There is a saying here in England, ‘nice weather for ducks’. It is generally used only when it rains, of course. We have it wrong. Summer is nice weather for ducks… they certainly have the best of it, being able to plonk themselves in a nice, cool river and let the water carry away the heat.
We don’t do weather well in England. Which is odd, because, on the whole and barring the disastrous and tragic exceptions of major weather events, we live in a very moderate climate. In winter the country can grind to halt with a few inches of snow. We complain when it rains, then preen ourselves on the beauty of our green and pleasant land… and grumble about hosepipe bans when it doesn’t rain.
And then there is summer, brief though it may be. Midsummer saw temperatures here lower than the midwinter temperatures in parts of Australia. With some justification, therefore, we complain about still wearing woollies and turning the heating back on. Then we have the ludicrous situation of leaving for work wearing a jumper in the freezing dawn, only to have the sun come out and cook the country. It was borne home on Wednesday when the temperatures soared. Half the population shed clothing and bared tender flesh to the sun, many, with such unaccustomed exposure, rapidly turning a nice shade of scarlet. Others headed for the shade, closed the curtains and like vampires or trolls, fearing the kiss of the sun.
I am of the latter bunch… and, let me make this clear once and for all, I am the only person allowed draw comparisons between my person and that of a troll… Others may do so… at least one probably will… but they do so at their peril…
I could, of course, simply complain about the humidity of summer heat in this country. That is a common favourite. I might mention the fact that fair skin burns… except mine doesn’t as a rule. I could fall back on the consequences of the exploding coffee pot, or the misbehaving extremities… which all give me a perfect excuse for staying out of the sun…
But the truth is, I don’t like it. Not when it gets that hot. I feel as if I’m frying. Melting. And, enrobed in a certain percentage of fat, I find it extremely unfair that in this heat… I don’t.
Put me high on a northern hilltop, however, and I am perfectly happy, no matter what the weather. The exhilaration of a thunderstorm or a windy day, hail, sun, rain or snow… Which is just as well, as that is where I am going for the weekend, and all of those have been forecast apart from the snow. So whatever the weather decides to throw at the hills, I’m guessing the ducks won’t mind. And besides… we have a book to publish 🙂
Some experiences are tiny and subtle; you don’t expect to remember them. But, days after, I was still thinking about that line of writing on the wall, in the last of the summer sunshine…
I’m a north-west lad; deeply Lancashire in my roots, though well-travelled from a business perspective. But one of my favourite parts of the UK is the North-East coast, from Whitby all the way up to Scotland, most of it in Northumberland.
This land of history and mystery used to be its own kingdom. To my mind, there is still a sense of the otherness in its hills and perfect beaches – and the people are friendly and usually welcoming.
We were spending a few days in Almmouth, that harmonic delight of estuary village meeting sea; en-route to a reunion in Edinburgh.
The oldest of the Alnmouth bridges crosses the River Aln to give the village its main access to the mainline East Coast railway station (Edinburgh in 60 mins), and the beautiful ancient town of Alnwick, ancestral home of the Percy family, who kept out the marauding Scots… Say it quietly, a good number of my cousins are Scottish.
As we often do on these trips, we were catching up with a diverse group of people, dotted along our route, including Cathy, a long-standing friend of my wife, Bernie, from the time they both worked in Bournemouth.
A few years ago, Cathy, now approaching retirement from the NHS, relocated to Whitley Bay, north of Newcastle. She had always wanted to live by the sea, and settled in Weymouth for a while, but found it too far from other places she needed to be.
Then she found her eldest son was planning to move in Teignmouth, just north of Newcastle, where he had been at university. Like his mum, he was attracted to that stretched of what was the Northumberland coast.
Cathy had a limited budget, but was delighted to discover that nearby Whitley Bay was not only affordable, but undergoing a resurgence and considerable ‘gentrification’. Formerly the haunt of the worst kind of drug dealers, facsimiles of whom seemed to feature in the ever-popular Vera detective series, it now teems with individual boutiques, quality cafes and restaurants, and coffee shops.
