On North Yorkshire’s Jurassic coast, where Roxby Beck meets the North Sea, there is just enough space to squeeze in a landing place.
The Old Norse word ‘stoth’, means a wharf, but in the North East of England, under Danelaw, the word in common usage was ‘staithe’, and although it is now considered archaic, the word is still in use there. When a village grew up in this tiny hollow in the cliffs, it was therefore appropriately named Staithes, and many tons of herring, cod, haddock and mackerel have indeed been landed there.
It is much more than a landing place – its organic growth at the foot of the cliffs, and along the tight valley of the beck, have led to a settlement with a strong community, a long history and a deep culture.
Taking a wider, less anthropocentric view, Staithes is merely Man’s foothold on a coastline that supports many other forms of life. That coast has a much longer history and it is the raison d’etre for Staithes itself.
Venture beyond the enveloping headlands of Cow Bar Nab to the north and Penny Nab to the south, and you are in another realm, a transient realm, the details of which change with every tide. When I began to wander these boulder-strewn strands, I felt immersed in their world.
As a visual artist, I was the wan faced child at the baker’s window, keen to sample everything on offer.
It was almost too much, and the thoughts and events I am recalling here aim to be a reflection of just how ideas switch from being detailed, to taking the broader view; how fantasy and memory turn up; how a mood can slip into something else. Here and there the result may be a painting.
For years, I have traipsed these strands at low tide, scouring their surfaces for things that might interest me; it was only a matter of time before I satisfied a growing compulsion to paint it.
At low tide, the wave-cut platform revealed large striations, creating life-supporting rivulets that ran fast with rushing sea water, flowing one way or the other, depending on the state of the tide.
In a situation of apparent calm, I would feel at peace with myself, and the day. Slowly I would become aware of this distant rushing sound. Upon investigation, I discovered these gushing channels and wondered where the pumps were, that were driving this seawater at such a pace. There were no pumps, just a puzzling set of Nature’s laws creating a phenomenon beyond my comprehension, so surprising that it would raise a smile of acceptance on my face.
Every step was an interesting one, and knowing that you have only so much time to pass a particular headland before getting cut off by the tide, you cannot allow your attention to be captured for longer than your allotted time.
But you don’t want to miss anything – another pool, this one, like peering into a tray of developing fluid, slowly reveals the image of an ammonite fossil.
Other things, that a geologist could probably explain, also puzzled me.
The ground could take on the appearance of a petrified bowl of bubbling porridge.
Shallow domes of rock, often cracked, featured across the strand.
The temptation to consider oneself an inter-galactic surfer, was too great.
I remain ignorant of how these features might have been formed – ‘mermaid’s dining tables’, was the local explanation of what they might be. That was good enough for me.
The wet grey-blue rocks reflected a blue-grey sky; rock pools swayed from within, with purple and green vegetation.
This close colour harmony was slightly melancholic in mood, and with my watercolour box virtually devoid of Payne’s grey, I now had a crisis on my hands.
There were other natural features, and their formation amused and interested me.
To the north were several sculpted rocks resembling capstans (how very appropriate for a staithe). I considered it Nature’s providence for those looking for a seat from which to work.
Alone with the sea, the blue sky, the birds and the winkles – I desired for nothing. The small anxieties and niggling bodily pains most of us carry around with us, eventually became noticeable by their absence; I even suspended my concern for the incoming tide.
I expanded to fill the near silent space, and I watched a fulmar riding the updraughts; it’s white under-parts against a pale cobalt sky.
An early addition to my vinyl album collection entered my head.
Joni Mitchell’s ‘Song to a Seagull’ could only have been written for this occasion, and not for the first time, I felt a debt of gratitude towards the songwriter to whom I was a total stranger, but who seemed to know me so well.
Fly silly seabird, no songs can posses you,
No voices can blame you for sun on your wings.
My gentle relations have names they must call me,
For loving the freedom of all flying things.
My dreams with the seagulls fly,
Out of reach, out of cry.
She has been kind over the years in writing so many songs for me, so often striking a chord. Joni Mitchell considers herself firstly to be a painter, secondly a songwriter; both processes seem to satisfy a similar compulsion.
Progressing through this patterned landscape, the textures underfoot would change; the bubbling porridge now a slab of cracked toffee, and exaggerated joints that divided the polished surface of the rock, contained perhaps the tiniest amber coloured pebble, or a winkle, or an unidentifiable fragment of rusty metal, perhaps discarded by a ship on its way north to Narvik.
I found this stretch to be a very beautiful surprise amongst the boulders; a relief, an opportunity to glide and slide instead of clamber, to make up time against the incoming tide; but why should you want to do that?
I paint this place because I am stimulated by its space, and I would hope that the paintings offer an opportunity to step into those spaces, to wander and wonder, and to feel it’s different textures.
This painting won the ‘Buzzacott’ prize at the Pastel Society’s exhibition at The Mall Galleries 2012.
