Sunday, 28 November 2021

The wreck of the Nornen

'Twas a dark and stormy night in the winter of 1873... so goes the beginning of a long-winded, repetitive tale I used to recite with friends back in the 1970s. In our cups, naturally.

In real life it was a night of gale-force snow and sleet in March 1897. 

The SS Nornen was a barque, that is, a type of three-masted sailing ship laden with sails - a small mast with triangular sails at the rear, and forward of that main and fore masts with big rectangular sails. There would also have been additional triangular sails attached to the front bowsprit as well. I am not attempting to use the precise terms, nor indicate where or how the sails were attached. If you are interested, this website page gives a most useful run-down of the various types of sailing ship and how they were rigged, and makes it all very clear:

Suffice it to say that the Nornen had a lot of sails, and the crew had much to do. 

She was built in France in 1876, and was therefore twenty-one years old when wrecked. Her owners at the time were Norwegian - as was her captain, by name of Olsen. There was a crew of ten (which to me hardly seems enough). The cargo was resin and turpentine, presumably in barrels. 

The ship was caught in a ferocious storm in the Bristol Channel. The captain would have sent the hands aloft to tightly furl the ship's sails, let out the anchors, and then attempt to ride out the storm. In this case, to no avail. The gale that blew that March night was much too powerful. The Nornen's anchors dragged, and she was forced inexorably towards Berrow on the Somerset coast. The Burnham-on-Sea lifeboat arrived just in time to take the crew off before the ship ran aground on the Berrow sands, to be relentlessly pounded by the sea and eventually broken. She was declared a wreck, and left there.

And she is still stuck in the sands at Berrow. 

I'd got to hear about the Nornen during a visit to Burnham-on-Sea, in conversation with a man out with his family on the beach. He urged me to go and see the wreck. So I did so, on 25th October.

I'd driven through Berrow before, but never stopped, and had never seen the beach there. So I was very inclined to take that man's advice, merely to see a new section of the Somerset coast. As it happens, Berrow was currently in the news in connection with a local murder the previous February, and the court case was going on at the time of my visit. But that had nothing to do with my going there. I wanted to see what was left of the Nornen.  

Parking Fiona at the church, I set off across the golf course and then through the dunes, coming out onto a seemingly vast expanse of sandy beach. 

Despite the grey sky, it was sunny. But very windy, as this shot makes clear. 

I knew roughly where the wreck must be, and started walking across the sand, heading diagonally seawards. I wasn't fooled by the look of the beach. The 'proper' sand would soon peter out, to be replaced by a thin layer of sand over mud, and then finally real gooey grey mud. I was doubtful about being able to approach the wreck closely. Indeed, there were official signs warning you of the danger of trying.

My main goal was to get some good photos near to the Nornen, but not necessarily right up close. So impassable mud in the last few yards wouldn't thwart me. Even so, I trod with care from the start. Surprisingly, however, the sand remained perfectly firm. 

I soon spied something that could be the wreck. I gradually got closer.

I was placing my feet very carefully now. The 'sand' was wet, and the next step could see me ankle-deep in mud if I didn't watch out. I wasn't alone. Coming towards the wreck from the opposite direction were two girls. I didn't begrudge them the chance of bagging some nice shots, but I hoped they'd wait until I'd got my own first. Thankfully, they came to a halt a hundred yards off, and didn't spoil my pictures in any way. But I soon became aware that a man had been following me to the wreck, and he approached within talking distance just as I began to assess what shooting positions looked possible. He seemed OK, and had a camera, so we got talking. 

His name was Alan. He was up from Cornwall for the day, and he was giving an evening class in Bristol later on. But for now he wanted some moody pictures of the wreck, and had brought a rucksack full of camera gear, also a tripod. He was clearly a craftsman where photography was concerned. I hoped he considered me just as serious in my own way, as I had only my fixed-lens Lili. However, I'm pretty certain he realised that my camera was a Leica, and that I was composing my happy snaps with proper deliberation. But it was still very good of him to stand around and keep out of my shots until I'd got what I wanted.

He assured me that the light was presently a little too bright for his purpose, and he was happy to stand around a bit while we chatted. 

Once I was done, he made his own survey of the wreck, and almost immediately sunk halfway up his wellies in mud. 

