Return to Mulberry*

APW_0141_2_3-EditDown the beaches
Hand in hand
Twelfth of never
On the sand
Then war took her away

Europa and The Pirate Twins 

I must apologise for bringing Thomas Dolby back to these pages with such indecent haste, but his showing/performance of The Invisible Lighthouse at the Tyneside Cinema resonated so strongly that I could not resist.

English: Orford Ness Lighthouse
English: Orford Ness Lighthouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film is a blend of autobiography (though whether the subject is Dolby or his beloved Suffolk coastline is a moot point) and documentary exploring the decommissioning of the lighthouse that illuminated his childhood bedroom.  In doing so he also explored the fragility and validity of human memory; his own recollection of a catastrophic Aldeburgh conflagration, being slightly undermined by his mother’s observation that he was in another county when it occurred!  He began to question how powerful the light had been since to his adult eye it seemed week and insignificant, though thanks to a 50-year-old copy of the Guinness Book of Records he was able to establish that the light had once been the brightest in the world.

His love of the North Sea coastline with its tidal erosion, wartime defences, UFO sightings  and piercing lighthouse beams may be romanticised but has long formed part of the mythology of his oeuvre.

APW_0180_1_2-EditPerhaps this partly explained the appeal that his songs hold for me. This is after all the same grey sea that I have looked on for years, facing the same invaders, ravaged by similar natural forces, and protected by red and white monolithic guardians. The beam of Souter Lighthouse was as potent in the mind’s eye of my youth as Orford Ness was in his, and indeed it also held the title of world’s brightest at some point in its history.  Souter has not troubled the night sky for 25 years and even its foghorn gave its last blast earlier this year.


I asked him how he might change the experience when he takes the film on tour in the US, for this seemed an essentially English experience. His response was that other than the addition of a second performer providing live foley (sound effects) he didn’t intend to change it at all, explaining that whilst the loss of the lighthouse was a real source of nostalgia for those neighbouring the North Sea, when taken further afield it becomes a metaphor for any significant artefact facing obsolescence, and therefore capable of generating a similar emotional response.

For me there was no need of metaphor for though the topography of the South Tyneside coast is very different to that of Suffolk, Souter may well face the same fate.  The Leas car park, one of a pair used by visitors to lighthouse (which like Orford Ness is managed by the National Trust), closed several months ago following a cliff fall, and it will never re-open.  It is currently being reclaimed by nature, as it awaits it’s sudden and inevitable descent to the shore.APW_0137

The power of the sea is clear, the coast is scattered with limestone stacks and sea-washed caves.

So what would you mourn if its loss was imminent?

When I was small
I was in love, in love with everything
But now there’s only you

*Cloudburst at Shingle Street




Within the few miles of coastline that I frequent to find images for this blog there are some obvious subjects; Marsden Rock for example, or any of the lighthouses from Roker to St Mary’s.  The trouble is that they are obvious to everyone else too.  Souter Lighthouse, apart from being historically significant as the world’s first electric powered lighthouse, is also very beautiful so naturally is the most photographed location hereabouts.  How do you take photographs in these locations without descending into cliché?

Trying to find something new might mean shooting in challenging lighting conditions, finding a new angle on an old favourite or perhaps both.

As I’ve been thinking about trying to shoot Marsden Rock at sunrise I decided to recce the spot today, and was blessed to find I had the whole of Marsden Bay to myself.  Not ideal for finding portraits, but fine for getting your feet wet while trying to shoot long exposures of the tide washing over the rocks.  Oops.  Getting a bit clichéd again.

After a moment or two shooing the Caryatid-like pillars that nature had carved into the cliffs here I found my spot and was luck to have the bonus of a band of rain passing in the distance to give contrast to the image.

Sadly the compression required to produce this image for the web has produced banding in the top left which isn’t present on the original.

Quite like this one and might have pursued the idea further had the rain not decided to come closer.

By the time I climbed back to the cliff tops it had of course passed by, leaving the sun to break out and create a perfect rainbow which I duly photographed.  Or should that be dully photographed.  I couldn’t find much to make of the view that I was presented with, and would have preferred to crop down to a small segment if only there’d been something interesting at sea to aid the composition.On then to Souter.  Tried a few shots from higher ground and low angles and these might have worked, but then I found something a bit different in a puddle left by the departing rain.  There’s a shot of the place that I haven’t seen before.

Still no portrait though, so back to home turf where I spotted an elegant dog posing by the water’s edge.  Good thing I was quick as the pose didn’t last long – the arrival of a small flock of birds skimming the water proved just too exciting.

