The Mighty Are Fallen

RIP – My favourite local view.

I have any number of “favourite views”. You’ll probably know them all if you follow this blog. Some have appeared several times. 

In the Italian Dolomites, it’s the classic view of the three north faces of the iconic Tre Cime di Lavaredo. In the Chamonix area, it’s the Mer de Glace from Le Signal, especially on a day with an interesting sky. Photographing Venice, it’s the island church of San Georgio Maggiore. These views have nothing in common, except that I’ve been fortunate to be able to shoot them often, in excellent conditions, and they have become good friends.

Closer to home, photographing the River Medway, which runs only a few minutes walk from where I live, has been a mainstay of my recreational photography through the last ten years or so. I take a walk by my local stretch of the river almost every day that I’m at home. During the Covid years, that has meant almost literally every day.

I don’t ever remember “falling out of love” with one of my favourite views. “Familiarity” has never “bred contempt”, as the old saying goes. Quite the opposite: seeing familiar sights often and in differing weather and light conditions, different seasonal colours etc, has deepened my attachments. I’ve hardly ever voluntarily passed up an opportunity to photograph these favourites. Well, there was the day I hauled a big medium format film outfit and tripod from Chamonix up to Le Signal in gorgeous weather, but left all my film for the day on the breakfast table in the apartment, and only discovered this on arrival. I was forced just to stand and stare then!

On the majority of my Medway walks, I pass a beautiful big old oak tree which grows right on the edge of the opposite bank of the river from the path. About thirty metres on from it is a curious brick and concrete feature that would accommodate a small boat, but doesn’t. There’s then a wooded area, mostly comprising willows, birches and oaks. Because I was seeing it so often, this had become the favourite of my favourite views. Naturally, its the header photo to this episode of my blog.

On the day I took that shot, I could see, before getting my camera out, that I had a view that looked quite like something John Constable could have painted. This became a bit of a theme with me for a while, particularly around the time of my exhibition “Watching The River Flow”, in November 2016. I even fantasised about what some of my other views of the Medway might have looked like, had Constable painted them. This led me to the accidental discovery that, as a young man, he had actually sketched naval ships on the Medway, near Chatham docks. Sadly, no evidence has emerged that he ever ventured further upstream.

Fast forward about 200 years, and there was Storm Eunice, on 18 February 2022. Thankfully this – the only “Red” weather warning I can recall in Kent – spared the lovely oak tree mentioned a few paragraphs ago. It’s the left-most tree in both photos here. However, Eunice was much less kind to many of its near neighbours. The scene across the river on the morning of the next day was of the kind of devastation I’ve not seen inflicted on a piece of woodland since the notorious storm of October 1987*. I waited a few days for decent enough weather to photograph it. Willow tree trunks have been split vertically. Huge boughs have been shaken to the ground. Mature trees have been smashed or just pushed over by the weather’s irresistible hand. My favourite favourite view has pretty much been rendered unrecognisable.

Photo taken on 22 February 2022

The Environment Agency may eventually deal with much of the debris that landed in or close to the river. The rest is on a piece of land nobody seems to care for these days. It might regenerate, and one day might even hold a stand of photogenic trees. But not in my lifetime.

“Nothing’s for ever” is one of my occasional mantras to help come to terms with loss. That “Constable” view will remain with me for now.

(*That storm caught us all by surprise, you’ll perhaps remember, so it never got a red warning.)

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Style or Substance?

It’s been a fair while since I blogged here, mostly on account of a whole jumble of thing currently going on in my life, not all of them fun. However, despite everything, I’m continuing what has become a very regular daily habit: taking a walk out from home every morning or afternoon, and aiming to come home with a few photographs each time. These usually get reviewed the same evening, and many fail to survive until the next day. Time was, even using film, that my basic philosophy was “shoot lots, keep few”. Partly, I think, because my walks in the last 18 months or so have not involved a great variety of location, time of day, or subject matter, that philosophy has shifted somewhat.

