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.

And the wind cries…

My former spouse was one for frequently bemoaning the weather we experienced on the North East coast;  it was always warmer inland, or drier in the South, that sort of thing.   Personally I loved the coast in all weathers so was happier with my meteorological lot, but even so this was a week in which those in the North and East must surely have been relieved to be here.  Britain has been lashed by storms from the South and West, with homes hit by power cuts after high winds, floods after heavy rains, and lives lost as spectators have been swept out to sea by waves magnified by a combination of high tides and gales.

We’ve had our fair share of rain in our corner of the UK, but have been relatively unaffected by the storms.

If I’m honest, I would have love the opportunity to photograph some of the gargantuan seas, but our shores remained calm.  Nevertheless, my passion for seascapes reawakened by my recent trip up the Northumbrian coastline, I was drawn back to St Mary’s Island, near Whitley Bay.  I’ll blog more tomorrow about the nearby Seaton Delaval Hall that was my main objective, but couldn’t resist the chance to combine sky, sea, and structure while in the area.

Perhaps the wind brought me back.

Somewhere a Queen is weeping,
Somewhere a King has no wife.
And the wind it cries Mary.

Jimi Hendrix – The Wind Cries Mary.

St Mary’s Island
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Flying North


I’m staring right into the light
And I’m drawn in like a moth
And I’m flying North again…

Thomas Dolby – Flying North

To be fair, I wasn’t flying.  I’d driven to the first of my three stops this morning, but the moment I stepped from the car into wind ripping along the North Sea coastline, becoming airborne was a distinct possibility.

My “home” beach is of course the elongated bay of Whitburn, Seaburn and Roker, but since moving away I’ve visited a number of other stretches of golden sand in search of something to point my lens towards, so this morning took me to spots that I’ve never visited before, despite being a resident of the North East for all of my life.

Emerging from the Tyne Tunnel I began in Whitley Bay, a town famous in my youth for its amusement park; the Spanish City immortalised by Dire Straits.  When I worked in Whitley Bay 20 years ago it was closed and decaying; the seaside resort becoming better known for its pubs and clubs.  This era too has passed, Newcastle greedily snapping up the Geordie Shore element in its endless maw of happy hour bars.  My objective was a little north of the town, the island of St Mary’s and the lighthouse upon it are iconic to photographers, so it was an obvious target.

The lighting and sea conditions weren’t going to provide anything truly outstanding, but I managed to snatch a few HDR shots before the wind was joined by rain and this was not the place for a camera to be abroad.APW_5400

I stopped next at Seaton Sluice, but have been here before so grabbed a single image to evidence my return, but with the driving rain continuing took little persuasion to hurl myself back into the shelter of my car.APW_5413_4_5-2

By the time I got to Blyth, the rain clouds had been pushed out to sea and the sun was shining.  I’m far less familiar with Blyth, though in the past its residents have been notorious for drug use, providing a steady stream of residents for HMP Acklington a little further up the coast.  Attempts to regenerate the town, have focused on the beautiful stretch of coastline that it possesses, and the installation of two rows of beach huts has generated more interest than could possibly have been imagined.  I felt obliged to shoot them, but it was the shore that I loved so much.

Blyth, Beach Huts
Blyth, Beach Huts

The lighthouse, breakwaters, and wide open skies were beautiful.  I’m sure I’ll be back.

But there was more to explore still.  Newbiggin boasts an artwork which required a far greater degree of investment than Blyth’s wooden shelters, yet it has proved to be highly controversial.  Sean Henry‘s Couple, a painted bronze of a man and woman staring out to sea seems innocuous enough, and even though they represent a view of North Easterners that some feel falls a long way short of aspirational,  his work Man with Potential Selves in central Newcastle draws very little criticism, or indeed attention.  What makes Couple so different is the scale.  The figures are set on a large white platform on the town’s sea wall, making them hard to ignore if you are looking out to sea as so many of us do, hard to ignore because each of these figures is as tall as a double-decker bus.  APW_5646

Sadly it was one of those artworks that left me unmoved, though the sculpture has featured in some beautiful imagery, though inevitably it is the sea and sky that provide the drama and the pictures work in spite of rather than because of the sculpture.

Nevermind.  My memory card already held something truly beautiful, at least to my eye.  It features the first of my pitstops, but shot from the third.  Even the iconic St Mary’s can provide a shot that stretches way beyond cliché. (It’s worth clicking to view as large as possible)

St Mary's Lighthouse, from Blyth South Beach
St Mary’s Lighthouse, from Blyth South Beach