Baytown

On the day that Bernardo Bertolucci died, one of the articles I read contrasted his and Marlon Brando’s behaviour on the set of the notorious Last Tango in Paris, with a present day pairing of comparable stature; Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis.  Coincidence of course, but I’d spent a gloomy morning in Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast, where the Victoria Hotel is the setting for the protagonists meeting in Phantom Thread, ostensibly Day-Lewis final film and one written and directed by PTA.

For a film set in the world of 1950’s Haute Couture, the choice of North Yorkshire for the designer’s “place in the country” seemed a strange one (300 miles away?) but perhaps Anderson’s location scouts were concerned with the look rather than the practicality.  I’m pretty sure the film doesn’t say where this location is supposed to be, other than on some wild and windswept coast.  It certainly lived up to the billing when I was there.

Now despite the name, Robin Hood’s Bay has no proven links to Robin Hood.  (How could it when there’s no evidence that he actually existed?)  The locals make little or no reference to archer of Sherwood and in fact refer to the town simply as Baytown or Bay despite the fact that Robin Hood has been part of the name for seven centuries!

There’s been human activity here since the bronze age, but the activities that made the town were nautical; fishing and smuggling, the latter benefitting from that remote location.   In fact this tiny place was economically more important than Whitby in the 17th century.  Perhaps though I should say tiny places, for RHB is a town in two halves; one down by the sea and sheltering behind a solid sea wall, the other atop the cliffs, windswept but safe from stormy seas.

Interestingly the two halves have different personalities.  Originally the lower town was home to the fishermen and smugglers; small houses, stacked tightly on the steep contours either side of the beck that bisects Baytown.  This creates a network of narrow alleyways that were perfect for hiding from excise men or press gangs.  The town’s own website claims that “a bolt of silk could pass from the bottom of the village to the top without leaving the houses”.

In contrast, those who lived on the cliff tops were the sea captains and ship owners.  Men of greater wealth and influence whose houses were larger and spread further apart, but nowadays there has been something of an economic inversion.  Robin Hood’s Bay is now a tourist trap; the smaller dwellings are mostly holiday cottages and second homes, whereas the upper town, being more remote from the beach is less attractive B&B territory, with cafés and bistros.  And that hotel.

 

 

 

Bloodied from the Wreckage

Let’s be  clear.  I’m not seriously hurt.

If you’ve read my recent post about the clothing choices required of a wandering photographer you’ll understand that some shots require the right protective gear, and on this occasion I didn’t have it. So I didn’t yomp across wet sands at low tide. Nor did I continue my drone flight as soon as it became clear that the winds were too strong.

I was back at South Gare for that low tide, because in a small bay near the steelworks lies a wreck.  The wooden ship that met its end here at Brann Sands is sadly nameless; the circumstances of its demise have also been lost in the years that have passed since, so any romantic tales are pure speculation.  The sandy bay is fairly innocuous with no rocky outcrops to explain the vessel’s presence.  With my highly limited maritime knowledge it seems that a vessel grounded on a sandbar might have been successfully refloated at the next high tide, so of course I wanted a look so that I could formulate my own theories.  But not today.

Scanning around the bay I spotted another boat of interest at the far end of the bay.   Though clearly a more recent victim of the sea, this was no more identifiable, the bow having been badly burnt, presumably by some beach revellers rather than as part of the original accident.

I grab a few shots and make my way back to the stretch of sand dunes that separate the bay from my abandoned car, and this is when it gets tricky.   I didn’t take note of my entrance point and now I’m faced with a number of possible routes over the undulating ground, and from memory only one of them is both reasonably direct and relatively clear of the sort of flora that my bare legs would like to avoid.  I don’t find it.

And so I’m treading gingerly through nettles and over brambles when I crest one of the dunes and hear voices.  A good sign that I’m nearing the well travelled route?  Quite the reverse.  The voices belong to a couple who had deliberately left the beaten track and are now having sex as a guy with a camera and a very obvious telephoto lens arrives.

I avoid eye contact and keep walking in a straight line.  Off any track whatsoever and down a steep slope where slow and controlled descent is impossible.  My pale flesh is sacrificed to their privacy.

I hope they had a blanket!


(I returned the following day to capture some of these images – including the drone shot at last!)

Kephaloídion

Cold and wet are good news for some!

Before I began my rudimentary Italian lessons online I’d never heard of Cefalù, yet it is one of the most popular holiday resorts in Sicily.  Perhaps my apathy towards beach holidays is at fault.  In any event when I arrived there in late March, the island was still at the mercy of “The Beast from the East” or one of its variants and it was cold, grey and wet.

My sunglasses and swim shorts were untroubled.

So why did I make the journey along the coast from Palermo to begin my trip here, when the rest of my intended stops were in the opposite direction?  Well naturally, because the place has history.  Now you good be forgiven for thinking that it was originally a Greek settlement.  Even had I not given you its Greek name as my title, Cefalù (pronounced Cheffaloo) still looks a lot like Kephalonia, yet there is no mention in Thucydides, the bible of my long forgotten Ancient History lessons.  Kephale meant “head” in Classical Greek, and the headland may have been home to no more than a fort or lookout post.  It’s clear to understand why this may be so when you see the enormous cliff (La Rocca) that overshadows the little town.

I was here for more modern fare.  Not quite as modern as the chemist’s shop on Corso Ruggero, though it did have a quaint appeal, nor the church of Santo Stefano whose baroque facade dominates a tiny piazza.

It wasn’t the medieval wash-house located well below street level where the basins used for the laundry remain supplied by fresh running water.

No, the clue was in the name of that main street.  Corso Ruggero.  The course of Roger.