I frequently go for my daily walk armed “only” with my iPhone, and sometimes also with a “proper” camera in a rucksack or shoulder-bag. It hasn’t really been a conscious thing – a few months back I just realised this had become my current habit. More recently, I’ve occasionally found myself pondering what effect this has had on the photographs I take. I used the words “style” and “substance” in the heading for this blog, but, for the moment, be patient, please; I’ll get to looking at those shortly.

Going out with a camera phone as my recording device of choice is no great statement about its capability as a tool, or its ability to slip into a jacket pocket. After all, I have a very capable Lumix compact camera with interchangeable lenses, which is hardly any hassle to carry either. Nor, these days, does the device I use make much difference to post-shoot workflow. I have never done much by way of editing or manipulation of my images, beyond a bit of levelling-up light and colour. I do quite a lot of cropping for emphasis, or to bring out a photo that’s hiding inside the one I actually shot. No, what has led to far fewer trips out with my big Nikon, or one of my medium format film cameras has been determined by that old phrase “horses for courses”. That’s to say, I know that where I’m going and I know what I’m seeing on my regular daily walk can be captured well, and to my satisfaction, with a smaller device.

Were I still shooting track and field athletics, and other sport events regularly, or getting away to interesting, and usually foreign, places, I’d be making much more use of the big guns. However, Covid restrictions changed a lot of that. Having to surrender my driving licence six months ago, while I undergo tests for a possible (non-Covid) medical condition has changed much of the rest of life, and so my sphere of operation is smaller and, perforce, far less varied and becoming far more familiar as every day passes. Still with me? Good.

A short seven years ago, I held a photo exhibition entitled “The Bigger Picture”. This wasn’t because the images in it were printed large (though some were). No, the reason was that, by that time, I’d become involved with six or seven different spheres of photographic subject matter. Each was very immersive and the boundaries tended not to overlap all that much. 

Therefore, the runners who enjoyed my photos of themselves and their competitors, knew little or nothing (usually the latter) about my work, say, as a landscape photographer. Those enjoying one or both of those “spheres” of my work would mostly not have a clue that I was also frequently to be found photographing Morris dancing, motorsport, and so on. None of them were seeing “the bigger picture” of my work. That made for a fun exhibition, much enjoyed by the varied audiences it attracted.

The content of the show included only maybe five or six pictures of each of those spheres. Its substance was intended to be the variety between the spheres. The variety within the spheres was essentially unconscious, or much less visible. Or so I thought when I began putting the long-list for the show together. That was when I encountered the conundrum that bugged me – and probably only me, all the while the show was running. Despite the variety of subject matter, I seemed to have some recognisable styles to my photos!

Now, of course, that’s not to suggest all my runners looked like Morris dancers, or that all my mountain landscapes looked like motor racing scenes! No, what I spotted was that, whatever the genre of photo, there tended nevertheless to be features that were common. I discovered how keen I was that where there were “verticals” in the image, I made sure they were properly vertical, for example. Something similar applied to relevant horizontals, like horizons. I had (and might still have, for all I know) an unconscious preference for certain colour or tone combinations, and a fondness for close-cropping shots with people in them, too. I won’t elaborate, however, because, at the level of an individual photo, these things are subliminal, or scarcely visible to the casual observer, and it takes browsing to spot these things as habitual.  The “style” is within the “substance”.

Fast forward more than seven years to my rather reduced circumstances post-Lockdown. Walking past, along and through essentially the same, or similar, places at least four or five times a week breeds familiarity. They tell me that familiarity breeds contempt. However, I’ve never found that. Indeed, I take great enjoyment, and not a little comfort, from the colour, shape, sound and smell, of the places I know and like, and it seems, if anything, to intensify over time.

But at certain times, and in certain places, there are constants. Am I the only photographer who prefers to shoot trees in the winter, rather than when they are in leaf, for example? One of the regular pleasures on my daily walks by the River Medway, most particularly in the middle of winter, is to be able to enjoy trees on the riverbank that are stripped of everything except their most basic structure. Just trunks, branches and twigs. But wait! On many days, and particularly when there’s no wind, and little else to ruffle the river’s surface, these trees give a pleasure twice over. Compared to some places I’ve been to, the Medway near to where I live seems to give superb reflections, and remarkably often. 

