Hinterland

English: Red Rose of Lancaster
English: Red Rose of Lancaster (Photo credit: Wikipedia

On my numerous journeys up and down the M6 motorway over the years, I’ve long been intrigued by an elegant domed structure that looks down from a hilltop in the city of Lancaster.  What’s more I’ve never been to the city that spawned the House of Lancaster, one of the protagonists of the Wars of the Roses, a key period in English history.  So you’d think that if I was going to visit this area, Lancaster would be a must.

Well perhaps it will be another day.  Instead I visited the tiny fishing village just to the south called Glasson, for reasons which will become clear later.

As I neared the quay which is central to the village’s existence, I was aware that this was an unusual landscape, where large stretches of land were clearly subject to regular flooding, though I was unsure whether this due to the nearness of the sea and the tidal effects on the River Lune, or variations in the river’s levels due to rainfall from the nearby hills.  Combined with the single-track roads that took me there, the place had a remote, neglected feel that the grounded vessels amplified.

BBC Wales has recently completed the story arc of its excellent crime series Hinterland*, in which half the residents of the Aberystwyth area seem to live in shacks that incorporate elements of boats and caravans.  This part of Lancashire could be a similarly haunting location.  There’s clearly something about these half land, half sea places that inspires a sense of unease; I was reminded of the island residents on the fringes of the Venetian Lagoon.

Those narrow roads meant that it was unlikely I’d be able to park near to my objective, so had to opt for Glasson Quay and then walk the two or three miles through farmland, where barely repaired styles and bridges hidden in hedgerows gave the impression that visitors weren’t actively encouraged.  The lapwings weren’t very happy to see me in their vicinity either.

Finally I reached the coast, specifically Morecambe Bay, though again the first signs weren’t promising!  Following the seawall south I found a clue to one of two features that were the real reason for my expedition, wondering as I did so what the gunners might be hunting.  Surely the birds in this murmuration were too small to be of interest?

 

And then I arrived.

To this.

And before you disparage my choice of image, look closely at the red circled area.  Might this be the attraction for local hunters?

 

English: Plover scar range front lighthouse. B...
English: Plover scar range front lighthouse. Built 1847. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway to the lighthouse.  This relatively tiny structure has been under the weather for a year or so after it was struck by a passing vessel (local views vary as to whether the ship was too large or the captain too inebriated).  I knew it was being repaired when I planned my visit, thinking that the spectacle of a crane built onto the structure might provide a unique opportunity to record something a little different about Plover Scar Light (also known as Abbey Light), which was originally one of a pair of guiding lights for the entrance to the Lune.  Typically I learnt that the day before my visit, the cap had been restored to the tower and the crane removed, leaving me with the worst of both worlds; a repaired lighthouse, but clothed in scaffolding.

Plover Scar Lighthouse

I still like it!

 

*The TV Series was unusual since it was recorded in Welsh and recorded in English allowing it to be marketed in different territories.  The version I watched combined both with the Welsh being subtitled.  The Welsh title is different.  Y Gwyll means “dusk” and though that hints at the darkness of the series I feel Hinterland captured more of the bleakness.

 

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Aqua Vita

Thirty six hours after my arrival in Genoa the weather changed from crisp sunshine to cold, wet misery, so my exploration turned to indoor options. Those options are limited at night but there’s one notable exception. Where else do you go in Genoa when it’s wet; L’Acquario.

As I mentioned in my piece about the redevelopment of the old port, the aquarium is a flagship attraction, though being designed to resemble a ship’s superstructure, anything attractive is reserved for the inside; a series of adjoining grey boxes lacks impact in this visually busy environment.

I’d shot some pictures of the aquarium in Dubrovnik when I visited it with my daughters but was unhappy with the results, so had done a little research on how to achieve good results in these settings.  The challenges aren’t immediately obvious to we humans but to a camera aquaria are bad news.  To our eyes the exhibits are glowing pools of colour and life, but of course we can adjust to the darkness of the surroundings whereas a camera can’t.  Its sees very little in the dimness unless you compensate in one of three ways:

  • Use a tripod for steadiness and shoot long exposures.  No use for the subject matter here; the fish and other denizens of the deep are not going to cooperate with your need for stillness.  Might produce some colourful abstracts though!
  • Use a flash to give more lighting.  Again a no; startling for the creatures and likely to result in a great white reflection from the glass that obscures all behind it.
  • Ramp up the ISO setting for the sensor’s sensitivity to levels you normally wouldn’t dream of using.  Noisy images guaranteed.

