m not sure how far she sailed, because at that point my vision became blurred and green as I somersaulted over the small perimeter wall into the waters!

I think I must have relived the experience today, for as I toured the park I stopped to photograph some men on the bowling green and took a portrait of Ron.  He enquired whether I had recorded him swearing when at his last shot, but I reassured him that I was only shooting stills.

There was more swearing to come when I processed the image and realised I had his eyes out of focus, bizarrely keeping his ears sharp instead.  I must have still had water in my eyes.  (Sorry Ron – I’ll get it right next time!)

Incidentally I have been told that I resemble Phil Daniels – better than Paul Daniels I suppose!.


Getting today’s portrait was an uphill battle.

Dropping the girls off at work at 8.00, it was too early for many people to be out and about along the coast so I retired empty handed.  Not a problem there’ll be plenty of people out and about later, I thought.

Things were bound to be better when I went out at 10 o’clock, and to be be fair, there were more people about, they were just refusing to have their photograph taken bar a motorcyclist who couldn’t be more anonymous.  (Note to self – unshaven Bank Holiday look may not be effective!).  Returned just before 11.00, equally empty handed and more frustrated.

Talking to Gill she suggested I head for Gary’s Hut.  “Brilliant.” I thought, “Gary will make a great subject.”

For those not familiar with our little patch of the North Sea Coastline, here is a brief geographical interlude.  Following the coastline south from Whitburn where we live, you pass South Bents and then come to Seaburn, which in it’s heyday was the Sunderland seaside resort.  When I was small this was where you spent the summer with your bucket and spade, paddled in the sea as far as you dared before hypothermia set in, consumed watery ice creams, and spent your change at the fun fair.  There was even a large white, wooden framed big dipper, which we kids thought was a death trap.

Following the promenade further south it eventually stops at a broad expanse of sand, which at high tide is completely submerged.  At low tide a short walk across this stretch will bring you to the slight promontory of Holey Rock, around the corner from which you rejoin the promenade at Roker Park (not the former home of Sunderland Football Club, but close by).  Roker, I believe derives its name from its rocky shoreline, and Holey Rock once extended much further into the sea as you can see from this old photograph displayed nearby.  It’s name was quite descriptive as the rock was riddled with sea-worn tunnels through the limestone which could be explored by swimmers.

Eventually the rock was blasted away due to safety concerns, and the current seawall which you can see at the right of this picture was built.   Interestingly, given those safety concerns the wall became a badge of honour to my schoolfriends and I, who scrambled down from the cliff tops to the highest section at the Seaburn end, walking and jumping down the stepped sections of the “Wall of Death” until we reached the barrier at the Roker end.  I can’t remember how we overcame this hurdle, but I suspect we just jumped down to the sands below which were much closer at this point.

Where this sea wall begins and the Seaburn promenade ends is a location known as the “Cat and Dog Steps”, and here you will find Gary’s Hut.  Blasted by the elements, be it rain, wind, or occasional sunshine Gary runs a small refreshments business here with his wife and kids.  His dedication and mettle is to be admired, because whatever the weather, he is there at weekends, (and weekdays throughout the summer) to tend to the needs of his loyal clientèle.  His cheery persona doubtless plays its part in this, and was why Gill suggested him as a suitable subject.

Unfortunately my uphill struggle continued.  The weather forecasters had predicted heavy rain from early on, and so Gary had given his son Liam the morning off thinking that his custom would be affected.  When I arrived, he and his wife Lynne were rushed of their feet, with orders backing up and not time to spare for photography.

Luckily Gary’s Hut is a big enough attraction to bring plenty of others to this spot, and sitting quietly nearby, engrossed in his Sudoku, I found Mr Blackburn.  He didn’t want to pose but was happy to be photographed as he puzzled away.  Nice man, nice picture and finally mission accomplished!