I recently spent a week of quite good weather visiting the area around the River Stour, on the Essex/Suffolk border. It was the place beloved of the 19th Century great, John Constable. I had hopes for lots of great “treeflections” from its banks, but came away a little disappointed. In many places, the Stour was just too narrow to accommodate a full reflection of some of its magnificent oaks and chestnuts. My Medway is that bit wider where it matters.

And so, particularly over the three or four winters since my second exhibition, in late 2016, which was about the Medway, I’ve found myself shooting its reflected trees more and more. Maybe that’s because, since that show, I’ve felt less driven to try to “document” the river in a wider variety of guises and poses. Maybe. However, in the years leading up to that exhibition, I just don’t remember seeing so many of the kind of reflections that are my current hallmark (or they are, according to several of their fans on social media). 

Perhaps it’s the repetition of the same or similar kinds of view that gives an impression one has developed a particular style? When “the style” actually becomes “the substance”?

Whatever, I can live with it. I can live with it all the better when critical reaction is good. I don’t keep a particular tally of these things, but the photo at the head of this blog, which is another of those iPhone shots, by the way, was one I posted on Twitter, and it seems to be attracting more likes, re-tweets, and positive feedback than any that I’ve taken and shared before.

Enough for now.

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The Deadwood Stage

Read on. The title will make sense eventually.

This blog episode follows directly on from the one before it, posted a few weeks back. It picks up my closing thoughts in that, and runs with them. The issue being addressed was, basically, how I should tackle a very necessary and large-scale “ thinning out” of my huge collection of 35mm colour slides, in a collection spanning about 40 of the last 50 years, most of which was too good just to throw away, but which wasn’t really “earning its keep” any more.

I’d had a gut feeling that if I just dived in and started culling parts of the collection without a planned approach, I might end up with a very inconsistent and imperfectly reduced body of work. But I had to start somewhere. So, I sat down with several trays from the most recent part of the largest single topic in the library, which contains my photos of the Italian Dolomite mountains. 

“Most recent” in this respect means photos from about 1996 to 2000. From around 1998, I’d been shooting about fifty-fifty 35mm slides and medium format film, and after 2000, I dropped 35mm completely. I didn’t “go digital” until the end of 2005. At the moment the job in hand is only to work on the 35mm slides. The medium format needs a bit of tidying up and the digital stuff doesn’t warrant attention at the moment.

The latest Covid lockdown left me with a decent amount of time on my hands, which, as the size of the task facing me became evident, was just as well.

My 35mm slide library is big. It’s about 80% material I took for my own pleasure, and 20% commissioned work or stuff from contracts I’d won. It is organised very simply. The major sub-divisions are the major interest area of the photos. So “Dolomites”, “Scotland”, “Motorsport”, and so on. Within each sub-division, everything is in chronological order.  As a way to retrieve photos, it basically works. The slides in some sub-divisions are also consecutively numbered right through. I decided to do this very early on (in the 1970s) after dropping a load of slides on the floor, because I realised I’d have no chance of putting things back in order if I dropped stuff when the collection began to grow. Some parts of the collection also cross-referenced subject matter and numbering, though I didn’t keep this up, because it spoiled the essential simplicity of the library. It is mostly housed in interlocking  plastic storage boxes which have stood the ravages of time, house moves, etc, remarkably well. These were only ever good for 35mm slides. As I drifted towards medium format film, the strips of slides and negatives went into a ringbjnder system I still use for that stuff nowadays. Digital material and such scans of my slides as I’ve made (a very small percentage of the total shot), is on several hard drive units.

My memory of events, people and places is still good enough (with exceptions) for me to recognise roughly what almost any particular batch of photos covers, but not nearly good enough to be able to pinpoint given shots on demand. Fortunately, I have copious volumes of notes and diaries to augment my memory, and take out most of the guess-work. I never managed to put anything like listings of photos on computer, let alone a searchable database, mainly because, by the time I bought my first home computer, the library was already very big, and I baulked at the work that would have been involved in logging or tagging it all retrospectively.

