The Rock

When I was young one of the more popular attractions of the stretch of coastline where I lived was a place called Marsden Grotto.

English: Arch in Marsden Rock
English: Arch in Marsden Rock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It combined two elements; a beachside pub and restaurant called The Grotto built into a former smuggler’s cave for the adults, and an outcrop of rock with a natural archway that you could walk out to a low tide.  The latter was an obvious draw for children; the holes and passages eaten into the rock by the North Sea providing a source of adventure.  Bent double to avoid bumped heads on the limestone above you could test your courage by venturing deeper into the core of the rock, gathering winkles into your plastic bucket as you did so._pw_4313_4_5

Getting down to the shore was part of that adventure, choosing between the rickety wooden stairs that clung to the cliffside, or opting for the short walk along the tunnel that took you to the top of a lift shaft linked to the pub below.  From memory it was free to make the descent (encouraging you into the pub) with a small charge to return (when you were too inebriated or weary to face the stairs).  Counting the steps was part of the challenge for the younger visitor.

_pw_4310_1_2-2You’d think that its unique features would make for a successful business, yet the property has changed hands many times over the years, presumably because the maintenance costs (including that lift shaft) must be disproportionately high, and the turnover heavily dependent on our changeable weather.  As if that weren’t enough, the rock has also lost some of its appeal.

The outcrop has long fascinated people.  At the turn of the 19th century a set of steps were built to enable access to the plateau on top and though long gone you can still see the channel made to accommodate them today.  Various entertainments were staged there that could be seen from the nearby cliff tops.  I’ve even heard that it was used by the Victorians for al fresco dining, though if this is true it can’t have been much fun competing with the rock’s residents; thousands of seabirds make use of both the cliffs and the summit to build nests.

_pw_4238Twenty years ago however tragedy struck.  Constant erosion caused the collapse of the arch that had become a symbol of this stretch of the coast leaving two stacks as a result.  Fearing further rockfalls the National Trust (who own this area) demolished the smaller stack  to prevent possible accidents.   I’m guessing an archway is generally more appealing than a shapeless lump so visitor numbers have probably declined.

For a photographer it remains a compositional element however and it was nice to revisit a place of many happy memories before I climbed the steps back to the car.

There were one hundred and thirty one.

I think.





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


Are you experienced?*

When your eldest daughter (who is a Classics undergraduate) mentions something about being excited to be going to an amphitheatre and seeing Arbeia, your first thoughts are that she is planning to do some field work at the end of term in Roman South Shields.

I say first thoughts, because that word “excited” should really have given the game away.  There was another explanation.  Her friend Neil who she works with when home from Uni and his band; Wood & Wire were playing a gig in South Shields in an open performance space naturally called The Amphitheatre.  They were sharing the bill with another band called Arbeia.  Which is why I found myself on a windy seafront with camera in hand.APW_4172

I wondered initially how much company I would have, but the place soon filled up, and being a free gig attracted a pretty mixed audience; kids with bikes and ice creams contrasting with those who’ve seen it all before; grey men in grey clothes mixing with those who were more overtly rock n roll.

Now this was never going to be top drawer concert photography.  An open air gig in full daylight, with large windows behind the band that at times needed a full two stops of exposure adjustment, and no electric lighting.  Consequently as the musicians moved backwards and forwards under the raised promenade that they were using for shelter in case of rain, so they moved from intermittent sunshine to flat shade.  Thus the fading light of the day, and what to me seemed like a strange piece of programming, meant that for me it was a show of decreasing returns.

Arbeia are a talented bunch of passionate musicians, but as headlining act didn’t really grab my attention.  For me there’s a difference between listening to a band’s music and then going to see them live.  You want some degree of spectacle, and Arbeia’s appearance at the end, when the light had dulled and they had nothing to compensate with, meant that for me they dulled too.

Wood & Wire were the sandwich filler, and played an interesting set including the Beatles‘ Helter Skelter, a song seen by many as a precursor to Heavy Metal, and by Charles Manson as a coded prophecy of race war!  An interesting contrast to their own song Protector of Man.  I enjoyed their set, but their inexperience showed.  Regular guitar changes from semi acoustic to SG copy, necessitated retuning after virtually every song, which meant that every time they built momentum, it was swiftly lost again.  You can get away with this if you have a front man who can entertain the crowd while your guitarist makes these changes, but when that front man is the one concentrating on retuning someone else must take the mic; I know, I have played in a band that suffered in the same way.  (Where are you now Primary Colours?!)  Peter Gabriel‘s stories are loved by audiences, but they also serve a purpose to distract from more mundane activities.