Locals say Whitley Bay is now safe and prosperous, yet hasn’t lost it’s common touch…
After refreshments in her sea-facing garden, Cathy took us on a guided tour of the promenade and resurgent town – the last stop on the northern leg of the Newcastle Metro line.
For a while we alternated descending and climbing back up the various sections of the expansive promenade. The sea is a long way below this section of coast road, and I wondered whether my iPhone camera would do anything useful at that distance?
After about 30 mins of walking, it was obvious that we were approaching the centre of town. Two things were of immediate interest to my photographer’s eye: a giant white building looking like a Moorish palace; and a wonderful view down to the beach, framed by curving stone walls.
Spanish City – the large white ‘palace’ – used to be the main tourist attraction of Whitley Bay. It was built 108 years ago as a ‘resort within a resort’, and offered cafes, restaurants, entertainment and a set of rides for the young and the young in heart. For the sixteen years prior to 2018, it stood derelict, until being restored and refurbished.
In July, 2021, the listed ‘Dome’ was reborn and re-opened by the local council after a £10million restoration, which included contributions of £3.47m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and a £2.5m Coastal Communities grant. It’s never looked back.
Cathy announced it was time for an ice-cream. There was a chorus of approval, especially when she crossed the coast road at speed and installed herself at the back of a short queue outside the famous Di Meo ice cream parlour. When we caught up with her, she explained that the queue was normally fifteen people deep, and she’d rushed to take advantage of this astonishingly smaller one – give it was one of the finest days of the year.
While she was queueing, I strolled quickly back to try the possible photo I’d seen. Two women were talking across a gap on the edge of a set of steep downward steps. Beyond was a panoramic view across the beaches and sea towards the distant St Mary’s lighthouse. Even in the bright sunlight of a pristine September day, it didn’t look as emotionally warm as it felt; so I took the shot with a view to editing it in a new (free) App I’d been recommended called Snapseed, made by Google.
That done (which was the work of a minute only) I crossed back over the road, just in time to collect my ice cream. We meandered slowly back, with Cathy telling the story of how the original Spanish City was etched into the memories of generations of both locals and visitors. She said there had been a famous quote, but couldn’t remember it.
Later, I remembered that I had taken a few random shots of the promenade’s slope near the ‘Dome’. One of them had Cathy’s quote. It reads:
“Whitley Bay… The Dome! the white Dome. It was the Taj Mahal to us…”
Some would laugh at it, but I thought it was a beautiful sentiment. Bolton didn’t have much in the way of glamour. But I remember the sheer sense of sophistication going into Bolton’s Navada roller skating rink as a child. I was entering a new world; and what the people of the old Whitley Bay felt about their dome must have been the same.
Now the people of Whitley Bay had their dome back, renewed and whole. It was a lesson in what we all experience – the familiarity of what we’ve grown used to versus the fading through time of what was once great. The ‘Spanish City’ had been wonderfully conceived, over a century ago, and its original vision had miraculously survived the inevitable physical decline.
The right energy and determination brought it back, justifying the sincere words on the curving wall.
My story ends there… apart from the editing I did that evening on the iPhone, using Snapseed to transform that view.
Above is the result: a picture more in tune with what I felt about the two women, the ornate steps, the sunny beach far below, filled with happy people in what was probably the last really hot day of 2021.
And in the distance the white St Mary’s lighthouse, surely one of the most beautiful symbols we have.
We are lucky to live in an age where we have at our fingertips (phone or tablet) far more computing power than would have seemed possible on a powerful desktop machine a decade ago.
Applications like computer aided design (CAD) have traditionally demanded more and more power, as the ability to envisage what is in the mind is translated to 3D drawings…and even virtual reality videos.
Photography is one of the fields in which the full power of the technology is readily available to the non-specialist.
Those who follow my blogs – and thank you – will know that I take a lot of photographs. Recently, I discovered that my library on iCloud held 140,000 images! Most of them I’ll never see again, and it’s a pain to sort through even a fraction, so I’ve started being ruthless with how many I keep.
The problem is the supercomputer in my pocket pretending to be a camera. With a bit of human direction, it’s remarkably good at capturing what is around me. Because it’s my phone, diary, dictation machine, notebook and many other things, I’ve always got it with me.