What had become clear to me, a long time ago, if I’m honest, is that as the years passed, any given batch of slides contained an increasing percentage of “dead wood”, which ought to be my priority for thinning out. After writing the last episode of this blog, I began to think quite a lot about what constituted “dead wood”, and how individual photos should be awarded that description. 

I’d concluded that there would be: 

1) images that, despite my best endeavours to protect the collection from damp and dust, had physically deteriorated in some way. Usually this was down to particular film emulsions having a tendency to thin or discolour over time.

2) images that I had kept in the collection to provide some sort of wider context to other photos if needed, but where the need for them to do that had now passed.

3) images that I simply don’t think are very good any more, or which no longer reflect my style or interests. Because I am a good self-critic of my work, and most sub-standard content never got into the library in the first place, I expected this to be a very small component.

It seemed to me basically a case of getting stuck in, targeting these three particular types of “space-hog”, and seeing where that took me. I was open to the hit list growing larger than the above three categories.

Well, so far (because, given the volume, I still have a long way to go) all is good! I’m working from newer back to older, because a lot more of the bloat in the library is in the newer stuff. Better cameras, better film and better opportunities to shoot stuff caused that. I find that I am also less “sentimental” about newer material, making it easier to thin down.

When I started this thing ( and hence the title of the previous blog), I thought some of the “discards” would get scanned and saved as digital images instead of film. There were two flies in this ointment: my scanner began to play up (diagnosis is terminal, I suspect), and the sheer volume of discards was greater than I’d anticipated. To begin with, this has led to me erring slightly on the cautious side, mainly in order to reduce (or put off until I get a new scanner) the potential scanning volume to be attempted.

Other than that, my suspicions about what I’d find by way of “dead wood” were proved largely correct. So far as photos taken for my own pleasure are concerned, my tastes have changed over the years. Thus, it was quite easy, and emotionally painless, to remove from the archive pictures I just didn’t “like” any more, and which couldn’t be redeemed (for example) by scanning and doing some form of manipulation, cropping, or suchlike. For images shot for commercial work I’d done, such as specific contracts and magazine work, things were easier – by and large, their physical health was checked, and if ok, they have stayed in the collection.

In some cases, I’m finding as many as two out of three photos are being discarded, in others, more like one in three. So, overall, maybe half of the accumulated archive might end up going, by the time I’m finished.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression this is mainly a calculated piece of work. No: despite what I’ve said above, emotion plays a big part. For example, in many cases, for the good memories they have left with me, or which “rediscovery” of the photos has triggered, many photos have been spared the bin. This is especially so if they represent important “time and place” events in my life. I’m not seeing that kind of partiality as a good or a bad thing: it’s just how it is.

And, of course, many of the “rediscoveries” are associated with things I’d forgotten, but which have brought me great joy through coming to light like this. This is creating a kind of “win-win” situation for me. I’m achieving the aim of demolishing the cause of a lot of what has become “wasted space” at home. But I’m doing that in a way that is reconnecting me with a great many good times from my past lives.

The job goes on, and will probably take me another few weeks. I’ll let you know in due course how it ended up.

An update, early May 2021: Well, it’s May, and the job actually took much longer that the “few weeks” I estimated, of course. Some of that was due to an old and increasingly unreliable scanner, and some was due to other things getting in the way. However, ’tis done and (for now) I am satisfied that I have done all I can to get rid of that “dead wood” and organise my archive (most of it, at least) in a way that I can live with for the next little while.

The job threw up quite a few issues I’d not anticipated, such as showing how muddled some of my digital photo collections had become – particularly where recent work had, for example, been edited on my iPad, but never moved to a more permanent home. That’s mostly been taken care of now. At least, until I change my mind and decide to move some more things to a proper archive

The photo at the top of this piece comes from a ski tour I made in early March 1997 in the Italian Dolomites. It’s part of a fine set of slides that I hadn’t seen for years, and brought back many memories of an epic few days in the mountains.

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The Scanner’s Dilemma

Tuscan landscape one December morning, near Radicofani

Strange title perhaps, but all will become clear shortly.