What made this more noticeable was that Wood & Wire were preceded on stage by a guy who wasn’t even billed to appear.  A solo singer songwriter with stage presence, immediately likeable songs, and who of course benefited from the early evening sunshine.  Jonny Boyle should have been topping the bill.  When you look at his history, it becomes obvious why.  And visually he looked the part; Ray-Bans, black T-shirt, and a battered acoustic with pin-up decal that could tell some stories of its own no doubt.

Maybe I just appreciated an artist who was like me a little older than the kids.

*Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced?


New settings

I’ve been following a blog called experiments in experience for a little while now, as it’s author, Verena Fischer captures street imagery in Berlin.  She shoots exclusively in black and white, and whilst I wouldn’t shoot everything that she captures (I’m sure she’d feel the same about my photographs) the medium does work well in conveying a gritty, true to life feel.

This is my last weekend in this phase of my life, before I leave Sunderland and South Tyneside to begin a new adventure, and so as I was heading into town for a last-minute stock up on bubble wrap I decided to make it my final location here, at least for a while.  I wasn’t immediately inspired by a town where photography is seen as such a fine art as to be worthy of combination with this service though…APW_1434

Still, having got the supplies I needed, I made my way back to my car down a small alleyway that has often intrigued me, and where I have taken pictures before.  In its few yards it contains three strange objects which many walk by on their way to shops and football matches, yet I wonder how many give them any thought.  They intrigued me for years until I considered what lies beneath.  They are directly in line with the rail station and are ventilation shafts to a rail tunnel below.


These great triplets are not the source of my fascination however, for deeper in the alley’s darker recesses there is treasure to be found.  The side entrance of what was once a hotel remains as a two-dimensional reminder of past glories.  It is now no more that  a facade on the side of one of the shops of High Street, but I have come here many times to enjoy its incongruent beauty in decay.  I believe it is all that is left of The Three Crowns, an establishment that closed in the year I was born.

Whilst there I was joined by a few pigeons so made them the focus of my attention for a while.  I was hoping to strike lucky with an image of shopper and pigeon in step APW_1442together but it didn’t work out. APW_1461 More often than not the birds would be scared back to their perch above the bar, so I turned my attention back to its tiled exterior.  I’ve shot this scene a few times, but have never been entirely happy with the result.  The angle of the alley makes lighting a challenge, but today it was in my favour.  I deliberately underexposed to give richness to the shadows and then burnt the highlights back in when processing the image later.  Far from being a ruin in a dirty alley it now has a more stately, even ecclesiastical feel about it.

APW_1464Perhaps this was a nod to my new home, a small city with a religious history.  The resting place of St Cuthbert, having been carried from Lindisfarne by monks in search of a suitable spot.  They found a meander in the River Wear which was suitably imposing, though the subsequent construction of a magnificent Norman cathedral added to its majesty.  The adjacent castle seems insignificant by comparison.  I am of course referring to Durham, and what has become a World Heritage Site.

Where the view beneath the Wear Bridge in Sunderland had been of tyres and traffic cones embedded in the tidal mud, here the water bounced pure colour into my lens;  water so inviting it demanded you join in and play with it.  Another day maybe.  I’ve learned to my cost to keep water and camera at a safe distance from one another!

The necessity of man to give way to topography in building this city is there in the conflicting lines that give drama to an image.  In this case they take you all the way from the waterline at the river’s edge to the castle and beyond.  The Cathedral had its moment in this blog quite recently so it can stay out of shot today.  There is a sense of beauty and optimism about the place which is even reflected in a car park.  How many car parks do you see commemorating something as special as this…APW_1401-2

All of which I shall take as portentous for the future, and be happy to leave darker times behind.APW_1466-Edit-4-Edit

Incongruously Appropriate

Hanging near the “entrance” to Whitburn Village (actually the traffic island by the Jolly Sailor pub) there used to a painted village sign, depicting a fish rising from the waves.  I say fish, but it was one of those heraldic fishes that could just as easily represent a dolphin to the untrained eye.  I can’t remember the last time I saw the sign; it used to disappear to make way for other decorations at Christmas, but it seems that one of those occasions was the last and it hasn’t reappeared.

The symbol itself lives on in a somewhat simplified incarnation on the badge of Whitburn School, and a three-dimensional dolphin took its place.  This was a wire framework supporting a floral version that initially appeared on the same traffic island, but eventually moved to a spot near the border between Sunderland and South Tyneside where it slowly mouldered away into decrepitude.