The power of modern phone cameras raises a few questions, chief of which is whether we still photograph ‘the real’?
There is a big difference between the image capture stage and its subsequent processing. If I wish, I can set the camera part to ‘filter’ what is there as it takes the shot. The downside is that I’ve therefore lost a lot of what ‘could have been there’ by post-processing the image, later. For this reason, I normally let the camera take the shot, ‘as it sees it’, adjusting only the composition; and that usually means the range from ‘telephoto’ to ‘close up’.
Phone cameras are poor at zooming into scenes. It’s asking a lot from those tiny lenses – computer-backed or not! But there is a style of landscape that responds well to the limitations of the phone camera. Consider the example below:
It’s a pleasing shot, and not posed. I simply kept my distance and let the camera reach into the lives of the two lovely people enjoying their moment; hopefully without intrusion. I have no idea who they were.
But what about this one:
It’s the same photograph, but processed after the event – and on my iPhone. Here, I’ve deliberately modified the look and feel of the original to tell more of the story – the link between the sun in the sky and the ‘receiving’ humans on the shoreline.
You could say it’s slightly ‘alchemical’ in its symbolism; combining ‘Earth’ – the beach; ‘Air’ – the sky; Water – the ocean; and Fire – the sun, now sporting four ‘wings’. The imagery is clear: the humans, below, are recipients of one of the best things in life (Love) via the gift of the ‘elements’, led by the Sun.
What is really there and what’s not? It’s impossible to discuss without getting a bit philosophical. We all see the world slightly differently. My eldest son is slightly colour-blind. He can’t see certain greens. Is his reality less? No two people will actually see the same scene, anyway.
The difference is not limited to perception of colour. We all react to what we see by modifying it with how we feel. We can’t change how our eyes biochemically observe; but we can deliberately choose to see something in a landscape that’s not there. But it might be there inside our powerful imaginations.
If what I’m trying to capture is the ‘feel’ of the event; the mood, even, then what I want often lends itself to the palette of modern editing tools, many of which are immediately available after taking the original photo. A photographic purist would say that I’m altering things; I’m changing what’s there.
Talk to most photographers, and they will say that the suite of digital editing tools they possess is simply the updated ‘dark room’ of days gone by – that photographers have always had ways to enhance what the camera takes.
In the beach photo above, I’ve reproduced the shot the camera took. No editing, except cropping the image for my purposes. Everything else is unmodified – and I had no desire to impose my own view as to how it should be seen.
The final shot, above and below, is an example of deliberately going out to find an image that matches a desired state. I wanted to find something natural that would suggest the germination of an idea and its transformation in the mind to a solid and workable reality.
Walking Tess, our collie, along this Northumberland beach as the sun was setting, I glimpsed the scene above. The well-defined ripples led the eye to the water, whose eventually depth absorbed them. The downward gradient of the beach took away the resulting flow from the small pool and it joined the sea.
For me it was a perfect metaphor, but left in its natural state, might not have conveyed the purpose with enough impact. Experimenting with the depth of colour and object ‘definition’, I was able to create something with much more impact.
Real or right? Only the reader can decide in each situation… But the modern photographer now has the tools to be both picture-taker and illustrator; and that can only be a good thing.
The final image, above, is an attempt to create a piece of art from a photograph. The original photo has been dramatically altered to create a ‘dreamy effect’. No ‘real’ photo would have these colours in it, but I wanted a ‘fantasy’ scene.
… So, we return to the quest and turn shining eyes to the south.
Not that we ever left it, yet the churches had definitely ‘fallen off-line’…
Until one particular stained-glass window in Skipton.
It is tempting to think that later traditions lose much that is essential to preceding ones.
In magical traditions derived from the Hebrews, the Archangel Mikael is a guardian of the south quarter and if a ‘Michael Window’ is present in a church, it is a relatively safe bet that it will be found on a south wall of that church.
So, why were we charging around St Michael’s, Hathersage, looking at stained-glass windows on the north wall, with such singular precision?
Because we were desirous of another window.
This headlong, wilful charge, bugles blaring, could well have been our undoing, had we been alone.
