The Art Tardis

This isn’t my first blog about Staithes, the tiny village on the Yorkshire coast that was once home to Captain Cook, and given that it combines a built-in beauty with a shoreline location it doubtless won’t be the last.  Why this time?  Because since 2012 there has been an annual arts festival and this was my first visit.

With a number of creatives living there the town’s art gallery is always worth a visit, but as a space it’s never going to be able handle lots of visitors, and even taking into account the church hall and no less than three former Methodist chapels that would still make for a small-scale affair, albeit one that many villages would be happy with.  Not so Staithes.

The overflow car park!

To draw so much interest over 100 of the cottages in the little town are given over to pop up galleries for a couple of days, and even then the event is oversubscribed with painters, sculptors, silversmiths, potters and more.  There was even a female blacksmith taking part this year (Katie Ventress).

My motivation to be there wasn’t to buy; my walls have plenty of imagery on them already, though a monochrome watercolour by Suzanne McQuade tempted me all the same.  Instead I was there for a bit of inspiration and conversation; after all I’d spent my working week recommending that people who wanted to develop their creativity should associate with other creative people.  Suzanne’s other watercolours were of many of the same coastal scenes that have attracted me in recent years.

In contrast Rob Shaw‘s work in oils or acrylics is robust and dramatic, despite being of many of the same subjects.  His seas are grey and stormy, but in contrast his paintings of Staithes itself are bright and vibrant.

This highlights one of the areas where the artist has an advantage over the photographer; their ability to paint a scene as they would like it to be, unconstrained by the reality of obstructions, light or weather conditions.  I was shooting a lot of black and white this weekend given the flat, overcast day.

Another thing that surprised me was something I’ve long been familiar with as a photographer; duplication of images.  I’m always reluctant to take the “cliché” shot, the image that everyone already has in their portfolio, unless there is some technical challenge involved for me.  Why would I want to produce something that was already in existence?  Given the individual aspects of style I didn’t expect that the same would be a problem for the painter, and yet saw similarly sized images of the same scene, with similar colouring and composition in the galleries of Keith Blessed (in pastels) and Kate Smith (in oils), assuming my memory hasn’t deceived me!

In contrast there was one area where my camera gave me an advantage over the artist.  Portraits.  Shirley Hudson told me how long her works might take and the liberties she might take with colour (with the sitter’s agreement).  I walked out of her display and within minutes had captured multiple personalities.

And if you’re expecting to see examples of the art itself then you’re going to be disappointed.  Pictures of pictures aren’t my thing (unless by Renaissance masters!) and the spaces are often too tiny and packed with people to make this feasible.

There are of course works to see in town that are permanent features, and permanent features that have value in my eyes so I still shot plenty of images that were interesting to this artist’s eye, and to these can be added the wire and willow sculptures of Emma Stothard.

For me of course even the rocks of the breakwater have potential!


Glutton for Punishment

One of the advantages of living on your own is the freedom to indulge in whims.

This why only a couple of weeks after my unsuccessful attempt to find a beautiful sunrise over a frost covered Whitby I was setting my alarm for another 5.45 start, this time to try the coastal hamlet of Staithes.


I’ve been here before in the company of “one who got away” and so the town’s cobbled alleyways had nothing new to offer me beyond their emptiness so early in the morning, and consequently I found myself gingerly picking my way through brambles and briars on a hilltop called Cowbar Nab. Though owned by the National Trust I’m guessing they don’t want to give visitors encouragement as it’s predominantly a seabird colony.

Down below in the harbour I could see I wasn’t the first here. A man leaning over his tripod was presumably shooting the dockside buildings including the Cod & Lobster in the glow of the lamps that are dotted through the little town. No matter I was in good time for my objective; to see a sunrise breaking over the hills bathe the rooftops in warm, golden-hour light.

Instead my vantage point proved the perfect place to watch the clouds coalesce over those same hills so that any hope of seeing that golden light was completely extinguished. I know that you should never leave a sunrise too soon and so was patient enough to catch a trace of colour through the rain veiling the horizon, and again through the occasional fissures in the cloud but this wasn’t the scene I envisaged. I shot dozens of images but know all along that it would be question of choosing only one from among so many that differed only slightly as I tracked the light moving to the right.

Satisfied there was no more to be achieved I made my way down to the town in the vain hope of finding something interesting.  It’s hard to believe now looking at the handful of vessels that shelter behind the harbour walls or further up the Staithes Beck, but in the early part of the last century there were about 80 fishing boats operating here.

I reached the spot where my fellow photographer had stood earlier and tried a couple of long exposure images.  That’s when those clouds burst. First with rain, but then with hail driving from the North Sea.

One of the disadvantages of living on your own is the freedom to indulge in whims.

On A Cold & Frosty Morning

Stepping away from the heat generated by my last post and into the cold of a wintry Yorkshire, I returned to the town of Whitby in the hope of shooting a beautiful sunrise over the headland where the Abbey ruins are silhouetted. At this time of year the alignment means that from just out at sea this should be possible.

