Tales from the waterways

Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port

We used to belong to a club that owned an ancient and very battered narrowboat, the big advantage being that you could hire it for very little money compared to normal prices.  You booked your dates, and the morning you were due to leave you’d receive a phonecall or an email telling you where the last person had left the boat.  This could be anywhere – fortunately these boats don’t move fast so it generally wasn’t too far from its home base.  Then you drove to where it was, usually somewhere down a country lane with a muddy, slippery path down to the canal, unearthed the key from the gas cylinder storage cupboard, and let yourself in.  There then followed about twenty trips up and down that slippery path, arms laden with bedding, food, drink and waterproofs.  Once your holiday had come to an end, you found a place to moor, unloaded, took a taxi back to where you’d left your car, and let the next person know where you’d left the boat.  These little breaks contained an element of surprise that’s hard to find nowadays.

It’s a different world on the canals. They often run alongside or underneath major roads and rail routes, but they go unnoticed by the majority and once you’re on the boat you see these familiar things from a whole new perspective.  Large parts of the canal system cut through countryside it would be difficult to get to any other way, and a lot of that countryside is stunningly beautiful.  Birds and wildlife don’t regard the boats as threats, so you get right up close to them in a way you never normally could.  And there’s something very satisfying about the old lock mechanisms – it’s such a technically simple idea but so effective, and locks are interesting places to linger and watch as well.  There’s a peace and simplicity about life on the canals that belongs to a previous age and you can feel that tight spring inside you effortlessly unwinding as you glide through the water, especially if you can manage to be the person in the pointed end with the book and the glass of wine.

It wasn’t as idyllic as this all the time, of course. Nothing is more miserable than standing on the back deck driving the boat while torrential rain bounces off the water and trickles icily down your neck.  And this particular boat was very old.  The sewage tank sometimes hadn’t been emptied by the previous occupants, and the smell from the toilet could be so bad on occasion that we waited till we got near civilisation and used the public loos rather than have to venture in there. The ‘double’ bed I shared with my husband was no wider than a large single and since he’s a large man that involved some serious co-ordination when it came to turning over in the night, not to mention ongoing insomnia.  And all the cupboards were full of rusty tools, old boathooks, and other assorted junk so that there was nowhere to put anything and we’d constantly trip over all the stuff on the floor.  There was also the fun of periodically having to turn the boat round – a 63 foot boat with no directional control when you’re going backwards is not easy to turn in a turning hole that’s not much wider than the boat is long.  There are fishermen who’re probably still cursing us today.

The first twice we used the boat, the engine broke down. We were fortunate the first time – we broke down in Braunston, which is a major canal centre with engineers and chandlery shops all to hand.  The second time was worse.  We’d been told not to stop anywhere  in Leicester as it wasn’t safe – you know what’s coming, don’t you?  The engine went silent somewhere not far from the centre of Leicester.  The boat swung sideways across the canal, but with a bit of judicious use of boathooks we managed to get it into the side and tied it to some trees.  We were near a bridge that led up to a rather sinister and deserted industrial estate, and there were no passing boats, or people on the towpath, or any obvious source of help.  There wasn’t much we could do except that old staple of the British – put the kettle on.  After a couple of hours had passed, a man on a bicycle came by and shouted hello.  He was a volunteer canal warden and contacted a call-out engineer service for us.  The engineer couldn’t come till the next morning, and we were nervous about being left on our own in a notoriously bad area, so we took everything removable and of value inside the boat, and locked ourselves securely in for the night.  We were right to be worried; that evening some local youths started throwing stones at the boat.  They might, in fact, only have been the size of pebbles but the sound a stone makes when it hits the hollow metal box that constitutes a narrowboat has to be heard to be believed.  It was seriously scary.  They left us alone after a while, and the next morning – somewhat sleepless – we were towed to safety.

This long preamble is leading up to the fact that we visited the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port last Saturday, and it’s the most amazing place – if you’re ever anywhere nearby, do go and visit it.  There’s a persistent romance about the canals even though the reality in industrial times was that running a canal boat was a tough life, and had its dangers too.  Whole families lived and did everything in a tiny space that measured about eight feet square (the rest being used for cargo), but they took pride in their living space and boats were decorated and painted, lace curtains were hung, and bonnets were made.  The work was hard and unrelenting and I’m sure I wouldn’t want to have done it, but it still seems to me that it must have been better than repeating some monotonous task all day long in a dark and gloomy factory.  You could at least feel the sun on your back and breathe fresh air, you were part of a strong community, and you were in charge of your own destiny to an extent that most working class people were not.

