Red Grooves House sits high upon the windswept fell side of Newbiggin Common just west of the vast man made scar of Coldberry Gutter. The history of this house seems vague, and it is unclear wether it was built as a mineshop (bascially over night accomadation for the miners) or a farm, but it looks like it was occupied until the late 1950s early 60s. For its day the house was well-appointed with a barn, a stables, a large farmhouse kitchen with a coal-fired range and living room with an open fire. But for all this it sits in complete isolation surrounded by sheep cropped meadows and the remains of the lead mine which shares its name. For decades the building must have been battered from all sides by whatever the weather wished to throw at it, and with no road or track way to connect its inhabitants to the outside world it’s not surprising that living here proved too much to sustain. Now the ceilings have fallen and its windows are just empty sockets looking out across the dale to the distant brooding hights of Mickle fell.
Both photographs were taken with an old Ensign 820 folding camera that I’ve customised by fitting a 65mm Schneider Angulon f6,8 lens to create a very useful wide-angle 6x9cm camera. The film was Fomapan 400 which I developed in Pyrocat HD, mixed at a ratio of 1+1+100 for 16 minutes semi-stand with 60 seconds continuous agitation at the beginning, and then once every 3 minutes after that. This was the first time I’d used this method with a Pyro developer and I was really impressed with the tonal range and sharpness of the negatives it produced. With the print I decided to use some of my newly acquired expired Agfa Portriga Rapid Grade 3 paper. This paper was famed for the way it could be Lith printed and I couldn’t wait to experiment with some Fotospeed LD20 Lith developer, and it definitely didn’t disappoint.
It was a few months ago a friend and fellow photographer Andrew Bartram of https://andrewbartram.wordpress.com/ just so happened to be working up North and had a morning free to spend roaming around my local fell with a camera and me as his guide. We both share a love of old sheds and barns and were soon absorbed by the numerous chicken shacks and pigeon crees which are scattered across the moor. I was drawn to one shed in particular, the dull overcast weather seemed to lend a sombre mood to it making it’s dirty old white window frames glimmer against its tarred blackened wood.
It took me a while to get round to processing my negatives, in the end I decided to develop them in Caffenol CL the low sodium long stand recipe from the Caffenol Bible which works very well with the Fomapan Classic 100 5×4 film I tend to use. The results seemed worthy enough to print with the last few sheets of my expired Kodak Bromide Grade 2 paper, but I think it may be a negative I will return to.
My previous trip to the millstone quarry on Carr Crag had been incredible, but I couldn’t help but feel that the weather had cut my exploration a little too short and I knew there was still a lot more to be discovered. So a few weeks later with some better weather in the offing my dad and I walked down the now familiar track towards the ruins of Flushiemere House. Together we followed the path which slowly wound its way up the small dale past the old mine shop with the aim of reaching the northern most end of the line of crags. Here we hoped to find evidence of the people who visited this remote corner of the Pennines thousands of years before us, and like the millstone carvers that followed them they had left their marks upon its coarse weathered stones. These carvings known as Cup and Ring marks are thought to date to the early Neolithic period around 5,000 years ago just when humans began to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. Their original meanings are now sadly lost in the mists of time though the people who made them seemed to favour certain locations within the landscape. The most common places are on boulders and crags which overlook valleys particularly if there are springs near by, a few marked stones have also been discovered set into streams themselves. Archaeologists have also discovered mounds of burnt material close to certain sites, all these clues are thought to hint at the ritual importance of these areas. It is also worth remembering that the landscape of the Pennines was very different in the Neolithic period. Before the arrival of intensive pastoral farming and mining the dales were densely forested and the valley bottoms often choked with marshes and wetlands, Carr Crags and other similarly rocky outcrops could have formed clear ground above the tree line, a perfect location for hunters to watch the movements of game below or the early farmers to oversee their herds.
