Coast of the North - Spirit of the North Episode 1
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Welcome to Spirit of the North, a podcast series from Historic England. To celebrate the North of England people and places we sent photographer John Kippin a challenge to explore the spirit of the north.
My name is John Kippin and I live and work in Newcastle upon Tyne, I consider myself to be an artist and a photographer and I’ve been photographing in and around the North of England for many years because that’s where I’m based.
On his quest John captured photographs of some of the North’s historically and architecturally significant places which you can see on historicengland.org.uk and on exhibition at Bessie Surtees House in Newcastle.
In this podcast series we’re digging a little deeper into the places John photographed and the stories they tell. We’ll explore the North’s history of creativity, innovation and cultural influence and we’ll question what the spirit of the North really is.
In this episode we’re looking at the North’s shipping, docks and its coast. John chose to take pictures on Liverpool’s docks, at a hotel in Morecambe and at the Old Flamborough Head Lighthouse.
The coast, well of course, it’s so hard because Northumberland is the most beautiful coast in Europe in terms of its beaches and its birdlife and its remoteness and lack of people – which is a good thing, forgive me – and of course, Yorkshire is beautiful too. Cumbria is very interesting because it’s the energy coast, so chosen. Lancashire is very beautiful, I wanted to be at least aware of those points and hence the hotel in Morecambe and looking at the Yorkshire lighthouse, the first lighthouse.
There could be a dozen exhibitions based on the coast alone with its beautiful lighthouses and as I say, its lovely natural facilities but also the fact that, you know, the rivers of the North are all key to the development of the industry and the culture of the North. And very interesting in terms of thinking about the contribution that those things make.
The North coast has long been crucial to its industries. In the 20th century it was instrumental in transporting Northumberland coal, Teesside steel and Liverpool built cars all over the world. It was also the hub of world class ship building. Now the coastline has changed, serving a new and very different purpose. Bryan Biggs and Michael Lacey are from the Bluecoat, Liverpool Centre for Contemporary Arts.
Bluecoat is the oldest art centre in country, it is bang in the heart of Liverpool and it’s housed in the oldest building in the city centre.
I think with Liverpool in the ’50s and '60s there was a real appreciation for American culture because you get a lot of it off the boats and this kind of thing, which I think sparked, a lot of you know, the Beatles and Merseybeat and all of that.
None of that could have happened if it wasn’t for Liverpool’s status as a port city and being able to get all these records and everything. There was no chords on the internet in those days, people were getting the records and listening to them and then going and playing them back in The Cavern and stuff.
I think that sense of the visibility of the world from Liverpool, you can go and stand at the front and there’s the sea, I think that feeds into the mentality of the city to some extent, that you don’t need to leave, everything will come to you. Liverpool’s where everything kind of rolls and lands.
The port has been in decline for most of the 20th century, obviously it had a bit of a revival during the Second World War when it was a very important port, it got very badly bombed as a result of that. I’m Bryan Biggs, I’m artistic director at Bluecoat.
It had been the port of Empire, the biggest port in the country but then when we joined the European Union everything faced east, so all the west facing ports declined further. The industry that was here, the car industry etcetera, manufacturing, food and so on, a lot of that declined and Liverpool suffered the heaviest depopulation of any of the big cities. Over half a century it lost virtually half its population.
Michael Heseltine, he came and said “Look, there’s hope for this place” and he saw this vision for a revived, regenerated city with the docks being the spearhead for the regeneration, which attracted the Tate and then the museums and its become a model for how you do a regeneration in large docklands and that spread into the rest of the city. And then Liverpool started taking European funding and it turned the corner, such to the extent by 2008 it was the European Capital of Culture.
I think my relationship is more sort of mythological of what the port was, what the docks were and the romance of all those connections to the rest of the world and when you just see photographs and bits of film of the docks, and that must have been amazing to be around at that time.
I’ve got really clear memories of being very young and going to Ireland on the ferry that would leave, the overnight car ferry that would leave from the docks, just standing up on the top and pulling away from Liverpool and coming into Liverpool and getting that different view of the whole spread of the docklands, it’s really arresting. Definitely influences the way that you view the city and its place in the wider world.
So why did John Kippin choose this location in Liverpool?
In Liverpool, on the Mersey coast there, it was lovely to just see, to look out and there were dolphins in the river, that was amazing. I was talking to this guy and he said, did you see those? I didn't know what he meant, I looked and that’s another story about this coast, you wouldn’t ever imagine and of course there’s that lovely thing with the ferry across the Mersey, it starts to tell all sorts of different stories, musical heritage, the coastal heritage, the idea of people sailing from the North to America and the good and bad things that became of that.