And my goodness, he found it hard to pull his in-deepest boot out! I watched with some concern. He slowly managed it, his foot almost coming out of the boot in the process. He did at least keep his balance and stay upright. Having retreated a few feet onto sand again, he was rueful about what had happened. I knew exactly how it must have felt, to be in the grip of that mud. I told him of a similar experience I'd had in 2014 when alone in the dusk at Hilbre Island, off The Wirral, and how I thought the mud there would never let me go, but would swallow me up in the gathering darkness! And how relieved I'd been to escape the suction. 

I left him to it, but I asked him if I could take a picture of him, to remember our meeting by. He obliged.

And my pictures? Here they are. I was aiming for stark silhouettes. 

I was reminded very strongly of the fossilised lower jawbone of a dinosaur. It was surprising that there was so much to see of a wooden sailing ship after 124 years, but I understand now that for many years the ship was more deeply covered by sand, which would have protected the timbers.  

I walked back towards the dunes, glancing back now and then to see what Alan was doing. He had set up his tripod, and was clearly waiting for the right shot. I was able to see his red jacket a long way off. The two girls had come and gone. I don't think they ever got really close to the wreck. Perhaps Alan and I had put them off, or else they didn't want to hang around in the breeze.

Close to the dunes was a lot of driftwood, cast up in the highest tides hereabouts, and I was reminded very much of the typical New Zealand beach, which would always have a good collection of driftwood, some of it quite substantial, entire tree trunks. At least, that was so in 2007, as in these four shots taken in South Island. 

Dawn on North Beach, Westport:

At lonely Ship Creek:

Or these two North Island shots, near Mahia, and at Kaupokonui Beach:

Back to Berrow. Some of the smaller pieces of driftwood had been built up into a pyramid, possibly as an artistic creation, possibly as the basis for a good old bonfire on November 5th:

Hmm. Strongly reminiscent of this more elegant structure at Collingwood - on South Island again - which I am sure must have been a hymn to the emptiness of the New Zealand seashore:

I often wonder whether I will ever see New Zealand again. It depends not only on finding the money, but on having the appetite, medical clearance, and neuter conscience for all the long-haul flying involved. Or, if I do go that way, might it not be Australia rather than New Zealand next time? Who knows.

One last look at the Nornen, just before I re-entered the dunes and re-crossed the golf course. If you click on this shot, and enlarge it with your fingers, you can just make out Alan's red jacket to the right of the wreck, where he might get a fine (but moody) sunset shot. I do hope he had a flask of hot coffee in his rucksack. Such patience!

Saturday, 27 November 2021

Smeaton's Tower

It was mid-September, and I was in Plymouth for the day. One of the things I'd never done was to climb Smeaton's Tower on the Hoe. 

The Hoe is a high-up green space on Plymouth's waterfront with a view out to the open sea, and I suppose on a clear day you can spy the present lighthouse on the distant Eddystone Rocks, which used to claim many a sailing ship over the centuries. Eventually, to help avoid so many shipwrecks, a lighthouse was built on those rocks, the first of four, and Smeaton's was the third of these. It was replaced only because it was too small for more modern needs, and because its rocky foundations, pounded by waves, developed a weakness. The present lighthouse was built on another rock close by, and Smeaton's was dismantled and re-erected on the Hoe. 

Since then it has been a must-see tourist attraction, as well as being a proud landmark - the Ocean City's best symbol. As emphasised in this poster at Plymouth station, which I saw in 2015:

It's very distinctive with its red and white stripes. And the poster isn't fanciful. Smeaton's Tower really looks similar to this is real life. I took a couple of half-decent shots of it with the little Leica D-Lux 4 back in July 2009: 

It was a cloudy day, but bright and warm, and I remember that I got rather hot tramping around the city centre in jacket, skirt and tights. (Tights in July? Was I mad?) Not to say footsore. The next time I came to Plymouth was in March 2015, on a cold, windy day. It was all rather bleak and cheerless, as you can see in this picture:

I was there on a kind of mission - a lady in Canada (who read my blog) had wanted to know whether the house her father lodged in before emigrating could still be located. It was apparently an old house in New Street that the Pilgrim Fathers had occupied before embarking on the Mayflower. So I spent well over an hour exploring the Barbican area down by Sutton Harbour and eventually wrote a post about what I found (see Plymouth, on 7th April 2015). On that occasion I'd come by train, and couldn't linger if I wanted to catch the right train back. So I could only look wistfully at the top of Smeaton's Tower as I passed the Hoe:

Roll forward six years. A newer Leica: Lili, my recently-acquired X-U. A warmer, sunnier late-summer day. And no train timetable to keep to. I'd parked Fiona at Sutton Harbour, and was working my way westwards along the waterfront, at the foot of the Royal Citadel. And there it was, looking splendid in the sunshine. Smeaton's Tower.