There was no ‘Michael Window’ in St Michael’s, Hathersage.
But there was this…
So, what to say about this banner?
It is a work of art, certainly.
It is a work of art that transcends the medieval style of its composition, although, the ‘S’ as an ‘eight’ and the ‘M’ as an ‘omega’ are both remarkable.
The ‘lance’ too, as ‘Celtic crozier’, is a sublime touch.
Was the dragon always golden?
Does this hue, denote the beginning or even the end of a process?
Was the beast once much bigger?
Is this really how one earns one’s ‘spiritual wings’?
The spirals on the Saint’s shield are, to say the least, suggestive…
Psychologist, Maurice Nicoll studied under Fourth Way exponents G.I Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, and presented his own philosophy in a series of works published during the Mid Twentieth Century.
In his seminal work, Living Time… he makes no bones about insisting that the psychological states and concepts that he is expounding, and their utilisation, are ancient and stretch back through Christianity, Judaism, the Greek Philosophers and on into the mysterious climes of Pre-Dynastic Egypt…
In re-presenting these ideas as a series of poetic explorations, author and essayist, Stuart France uncovers a series of links with the Mediaeval Traditions of the Northmen, and the Matter of Britain!
What is the original story of our week? How does the moon harrow hell? Prepare to be enthralled, entertained, educated, and enlightened, as new light is shed on the enigmatic figures of Wotan, Merlin, and King Arthur.
They do not write books like this anymore, if indeed they ever did!
We’re in the town of Cromarty, in the north-east Highlands of Scotland. We’re on the old quayside, looking across the Cromarty Firth at the land known as Ross – as in the county name ‘Ross and Cromarty’.
The quayside is the oldest section of the town, and represents well the evolution of this lovely community. Cromarty is one of the gems of this peninsula; known as ‘The Black Isle’. Named because of the difficultly of reaching it across the turbulent waters of the Moray Firth.
But the town of Cromarty, whilst appearing quite idyllic and prosperous, offers a strange contrast of landscapes…
The thriving metropolis of Inverness, gateway to this part of the Scottish Highlands, lies only thirty minutes south of Cromarty. It’s all very different from the days when the ‘Kings Ferry’ connected travellers by ferry across this waterway to continue their northwards journey on the ‘Kings Road’ to the farthest reaches of north-east Scotland, and possibly beyond, to Orkney.
Today there are vast, and award-winning bridges, but back then it was a long detour around the head of Loch Ness, or more likely, a boat ride from Inverness.
The view in front of us is divided; the huge oil platform ahead is ‘resting’. It’s been retired from active service in the North Sea, pending a rise in the wholesale price of oil. At a certain price point, it becomes viable to operate it again, and giant tugs will pull it out into active use in the seas off North-East Scotland.
We counted ten such platforms, all ‘resting’ or being maintained. It requires a skeleton crew onboard at all times, so it’s also expensive to park them in this way.
Beyond the array of the oil platforms lies a ring of beautiful mountains, many of them still snow-capped in this extraordinarily cold spring, where there is still frost in May.
We’re having a week’s break on the Black Isle, one of our favourite resting spots. It was originally booked a year ago, but due to Covid, we were offered a choice of refund or a year’s postponement. We choose the latter. It’s lovely to be back in this gentle part of the Scottish Highlands.
The other reason for being back in Cromarty is to scout out a possible location for one of our Silent Eye landscape weekends, which we hope to resume, soon. This part of Scotland was host to our ‘Pictish Trail’ workshop, last September and before the recent lockdowns.
Stuart and I will take turns to host the new series of ‘Landscape Workshop’, and other close friends of the School have offered to guest-host others in their areas, such as the sacred wells of the Malvern hills.
This time, I’m looking for something different, something that contrasts the ancient landscape with the harsh results of modern living and its associated technologies. It’s a topical consideration, and Cromarty is a fitting location…
The clash of unchecked technology and sustainable living is a central consideration, given the global warming background to all our lives.
There are few landscapes that bring nature together with the harsh sides of mankind’s struggle for survival and prosperity. Cromarty has both, and I want my mind (and emotions) to work on the potential this location offers.