As a photographer in the depths of Covid lockdowns, I’ve found myself contemplating something that I should have properly faced up to a long time ago. It presents me with a set of issues the solving of which has previously proved to be so irritating that I’ve just taken the “Oh what the hell” route and done nothing. Those issues become evident every time I attempt a comprehensive solution to them.

The “issues” are something which I suspect every photographer of my generation has faced before, or will face before long. Our generation is the one which straddles the days of film photography and the current era of digital. Each leaves its own legacy. Digital tends to mean data storage devices full of photographs that seldom get looked at. Film tends to mean an office, loft or cupboard crammed with negatives, prints and (very much in my case) slides which are well-protected from ageing and dust etc, but which too, hardly ever see the light of day, let alone the light of a slide projector or a sorting tray.

Lockdown for me recently has meant spending a lot of time in front of the computer sorting the digital work I have accumulated in the past 15 years. It’s amazing how duplicate files proliferate, or collections get dispersed. My libraries of images demand attention quite often, to keep the stuff in shape and easily accessible. Lockdown gave me the excuse to do a deeper, more comprehensive clean up of the archives than I’d previously found time for. But eventually, that work was done and dusted.

I was a latecomer to digital cameras, a) because I had (and still have) a lot invested in what were back then, at least, very expensive medium format cameras, and b) because as time passed, my fairly modest residual needs to shoot on 35mm film were amply met by a trusted old-faithful Nikon  F3/T camera (read about it here ). Around it I had grown a collection of lenses and accessories over several years, which together suited my needs as a landscape photographer down to the ground, if you’ll excuse the pun.

That all changed when an irresistible opportunity to shoot sport came along. This happened much at the same time that I lost a great deal of my access to the landscapes that had hitherto provided the core of my most personally and commercially satisfying from work behind the camera. My world rapidly, though never totally, moved from one of taking maybe two or three photographs an hour in the mountains, to one where the need was often for three (or more) photos a second of athletes on the track etc. For a while, I straddled both worlds uncomfortably. I shot my mountains on medium format film and accepted the need to carry a lot of heavy, ungainly equipment with me up hill and down dale a lot of the time. And I invested in some reasonably good, though by today’s standards, pretty basic, digital equipment in order to hone my craft as a trackside photographer. Even today, what I use is far from state of the art, but it suffices nonetheless.

And two by-products of those changes in my circumstances were that I almost completely ceased shooting stuff on 35mm film, and that the 35mm photos I’d accrued over 35 years basically sat untouched in the storage cabinets that kept them safe. Those commissioning work from me required it by email attachment, or on disc, regardless of the medium it had originated in. Thus it was that it became an anachronism to shoot on 35mm film at all, because the same results and better, and in the required format, came straight off the digital camera. Medium format was a slightly different matter, because big lenses and large negatives had always given superior images, and these could be digitised, without much real loss of impact, via a flatbed scanner.

Maybe it would have been better if I had somehow had the vision to realise that moving images were going to be where a lot of it would be at in a few years time, and invested in the skills and equipment to do video? However, at the time, my markets were exclusively the printed page and static web pages.

Time passed. Digital grew exponentially in popularity, accessibility, quality, capability, and several other “ilities” too, probably. Film output – yes even medium format film output – languished as yesterday’s way of doing things, and the resort of those who couldn’t or wouldn’t “keep up with the times”.

My own work, for profit or for pleasure, is 95% shot on digital cameras nowadays. The remaining 5% lingers on medium format film output from my beloved Bronica cameras (see towards the end of this old blog). That it continues at all is as much for sentimental reasons as anything, and every negative I shoot on the Bronicas now is scanned into digital format pretty much as soon as it comes back from being developed. Thereafter, it lives a life similar to the other 95%, and the strips of original negatives accumulate alongside their 35mm cousins in slide boxes.

