Empty Chairs

It is Christmas 1961 and I am, as ever, behind the camera.  This was the year I was given a flash unit to fit the family Kodak Brownie Cresta.  A sizeable attachment with a large reflector, it fired off one-time flash bulbs. Filled with fine magnesium wire and oxygen, a small current was sufficient to instigate the flash – all very satisfying to a boy who liked playing with fire..

You can tell I am responsible – it is taken from a low angle and the subjects tend to occupy centre stage.  I had not yet learned the rule of thirds  In the first image, dad is seated far left smoking one of the many Kensitas that would eventually take him.  He is at the beginning of his forties while mum, sat next to him, is still in her thirties.  My sister is too busy eating to take notice of younger brother’s antics but boyfriend Ricky is smiling keenly at the camera, also with cigarette in hand, possibly one of dad’s.  A too well-presented eighteen year old, I knew big sister could do better.

Cigarettes were socially acceptable at home but there was little or no drink. My teenage smoking habit went undetected until I tried Blue Book, a brand for “the discerning smoker”.  Each packet contained Turkish, Russian Egyptian and Havana blends.  An afternoon smoking these with an equally discerning friend and the house smelled like a souk.

It is the end of Christmas dinner and house-proud mother has already cleared most of the table.  The posh sideboard, table and chairs from Kendal Milne, Manchester;  the Regency striped wallpaper; the Wedgwood dinner service; the Peter Scott print; the understated decorations – all in the best possible taste.

Ricky took his time to leave – another three years before he abandoned my sister and her life took flight.  Now everyone has gone – empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs.

The ‘posh’ dining room

The living room – always coal fires burning

Big sister and boyfriend, Ricky – driving gloves and a too smart coat

On Bale Hill

Sometimes the unplanned rides are the best.  I just knew I wanted to be on open, high ground as the sky over Hexham was full of promising clouds. Heading south from Blanchland, I found myself riding up Bale Hill towards Stanhope Common and there, on my right, was a scene from Poldark, a chimney rising from an untamed landscape.  Except, this was County Durham, not Cornwall.

The chimney belonged to Presser Pumping Station.  Some of its history was recently revealed by local resident Stanley Wilkinson who lived at the ‘villa’ at The Pressor (sic) from 1935 to 1956:  The 2 shafts and the big building and chimney were built for the lead mines many years prior to our family moving there. It was around 1953 when my father suggested the Durham County Water Board pump water from the old mine workings to augment the Consett water supply. He and I worked down the shaft clearing obstacles and making ready for the pump and piping installation; scary as hell but (we) completed the job. I migrated to Australia in 1964 and have lived in Indonesia for 25 years. (from https://www.geograph.org.uk/)

The clouds did not disappoint while the weather to the west was particularly ominous:

Heavy weather to the west, from Bale Hill – looking towards Townfield and Hunstanworth

Presser Pumping Station

The GS on Bale Hill

This drone flight takes you towards Hunstanworth and then back to the Pumping Station – it is a very fine portrayal of this wild landscape. John Twist, the drone pilot, is standing close to where I took my images.

Out and about …

… in deepest Northumberland.  Another series of monos from recent walks and motorcycle journeys. The first set is from Colt Crag Reservoir – from Wiki – The reservoir was built at the end of the 19th century for the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company. The reservoir forms part of a series of reservoirs along the A68 which are connected by tunnels and aqueducts from Catcleugh Reservoir to Whittle Dene from where drinking water is supplied to Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead, and some surrounding areas.

In the image of the Boat House the bird in flight is a house martin – again from Wiki – One of Colt Crag’s main attractions are the great crested grebes, and there is also a colony of 20-30 pairs of house martins that return each year to nest under the eaves of the boathouse.