I leave you with some photos. I’m never very good at taking the kind of big views that make it onto postcards – they don’t interest me much – so these are small things I saw as we walked around, with explanations where necessary.

Rooftop, British Waterways Museum

Gate with shadow

Old boat - detail

Blacksmith's window

These elaborate bonnets were made and worn by the women of the canals.


They also produced this ‘canalware’ – ordinary objects decorated with brightly-coloured roses and castles.  (I have no idea what that white circle is around the one on the right)


Light on the water

Leeds and Liverpool Canal

Some commenorative spoons, and some original mud from the excavations of the Manchester Ship Canal, which is nearby.

Mud from Manchester Ship Canal

This is a small row of Porter’s cottages, which were lived in not only by porters, but by shipwrights, blacksmiths, and other workers associated with the canals.  Each cottage recreates a home from a different era – 1840s, 1900s, 1930s and 1950s – with all the furnishings and decor of its time.  We got there just as they were locking the cottages up at the end of the day, so we only had a quick look, but the little we did see was fascinating.

Sunlight Soap


And finally, this one simply amused me: a picture of a tap to let you know the thing that looks like a tap underneath is, indeed, a tap.


Ness Gardens

Dee Estuary viewNess Botanic Gardens, Cheshire; view over the Dee Estuary

I haven’t been out a lot since I moved here. There’s been so much to do around the house, and so many deliveries I’ve had to stay in for (one of the perils of not going out to work is that you become the default delivery-receiving person).  To be honest, I’m usually feeling uninspired at this time of the year and I have to force myself not to huddle inside in the warmth, idly surfing the web and generally managing to put off a lot of things that need to be done.

The problem for me is always that flat, grey light that we get so much of in winter; it has a way of turning me into a flat, grey person who has no interest at all in picking up a camera.  But……the other day we got some sun!  There are some botanic gardens just a mile or two from the house and I seized the moment and took myself off there – if nothing else, to indulge in some tea and cake from the excellent little cafe.  As always, of course, once I got going with the camera I found things to photograph and even got quite excited about some of it.

It’s still winter, really, even if bulbs are starting to bloom and blossom is beginning to appear. I can see these gardens will be glorious when spring gets going in earnest, but they’re still a little stark right now.  I concentrated on looking for small abstractions that might make for an interesting shot.


Pond life


Tree shadow


Tree trunk

Blue boat, with reflection

Reflected clouds

At the far end of the gardens, where few people go, I found a very small lake – or perhaps a very large pond – with a boat in it and a bench to sit on.  It was a warm day for February and it was blissful to be able to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the peace, with the birds singing and the breeze rustling the leaves.  A sudden movement caught my eye, and I saw a toad hop across the decking and pause on the edge, before diving into the water.  I was just quick enough to catch him and actually managed to get him in focus, too – if you’ve been reading along with me so far, you’ll know that doesn’t often happen.

Toad about to jump into pond

The gardens are owned and run by Liverpool University, and one of their projects is to investigate the effects of global warming.  They have a huge area with 42 small ponds in it; each pond is kept at a very slightly different temperature and the health and growth of insects, algae, pond plants, and fish are all monitored.

Eco ponds

They also rescue and rehabilitate battery chickens. The first time we came here – on our house-hunting visit in January – some of the chickens were a heart-breaking sight.  They were skinny, ugly, bald in places, and one had some very nasty sore areas.  I was thrilled to see how they look now – fat, glossy-feathered and happy.  I’ve always thought I’d love to rescue some of these birds and give them a good life for what remains of it.  Maybe one day.  I wasn’t having a lot of luck getting any decent shots; you think chickens move around quite slowly, but you’d be surprised, and they don’t synchronise well compositionally.  I did manage to catch this fellow – see how shiny his feathers are.