At least at that time of night it was relatively quiet, so I didn’t have to vie with other visitors to find good places to shoot from and avoid the reflections of signage and other lighting in the building.

But that wasn’t my biggest problem with it.  The handful of dolphins there have a large enclosure that is open to the outdoors (I’m assuming so they can entertain daytime visitors as well as access fresh air), but then large is such a subjective word.  If you or I were going swimming and diving we’d find it more than adequate, but these magnificent beasts can circumnavigate it in three dimensions in a matter of seconds.  They are capable of matching Usain Bolt for speed and diving to 1000m so is there any pool large enough for them?  There were other large mammals here too; seals and manatee, and whilst the latter aren’t know for speed they are sizeable creatures.

It’s easy to be sympathetic to fellow mammalia of course, but how much room does a fish need?  Just because they have small brains we give them less consideration, but I suspect this specimen at least roams much further in the wild.  There are amphibia and reptiles present too, and while the displays around the walls tell stories of conservation and environmental concern I was left feeling just as ambivalent as I did at Dublin Zoo.

How far do you take this concern I wonder?  Do jellies have feelings?

 

Victim of Prejudice

The town of Blyth has a long history, going back at least as far as the 12th century. Finds from the Neolithic era have been found nearby, though that in itself is no evidence of a settlement.  All the same it should be exactly the sort of place that appeals to me, especially when you add in the fact that it’s located on the beautiful Northumbrian coast.  Yet whenever I’ve been on that coast I’ve always felt it best to keep heading north away from Blyth.

The town was quite prosperous from the 18th century onwards with a range of trade and industry that included shipbuilding, coal mining, fishing, salt and railways.  And there you see the first hint of a problem.  Though these have all been vital contributors to the economy in their time, that time is firmly in the past, at least as far as the UK is concerned.  Shipbuilding and coal were both casualties of the Thatcher years, fishing has been hit by dwindling stocks resulting in EU quotas (watch this space one Brexit kicks in), we’re all trying to cut back on our salt intake, and if there were ever two words guaranteed to lead to a joke in the 70’s and 80’s it was British Rail.  In short, Blyth has long seen economic decline, and for many years was known for having one of the worst drug problems in the UK.

The town’s tourist website has little more to offer than the facts in the previous couple of paragraphs, so when I had to visit to collect an eBay purchase I had no real subject in mind.  That meant I had to play safe and head for the coast where some long exposure photography was bound to bring results.

The multiple groynes that prevent the erosion of the beautiful sandy beach were one option, the long shot down towards St Mary’s to the south gave another, but that’s a lighthouse that we’ve already covered here so best look north where there’s a new lighthouse to add to the collection at the end of a pretty intriguing pier whose latticework topping gives it a unique aspect.  This is the East Pier, a continuation of a spit of land that runs from north of the River Blyth’s mouth and provides the protection that made this such a busy port.

There’s another lighthouse in town, one of a pair of “high/low lights” similar to those at North Shields, though there’s no light left, just the tower.

Which makes it very frustrating that any references I can find to Blyth lighthouse always take me to that structure rather than the one in these pictures which was built in 1907.

Looks like I’ll have to overcome my prejudice and come back to find out more for myself!

Glorious Food?

In the last year I’ve delivered a lot of training on the subject of the forces that drive change and how organisations respond to those forces. One of the examples that seemed to emerge regularly from those discussions was the way in which the UK has become more of a “foodie” nation. We talked about what might have influenced that (TV chefs, foreign travel, availability of ingredients, immigration) and the way in which some businesses have thrived or changed as a result (Waitrose, Marks & Spencer).

Much of that has been as a result of Italian influence; the writing of Anna Del Conte, restaurateurs like Carluccio, Contaldo and Locatelli, and the passion for Italian food shown by TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson.  So might the Dalmation coast of Croatia, as a former territory of the Venetians, have a great food culture?

There are enough influences to suggest that there might be.  Apart from the Italians, Turks and Hungarians have occupied these shores, though of course that doesn’t guarantee culinary success; our own Norman invasion and decades of links to Northern France didn’t seem to inspire a great tradition in England!

At this point I should caveat what is to follow; I’m in no position to genuinely critique the regional gastronomy.  I spent only 10 days in the area (and yes I know it only took me half that time to be certain of the quality found in Bologna), and aside from a couple of ventures into Dubrovnik was confined to the island of Lopud where I stayed in a large and modern hotel complex, eating  both there and in some of the small restaurants around the bay.