After negotiating our way through the snow-covered peat hags we reach the crags and soon started to see boulders covered in carvings. Ranging from small thumb size peck marks to large soup bowl sized cups that covered the surfaces of the massive stones. The the carvings seemed to be more primitive in their designs compared to the more complex patterns found on the boulders of Barningham Moor to the south but the sheer volume of markings was astonishing.
We worked our way along the line of the escarpment stopping now and again to examine the boulders as we went till we reached the location of my earlier visit. Now with the better weather conditions it was possible to see the full extent of the workings. Together we must have found over a dozen millstones all in different stages of creation from the roughing out all the way to the finished article. A few of the worked stones had obviously failed during their carving, an unforeseen fault in the fabric of the stone which led to all the carvers labour going to waste. Looking at the scale of the quarrying it left me wondering was this the result of a large workforce, or generations of small groups of people scraping out a living in these tough conditions? Who were these people who toiled up here on this exposed fell side 600 meters above sea level? Neither could I get over the thought that when the day came to stop work for the last time, what must it have felt like to just down tools and leave all their hard work to the elements? Once again Carr Crags left me with more questions than answers, holding onto is secrets until another visit.
I thought I would add little note about the pictures. A recent sort through my darkroom led to the rediscovery of a packet of very out of date Kodak Bromide Grade 2 photographic paper from the 1960’s. To cut a long story short I couldn’t help but give it a go, and I’m happy I did because the results were remarkable. Not only did they have a wonderfully warm tone, but also a fantastic textured finish which shows through even in the scans I’ve posted, sadly I only have two or three sheets left!
I had probably been sat there for too long. The weather report had given me a brief window between the two weather fronts which were moving across the country from the north, but in my defense it had been a long haul up the steep fell side, and the giant gritstone boulder I had found provided the perfect shelter from the bitter wind which was sweeping across the moorland behind me. The day had started off fine and cold with a bright glishy sun which reflected off the tumbling waters of the Flushiemere Beck. With the stream gently chuckling between it’s frozen banks I walked along the icy track towards the old mine shop of Flushiemere House high above the small hamlet of Newbiggin, and from there I left the main path and started the climb to reach the weathered stones of Carr Crags. From my perch amongst these stones I looked out across the vast panorama of fells that make up the skyline of upper Teesdale, each peak carried its own snowy mantle which glowed in the low afternoon sun. But while I soaked up the mountainous vista, around me the clouds were quickly turning darker by the minute, bringing with them fresh gusts of snow. It was starting to look like I didn’t have much time left to explore before the weather would completely close in around me.
What had drawn me here was the hope of finding some relics of a long gone industry which existed here high up on the bleak shoulder of Jame’s Hill. For centuries the hard rough sedimentary rock these crags are made of had been used to make millstones. From what I had been told these stones were strewn throughout these outcrops like loose change, each one carved by hand but then abandoned before they could be completed. It seems strange to think that after all that hard work they should be left to weather and erode. It turns out the carvers where the victims of a changing market driven by a desire for softer flour that could be milled with fine-grained millstones imported cheaply from the continent. In the end it literally was just not worth the effort to get these stones down the hill.
The first millstone I came across was probably only 20 feet from where I had been seated. It lay on a broken stack of stones half buried in snow-covered turf, but as I started to compose my shot the snow which had been till then only falling as small flurries was quickly becoming a blizzard. Despite the worsening conditions I tried my best to capture the scene taking as many exposures as I could before deciding to move on.
Millstone on Carr Crags, Liquid silver emulsion on watercolour paper.
With my back to the now increasingly savage wind and snow I picked my way along the crag. Here and there I could make out more evidence of the people who spent their days working here. Tucked into a mass of rubble I saw a small circular cell, like a cist made of rough hewn stone it seemed most likely to have been built in an attempt to provide some protection asgainst the prevailing winds, a simple testament to the working conditions.