Rescued chicken



December, St Dunstan-in-the-East

Sunlit leaves

It’s that time of year again, when I just don’t feel like taking photos because the light’s so uninspiring and there’s so little colour around. Fortunately I’ve still got a backlog of pictures from just before we moved, and by the time I’ve got this lot sorted out spring will be beginning to make an appearance and I’ll get my mojo back.  There are snowdrops and crocus out already and I can see the buds beginning on the trees, so it won’t be long now.

I’ve written about St Dunstan’s church before (here) and it will always be one of my favourite places to go in London’s City area.  These will be the last shots of it you’ll see for quite a while – I don’t know when I’ll be back there again.  I was lucky enough to get some amazing light the last time I was teaching there back in December, and these shots are the result.  Do you find there are certain places that you just keep going, time and time again, and never tire of photographing?  For me, it’s been this place and Canterbury Cathedral – something about them keeps me coming back for more.  I’m sure access has something to do with it, as the Cathedral was almost on my doorstep, and when I was teaching in London we nearly always went to St Dunstan’s, but it’s not the whole story.  I think there are some places that seem to encourage the art of seeing – where you simply see more photographically than you do in other places – and I’m sure they’re very specific to each person.  I’m wondering which places where I’m living now will become my new favourites.



Red leaves

Sunlit blades of grass

Wall shadow


Stem and stonework

Winter sun

Window, St Dunstan's

Coloured leaves

Pebbles and leaves

‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’

Shadow of the sword

We’re now approaching something that might be considered normality, whatever that used to be. We have several functioning rooms and there are only about a dozen boxes left to unpack. I have a study to work in even though it currently looks like somewhere that’s been burgled by a thief with a grudge, and a computer to work at even though it’s not yet connected to the internet. It’s a very old computer, so it doesn’t have a wifi card and I’m sitting here with the desktop in front of me and the wifi-connected laptop to my left. Putting anything online involves the patience of a saint, as all my photos are on the desktop and have to be put onto a USB key and thus transferred to the laptop for posting. It shouldn’t be too tedious, but when you have an elderly desktop computer that doesn’t like to use all its USB ports at once, thinks everything I plug into it is a camera, and prefers to keep one or two of them for specific purposes known only to itself, it can get a bit trying at times.  An additional trial is that I have to wear my glasses to see the desktop screen, and I have to take them off to view the nearer laptop screen.  I’m at that age…….

I’m going back in time a little today. I’ve barely been able to think about photography for the last two or three weeks and it was only yesterday that I found some time to start editing the back log of photos. A week or so before I left, I had a private tuition session in Canterbury. I nearly always enjoy teaching, but sometimes you get a client that you hit it off with really well and the whole thing turns into great fun for me too. Mark turned out to be an absolutely lovely person with a great sense of humour, and I enjoyed our session so much that I really felt quite bad about charging for it. I shouldn’t be given money to do something I enjoy, surely?  An added bonus was that, in contrast to most folks, he was more interested in the creative side of photography than the technical side, and that’s where my own inclinations really lie.

Mark had an interest in architectural photography so we paid a visit to the Cathedral. It was one of those lovely sunny winter days and the light was streaming through the windows inside. I don’t usually take many photos when I’m teaching, partly because I feel my attention should be fully on my client and partly because I can’t get totally into things unless I’m on my own. This time, though, I got so inspired that I took loads of shots and I’m pretty pleased with quite a few of them. It was a lovely last visit to a place that’s always inspired me. I expect I’ll be back there again some day, but for now these shots are my final memories of it (and yes, I did give some extra time to compensate).

The photo at the top is a composite. If you know your British history, you’ll know that Thomas a Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.  Having read a bit about it, I think he was behaving rather badly and asking for trouble really, but it’s still a nasty thing to happen.  The quote in the title is attributed to the king at the time – shamefully I can’t remember which one; it might have been one of the Henrys – who didn’t really expect this sort of action on the part of his knights and ended up crawling through Canterbury in a hair shirt as penance.  (It’s not great for your image to have a priest murdered in his own cathedral.)  Becket’s name is engraved in the floor at the spot where it happened, and above it there’s a rather spectacular wall-mounted sculpture of three swords.  I wanted to put the two images together in some way, but couldn’t do a diptych as the shapes of the two images were so different.  Eventually, I took a close-up of one section of the sculpture, placed it on top of the image of the name, and then blended the two together.  I’m quite pleased with the result as this isn’t the kind of thing I do often.  The image underneath is a bigger one of the wall sculpture.