At my feet were microcosms contained in each changing rock pool, the colours of which could occupy my interest to a point where a passer-by might think there was something wrong with me.
In one moment such a space is contained within a rock pool; a quick glance up, and the space stretches, uncontained, beyond the horizon; both of these views contain the Universe.
At a point where the wave-cut platform extends beyond Cow Bar Nab, the tide that sometimes musters its wrath to lambast the harbour walls, gently trickles away, revealing the eastern extremity of this part of northern England.
It was from here, and other similar points nearby, that I would gaze, as an adolescent child, into the little known void beyond the horizon.
At that time there was an annual boat race from nearby Hartlepool to Ijmuiden; consulting my dog-eared Philip’s School Atlas revealed that I would need to turn my head to the south to consider life in that strangely spelled place, where I imagined people filling their mouths with condensed milk in order to speak the language.
I preferred to look north, as it was Scandinavia that captured my interest. My hometown of Hartlepool had links with Norway – it kindly sent us a Christmas tree every year in recognition of our wartime comradeship; their boats would harbour in the town during stormy weather, there was a Norwegian grocer’s in Northgate and it was not uncommon to see Norwegian sailors, especially in the pubs flanking the docks.
I’d had some exposure to Grieg, Munch and Ibsen by then, and I liked the sound of the language and its strange extra three letters.
That’s what the horizon meant to me, and in the ensuing years I looked at it from the other side, as I spent times painting in Scandinavia. It held quite a different meaning.
I am aware at this point, that I make these strands around Staithes sound like placid places of contemplation, somewhere to therapeutically fill the senses.
And they can be, there are such days, which offer the wanderer a sublime, I would even say surreal, experience.
At Hummersea, a sub-Saharan sky is reflected in still water, in which boulders appear to float, and a benign breeze sweeps the face.The days are not always like that.
There have been days when I have walked there with a sense of achievement at remaining vertical; the wind so bitingly fierce that I have had to kneel down, in an undignified manner, a foot and an ankle immersed in a rock pool and a hand slipping on some unidentifiable slime, to prevent it throwing me headlong into a boulder, or carrying me out to sea.
Don’t consider the sea to be your friend, for it is a traitor; it will betray you and turn on you when you don’t expect it. Show it the utmost respect.
During an early adventure onto this wave-cut platform, I found it to be a foreboding place, even though the sea was not an immediate threat.
I was apprehensive with every step I took, and although I had a copy of the Whitby tide tables in my pocket, I did not know the topography intimately enough. How long would it take to get back to safety? How far away was the next escape from this potentially fatal strand? How treacherous a surface would I have to traverse – and at how many miles an hour? All these questions raised anxieties in me.
Passing Penny Nab, any view of Staithes disappears; the stretch ahead to Old Nab is without refuge. A decision needed to be made. Had I enough time to get beyond the next enticing headland? And if I did, where would the next escape point be? Until enough experience was acquired I erred on the side of caution, but that did not prevent my mind becoming overactive, inventing ghastly fates that might await me.
There was nobody about, and there was no mobile phone reception; there was no fleet of rescue helicopters hovering above. I had doubts that any school of dolphins would appear, at a point of drowning, to whisk me off, and deposit me at the doorstep of the Cod & Lobster Inn; a pint of Timothy Taylor’s ‘Landlord’ awaiting me, in a straight glass, on the bar.
I hugged the cliff, which is not the safest thing to do, and I found the surface to be sodden and slippery with mosses. I took a breather from clambering over and between the enormous boulders. It was a relatively cosy spot, but for the foreboding anxieties.
As I settled into this dank open tomb in order to sketch, I imagined myself breaking a limb, and lying prostrate in a pool of salty water, limpets attaching themselves to my forehead, my echoing calls unheard. The time would pass and the tide would roll in. It would lap at my materials, which would float off towards Denmark; my watercolour box would leak its pigments of rose madder, gamboge and purple lake, creating ephemeral taffeta patterns on the surface of the sea. My plaintive pleas would attract the attention of scavenging seabirds, which would see me as an opportunity for a gorge; I think the eyeballs are the first to go.
Shaking my head of this nonsense, I’d get back to my drawing; next time perhaps, I should bring a distress flare.
Nowadays I am happy to join those folk searching for a small seam of jet, a relief of a fossilized ammonite, or a bucketful of winkles, in spending hours just looking, and hoping to find.
I remain compliant with the threat the tides pose, for there are lessons to be learned; many have capitulated here to the overwhelming ferocity of an angry, indiscriminate tide; I am sure that they did not go gently.
Those folk have been tearfully remembered to the accompaniment of an upright piano in one of Staithes’s several chapels, as an ebullient congregation responded to the opening bar of ‘Eternal Father, strong to save ……………’
Please donate generously to the RNLI, for those in peril on the sea – it receives not a penny from the government.
I have learned to embrace any sense of foreboding as a valuable part of the experience in getting to know this coast. Accept all it has to offer, not just the nice days, for there is a lifetime to discover it.