So, after all this introduction, you’ll be wondering no doubt, what is this “dilemma” that helped give this blog its title? Well, with the latest clean up of my digital archives completed, I’ve once more found myself facing questions in my own mind about the long term future for the thousands of 35mm slides, from the period roughly 1972 to 2006, which continue to occupy shelf and storage space in my home office that really needs to be put to better use. The dilemma is multi-layered, but its basic elements are as follows:

  1. Do I just leave it all where it is, hope that the passage of time doesn’t lead to it decaying, and content myself with knowing it’s there, if ever I fancy a trip down Memory Lane? or
  2. Do I just chuck the lot? or
  3. Do I start some process of keeping just parts of the overall collection, using selection criteria yet to be determined, and discard the rest? or
  4. Do I attempt to create a new digital library out of the collection, by some form of scanning, and 
  5. Do I do this for the whole collection, or just the parts selected under the criteria alluded to in 3) above?

Scanning tends to be quite a slow and fiddly process, however it is eventually done. Old photographic slides and negatives tend to be magnets for dust once out of storage. Even with the best brushes etc to clean them, some escapes, only to be visible as marks on the scanned work. Scanning is therefore inevitably followed by hours more painstaking work finding and digitally touching up those intrusions. That’s a bit “par for the course” when you’re doing a small batch of, say, ten or twenty slides or negatives, but perish the thought of needing to do it for twenty thousand slides!

To date, I have only interim answers to these questions. Some have been quite painful to arrive at. Sure, I could leave the whole collection untouched, and someone else can decide what becomes of it after I’m gone. However, I tend to baulk at simply tipping the whole collection into the bin myself. Much of this is my history and evidence of my past life/lives. Destroying it all would be like cutting off at least one limb.

I admit that the collection is not the best model of how to catalogue something of this size and detail. However, I feel happier at the thought that, within the whole collection, there will be:

  1. photos I simply no longer recognise, and which may just as well be thrown away;
  2. photos which are just not very good, which probably ought never to have been saved;
  3. photos that exert on me no practical, commercial or emotional pull any more, and which have therefore had their day; and
  4. photos which are, to me, good, memorable, or worthy of saving for other reasons.

Unsurprisingly, I’m minded to go searching for the last of the above, and resign myself to trashing the rest. That good, memorable (or whatever) residue can then be considered for scanning. That’s by no means a given – I don’t yet know how many images it would involve scanning, of course! It may even be necessary to make more than one pass through the results, in order to whittle it down to sensible numbers, whatever they may be.

So, regard this as a work in progress. I’ll keep you posted. I’ll be interested to have thoughts on the practical and philosophical issues this dilemma poses, particularly if you’ve already faced this dilemma yourself..

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There are places I’ll remember

All my life,

Though some have changed.

Some for better,

Some for ever.

Some have gone,

But some remain.

(John Lennon)

As we came out of lockdown during July, I began spending two or three days a week visiting (or rather, re-visiting) a lot of places I’d had on a vague mental “tick list” for some time. Many of these, though by no means all, held associations for me from times in my distant, or fairly distant, past. Maps helped string some of these together for longer Sunday walks. Most of these “places” were in Kent or East Sussex. It was great fun. Few were in any sense on the beaten track, and cunning use of the path alongside the Royal Military Canal, coupled with the well-signposted but not too well-frequented Saxon Shore Way, facilitated a whole string of circular outings across the Romney Marsh and the downs above Folkestone,

The Romney Marsh was an area I’d spent much time exploring as a kid and young teenager, We had family holidays on the coast at Littlestone on Sea. I was never one for the sea or the beach. On foot or, a bit later, on my heavy old Elswick “clunker” pedal bike, I was pretty much free to roam as far as my three-speed gears would take me. Always, I remember, those bike rides seemed to be into the prevailing wind, never with it. And it always, mysteriously, swung into the opposite direction around the time I turned for home.

Thus it was that I got to visit most of the (to me at that time) spooky old medieval “wool churches” on the Marsh, or, in complete contrast, marvel at the scale of the building site for the Dungeness B nuclear power station, alongside its (at that time, still-operational) forbear, Dungeness A. Such things, and the acres of uncluttered sky above it all, were well outside the usual day to day experience of a south-east London schoolboy. They made an indelible mark on me: an itch that has demanded scratching for many years, but which, for shame, I have often neglected. That it was a beginning in total contrast to the amount of time I have spent in mountains and high places during my adult life, is a paradox I still grapple with.