In the same area there’s a small chapel with a wrought iron screen and door.  I didn’t think you were allowed to go in it, but an attendant came up and asked if we’d like to go inside.  I don’t particularly like crucified images of Christ, but I did like the way this one was spotlit.


After looking at it for a while, I thought that what I liked even better was the top half of it, so I cropped it.

Chapel window

I also loved the fancy ironwork of the gate and the shapes of the windows that closed it off from the rest of the Cathedral.

Chapel door

And here’s a selection of other shots I took as we went round.


Coloured light

Light on stone

Light on stone 2

Sun and stone


Now this is a place called the Dark Entry – I always think it sounds like it’s something out of Harry Potter.  The story goes that Nell was a cook to the canon of the Cathedral and had taken rather a fancy to him.  However, she suspected him of having a lover and, in a fit of jealous rage, poisoned his food and he died.  Her punishment was to be walled up alive in the Dark Entry, where it’s said she haunts it still.  Anyone unfortunate enough to see her ghost will die shortly thereafter.  It’s a good story……………..

The Dark Entry

My main reason for including it – apart from the story – is for the spectacular tree shadow you can see through the archway.  We went through and took loads of shots of this.  This was one of those occasions when I think the shots worked better in black and white, so I converted them.  The building behind is part of King’s School, a very old fee-paying Canterbury school that dates back to the early days of the Cathedral.

Tree shadow 1

Tree shadow 2

Room with a view

Circular window

The cottage we stayed in last week was converted from a farm building and this circular window was in the bedroom.  It was positioned low down, the top of it being just below hip level in the wall, so when you woke up in the morning you could look right out while still lying down.  I want one of these!

A little photographic tip: I used fill flash here to balance the light outside with the relative dimness of the room.

Wandering along the Wirral coast

Yellow glow

We’ve got a place to live! Not the one I wrote about in my last post – after making us wait two and a half days for an answer, they refused to remove anything at all from the property.  We might have given in on the cupboard junk and the stuff in the shed, but there was also a tatty old sofa and a bedframe which apparently weren’t going anywhere either, and which we didn’t want – we have enough tatty old junk of our own……  Since there wasn’t even a garage to stash them in, we decided to walk away and start again.

That left us with one day to find somewhere (yikes!).  Out of six possibles that I found online, three were gone, two weren’t ready for viewing, and we managed to arrange a viewing on the sixth one for the next morning.  It was well over budget, yes, but it was lovely – clean, fresh, full of light, ready to move right into, and with a huge garden and in the place we most wanted to be.  By lucky coincidence, the owner was there and we could ask him directly if he minded pets rather than wait till the agent phoned him, he phoned back, the agent phoned us… know how it goes.  We took it.  We’re sorted.  Let’s talk about photography again.

We took a leisurely drive up the west side of the Wirral coast one day, and came across some paragliders having a high old time.  I tried, but none of my shots were up to much; I wasn’t quick enough, and most of the paragliders are about to disappear off the side of the photo like this fellow.

Paragliding, Wirral

As the light fell, there was yet another wonderful sky.

Evening, Wirral

Evening, Wirral 2


I also tried taking this in portrait format just to see the difference, but it doesn’t work nearly so well.  It’s interesting to see how the longer horizontal lines above give a far more restful, tranquil feeling than the more upright composition.







It was getting too dark to see by this time, so we turned for home. Next day we carried on from where we’d left off and ended up in West Kirby, which has a marine lake.  A marine lake, in case you don’t know (I didn’t), is a very large, ‘fenced-off’ area of sea where people can sail, windsurf, canoe, and otherwise indulge in watersports, presumably in more safety than they would if they were out in the open sea.  I’m not sure I like the idea myself, being cooped up with large numbers of people doing the same thing in a relatively small space, although it’s probably good and reassuring when you’re learning.  What I did like was that there was a path running round the edge, and you could do a walking circuit of the whole thing – about two miles, all round.  From a distance, it almost looked as if people were walking on the water.