Three small figures in a landscape

The Boat House

The Dam


The second set is from Bewcastle, a place I last visited in March 2018.  On that occasion I was riding a Yamaha MT-09 Tracer.  This time I was on a BMW 1250 GS and there has been an F850 GS in between.  Do I possibly have a problem 😉

Bewcastle Cross

St Cuthbert’s Church

Free at last …

It was inevitable that my resolution to post once per week on WordPress would eventually come unstuck.  That was predictable, the last eight weeks less so.  Cooped up for so long, it was also inevitable that when a hint of freedom appeared, all other priorities would be thrown to the four winds.  On 13th May it was finally decreed safe to ride motorcycles again, although not over the border into Scotland where the restrictions remain.  I have lost no time in clocking plenty of miles, some menacingly close to Reiver country …

The GS at Crindledykes

To Bamburgh

In Bad Company

At the Air Museum (closed)

Do it again …

In the mornin’ you go gunnin’ for the man who stole your water
And you fire till he is done in but they catch you at the border
And the mourners are all singin’ as they drag you by your feet
But the hangman isn’t hangin’ and they put you on the street

Northumberland in Mono

This set of images were all taken within a 1.5 mile radius of our home – I know this for certain because I haven’t ventured outside this geofence since 24th March.  Hexham is a mystery to me now – the Good Wife has taken over responsibility for all socially distant shopping, mostly because I cannot be trusted to buy organic.  Any consequential savings I would spend on chocolate or similar.  Nevertheless, I am not complaining, I seem to have slipped into this secluded life all too easily.  The only thing I miss desperately is getting out on the motorcycles which, as any rider knows, is just self-isolation at speed.

Lean on me …

Always keep a-hold of nurse

Beaufront Castle Lodge …

In a big county …

The entrance to Fern Hill Farm

Five-bar Gate …

Do not disturb …

Another gate above the old kennels, Beaufront Woodhead.

The impression created by these images is of a country life continuing as usual, uninterrupted by world events. Isolating has also meant not listening to ‘news’, keeping socially distant from statistics and mortality rates but, just occasionally the bubble is burst. Peter Turnley’s images portray an entirely different, distant, monochromatic reality:



In our fifth week of lock-down, I realise that this week we should have been staying in a coast-side apartment at the western end of Swanage.  I was looking forward to revisiting Studland, the Poole Harbour ferry, Sandbanks and Canford Cliffs, familiar places I have known from my earliest years.  Instead, we remain in deepest Northumberland – we should be grateful – many would consider this a holiday destination and the weather has been glorious.

Had we been away, we would have missed this – drawn outside by a golden light falling on the trees to the east of our home, we were treated to this spectacular light show across the Tyne Valley.  There are many compensations for staying at home, out of choice or otherwise

The beginning …

… the middle …

The end.

Return to Svolvær

Svolvær seems like a dream to me now.  We timed our trip to Norway to perfection.  It was always going to be sometime between mid-February and mid-March, to ensure there was still plenty of snow but a reasonable amount of light.  When I booked the flights, hotels and rail journeys, little did I know that there was another consideration, something I could never have imagined.  As I said in an earlier post, we arrived back in the UK on 7th March and Norway went into lock-down on the 14th.

Like everyone else, I guess, we are dreaming of where to go when the world returns to normal, whenever that might be.  Mostly I think of places I would like to go back to and, of course, Svolvær is at the top of the list.  Some of this is because every Saturday night at 21:00, I am reminded of how it looks.  By coincidence, BBC4 are showing the Nordic thriller Twin, filmed in and around Svolvær.  A slightly bizarre and hardly believable story, the compensation is the scenery, although I can’t help thinking they should have talked to me about the best time to film 🙂

All this inspired me to dig through some of my unused images from the trip and return on a virtual tour.  I have selected as a soundtrack one of the songs used in Twin – God Don’t Leave Me I’ll Freeze by the Norwegian band, Highasakite – full marks for the name!  Is it me or does it sound vaguely inspired by Sami folk music.

The view from Svinoybrua

The view from Lamholmen





Magnesia Bank

I was not a sickly child but I suffered the various illnesses that inflict the young.  The kitchen cupboard contained the standard remedies, prescribed in varying degrees, as determined by my mother’s expert diagnosis – lucozade (only one flavour), glucose powder (by the dessert spoon), Famel Syrup, Owbridges and Milk of Magnesia.  When all of these failed, Doctor Gold would be summoned – always a home visit, Gladstone bag and stethoscope in hand.