Following the Norman invasion of 1063, King Roger II of Sicily moved the settlement down from the headland to the small harbour below and began construction of a cathedral.  Though built in the Romanesque style, this is a very different building from the great Normal cathedral in Durham that I grew up with.

Externally the twin towers at the west end provide some echo of its English contemporary, but internally there are no vast load bearing columns (though as I clumsily clattered about with my tripod they may have been glad of them).  It has something that Durham does not.  Decoration.

Like so many of the churches in Sicily the Byzantine influence is here in golden mosaics and the vast figure of Christ Pantokrator looks down on all.  This was the first example that I’d seen.  By the time I left Sicily two weeks later I’d lost count!  Between the Greeks and the arriving Normans that small town on the rock had been Roman and then Arab.  The unique mix of influences that is peculiar to Sicily was suddenly tangible.

 

Litoral-Leigh Underwhelmed?

Given my love for all things coastal; you’d think I’d be delighted by a place with four pubs each of which boasts a maritime name; a place with an award-winning beach; and a place with a reputation for the quality of its seafood (no, not plaice!)

A place where sailboats rest between tides as they do in Norfolk or Northumberland.   A place with charming seaside dwellings old and new.

What’s not to like?

Well, in truth nothing, yet I need to be careful where I tread here, for lovely as this location is I had my reservations when I visited , and it is the birthplace of my friend and follower of this blog, Bee. 

The Saxons loved it enough to establish a settlement here (though if you’re arriving from the continent it’s an easy option) and the Normans seemed to like it too as the Domesday Book records.  There may even have been people here before the Romans arrived so Leigh has a long history.  Somehow I was still unmoved.  Even writing this piece has proved a struggle, and for a long time I couldn’t understand quite why.

And then it hit me.  It was no single thing.  It was the cumulative toll of a number of “close but no cigar” moments.

I didn’t try all of those pubs, but opted for the Peterboat, named after a small vessel once common on the Thames and originally designed for ferrying passengers across the river, most notably to Westminster Abbey.  I’ve no idea how many such a boat could hold, but the pub that bears the name might have sunk from overcrowding.  Seeking to capitalise on a prime location on the prom it had even converted the car park into an outside dining area.  Quantity took precedence over quantity, and the extensive menu featured only one fish dish.

Then there was the “award-winning beach”.  I know I’ve been spoilt by growing up with the sandy beaches of my home town, and the beautiful coastline of Northumberland at hand.  Consequently this didn’t look like an award winner to me…

So how about the famous seafood.  Both of my daughters worked in a seafood deli so of course I had high expectations.  The old High Street, a narrow lane squeezed between railway and shore, is lined with cockle sheds, an Essex characteristic according to Bee.  This is a major industry for the town, producing mountains of shells in the process.

They are served in small pots seasoned with vinegar; a far cry from the spaghetti alle vongole I enjoyed on my first day in Venice so once again I was disappointed.

I started to take issue even with the name; Leigh on Sea.  This isn’t the sea.  At least not as I know it, a place of ever-changing moods, textures, colours and sounds.  This is an estuary.  The River Thames… and a healthy supply of mud.

Leigh is apparently the happiest place to live in the UK, so they were probably glad to see me leave before I brought their scores down, but then I got it.  I should stop griping about what it wasn’t, and capture the opportunity of what it is…

Headonist

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.

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.

Save Our Souls

And so to the second of my subjects in the hinterland of Morecambe Bay… once I’ve told you a little about the bay itself.  This is the largest area of tidal mudflats and sand in the UK, though The Wash was more notorious for much of history after King John’s disaster there (which led to schoolboy jokes about him losing his clothes in the wash).  All of that changed in February 2004.

English: Morecambe Bay Walk Crossing from Arns...
English: Morecambe Bay Walk Crossing from Arnside to Kents Bank. This photo shows the group lead by Cedric Robinson – the Queen’s guide – walking out over the sands towards the River Kent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bay is passable in between tides and for centuries those heading north to the Lake District would employ the services of locals who bore the title “Queen’s Guide to the Sands” to avoid the many quicksands and safely cross before the incoming tides swamped them.  Spending time in Grange over Sands some decades ago there used to a some sort of warning klaxon or siren to indicate the turning of the tides I seem to recall.

The mudflats are rich in shellfish, which attracts plenty of seabirds, but on the 23rd February 2004 it wasn’t birds that were caught out by the tides.  A group of illegal Chinese immigrants who had been smuggled into the county in shipping containers, effectively to work as slaves, were on the sands gathering cockles when the tide turned.  Unfamiliar with the hazards and the geography 21 of them drowned.

On the day of my visit another drama was playing out.  I’d spotted the “lifeboat” out in the bay as I was making my way along the shore, though because of the particular topography here the RNLI actually use a hovercraft.  A little while later a police helicopter appeared overhead too.  My thoughts that this was no training exercise were confirmed when I encountered coastguards scanning the shimmering horizon for signs of life.  Seemingly  a “despondent man had entered the sea” nearby.  They following day they were looking for his body.

It was a different sort of salvation that brought me here though.  I’d come to find Cockersand Abbey (or what remains of it).  There has been a hospital (in the medieval sense) here since the 12th century though it was promoted to abbey status in the same period.  The site may have had a religious function even early than this as finds of Roman silverware were made nearby in the 18th century.

Naturally the abbey fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution and the land was sold on.  In such a remote spot there wasn’t reason to maintain the buildings and these are now little more than bulges of fallen masonry beneath the soil, with the exception of a single structure.  The Chapter House, built in 1230, was put to use as a mausoleum by the land owner in the 18th and 19th centuries, and more recently still has been given Grade I listed status.

Little did I know as I viewed this tomb that death was just a short distance down the slipway to the bay.