Her owner, Carol, walked with me for a little way and told me that she was an artist so we discussed the patterns of light that had been at play all afternoon, and the icy blue reflected from the waters.  I had found my portrait and it seemed appropriate in the processing to use a slightly heavier texture than usual to give a more painted feel.  I hope you like it Carol.

Not for agoraphobics

The South Tyneside coastline is a rugged place of crumbling stacks, caves and blowholes, and historically has been so for some time.  The rocky coastline was perfect for breaking ships, and the numerous coves and caves perfect for wreckers and smugglers to hide themselves and their booty.These days much of the coastline is given over to leisure.  The former pit village of Marsden is long since removed from both map and landscape and is now a nature reserve.  North of here is the National Trust property Souter Lighthouse and between that point and South Shields stretches Marsden Leas, also owned by the trust.

This is a broad swathe of cliff top grassland that attracts folk from the area to enjoy all manner of recreation.  As a cyclist I have long been familiar with every twist and turn, every rise and fall of the main coastal path, though it is presents far less interest now that it has been tarmacked for much of it’s course. 

There are dog walkers and kite flyers aplenty, and the occasional equestrian too.  It’s a great spot for running, and has the added attraction that there are numerous sea bird colonies along it’s cliffs, notably Marsden Rock, which for most of my life  was a sea arch until rockfalls prompted its part demolition.

Much of the shoreline is difficult or impossible to access due to the effects of erosion which constantly force back the cliff top pathways, and whilst you may be able to see it from the water, the dangerous rocks keep vessels a good distance away.

There are plenty of places to sit and take in the views,  many provided in memorial to those who have enjoyed these two miles of open space, and others to those who have lost their lives on the same cliffs.

For all the flow of human traffic, the Leas are so spacious that they accommodate it all, with barely noticeable impact, which probably suits the wildlife.

Once a year however, all of that changes.  Preparations are already underway for next weekends Great North Run, which will bring tens of thousands to the Leas as both spectator and participant for this is where the race finishes.

Still, in the meantime it’s quiet enough for some baring of flesh; which is what Paul was doing when I met him and his dog today.

Hidden Gems on the Smugglers’ Coast

I was in the mood for a change from my usual patch today, but with little time to spare I turned to Sunderland’s near neighbour South Shields for somewhere to train my lens.  I’ve written about Shields before, but today I was specifically in search of art in the “Land of the Sandancer“.

I’ve been fairly critical of some of the attempts at public art in Sunderland, so how would South Tyneside compare?  I knew there were a number of works around the river mouth so set off to begin my survey at the Customs House and the Merchant Navy Memorial, sculpted by Robert Olley.


A major civil engineering project is underway there, and to protect the memorial it has been encased in tall wooden panels.  Not the stuff of interesting photographs.

Things soon improved when I reached what was the old Market Dry Dock and two pieces by Irene Brown.  Fleet, installed in 2004, may be a little tarnished now, but in contrast to the steel shapes of Sunderland’s Ambit it remains an attractive piece.  Nearby, casting her eyes over the Tyne is Spirit of South Shields (2000), a guardian for shipping that became symbolic of the town for a number of years.  In tiny detail at her feet are landmarks of Shields; the original lighthouse, a colliery, and the gates of Arbeia Roman Fort among them.

Moving on I managed to miss my next goal – a statue of local fishwife, nurse and smuggler Dolly Peel, who lived here in the 18th Century.  Perhaps it’s no surprise since she was skilled at hiding local seamen from visiting press gangs.

Reaching the coast I stopped at the “weebles” or more properly Conversation Piece by Juan Munoz (1998).  Another success, they engage with passing pedestrians and blend seamlessly into their environment.  But this is where I went off track a bit.

That splash of red, marking the Groyne lighthouse demanded more of my attention, and soon I’d forgotten art in favour of architecture.  More pictures of the Groyne, and then turning to look across the river to North Shields a wonderful sky crowned the view of the Fish Quay.  The two white towers are the High Light and Low Light, navigational aids that, when aligned by an approaching skipper, allow him to follow the safe channel into the river mouth.  As the course of the Tyne has changed over the years so has this channel, and you can see an earlier High Light on the hill-top between the two current structures.

And so with the bit between my teeth for navigational aids, where else would I head but for Souter Lighthouse, where I hoped to find a portrait too.  In this “contrasty” light, Souter did not disappoint, but I thought I’d missed most of the people as the car park was emptying as I arrived.I was in luck though and met a very friendly Hindu family, with Rathna agreeing to be photographed.  In Hindi, her name means gem, or pearl, (like my daughter Megan).  A gem of a smile certainly.