Marine Lake 1

Those of you who know me well may be surprised to see me produce a black and white image.  I felt the coloured version didn’t really work – the colours were dull and didn’t add a lot.  I’m not a huge black and white fan, so I played around to see what else I could do with it.  I came up with these sepia and blue versions.  I like the warmth of the sepia; not so sure about the blue, although the mood it creates is more true to how it felt at the time – it was a cold, damp, windy day.  Maybe it’s just a little too blue?  It is interesting to see how much a change of colour changes the feeling.

Marine Lake 1, sepia

Marine Lake 1, blue

There was a break in the cloud for a few moments, and a brilliant shaft of light shone down onto the water.  There was only a moment or two to catch it, and the contrast in light was just too much for the camera (and me) to deal with, but I do quite like how it turns the two small figures into ghostly shapes.


Finally, back on dry land, I saw this torn and tangled bunting blowing in the wind and liked the contrast of the bright colours, and the warmth of the pavement stone, against the cold greyness of the sea.


Sunset over the Dee estuary

View from the sitooterie

This has got to be one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen; I was just mesmerised by it.  It had everything, from fiery oranges and blacks to softer blues, pinks and golds, and I haven’t enhanced the colours at all.  I rarely see a sunset where I’m living at the moment, as it’s so built-up here, but every evening in this holiday cottage we were treated to amazing skies.  Not all were as exciting as this one, but every evening produced a new delight and a half-hour spent sitting in this space with a cup of tea, watching evening fall.  Even better, our new house (more later on that) is just up the coast a bit, and this view is at the end of our road.  You may be seeing rather a lot of sunset images in the next few months…….

Sunset 3

Sunset 2

Sunset 5

Sunset 4

Sunset 1

That strange time between Christmas and New Year…..

Arches, Natural History Museum

Another visit to London this week; my friend Corinna was taking a well-deserved break from running her company (Hairy Goat Photography Tours), and we thought we’d have a day out.  It started exceedingly well, with tea and some absurdly good cakes in a small cafe in South Kensington.  Amazingly we managed to sit outside for an hour and a half, which is pretty good going for December.  It did get a bit chilly after a while and we made our way to the Natural History Museum to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

We were a bit taken aback by the fact that the queues just to get into the building were backed up as far as the road, but a security person suggested we try the side entrance.  That was much better and amazingly there was no queue at all for the exhibition itself; most people were on an entertain-the-kids-during-the-school-break mission.

There was some stunningly good photography. Sometimes I forget how much enjoyment there is to be found in photographs that just give huge amounts of visual pleasure.  With all the emphasis in the courses I do on everything having to ‘say’ something or have some deep meaning, it can be a real relief just to look at stuff you simply enjoy looking at.  If you want to see some of it for yourself, have a look at the Natural History Museum’s webpages.  I have to say that the photos don’t look anything like as good there as they do when you see them much larger and  backlit, but you can get some idea.

When we came out, we spent some time photographing the building itself. It’s an amazing building, quite incredible inside, and more like a cathedral than an exhibition space.  On the outside, it’s composed of brick with a kind of pinkish tinge, with blue brickwork inserted in patterns.  It’s a truly fabulous building that’s somehow reminiscent of something that Escher might have drawn.  There was also a small fair and ice rink outside, so we absolutely had to go on the merry-go-round – well you do, don’t you?  Sadly, despite a lot of trying, I failed to get any good shots of people on the ice rink.  There were just too many people to be able to isolate anything interesting and I couldn’t get a fast enough shutter speed anyway.

We rounded off the day very nicely with a Thai meal in a nearby restaurant. It’s a strange sort of time, this hiatus between Christmas and New Year, and I often find it quite difficult and unsettling.  It’s even more so this year because of our forthcoming move,  and I feel I should be busy organising lots of things.  The trouble is that everywhere has closed down for the duration and I’m left floating in limbo for the time being.  It feels like that pause you get on a roller-coaster just as it gets to the top and hesitates before plunging down scarily fast………..

Escalator to the Earth Zone

This escalator takes you up, quite literally, into the Earth Zone.

Bridge, Natural History Museum

Ceiling, Natural History Museum

Hall, Natural History Museum

Steps, Natural History Museum

Facade, Natural History Museum

Merry go round

Turbanned man and daughter

I loved seeing this man with a turban and his little daughter; they were both having a lot of fun.