Last year it was replaced by a more permanent version, carved from reclaimed timber and standing 10 feet tall it’s a nice piece of work… but it’s standing in a field with trees behind it.  To be fair, it is facing the sea, and has one eye on Latimer’s Sea Food Deli, so it’s probably not unhappy, but a dolphin in a park.  I know it is visible to all who pass along the coastal road, but it should have a more maritime setting surely?_MG_0994_5_6

The second incongruity I spotted when out cycling today was a simple park bench.  Nothing wrong with its location either.  Looking out to sea across the beach at South Shields.  What caught my eye was its temporary condition.  The recent storms have rendered it useless to all but those with the shortest of legs.

Maybe it works though.  They do call the locals sand-dancers.


In Them Thar Hills

A little inland from Whitburn lies another village on Sunderland’s northern fringes; the village of Cleadon, whose name, like the Buckinghamshire mansion Cliveden, points to its location amongst cliffs.  In Bucks those cliffs have been cut by the nearby Thames, in South Tyneside the name refers to Cleadon Hills, a limestone ridge dividing Wearside and South Tyneside that was once a series of islands in a prehistoric sea.

Though I had no idea of their geological origins there were a pretty cool place to play when I was young.  A couple of miles walk from home, and remote enough from shops to justify packed lunches, they were a location made for adventures.

Their elevation made them an obvious choice for kite flying, the wartime pillboxes (now demolished and overgrown with gorse) were a ready-made inspiration for such un-PC games as Japs and British, and for some their remoteness from home made them a safe location for illicit drinking and early attempts at smoking.  I recall one particular occasion when with Martin Burlinson and Stephen Jude I took a brand new pair of running spikes to try out on the plateau atop the hills.  That I lost them that same afternoon did not win me friends at home!

Though not of great height, their location as the tallest point for miles around makes gives them clear views towards Tyneside in the north and Wearside to the south, so it is believed that the Romans at nearby Arbeia in South Shields may have stationed a look out post here.  If that is true then no visible signs remain and the site is dominated by two much later structures.

The first is the shell of a 19th century windmill, similar in design to those nearby in Whitburn and Fulwell, its working life curtailed by a storm after fifty years of service, then used for artillery practice during the first world war.  Its workings removed and its timbers long since rotted away, its masonry nevertheless stands proud.

The second structure is altogether more ornate, for an Italian bell tower rises to the west of the windmill.  The campanile holds no bells however for this is in fact a chimney, part of the water pumping station sited 100 feet below the tower’s apex.  Pumping stations with their accompanying reservoir were other sources of attraction for young boys as potential sources of frogs and newts.  Cleadon’s defences were impenetrable however, its high walls not only difficult to overcome on entry, but preventing a speedy exit if caught trespassing!

The area has always been a popular spot for equestrians; my daughters both learnt the basics nearby so it was not surprise that I should meet two women out for a ride today.  Unfortunately the 70-200mm lens that I had fitted was not built for including both, except at distance, and it was a challenge to fit both horse and rider in for either of the pairings.  This then is Lucy on her mount Trooper (not the quality I would like to do justice to such a beautiful smile, but that was the trade-off for backing away to include Trooper).

From such a lofty vantage point I wonder if she spotted my running shoes?

Home At Last*

I know this super highway
This bright familiar sun
I guess that I’m the lucky one
Who wrote that tired sea song
Set on this peaceful shore
You think you’ve heard this one before

My work in Northamptonshire done, it was time to head north once more, and I arrived home just in time to take a short detour to reacquaint myself with the cliffs of South Tyneside bathed in low sunshine.

I seem to have timed my journey to avoid some serious rain for the roadsides are flooded, and car parks awash.  It did however give me the opportunity for another cliche-buster image of Souter Light so that was a nice bonus.

Preparing to leave the National Trust car park was a lady resplendent in a black hat that I knew would make a good portrait.  Patricia was a little concerned, “I always look gormless in photographs.”

I promised that she wouldn’t and as we talked she told me how much she enjoys photography, and that she had recently taken her Pentax to the monastery at Monte Cassino, site of many battles during its long history due to its strategic position overlooking one of the main routes to Rome.  Imagine her disappointment then to find that she had left her battery charger at home.

I’ve had a similar experience when on holiday in the Italian lakes, but was fortunate that other members of my family were better equipped.  In Patricia’s case another visitor to the monastery came to her rescue and has sent her his pictures.

Time to live up to my promise of not making her look gormless then.  It wasn’t too much of a challenge really; I see wit instead.

*Steely Dan – Home At Last