And it looked at good as ever as I got closer.

Gosh, it was tall close up - and I'm not good with heights! But I was determined to get to the top. At the entrance was a nice guy, whose colleague had dropped by with coffee and something to eat for lunch. 

They were chatty, and so was I. We soon got talking. They were on the staff of the main Plymouth museum, lately rebuilt and known as The Box. Smeaton's Tower was 'detached duty' during the summer months. They urged me to see The Box as well, but I had to explain that I couldn't make the time for it on this visit to Plymouth. However, I'd be in Devon the following Spring, and promised to see it then. And I do keep my promises. So I'll look out for them. 

The admission charge wasn't outrageous: only £2.50 with an age concession. I flashed my phone, paid, and started to climb the spiral staircase to the upper floors.

One thing that struck me immediately was how small and poky the interior of the lighthouse was. I've been to several lighthouses in my time, and some have seemed very spacious. For example, the old Dungeness lighthouse in Kent, which is actually hollow for most of the way up, the staircase spiralling upwards on the inside wall, with a disconcerting void to contend with as you ascend. And even when the floors begin, and you can look down without contemplating a big drop, the staircase still seems to cling to mostly empty space. The reason for this emptiness is that no residential accommodation was required within the tower itself. The lighthousemen (and their families) lived in quarters on the ground, and only upper storage floors, and the equipment in them, were needed to keep the light shining. As in these shots at Dungeness, mostly from 2012:

Smeaton's Tower was quite different. You ascended inside a confined spiral staircase, and it was like climbing steps deep within a thick castle wall - albeit without the gloominess, and nicely painted.

Further up, there were steps like substantial ladders, with handrails - fairly steep, but not at all difficult to use, although you had to mind your head. 

I wondered what bodily contortions those big burly lighthousemen had to adopt in order to squeeze their way onto each next floor, without getting stuck or braining themselves. Definitely a case of 'duck or grouse'! But I suppose there was never a great need to rush up and down those stairs in day-to-day lighthouse life, when you were spending a month or whatever on an isolated rock far out to sea, and your life was ruled by a strict but leisurely routine. Here's me (definitely not a big burly lighthouseman) narrowly avoiding a head-banging as I emerge onto another floor:

As Smeaton's Tower was far out at sea, and inaccessible by boat in rough weather, the 'crew' had to be self-sufficient. So they had living space, including floors for cooking, sleeping and passing the time in between spells of duty.  But make no mistake, it was all very basic, judging by the fittings preserved for the modern visitor to see. The floor for the kitchen, for instance, with its little stove:

No luxury mod cons there! Mind you, it might have been cosy in the winter, with that stove perpetually alight. The floor for sleeping was equally devoid of luxury. Each lighthouseman had a cupboard to sleep in, or should I say a big wardrobe, curved to fit the interior wall. Inside it, the man would have had a degree of privacy, and might have been comfortable enough on his mattress, and with sufficient blankets. But it was all a far cry from modern notions of crew accommodation, however utilitarian:

On each floor were explanatory boards with information, all most helpful. A selection:

I wasn't of course the only person visiting the lighthouse, and the guys at the bottom had to limit how many people could go up at any one time. We select few made a merry bunch, and had to, as we were to some extent dancing around each other on each floor, such was the small extent of usable floor space. Again, I wondered how those big burly lighthousemen of yore had managed. I supposed they flitted around each other like ballerinas, even if carrying oil cans or fresh wicks for the light. 

Time for the final stage, which would take me up to where the light had once been, and - if I dared - out onto the open-air platform. Before I made that last-stage ascent, I got two other visitors to pose for me, looking upwards. Unfortunately, in my haste I forgot to adjust the exposure to compensate for the backlighting, and so it's a poorish picture even after remedial doctoring on the laptop. But never mind, here it is:

The final ladder upward was the steepest yet, with the narrowest opening.

Now for the ultimate personal test. Through the door, out onto the balcony, and walk all the way around, taking pictures of course to prove that I'd done it. 

Well, I think those shots establish my credentials as a stratosphere-seeking climber. And without oxygen, too. 

Mission accomplished.