Horses, merry go round

Chester, here we come……

Moon over Chester

Moonlight over Chester

After feeling as if we’ve been stuck in a holding pattern for the last several years, life has suddenly taken off like a roller coaster on speed.  Geoff has had a job offer which he’s accepted and we’ll be moving to the Chester area in February.  So that’s one rental property to find, one house to pack up, four animals and household contents to transport up there, one house to put on the market, numerous friends to try and see before I go, and six weeks to do it in!  Please pass me a large glass of wine immediately……

It hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I thought we’d be ecstatic when this happened, but actually we’re both feeling a bit gobsmacked.  There is one little flaw in the whole thing, in that he’s had to take a salary cut of nearly 25% and we’re not sure how we’re going to manage in the long term.  In the short term, there’s the redundancy money to cushion things and house prices up there are considerably lower than they are here.  So that’s a worry.  But it’s a great job that will challenge and stretch him, and he’ll be working in a very small company which is something I’ve always thought would suit him well.

It’s an interesting area. Chester, as you can see from the photo at the top, is a gorgeous place – all mediaeval and quaint while still being a very sizeable town.  We’ll only be 40 minutes by train from Liverpool, an hour from Manchester, and even better, a bit over two hours from London so I can still meet up with my lovely and very much valued friends.  That’s a huge relief as it’s going to take some time to make new ones.  We’re also right next to the North Wales coast and mountains, and not far from the Peak District.  So lots of interesting – and I should think photogenic – places to visit.

It’s really exciting in so many ways, while being immensely scary at the same time. I’ve lived in the Canterbury area now for over twenty years and I’ve loved it here.  I love Kent – it’s a beautiful place with so much to offer and I feel very sad about leaving it and will miss it badly.  But I’ve felt a bit stagnant for some time now and I’m ready for a change and looking forward to exploring a brand new place.  At last life is moving forward for us, and hopefully in the right direction.

Anyhow, it seemed appropriate to share a couple of photos I took when we went up there for the interview, and a few others that were taken in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, which isn’t far away.

Chester windows

Chester window


Chester squirrel: Chester is almost entirely surrounded by its mediaeval walls and, although this squirrel was quite high up in a tree, walking on the walls put us at the same level.

Ceiling, Lady Lever Art Gallery

Ceiling, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

St George

St George, Lady Lever Art Gallery.  He’s actually standing on the dragon, but there’s only so much you can get in the frame.

Chandelier, Lady Lever Art Gallery

Chandelier, Lady Lever Art Gallery

Coloured gloves

And finally, nothing is so vulgar as a coloured glove…..I hope you’re aware of that.

Lady Lever Art Gallery

The V&A Glass Gallery

Coloured glass vase, V&A

I love the V&A in London! It’s a wonderful place just to wander around and come across interesting things, and even better, they don’t mind you taking photos as long as you don’t use flash.  I went there yesterday with my friend Eileen, who’s a member, and so we were able to use the Members Room for coffee and chatting purposes.  The Members Room is great – a really nice, relaxing, quiet space away from all the bustle and there were only about three people in there when we went.  That might well be because it’s incredibly difficult to find and when you do find it, you go through a door in a mirrored wall which makes it all seem a bit Alice in Wonderland.  I was hoping for a Mad Hatters Tea Party to be going on inside, but it was all disappointingly normal.

To get there you walk through the Glass Gallery, and I found this fabulously coloured glass vase (above).  A close-up made rather a nice abstract.

Colour abstract

There was also this little group of glass men. They look identical from the front, but when you go round the back you see that one of them has rebelled!  I could identify……

Glass men


Rebel 2

There was some stunningly beautiful glass, and lots of it, but we’d already spent a little too much time chatting and eating cake and wanted to get to the Photographer’s Gallery while we still had time.  But I managed to get this shot, which reminds me of one of those optical illusions where you either see a vase or two faces, depending on how you look at it.


And the V&A version of a Christmas tree is a little different from usual.  This one was made out of string, some of it bound around small cone shapes.  It made for some interesting shadow patterns.

Christmas tree 2, V&A

Christmas tree, V&A