There’s a conscience here in Cromarty. There’s also a rich seam of intelligence and consciousness. The locals work together to support each other with projects, craft workshops, theatre and books. You can feel that it’s not only peaceful but involved. It’s the kind of mindfulness that is productive and harmonious.
I asked the lady owner of the local bookshop about the contradiction of the presence of the giant rigs, just offshore, She smiled and said, “You just don’t see them after a while. They’re a part of the landscape.”
I think here’s a lesson there, positive and negative.
That sentiment of the ‘changed normal’ was what first made me think of Cromarty as a basis for a weekend, perhaps one that would contrast human ego and human soul; held, necessarily, in balance between the perceived ‘higher and lower’, where the stage for the drama is human nature.
With Sue’s sad death, Stuart and I are examining how we take the Silent Eye forwards, particularly in terms of workshops. The teaching system is well-established and we plan to extend this with online events. Covid under Covid has taught us much, and the powers of ‘Zoom’ to reach across the world and host a virtual discussion, or even short workshop, have been established.
We also feel it’s time to be open to new ideas for the workshops.
The Cromarty weekend would have a residential base in the local B&Bs, but the workshop would be held as a series of walks and talks in the landscape, never far from the contrasts of beautiful loch, mountain and the ever-present giant rigs of Cromarty Firth.
Fitting, perhaps, for the Beltane weekend, that the final mile of my Collie walk was graced with this turning of the river path’s earth to reveal the most beautiful ochre-gold of sunset across the ground.
Shortly after, we crossed the old bridge. Tess went down to the water to drink, photo-bombing my carefully framed attempt at what I’d spotted as a ‘Constable shot’. I’ve been photographing this stretch of the River Kent for a decade, but had never seen this glowing colour set, before…
It was then I realised that we’d already had two of the ‘alchemical’ elements, Earth and Water. Never really about the literal words, these are ‘trigger symbols’ for psychological and energetic states. This quaternary of four elements is important to anyone who delves into humanity’s emotional and mental origins. They are rightly prized at all major points of the solar year, and the May Day (Beltane) festival, though not one of the four solstice/equinox points, is key to the strength of the returning Sun.
I set off, again, wondering if I could possibly hope for such appropriate photos of the other two elements. I need not have worried. The Beltane fairy-folk were obviously present to guide my steps…
Leaving the river behind, Tess and I climbed up through the rapidly darkening meadow to the towpath of the former Preston-Kendal canal. Nearing the end of the climb, I felt a brush of faint warmth on my back and turned to see the western horizon ablaze. Sunsets don’t always photograph well with phone cameras, but this one did…
Through the small wood, then back into the open meadow to the edge of the village. I was still missing an experience and an image that corresponded with alchemical air... And then I remembered that, at the start of the walk, I had stopped to set the camera at ground level in order to capture a dandelion seed head in a way that mirrored its spherical shape with the distant sun. At the time, I had just put the iPhone back into my pocket without looking at the result.
Now, at the end of the walk, I had chance to see what had been recorded. Sure enough, there was as good an image for alchemical air as you could wish for.
My journey was complete. I hope your May Day weekend was filled with the delights of this special time, when, in the ancient calendars, the spring gave way to summer, and the life-giving power of the full solar energies.
New evidence from the past two years’ work on Orkney has revealed breathtaking perspectives on the nature and importance of the finds at the Ness of Brodgar…
(1000 words, a ten-minute read)
(Above: technical reconstruction of Structure 10 and its dramatic ‘pyramid’ roof on the Ness of Brodgar by Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen and Jimmy John Antonsen)
Staring, breathless, at the TV, desperately trying to keep notes, I was clutching my pencil so hard, it began to splinter…
There was a silence among the archaeologists and assorted technical specialists grouped near Structure 10 on the Ness of Brodgar World Heritage Site; the kind of silence that follows feverish activity and intense speculation – most of it expectantly negative…
We are a cautious species. If we long for something that might change the world, and hope it might happen, we prepare ourselves to be wrong.