Milk of Magnesia was the least palatable of these concoctions; I assumed it to be the milk of some exotic animal, alien to Altrincham and best kept at a safe distance.  For this reason its memory lingers but, with no great affection.  Invented by the English pharmacist, Charles Henry Phillips, a chemistry teacher would later explain, it is simply Magnesium Hydroxide in suspension.  This didn’t dispel my notion that, nothing wholesome ever emerged from a blue bottle.

Pure magnesium is a glossy grey solid which burns with a bright white intensity, sufficient to temporarily impair vision. Combine this with racing fuel and the conflagration is almost inextinguishable.  As a teenager I witnessed the impact of this lethal combination on more than one occasion.  It’s all about chemistry.

And this preamble is simply to explain why my interest was sparked when fellow Blipper, X-Photographer and Triumph Bonneville owner, Len, posted an image of the Magnesia Bank pub, North Shields.  There are some odd public house names around Newcastle but why the Magnesia Bank.

Len offered the following explanation: The Maggy Bank is so called due to its former days as a bank; it then became a social club before being converted into a pub. The pub is now a popular music venue. The name “Magnesia” derives from the Magnesia Stair, one of the crowded streets of houses that led down to the riverside, which was south of the current pub near the present day stairs.

Local historian and author of the excellent The Northumbrians, Dan Jackson, made the link with magnesium’s various uses in the local manufacture of metals, chemicals and glass but, I felt there had to be more.

Reproduced with the kind permission of LenBageDigital

Search for “Magnesia Bank” on Google and most results relate to the pub, restaurant and gig reviews but, delve into the British Newspaper Archive and much more is revealed.

R Brown writing to the Shields Daily News, 12th August 1942, is convinced that a street called Magnesia Bank derived its name from the salt and magnesia works established by Joseph Ogilvie.  This opinion is contrary to another local theory that it was named after a nearby  magnesia spring.  He continues: It was from 1810 known as Thorntree Lane, and only from the latter date known as Magnesia Bank.  Thorntrees were popularly in use as gibbets at the time, and it is not impossible that this may have been the scene of many public hangings.

Ogilvie was descended from John Lomax, the first Presbyterian in the borough who arrived from Wooler in 1662 and gathered a Noncomformist congregation at the house of Isabella Green on Thorntree Lane.  Lomax lived at the house in nearby Wooden Bridge which would later become the Seven Stars public house – as the third occupier, R Brown in the same letter, surmises that this was the oldest building in Tynemouth (demolished).  John “learned” Lomax died on May 25th 1693 and is buried at Tynemouth Priory.  In 1787, the Lomax descendant married the Rev. Andrew Ogilvie and it was their son, Joseph, who established the magnesia works from which the lane derived its new name.

Coincidentally, another candidate for the oldest house in North Shields was situated on Magnesia Bank.  The Echoes of the Week column by Vigilante in the 18th September 1922 edition of the Shields Daily News quotes historical records of old Shields: ‘It occupied the site and embodies the remains of an old chapel dedicated in honour of St David … The chapel was probably erected at the time when sailors began to come to North Shields probably in the reign of King John or, when the trade of the place had been revived under the fostering care of the Prior of Tynemouth in the time of Henry IV.  (In providing a place where seafaring men could make their vows to the Lady of the Sea, the priors would have exacted a good return in the form of fish tithes).  In the course of its transmigrations it was used as a dissenting meeting house, and later as a baker’s oven … Inside the oven were the remains of some inscriptions and cherubs’ heads.  On the end walls in the upper storey were some curious ornamental figures but so mutilated that their nature could not be made out.  The following inscription, cut in large letters in oak above the altar has been preserved – “Si Deus pro nobis quis contra nos”‘.  If God be for us, who shall be against us.  The reference to the ‘dissenting meeting house‘ suggests that this is the house owned by Isabella Green.