It was an incredible feeling to be enveloped in the squalling snow, watching it smudge out the landscape, there was an intense feeling of isolation, of being removed from the day-to-day world far below. Soon it became obvious that the weather was not going to break and I had run out of time to take more pictures. So I decided to head for the safety and comfort of home and by using the compass bearing which I had originally followed to reach the crag I descended through the swirling snow. Along the way down my mind kept drifting back to the millstone carvers and what they must have endured to hew these millstone from the hard unforgiving gritstone, only for all their endeavours to come to nought due to our love of soft white bread. Now the sound of pick and chisel has been replaced with the croaking call of the red grouse, and the stones have become home to the mountain hares.
It wasn’t until late March that I finally got the chance to finish the double exposures which began life on my makeshift kitchen table studio. By then the late winter darkness had started to open up to the beginnings of spring and a weak sun shone through the bare branches of my chosen location. I had nicknamed this place Mirkwood (the title I also gave to one of my Stag Skull pictures that began this series of work), not only as a nod to the dark woods of J R Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but also to William Morris’s anglicised term for Myrkviðr the mythical black forest of Norse poetry. It’s a strange, sombre kind of place, tucked deep into the side of the dale and divided by a clattering moorland beck, while the high sided fells cut out most of the sun light. The ground has always been damp when I’ve visited, centuries of fallen leaves have turned the woodland floor into a marsh which sucks at your boots. The little direct daylight and the sodden ground has forced the trees to grow gnarled and twisted, hung with lichen and scarred by past winters, their knotted boughs creaking in the gentle breeze. The wood has proved inspiration for a number of my pictures and I never tire of the myriad of shapes the branches form, every corner provides something new, it really is a place that envelops you and takes you out of modern world.
As with the other pictures in the Dain Series I had taken multiple exposures in the studio to experiment with in the wood. So armed with four pre exposed film holders I spent the afternoon exploring the different contorted shapes of the ancient trees while all the time surrounded by the sounds of running water and early spring bird song. Hunting around the wood it didn’t take me long to find some possible backgrounds to compliment my fox, but one of the things I love most about this double exposure method is that no matter how much I try to envisage what my final picture will look like, it is not until the film is finally developed when I really know what I’ve managed to accomplish. But thankfully once again Mirkwood did not let me down and one of the negative compositions turned out just how I hoped.
Fox Wood. Fompan 100 5×4 sheet film. Double Exposed in Camera and then developed with Tanol 1-1-100, printed with Foma Liquid Silver Emulsion.
Happy Christmas everyone. There have been plenty of ups and downs this year, and though I would have liked to spend a lot more time in my darkroom (once again I have too many yet unprinted negatives) there have been few highlights for me.
Many of you may have seen that back in April I had my first ever article published in the brilliant Fallon’s Angler publication, well would you believe it, they liked it enough to publish another of my articles in issue 8!
Another highlight of my year has been Gallerina, the wonderful gallery that have represented and supported me for so many years, relocating to their brand new home at No 1 Victoria Road Darlington. Richard Gwen and Helen worked tirelessly to transform a tired and neglected old building into a warm and welcoming contemporary art space. So for this new setting I decided to try something a little different, push myself outside of my comfort zone and began work on a series of new pieces using multiple exposure techniques to combine traditional still life photography with my liquid emulsion landscapes and using this new process to explore more deeply the folklore and mythology connected to our landscape. More to follow…
So finally I would just like to say thank you to everyone for continuing to support my blog it really makes it all feel worth while. Merry Christmas to you all and a happy New Year!
On the bank of one of my favourite pools stands a grand patriarch of a beech tree casting it’s branches across the river like some ancient Entish guardian from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. During the cold stirring of spring these gnarled boughs are bare and skeletal but come the warm days summer trout will lazily rise to sip insects off the waters surface beneath it’s shady verdant canopy. Years of harsh winter spates have undercut the bank revealing it’s giant roots and there I often see the marks and foot prints of otters in the soft sandy silt, these often elusive creatures seem to have gained a liking for the invasive Canadian Signal Crayfish which has done so much damage to our own native species. The remains of their brightly coloured claws and crunched up carapaces are littered everywhere. Spring has been particularly late in the dale this year with snow and frost lasting to the end of April but those warm and heady evenings beneath the tree will be back soon.