The group of intense people were waiting for a phone call regarding a date. A diving team had drilled a ‘time-core’ into the base of the shallow sea that is Loch Stenness, north of the tiny strip of land that houses the Ness of Brodgar site. Extensive ‘geophys’ (basically radar for archeological work) had revealed a sunken island in the middle of the loch’s basin, and the surface had revealed the shape of a natural stone circle.
In revelation after revelation, the story of what was likely the world’s first ‘common culture’ had come together, centred on the Ness of Brodgar, an impossibly narrow strip of land north of Stromness, on Orkney, seven miles north of the tip of Scotland.
Older than the Great Pyramid, the nearby Ring of Brodgar had been dated to a time in the Neolithic period when the tribes of hunter-gatherers had settled in fertile lands, creating the first permanent settlements and beginning what we today call a commonculture.
I was watching the BBC’s ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney’. If you follow my blogs, here and on Sun in Gemini, you’ll know that Orkney and its ancient history are a favourite topic. Other relevant posts from the Silent Eye’s 2019 workshop on Orkney are listed at the end of of this piece. The BBC programme features, amongst others, Neil Oliver and Chris Packham, two well-know authorities in their own fields; together with the dedicated team excavating the Ness of Brodgar each summer.
Chris Packham had just shown how the presence of the Orkney Vole was really an interview with a time-traveller. He revealed that, thousands of years ago, the non-native vole species had arrived from Belgium, not by itself, but carried and bred as an eaten delicacy by the farmers who originally populated Orkney, five thousand years ago… Meat-eater or not, you’ve got to admire the science…
Back to the waiting crowd at the Ness of Brodgar. Neil Oliver read out the results of the core’s dating. The researchers had dared to consider that the presence of the natural stone ring had been the ‘first stone circle in Britain’… and therefore something that inspired all the rest. Archaeologists have long puzzled how such structures sprang into existence ‘fully formed’. Finding the first would have been a seminal moment.
The documentary had already shown that Orkney was the place from which all other stone circles in Britain had originated; following a development that would move south through Scotland and the rest of Britain, and culminate with Stonehenge, in Wiltshire – considered to be a masterpiece of the art, but now dated at least three hundred years after the Ring of Brodgar.
Neil Oliver looked realistic but sad as he reported the data had shown the sunken ring feature was thousand of years older than needed to fit the possibility; millennia before the ‘spiritual farmers’ who came to settle and create this outstanding culture of the Stone Age – with villages such as Skara Brae amazingly intact, including the interior of their houses.
You could feel the disappointment in the team. But so much had already been uncovered and proved – including a reconstruction of how the Orkney people, finally leaving their beloved archipelago, crossed the deadly Pentland Firth to reach the mainland near present day Thurso. And all this in boats made from tree branches and waterproofed hides.
The series reached its final few moments with Neil Oliver and Chris Packham visiting a now-deserted island, off Hoy, to ‘feel’ what an abandoned land was like – They found that the cattle left behind, thirty years prior, had not only survived, but, in seven generations, had reverted back to their genetic forbears in order to reorganise and survive, alone.
But then it was back to the Ness of Brodgar for the final sentiments. So much has been achieved; so much revolutionary ancient history uncovered. Orkney had been placed as the ancient capital of Britain. Who would have thought a place so far north could have been such a cradle of civilisation!
And then, as the archeological team were pulling over the vast tarpaulins that would protect the site through the coming winter, they stopped to show the latest and strangest find. Located in the deep earth below Structure 10 (the pyramid-roofed ritual centre of the complex) was a long, thick slab of stone on its side. Further examples of this strangely aligned stone revealed a random layout, clearly not a part of what had been constructed above it.
The camera pulled back to show the face of the Site Director, Nick Card, calm and unruffled, as he had been through the three programmes. “We think they’re full standing stones that have been laid on their edges,” he said. “As though the whole of this Ness of Brodgar complex had been built above the first stone circle… which, of its type, it might well be.”
The dig had run out of time and weather. It will take another season of careful excavation to confirm that possibility. But, bearing in mind that the Ness of Brodgar has been re-dated back to at least 3,500 years BCE, They may already have found the indisputable heart of the relationship between the stonemasters of ancient Orkney and their beloved sky…