Reproduced with the kind permission of LenBageDigital

A 1933 image of Magnesia Bank reproduced in the 30th May 1942 edition of the Shields Daily News appears to match the view of the street depicted on The Magnesia Bank pub sign.  The accompanying article in the Round the Town column repeats the 1933 discovery of a tunnel which it suggests may have been the crypt of the ancient church of St David.  The entrance was ‘in the North wall of premises that were then being used as a washhouse by residents of the bank.  What I saw was an aperture, perhaps three feet wide in the stone wall about two feet from the ground.  It had the appearance of an old doorway and led into a stone-walled chamber, roughly speaking about 12 feet square, which seemed to have been partly filled up with rubbish. This debris and the want of an electric torch prevented further exploration but one of the residents assured me that when as a youth some 25 years previously, he and other lads belonging to the locality penetrated to the east end of the chamber they found an arched passage which was certainly not a culvert.  I was always hopeful that when the houses in the Magnesia Bank neighbourhood were demolished and the bankside cleared of debris the truth about the tunnel would be disclosed, but apparently no one who was engaged in the clearance operations was sufficiently interested to bother about it’.  This article does not mention the ghost which long haunted the bank – a ‘figure of a man’ who periodically appeared at the same spot – near the doorway leading to the chamber from which the old tunnel starts (Shield Daily News, 20th February 1933).

All is not entirely lost despite the 1930s slum clearance.  An article in the 5th February 1921 edition of the Shields Daily News, entitled Our Local Churches, suggests that the baptismal font (dated 1693) in the nearby Howard Street Presbyterian Church, originated from the St David’s Chapel.

There was history on Magnesia Bank but there was also life.  Search the British Newspaper Archive for “Magnesia Bank” and the majority of the news stories relate to brawling, begging, drunkenness and prostitution.  All human life was there.  In the mid 19th century, the Bank and, possibly some of its residents, were immortalised in song:

In a New Garb, By an Old Tar
The common shores ill ah be cleaned, the streets so nicely swept,
The Causeway and Magnesia Bank ill be in order kept
At the wooden bridge here’ll be pulling down some day
The dark stairs and the baccy shops ill all be cleared away

Locked down …

… but, fortunately, so far, not locked in.  We are very lucky, living in the wilds of Northumberland.  For the most part it just feels like an extended winter without the temptation to take a motorcycle out on salty roads nor play golf on water-logged courses  In some ways, life is almost simpler.  Lacking other inspiration, here are some images of the neighbours who don’t seem to have got the hang of social distancing:

Ewe mucky kid …

Here’s lookin’ at ewe kid

Ewe don’t have to say you love me …

Don’t look back …

The local longhorn …


The steam engine negative has been in my desk drawer for some months, awaiting a spare moment to scan.  I was not optimistic about the results, the 120 negative appeared over-exposed but, after fiddling with the levels in Photoshop, the positive image is better than I had expected.

I would have taken this on the family Kodak Brownie Cresta 120 roll film camera.  This Bakelite device with cream shutter release and film wind-on, captured our family history from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s.  According to Saturated Imagery, this chunky viewfinder camera was made by Kodak in the UK from 1955-1958. It is typically simple, virtually the same as a box camera in features except for the moulded Bakelite body.  In a slider over the lens, it has a close-up filter for use with a range of 4-7ft, and a yellow filter – used to heighten the contrast when shooting skies.


The image dates from 1962, a summer’s day out to Doncaster Station with the Altrincham Grammar School Trainspotters Society – an august body of young enthusiasts with a constant eye for mischief. The LNER Class A4 streamlined 4-6-2, Guillemot, is heading north with a passenger service, probably destined for Edinburgh Waverley.  Introduced in 1935, the Gresley streamlined design included a corridor tender, but not this example which is sister to the more famous 60022, Mallard.

Introduced on the 8th January 1938, it was taken out of service on 20th March 1964, not that long after I took this picture.  I have resisted repairing the image – the dust spots add an air of authenticity and help fill an otherwise blank sky – I obviously neglected to use the yellow filter 🙂

To the left of the image is what appears to be a Standard Class 9F** emerging from Doncaster sheds – introduced in 1955, these were the last steam engines to be commissioned by British Railways.  To the right, in shorts, is a fellow trainspotter, Peter Parker – I could be wrong on both counts.

** Several like-minded enthusiasts have suggested this is a Peppercorn A2 Pacific – it makes more sense and I bow to their superior knowledge.  Looking at the plan of the station on Google Earth, I now think Guillemot is heading south.