There are two issues with this; the first relatively easily resolved. Shooting from the sea, even were I to charter a boat would be a technical nightmare, necessitating fast shutter speeds to cancel out the boat’s movement, but in low light that would mean very noisy low quality images. The light trail made by one small vessel demonstrates my point, and that  was from within the protection of the harbour.  Fortunately the town has a solution.

Whitby has a plethora of piers. I exaggerate of course but on either side of the mouth of the River Esk are stone piers with a history that goes back to the 16/17th Century (though there had been wooden structures to protect the port since the early 14th). In the early 1900’s these were augmented by a pair of extensions that reached further out into the North Sea.

That level of engineering is no longer justified in a town where fishing and exports of alum are no longer major industries and the piers have suffered; the bridge linking the East Pier extension to its parent is long gone so it is now accessible only by boat. Scarborough Borough Council now faces the challenge of how to maintain, repair these structures and though economically unattractive they are so much a part of the town that any proposal to scale back or abandon them would be controversial.

The West Pier extension is still intact however and so I found my spot to wait in the January cold for the sun do its job. And here was my second issue.

Being an hours drive away from Whitby requires a certain amount of commitment to be there before first light, a commitment that there is no guarantee will be repaid. Even in January I had to be up at 5.45 and as the year progresses so earlier sunrise makes a return trip less likely. So I gambled on the sun repaying my enthusiasm.

Sure enough the sky began to develop a pink tint just above the ruins. It grew brighter and spread a little further, and then… nothing. Gone. Just the clouds, the sea, the cold and the walk back to town along that pier.  


At least the tourists and Goths that throng the streets hadn’t risen yet so I could capture some more genuine local colour.

I did at least catch the golden hour around the marina as a consolation prize, and amongst the seabirds found an unexpected sight.  At least there was some red about that winter’s morning.

Thwarted or Thrilled?

Manchester Cathedral, Hexham Abbey, Ripon Cathedral.  Three great churches that impressed me with the quality of the wood carving in the choir stalls, and in particular the misericords, the folding wooden seats that provided support for those standing for long periods of prayer.  My research into the history of these buildings pointed me to another that would complete my collection; as it features the work of the same carpenters as Manchester and Ripon.  Beverley Minster.

Larger than many English cathedrals this parish church inspired the design of Westminster Abbey, and is a rare example of a church that survived Henry VIII without the installation of a bishop.

As I was already in East Yorkshire to visit Spurn I finally had my chance to go and inspect the misericords and other woodwork produced by the Ripon carvers..

Or so I thought.

I’d managed to time my visit to coincide with one of the two occasions each year when the church plays host to a flea market.

I took my usual wide-angle shot along the nave and there was enough height above the chaos to show me what a magnificent building this is, but not one that was going to produce a quality photograph on this occasion.

What was worse was that the choir was closed, doubtless to protect the precious carvings from accidental damage with so much humanity moving about.

Squeezing my lens through the metal grille I was able to capture some of the upper details, but the misericords were a write-off.

Frustrating though this was, there was still plenty to reward my visit, and in a totally unexpected way.  So many early English churches have seen their decorative elements, and particularly the statuary removed during the reformation and the years of the Civil War, yet here there is an absolute wealth of art remaining in the masonry.

The usual patterns of repeating columns and arches are present, and perhaps because of the pale stone that forms them they have greater impact than usual.

Look closer though and there is such an abundance of adornment throughout the building as if craftsman after craftsman has sought to outdo each other with their skilful detailing, their grand vision, or even just their sense of humour.

Considering my movement around the building was so restricted I was astonished at how many images I shot during my short visit (far more than are shown here) so perhaps I will return some day and give it the attention it really deserves as I did at Ripon and Hexham.  Perhaps then I’ll learn more about the people who have played a significant part in the building’s history or vice versa.

For now though I’m happy to have passed through its doors, however briefly.  If you get the chance then I’d recommend that you do too.

As far as the eye can. Sea.

Abstract panorama from Spurn Lighthouse

There are peninsulas and there are peninsulas.  The narrowness of the fragile spit that links Spurn Head to the mainland means it is easy to stand with water visible on either side of you.  Proceed south and the Head itself is more substantial, but climb to one of the highpoints and you now have a third watery vista ahead where the  North Sea’s salty waters blend with the silts, muds and fresh water that the Rivers Ouse and Trent feed into the Humber.    A sailors playground.

Yet in the 85 miles or so between here and Whitby, the East Yorkshire coastline is believed to have 50,000 shipwrecks, of which the most famous is probably the Bonhomme Richard.  Remarkably this was as a result of a sea battle in the American War of Independence.

Now I’d always assumed that the hostilities were confined to the far side of the Atlantic, but American naval hero John Paul Jones brought the fight to the British and engaged HMS Seraphis.  Though the British ship had the upper hand for most of this single vessel conflict, a falling mast from the Bonhomme Richard crashed into the British frigate’s hold and ignited the gunpowder there.  Most of the other vessels that lie on the seabed here didn’t have such spectacular ends, and fell victim to the rocks and heavy seas that crash against them.