The hotel pizzeria was reliable and with a large group of us that included teenagers that was no bad thing, but it’s hardly revelatory.  The other food in the hotel was often disappointingly adequate, with one exception.  That served at the wedding banquet was tasty and showed some signs of an attempt at presentation, but it didn’t generate enough enthusiasm to rate a recommendation.

This daughter survived!
This daughter survived!

In Dubrovnik there are plenty of choices that aspire to style and flair, though I only ate at one, where I had a delicious lunch incorporating something akin to a tuna burger.  As did one of my two daughters.  We were both ill later, though to be fair that could be coincidence.

We also experienced some horrible pasta and salads back on Lopud.  I’d read that the island was once predominantly used for herding sheep yet there were no delicious lamb dishes here because they’ve all gone.   Why?

I suspect the answer to all of this disappointment goes back to the nation’s history of communist rule and war.  The former would have discouraged the development of quality food, the latter would have rendered it financially difficult.  I’ve experienced something similar before.

Fear not though.  Dalmatia has a secret weapon.  All that coastline guarantees one thing; the freshness of the fish and when simply grilled and served with local vegetables it can be truly delicious and generous in its servings.  There’s something to be said for sticking to the knitting.

There’s another thing to be said for a place serving fresh fish.  They often have a great sea view.

 

 

 

Sea and Land

Back in my younger days my inner nerd was satisfied by hours spent on Sunday afternoons playing Dungeons & Dragons (coincidentally with the same George Mitchell mentioned in my last Merseyside post). One particular session comes back to me, as a combination of elements gave it added resonance.

Architecture & Morality
Architecture & Morality (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Lichway was set at the extremity of a coastal basin and aside from the undead hinted at in the title also featured a number of aquatic related beasts, and a great treasure defended by a threatening creature whose breathing noises pervaded a funerary complex and soothed the restless dead found there.  I remember it because that atmosphere continued after the game as I walked home in falling snow, listening to Architecture and Morality by OMD, and in particular the track Sealand, which seemed appropriate both to the game and to my home town on the coast.    (What a prescient album choice too, given the content of much of this blog!)

 

I was probably aware that OMD were from the Wirral from some music paper interview of the era, but never having been there it meant nothing to me, so I was ignorant of the fact that here too were people shaped by their life on the coast.  Influenced by the game I’d played that day, and the ethereal synthesisers on the track, I’d always imagined Sealand as some fantasy state on a cold northern shore, when in fact it is a real place on the Wirral peninsula, just across the border in Wales.

 

I mention all of this because my Merseyside trip brought so much of it back to mind (though thankfully not the snow).  Crossing the Mersey through the Kingsway tunnel (not the Lichway) I headed for the extreme tip of the Wirral peninsula, a part of Wallasey called New Brighton, so-called because it was developed as an attempt to bring some of the sophistication of a seaside resort to this area.  (New Brighton was later to be the subject of photographer Martin Parr’s famous series The Last Resort).  However in the year before that development was begun, a threatening creation was installed upon the rocky coast with the intention of defending a great treasure; the wealth of Liverpool that I referred to in that prior post.

 

 

This was a fort whose guns were trained across the Mersey to deal with any naval threat before it could reach the great port or its shipping.  Closed to the public except at weekends and school holidays I was unable to access the interior so couldn’t tell if it was filled with calming noises (perhaps the waves lapping against those thick stone walls?), but back in the 70’s a local group gigged there.  Yes, you’re a step ahead of me, it was an early incarnation of what was to become OMD.

 

Though still a part of the mainland, the journey under the Mersey and the sand blown environment beyond gave the place a feel like an island, though perhaps that perception was created by the fort, which though now joined to the land was once isolated by high tides, and the lighthouse which is so tantalisingly close but still “at sea”.

 

Once more pursuing my photographic goal of a decent long exposure shot, I imagined a result that would be as calm as those sleeping undead but the incoming tide came faster than I expected and moved my tripod enough to blur not just the waters but the whole image, despite the “snowshoes” I’d fitted to give me more stability on sand.

 

Retreating to the rocks I tried again.

 

Now this is how I imagined Sealand.

 

How Many Saints to Change a Lightbulb?

There’s something about small outcrops of land just offshore that become islands at high tide but allow access to the mainland when the waters recede. It’s a decent defensive strategy in a siege to see your attackers submerged twice a day, but it was also attractive for religious hermits who wanted some barrier between themselves and the world’s noises and temptations.

