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

Subterranean Homesick Blues

On the banks of the Tyne at Jarrow stands a strange-looking building; conventional brick walls, pretty ordinary windows, but with a roof that is definitely flying saucer.

The clue to its function lies in the fact that its twin lies across the river, just visible above the bow of a tug heading upstream.  This is one of the entrances to Britain’s first purpose-built cycling tunnel, though it also serves pedestrians for like the barrels of a shotgun this is two tunnels in one.  Opened in 1951 it incorporates what were at the time the world’s highest single rise escalators, though these days they are rarely active.  Luckily there are small lifts at either end.

I first visited the tunnel as a small boy, taken there by my godmother and her then boyfriend I think as part of a child minding session.  I probably never went near it again until 20 years ago when working on North Tyneside I would regularly cycle through it, both for the enjoyment of cycling but also more practically because it was faster than sitting in the queues of traffic that built up at the Tyne Tunnel for vehicles.

The tunnel then is an old friend, and though I no longer have cause to use it practically it remains an interesting spot for photographs.  I took my youngest daughter Holly there a couple of years back and miraculously found an almost identical shoot in a local lifestyle publication a few weeks later.

Like any old friend, the tunnel is showing its age, and what were once pristine ceramics are now crazed and cracked, giving rise to all manner of excrescences upon their surfaces.  As one pedestrian remarked on see me with my camera there today:

“It’s dropping to bits isn’t it?”

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!

Aside from its visible charms, the place also has its own unique soundscape, the buzz of cycle wheels spinning in an enclosed environment, the echo of distorted voices, the ebb and flow of footsteps and in between the constant hum of the strip lights whose fluorescence also shifts, creating an eerie movement in the shadows.

As I was ready to leave today I heard another sound.  A man virtually skipping down the static wooden steps of the escalator came into view, and John became today’s portrait.  I was less sprightly as I breathlessly climbed up to daylight once more.  Heavy camera bag you know.

Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues

No, I want an ark with a big room for poo.*

*Eddie Izzard – Noah’s Ark routine.

When I wrote about the changing weather conditions yesterday I had no idea what I’d unleashed!  I was aware of the gathering clouds overhead, and even shot a few (which served to remind me how badly my sensor needs cleaning!), but thought it to be no different to any other thunderstorm.  (Hard to tell, but these are colour images btw.)

Here in Whitburn, it didn’t even rain that much, and we live on a hill so why worry about the weather… except for the fact that my sister-in-law Dawn and her husband Roy were landing at Newcastle Airport and expecting me to be there to pick them up.

“Better leave early” I thought, “the roads all get a bit slow when things are wet.”  Master of the understatement as it turned out.  As I was leaving I heard that the A1, one of the three main routes between here and the airport was closed in one direction due to flooding.  Best switch on local radio to keep up to date in case it affects the other carriageway I thought… which is when the scale of this issue began to sink in.  Radio Newcastle had cancelled their usual broadcasting schedules to focus entirely on the disruption caused by flash flooding in the region. 

It wasn’t long after that that I encountered the first signs…  (Check out the wording of the poster on the right of the pair outside the church.  Rich!)

Testo’s roundabout is the point at which I would normally have to make a choice between the three cross Tyne routes.  I soon realised that the Tyne Tunnel was also out of the running.  It was closed in both directions, with stationary traffic tailing back the three and a half miles to the roundabout.  Remaining option – drive through Newcastle, with its undulating central motorway a likely receptacle for more flood water.  Joy.

I’d needn’t have worried myself – the next 7 miles were going to be more interesting that the centre of town as I soon found out…

I soon came to a standstill in heavy traffic, and as I crawled along had to contend with the challenges of communicating with Dawn and Roy, who were having problems with their mobile phone, my wife who was expecting to meet them later, and her parents.  Using mobiles, landlines, and even transatlantic facebook messages via Canada, we explored the option of finding hotel accommodation at the airport, but every room was booked.

No choice but to continue the crawl through the stinking waters.

Listening to the radio the stories of people pulling together in a crisis began to flood in (sorry), as did tales of the devastation caused by a relatively short spell of rain.  The same vehicles would creep by on the right for a few yards, before being passed again as my lane of traffic took its turn to inch forward.  My companions were the radio presenters, the anxious eyes of an Asian girl in the mirrors of the mini in front of me, and the pursed lips of the woman in the VW behind.

One of the worst affected areas was Heworth, a transport interchange where buses couldn’t get through the water and the trains were all cancelled.  Nevertheless people had made their way here, only to have to walk the remainder of their journeys home.  Cars were submerged in the car park, and the only way around some of the floods was to take a detour through the cemetery and then find a way to climb out over the walls.

Slightly further on and the damage being done to road surfaces began to emerge.  The cost of the clean up operations in homes, schools and businesses will be vast.

Power failures affected tens of thousands of homes, and in Felling the cars would frequently part (Red Sea-like?) to allow the passage of emergency vehicles, squeezing through on their way to evacuate people to safety from flooded residences using inflatable boats. 

All in all it took me 3.5 hours to reach the airport, a journey that should take about 45 minutes or so.  Remarkably I found a route back which included no hold ups whatsoever.  Bizarre.

Having dropped Dawn and Roy off, I returned home almost 5 hours after I had left, hearing on the radio the story of a young girl who, on her final day of work in Newcastle had been presented with a bunch of flowers that she had carried home all the way with her.  She had walked the miles from Heworth to Sunderland, climbed the cemetery wall, detoured through gardens and made it home at 22.45 with her flowers intact.  What a coincidence then that I should find myself sitting next to her in the hairdressers today!

Gabs is not my portrait though, for in one of those periods of total standstill I decided I should photograph one of those who were doing battle with me.  Anxious eyes or pursed lips?  I went for the lips and Karen agreed to be photographed.  Ironically the sun was now shining at its brightest and streaming through her windscreen created some harsh patterns of light on her face, but it did put some great catchlights in her eyes.  Thanks Karen.

Thankfully no evil giraffes about!