Dungeness nowadays

When lockdown eased and the restriction on local travel lifted, the need for the comfort of familiar but quiet places and to go for long, occasionally contemplative walks began to call. The simple logistics of getting from home to somewhere on the edge of the Marsh, armed with a map, a packed lunch and a flask of tea, took away the need to think too much about where we should go.

Our determination to follow the course of the Royal Military Canal in stages for several of our walks eventually took us to Rye and Winchelsea.

Rye Harbour. Less prosaic than the name suggests

Both had been at the outer limit of where I could cycle to, and back, when I was a kid. The body was willing, the bike was the weak link. Winchelsea, which hardly seemed to have altered, had first drawn me for a revisit very soon after lockdown ended. I’d never been to pay my respects at Spike Milligan’s last resting place, in the big churchyard. As coincidence happens, Milligan had been one of my main comic heroes when I was a young teenager.

Milligan’s Grave

I don’t think I was ever aware quite how scenic the route of the Royal Military Canal is. As a kid, I couldn’t ride my bike on the rough grass paths that flank it. I loved every metre of discovering it recently on foot, and want to get back during the winter, when there will be fewer leaves on the trees on the canal banks, allowing more characterful reflections and still bigger vistas.

Big skies above the Canal

The Canal was also a good way to visit several of the “wool churches” of the Romney Marsh. These mediaeval churches were originally endowed by local gentry who had grown rich on the wool from the ever-present sheep on the Marsh. Ostensibly they served local communities, yet the relatively remote location of many of them suggests that their “local” congregations were never large. However, the churches themselves are reasonably large, considering. Presumably this once reflected the importance of the parish, or the wealth of the patron. The founding of most of these churches seems to have been before 1100AD. They most probably began as wooden buildings, later rebuilt in imported stone.

As a kid, I found those churches that had an open door very scary to enter alone, and I was too timid ever to ask for the key to those kept locked. It would probably have been refused to me, a mere kid, anyway. Scarier still were the graveyards, if they had one. Strange, because I have a fascination these days with old burial places (witness my blog a few years back, here.) I’ve included a recent photo of the most remote of these churches, at Fairfield, well on the way towards Rye, which is famous enough currently to grace the cover of the local 1:25,000 scale OS map.

The church of St Thomas a Becket at Fairfield

Sad to say, I don’t have any photos from “back then” – we’re talking about roughly 1964 to 1970 as I recall. I didn’t own my first camera until, I think, 1971, although I’d been allowed to take my mother’s Kodak Box Brownie (620 roll film) on school outings from time to time. My bike didn’t have a carrier or a saddlebag, so it would have been almost impossible to carry it, and I suspect the shaking it would have received would not have gone down well.

One thing I particularly regret is not having any photos showing the old sea wall on the stretch of coast beside which we stayed. This ran from Greatstone down towards Hythe. It was made up of a massive set of concrete steps, maybe half to three-quarters sea-covered at the average full tide. The whole length of it had a real “art deco” style, inwardly-curving top section, designed to diffuse the stronger waves in heavy seas. I’m referring to it in the past tense, but actually, it’s still there. The difference is that nowadays, most of it has been buried beneath what must amount to many millions of tons of shingle that have been moved there from further up the coast, as part of work to improve coastal defences. I’ve been completely unable to find any record of this work online, but it must have been a massive undertaking, stretching along several miles of coast. The old sea wall I remember so well still exists if you walk down to Dymchurch and along towards Hythe.  

Looking from Littlestone towards Dymchurch, recently

The photos with this chapter of the blog are all from this summer’s explorations.

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On the Loose


How was “lockdown” for you, then? And how have you been handling the strange new world of post-lockdown freedoms? Are you still fearful, like me, that the next person you meet could be the one who ends up killing you?

Since we’ve been permitted to get out again (and, to be honest, for one or two occasions before that), I’ve been ‘rediscovering” the Loose Valley.

Where? Well, if you’re from outside of mid-Kent, you’ve probably never heard of it. After all, its stream is only a minor tributary to the river Medway. The valley is a few miles of countryside, barely a mile as the crow flies from the centre of Maidstone, and it has a deeply rural feel to it. It was not always quite so, however. The Loose stream (the name itself is said to be a corruption of an early word for “clear”) was perfect for the needs of paper-making, and fullers earth, which was essential in the preparation of rags for paper production, was abundant locally. From maybe as early as the 15th century, the Valley was home to a hand-made paper-making industry of great importance, which only came to a final end in the mid-1980’s.