Naturally Spurn has a part to play in protecting mariners and their craft and it does so in several ways.  Let’s begin with the lighthouses since they are my theme for the year.  Two of them.  One raised up, the other living dangerously by dipping a toe into the waters at each high tide.

There are records of lighthouses at Spurn dating back to the 15th century though the present examples are far more recent.  The lower light was originally one of a pair that would be aligned to mark the safe passage, though the original was washed away and this continued to be a problem until 1852 when the present design proved strong enough to survive the forces of nature.  Now the highlight’s days were numbered for 40 years later a single light was brought into service (the current black & white tower).  Nothing remains of the highlight that it replaced but the lower light stands defiantly in the Humber, though with a curious piece of redesign.  The lantern has been removed and replaced with a water tank.

The lights are augmented by another life saver.  Or several.

Spurn Head’s position makes it a good place to establish a lifeboat station to rescue those in difficulty whether at sea or in the estuary, but it’s remoteness and the transient existence of roads and paths from the mainland, renders that same location impractical in the event of “a shout”.  It would take too long to get there even on those occasions when it is possible.  Spurn is therefore home to the only permanently resident lifeboat crew in the UK.  Even with a team permanently at hand there are practical issues.

Their craft are moored on the Humber where the shallow mud flats mean that the high and low water marks are some distance apart.  No use anchoring your vessel after a high-water rescue and then finding it stranded on a mudflat next time you need it.  Instead the vessels stay some distance offshore, and the crew have a purpose built pier allowing them to reach them at any point in the tidal cycle.

Yet another organisation plays a part in the safety of shipping here though.  Another large structure, akin to an air traffic control tower looks out over the river mouth.  And that’s pretty much what they are: Vessel Traffic Services.

So plenty of help for the sailor.  But the lighthouse is surely the most elegant.

Second Stop At My Second Stop

Just a little under two years ago a change of route home from a work assignment took me to Ribblehead and its impressive viaduct (though after Berwick it seemed to have lost some of the ability to astonish).  Nevertheless the presence here in the remote reaches of Yorkshire makes it an attractive location for photography.  Surely if I timed my visit with the first morning of the year I might find it quiet enough to explore without any risk of stealing someone else’s shot or having mine photobombed?_pw_7855

Of course having already taken refreshment in Richmond I’d lost a little time, and my schedule slipped further when I stopped along the way to deal with the consequences of that pot of tea.  Naturally I disguised my activity by focusing a lens up the valley on hearing any approaching engines.  All of this prevarication meant that it was nearly lunchtime when I arrived at Ribblehead, and the verges were full of other vehicles._pw_7795-edit

If I’m honest, the best shots of the viaduct are probably those taken from a distance such as those in my last post, so I wasn’t sure what I would gain from getting closer, but undeterred I joined the stream of walkers making their way across the moorland.  Thankfully most of them were intent upon the snowy slopes of Whernside that lay ahead and so I was able to detour off the beaten path and get the structure to myself._pw_8006

Crossing beneath one of the vast arches I found a path taking me to the level of the railway, in the hope of an interesting shot of parallel rails curving into infinity, but in the end couldn’t get enough height to make this work, and so I looked for somewhere reasonably dry to put down my camera bag and switch lenses with the intent of framing shots differently on my return journey.  It was while I was looking around that I noticed a large depression which was almost perfectly circular.   Other shapes at odds with the landscape could be seen as I reached the foot of the slope too.

Reading one of the notice boards I learnt that this was more than just a rail crossing.  There had been inspection pits and workshops here too, as well as the shanty town where the workers referred to in my last post had lived (and died).  A great deal of human activity had been absorbed back into the land, meaning of course that this is a site ripe for some industrial archaeology.  Whether that ever happens will of course depend on it being of interest to some university archaeology department, and for the most part they look to more ancient remains.  Where are you now Time Team?_pw_7940-edit

In their present state there was nothing to photograph, though perhaps from the air?  Or the top of the viaduct?  That wasn’t an option as it is still used by trains so I must content myself with the arched bridge for now.  It’s not a bad consolation prize._pw_7877


Aberford Addendum

2016 has been a year of unforeseen events both politically and personally; so much so that it seems a lifetime ago that I visited Lotherton Hall and was surprised to find that it wasn’t the place I expected it to be yet it is only a few months since my visit and even less since I posted about it.

Despite all of this I didn’t forget the original inspiration for my visit; the grand and gothic Gascoigne almshouses, and so on one of journeys through Yorkshire I found time for a brief detour through the village of Aberford on the route of the old Great North Road.  Brief indeed, for the private ownership of the building means that I could photograph it from the roadside, but there was no opportunity for exploration.

A worthwhile detour nevertheless.


Perhaps a shade de trop for offices?