Greatham Creek is a tributary of the river Tees, not really flowing into the river, but forming part of the delta, and joining the estuary at Seal Sands beyond Seaton Snook on the south side of Hartlepool.
I used to cycle there in the late 60s and early 70s when there was the remnant of a thriving houseboat community.
Surrounding that community was an RSPB nature reserve, set up to protect the only feeding habitat between Lindisfarne to the north, and the Humber estuary to the south. It attracts many species of bird, particularly in winter.
This flat land is strewn with channels of brackish water, marsh samphire, springy turf and juncus; and finally, before the stretch of sea, sand dunes of blue and green marram grass with orchids, genista and sea buckthorn.
Visitors of the human kind are sparse, and it is a place of peace, if not calm – it was my place to escape to.
I traipsed the turf and squelched the mudflat, collecting things that nobody in Hartlepool called ‘objets trouve’.
I listened to the birds, sometimes I picked samphire for tea, and I enjoyed whatever circumstance might offer me.
This was my Narnia – a four-mile cycle ride was the wardrobe that gave me entrance.
After several trips, I began to feel that circumstantial offerings were not quite enough for me. I had an urge to make more of my visits; I needed to record in some way, what was important about this place. So, I started to bring my sketchpad and pencils with me, because who was going to believe my Narnia adventure if I didn’t record it?
The remnants of the houseboat community were a visual stimulation to me – they were packed with lines and textures, shapes and tones, all modified by the effects of winds and big tidal washes.
At that time I sketched without confidence.
My drawings were as thin as the paper they were drawn on, but I needed to do them, and my Narnia remained personal, because I never went public with the sketches; there wasn’t anyone to show them to.
I re-visited this place after the community had disappeared, and each time I still felt the urge to draw it, and only recently did I consider it not too late to do so.
So, why shouldn’t I draw it now, having gained more confidence to do so, as well as the visual language to put something together? I still had some of the sketches, I had a lot of photographs, and I still had a strong urge to express the place – the drawings were in me.
I returned again, over 40 years on. The place was devoid of the structures, but other, perhaps less physical elements were still present. The dimension of time was not a barrier, and I began to draw what had been.
I always remember there being a wind at Greatham Creek – from a breeze to a fierce gale; a wind carrying the smell of salt, and the sustained warble of skylarks in early summer.
In winter I remember the ‘kleep, kleep’ of the oystercatchers, and showers of squadron-like knots.
There was also the industry alongside the river Tees itself, the thud of heavy steel and machinery, muted by distance.
The six newly constructed, high concrete towers of the shell of a nuclear power station were a sign of what was to come.
It was here, wanting some cash so that I could add to my Joni Mitchell album collection, that I took a job for a couple of days as a chain boy, for a civil engineer. Clad in my thin school parka, I tediously hung on to a measuring pole, in the January sleet and high winds, whilst he took readings through his theodolite. In doing so, I had become part of the process that lead to the devastating change of much of this environment, where I felt such a close affinity.
That community at Greatham Creek has long been swept away, the houseboats have gone, many of them mysteriously burned down. Now there is a high bund wall, it is long and straight, and covered only in grass. Like a main road through a dull housing estate, it’s the sort of place that seems to take an awful long time to walk through; it holds no interest. Within its secured boundaries, there is an oil terminal.
It is so gratifying to know that the devastation of this rich, vibrant, creative and frugal community, means that the likes of Lord Howell of Guildford can fill up their cars with petrol knowing that the view from their own back gardens will not be disturbed.
Large chemical works have been constructed along the course of the river Tees itself, and I now consider both these areas to be somewhat out of bounds to me as an artist – the area where the oil terminal stands, because it is now as visually dull as the muddy waters of the creek itself.
And there is the river, which does still hold a visual interest – albeit of a new and very different kind – it now appears to feel threatened by my presence, evidenced by my being moved on by security guards at Philips petroleum when they spotted me sketching pipelines via their CCTV screens.
In one of my summer student vacations I worked as a security guard at Philips petroleum, and I nearly died of boredom; so this incident may well have been the highlight of their Sunday, and it is reassuring to know that they are saving the nation from potential sketching terrorists.
In spite of bulldozers and bullies, Greatham Creek still holds a great interest and a fascination to me as a painter. Alongside these chemical giants, smaller industries operated, with their rusting machinery and their corroding corrugated iron buildings, nestling into tall grasses and wind sculpted, stunted trees. this is what I drew and painted.
.Seaton Snook is an area of dune land lying cheek-by-jowl with Greatham Creek. They are linked together by a road romantically known as the Zinc Works road. It begins with a curve that entices you towards the dunes. At the end of a dry summer the grasses take on ochre colourings; road edges of grit and dust are ambiguous, and there are isolated, sculpted shrubs.