So think about the commune of Mont St Michel in Normandy, or perhaps the Cornish counterpart St Michael’s Mount (imaginative name!).  Just off the Northumbrian coast the monks of Lindisfarne were innovators in arts and sciences until the Norsemen arrived.  In all there are 43 such islands around Britain that are linked to the mainland by low tide causeways.

One of the smaller examples is an island just north of the mouth of the River Tyne.  It’s so close to land that the path to it can be walked in minutes, yet the North Sea is still a significant hazard.  Just weeks before my visit an upturned car was found on the narrow causeway, its driver dead inside.  The majority of casualties here have been on the rocks behind the island however for this stretch of coastline has seen numerous shipwrecks which is why a lighthouse was erected here in 1898.

In medieval times a small chapel was built on the island dedicated to Saint Helen, and the monks here maintained a light inside which may have been a precursor to the present tower, or could have simply had religious significance.  They referred to it as St Katherine’s Light, or The Lady Light.  Perhaps this second title was enough to create a little confusion for now the island is known as St Mary’s though there was no religious structure here of that name.  What little evidence of St Helens remained into the 19th century was destroyed during the construction of the lighthouse.

Though there was once a pub on the island, nowadays there’s just one private dwelling and the lighthouse buildings (cafe, visitor centre) but if you’re game for the vertigo inducing 137 steps to the top you can visit the lantern room at the top where a paraffin lamp was used to provide the light and a clockwork mechanism used to rotate the fresnel lens until electrification in 1977.  Decommissioned just 7 years later the lens was removed to a museum in Penzance so a smaller version tops the tower now.

The views along the coast are fantastic (and include the dome of Whitley Bay’s Spanish City for the Dire Straits fans out there), but it was the interior that really appealed to me.  The door way out onto the railed parapet around the lantern was firmly locked, though lighthouse keepers would have regularly ventured outside to clean the glass, and each May would be expected to repaint.  Can’t say I’d fancy that job but with three saints to watch over them I’m sure they were ok.

Maritime Powers

_pw_6011During the Rio Olympics I was in a Croatian bar with the ubiquitous TV showing live sport, though as the games were in progress it wasn’t showing football.  The event in question was sailing, and though I understood neither the captions nor the commentary, all I could see was the GB had a competitor vying for a medal.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries Great Britain was a world superpower based on one particular asset.  The size of her navy.  Only the Dutch rivalled us a master of the world’s seas.  As an island nation that’s not too surprising; we had relied on seafaring skills for food supplies, defence, trade and transport throughout our history and were at that stage building an empire with our navy at its heart that would transform the wealth of the nation.  (Damn those Wright brothers!)_pw_5072

Although I lived in a town with its own yacht club for many years, I never really developed much knowledge of sailing beyond being able to identify a laser class vessel by the insignia on its sail.  Consequently I had no idea whether the men in the British boat (470 class) were likely world beaters or not.  As it happened they were not and finished in 5th place (though we did top the medal table for sailing overall).  Instead the gold medal went to Šime Fantela and Igor Marenić, the Croatian entrants.  No wonder it was being given such prominence in the bar.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at their success however, for Croatia has its own maritime history.

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Ragusa Insignia, Customs House Door, Sponza Palace, Dubrovnik
Ragusa Insignia, Customs House Door, Sponza Palace, Dubrovnik

Prior to the exploits of Columbus, the Mediterranean was the most important body of water to Europeans and a succession of Maritime Republics held sway, of which Venice was one of the most important and enduring, but Amalfi, Pisa, Columbus’ home Genoa and more also established themselves as city-states whose power was derived from the sea.  And then there was Ragusa, though now we know it as Dubrovnik.

Of course the region produced natural sailors; modern Croatia may be small but its coastline is the most indented in the Mediterranean and runs to over a thousand miles in length.  Then add in over 1200 islands and you have over 2500 miles of coastline; being sailors was inevitable.  If you live on one of those islands (only 45 or so are populated) the boat is more important than any other vehicle, and so just like Venice, they put them to good use; one morning on the ferry to Dubrovnik we  were delayed in Koločep by a group of men who climbed aboard to unload a pallet of roofing tiles.  No cranes or derricks here, the whole job was completed in a matter of minutes by human chain.

Dubrovnik’s arsenal may not have had the size or significance of its Venetian counterpart (and now it’s a swanky restaurant) but this walled city held its own for 450 years until Napoleon intervened.  I think they deserved that gold medal.