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?

Sea, Sand and Bits of Mellow Fruitfulness*

The end of October means its time to attack the garden.

Hedge trimmers, shears, secateurs and loppers are brought to bear, whilst roses, gooseberry bushes, brambles, and hawthorns deploy their spiny defences.  If I can corrupt a line from The Hissing of Summer Lawns it’s a case of

and on every nettle and thorn,

just a little blood of his own.

Still when the sun chooses to shine there are some seasonal images to capture, and apart from the susurrus of wind on dry leaves there is only the persistent nagging of a cheeky robin.  Like some back seat driver he tweets his advice from the safety of the tangled bushes; close enough to be easily seen but too mobile to pose for a shot.

I’d thought that with this horticultural start to the day I should find a portrait subject in the nearby allotments, but whilst there was a blazing fire there was no sign of those who had lit it or anyone else there for that matter.

So down to the sea again where things were somewhat cooler, but I did meet Sue and Denise who overcame different degrees of reluctance to be photographed together.  Close bosom-friends as Keats may say.

*apologies to John Keats whose Ode to Autumn deserves better treatment!

The Miner and the Polar Bear*

With the end of British Summer Time at the weekend, the mornings are brighter and more welcoming.  Consequently at 8.00am today there were plenty of people about making the most of the beautiful conditions.

At this time of year of course the sun sits lower in the sky, so that every detail on the beach is made visible in sharp relief by the long shadows that are cast.  At high water it is even possible to see what initially appear to be some sort of tracks along the sand, but are in fact the “fingerprints” left by each individual wave as the tide recedes.

To the south the banks of cloud that have deposited heavy rains are moving away, though the draining waters create a small river that divides the beach for those without the footwear to brave the water, or the energy to make the jump.

This worked in my favour for it meant that Lester and his dog Nanook were forced in my direction allowing me the opportunity to photograph them both.  Lester (whose name is actually Edward) is a former pitman, who has seen the closure of three different collieries during his working life.  Now 76 he is still a picture of health, not always the case with those who have spent their lives inhaling coal dust.  Initially I photographed him and Nanook individually, explaining that the lens I was using was too tight to shoot him full length without backing off some distance.

Quick as a flash he was crouched down alongside his dog and the problem was solved.  His knees must be in good nick too!

*Nanook (or Nanuk) is the Inuit bear god.

Same sh*t, different colour uniform…

…is how someone described the result of changing employers to me recently.  It seemed to sum up many people’s experience very nicely, and provided a parallel to my experience today.  For a change I headed north before hitting the sands, and strode out over the dunes at South Shields.

It had originally been my intention to try to find some nice leading lines from the rough fences that criss-cross the dunes, but on discovering that the fences were there for the protection of rare plant species the option to trudge amongst them was gone.

And so I reverted to type, walking the high water mark in search of interesting flotsam, chatting to kite surfers, and photographing anything that caught my eye, which was much the same as I usually shoot at Whitburn!

The two kite surfers were Mick and Mark, two brothers out celebrating the latter’s birthday with a bracing dose of sea spray.  If you enlarge the vertical shot with the kite at the top, you’ll see Mark horizontal in the breakers.  You certainly know how to party guys!


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

The Gathering Part II

The location of the second gathering taking place this weekend was West Hall, or rather the grounds of what was once West Hall, the former residence of a local magistrate which was demolished half a century ago.  To the north lies a kennels, to the south a scout camp, and it was here that I met the participants of The Celtic Gathering.  They weren’t boy scouts.

As I found out, they weren’t Celts either for this was a motorcycle rally.  As Steve, one of the organisers explained, most biker rallies tend to be associated with heavy metal, so in the interests of something “a bit more folky and fiddly” the Celtic Gathering of bikers from across the country came together for the first time four years ago.

Meeting on the Friday, they set up their tents, cooking and performance areas and enjoy a couple of days together, a couple of live bands and a couple of beers (or more) before heading home on the Sunday.  The event is certainly a success; originally attended by about 80 bikers, there were three times as many on site this weekend, and more continued to arrive which was creating some logistical problems in terms of finding remaining spaces to pitch camp and park up.

Wandering amongst them in a sea of black leather and death’s-head t-shirts I encountered a really friendly bunch of people, with some amazing machines, and I was invited back for the live entertainment later that night.  Having had our own party at home we didn’t make it however (walking in a straight line was proving problematic) but thanks to Steve, Dave, “Trog”, “Scratch” and everyone else who made me welcome with my camera.  (click on any image in the gallery to open larger versions in a carousel)

As you can see, the motor enthusiasts in Whitburn aren’t confined to two or even three wheels.

My portrait today is of Steve who sat me down and gave me the history of the event, and the thinking behind it.  Shooting in a tent and under trees gave me little light to capture something really sharp, so whilst this isn’t technically great quality, and does feature a little movement blur it’s fitting that he should have pride of place and I still like the way it has turned out and the way it captures this nice guy.

Food, Glorious Food

In Newcastle today I knew that I would find someone to photograph.  What I did not know was that this was the final weekend of the annual EAT! festival run as part of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative.

In the past the festival has included some great ideas (restaurants in people’s homes), some spectacular stunts (dining suspended from the top of the car park made famous in Get Carter) and some pretty strange ideas (did I dream the 3D map of Tyneside made from cake?).  I’m not sure what was on the agenda this year, but I knew I’d get some colourful images and these are in the gallery below. (click on the first image to open an enlarged slideshow)

Remarkably I managed to walk my away around many of the stalls without succumbing to the temptation of colours, textures and aromas.  Incidentally the chap featured in the header wasn’t present at the festival – he’s still somewhere in my garden unfortunately!

Anyway, before I reached the gastronomic gala, I had already found today’s portrait.  He was sitting outside the Theatre Royal having a drink with a friend, and the combination of hair, glasses, beard and T-shirt gave him a cool celeb-like look.  Sort of Elton John meets Giorgio Armani by way of Bruce Willis.  Actually he’s called Lenny.