And the diaspora that was accommodated from Scotland, from Ireland. It’s very difficult to generalise about people, I don’t like to really but I have to say the people in Liverpool are usually fine, very helpful, friendly, quite fun to be around, they’re great. I sense that there is that outward looking thing and I think it is because they’re a major port.
And on the opposite coast, the Swan Hunters Shipyard was once the centre of the North East ship building, constructing war ships and cruise ships alike. Former employees, Trevor Brown and his son Paul, led us on a tour of the former Wallsend ship yard.
You can just see the pylons there, that’s where they put them in, that’s where the floating dock is. That used to be the number one berth, where they built all the supertankers.
When we left school you had two opportunities, mines or ship building and I went down there and I thought, nah, I didn’t like it, didn’t like it at all.
I started serving my apprenticeship in 1970, Swan Hunters, the best ship builders in the world. I was a year into my apprentice school and I actually came down here, the first super tanker, was in the water and I worked on the Hibernia and all the rest of them.
It was an amazing place to work, absolutely amazing, the whole river. You could get sacked and walk up here and get a job straight away.
Day to day I was a burner, I used to cut all the steel and then I got into the CNC part of it, so I had burner machines.
I watched them take the floating dock out, because the floating dock went down to deep water harbour, the north of Tyne and a ship called the Fjord which can sink, and it sunk down and the floating dock was floated on and it just lifted up and off it went to India. Horrid, horrid. There should be thousands of men still working on this river but times change.
It’s sad, even though times change, and techniques change and things that you do on the river change, it still feels like it should be bustling, there should be something happening down here. So I definitely think there is a generation of people now who don’t have the opportunity to learn that sort of skill.
He was the first one of our family – the whole of our family – who went to university and he did bloody well, he did really, really well, I was so, so proud of him.
I always knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it, my dad’s more practical than me. There’s a perception that that type of work is completely unskilled when in actual fact, probably more your generation than mine, but the swan was often used as a threat, if you don’t stick it at school you’ll end up in the yards.
I only heard that a couple of times, I never really quite got that because as a child and looking back as a father now, it was always a pride thing, that my dad builds ships. It’s about the most tangible thing you can make, there’s a very obvious end product at the end of it, it’s a great big ship.
Photographer John Kippin.
From North Shields there used to be a ferry to Scandinavia but sadly that finished about probably ten years ago now. I think when those things change there is a perception shift in a place, if you’re connected to other places, you have the potential of that place and I think that explains the Liverpool story to a certain extent. There are clearly similarities but there are also great differences. Liverpool, very much a docks around a trade and that’s reflected in the building there. There’s not so much of that on Tyneside, some but not so much and it was mostly to do with shipping coal away from the North East.
Marina Nenadic is from Yorkshire and for her the north coast isn’t all about the docks.
A fun day out for us was to go caravanning, so we really explored the whole of North Yorkshire. The vision of Yorkshire for me is the North Yorkshire coast and driving out to the coast with the caravan and being able to ride my bike without any fear, just being free. And it’s the freedom of Yorkshire.
I think Whitby, in particular I have a lot of really good memories of Whitby. There’s Whitby Abbey with its story of Dracula attached to that, always feels really magical and it is such a beautiful sight up on the hill. Walking through the cobbled streets to get to the 100 hundred steps and then counting the steps as you walk up to Whitby Abbey and being able to look all the way over the bay, all the lovely little houses. Whitby feels like a really unspoilt part of the North.
I’ve always believed that we have to be able to look at the familiar in an unfamiliar way, that is not just the essence of say surrealism, it’s also the essence of the way we encounter the world because if you cannot do that, there’s no progress.
That’s an important lesson I think and something I try to do through the pictures I make because at the end of the day, they’re pictures, OK they happen to be photographs but they are pictures of things mostly. And they’re pictures of things that I want people to look at and think what does that actually mean? Okay it’s a lighthouse but what does it mean, it could mean a 1,000 different things.
Thanks for listening to Spirit of North, a podcast series from Historic England. In the next episode, manufacturing and industry and the role they have played in the North’s story. If you would like to get involved in the conversation use the hashtag #SpiritofTheNorth and if you enjoyed this episode, please do give us a nice rating and review. Once again you can see John Kippin’s photographs this summer at Bessie Surtees House in Newcastle or on the Historic England website.