Ten years prior to that closure, I came to know the Valley (as I am want to call it) very well indeed, but have hardly ever been back since then. Why so? Well, we all have compartments in that box we call “The Past” which are marked “Warning! Too many bad memories. Do not revisit”, don’t we? The Loose Valley was an innocent bystander to a very unhappy and troubled time for me back then. I feared returning would remind me of too many bad things that are best kept firmly locked in that box.

My direct connection with the Loose Valley was that I had a thesis to write on how the nascent paper industry got there, what it achieved, and why, at that time, it had almost all come to an end. Unlike large scale industries like quarrying, or mining elsewhere in the UK, paper didn’t scar the Loose Valley. Its stream of pellucid fresh water and cascading gradients allowed a series of mills, small when compared to the later giant mills further on down the River Medway, to develop deep in its heart, over several hundred years. Some started as corn mills. Some ended up as corn mills, but the Loose Valley was a big contributor to helping meet the huge demand for paper, as the world moved from handwritten scripts on vellum, to near-insatiable demand for the raw material that fed the emergence of mechanised printing.

By the end of the 19th Century, the heyday of several of the mills had passed, and a couple more died a lingering death in the early 20th Century. When I first came to know the Valley, buildings or their remains, with their origins and locations dating back quite a few centuries still stood, in varying states of decay or outright ruin, astride the Loose stream and the big mill ponds. With care, if not always with permission, it was possible to explore some of them. In a few cases, there was even enough left to allow one to piece together how the processes on that site may have worked. There were still several water-wheels, in varying states of decay. These had been a driving force for the mills, relatively few of which had ever turned to steam power. Most paper was made by hand until later in the 19th century, and a few mills retained the skills after that, for premium papers. Royalty were numbered amongst their customers. My explorations were the stuff of heady days (and occasional big risks!) over more than two years.

And so, we fast-forward about 45 years, to a very different world. It pleased me when walking there, that the tracks and footpaths through the Valley still followed familiar courses, though I was completely unprepared for just how much quite mature woodland there was where once I remembered mostly scrub. As a result, the Valley seemed far more “hemmed in”. Much of my time spent there before had been in autumn and winter, however, and maybe that has something to do with it. At least the considerable acreage of sheep pasture in its heart seemed unchanged. Such an incongruous sight, so close to a fairly large town, even in Kent.

The place-names were very familiar: Hayle Mill, Ivy Mill, Crisbrook Mill, etc. In many places, the near-random clusters of terraced cottages originally built for mill-workers and allied craftsmen continue to provide small homes. What has changed almost beyond my expectation were the larger buildings – the former mill buildings themselves and their paper-drying stores. Several nowadays would still quite probably stand comparison visually with what was there in, say, the 1880s, were it possible for the modern visitor to gain access to see them, of course.

Several of the millponds have become central to lush gardens to the large houses that have morphed from ruined mill buildings. One still sports its mill wheel. It continues to turn, pretty much as its makers intended.


But so much of what is new takes the form of impenetrable gates, hedges and fences. One former mill was very recently advertised as being for sale. The agent’s details online showed how much of the interior look and feel had been retained in the modernised, near-million pound house. That’s a lot of money for a house that still gets its water supply from the local springs, though.

I was particularly sad to find how securely the wonderful Ivy Mill and its big pond had been fenced off, not just to keep passers-by from trespassing, but to stop them from even seeing what is there nowadays. The biggest positive impression on me was Hayle Mill, once the largest in the Valley, which has become what I guess you’d call a “housing complex”, albeit one sympathetically created on almost the same footprint of the former mill and its big drying sheds. To the developer’s credit, almost the whole place has been built in authentic-looking white clapperboard, with most of the lines of the original roofscape above.

Hayle was, I think, the last mill to survive in the Valley, finally throwing in the metaphorical towel around 1987. My memories of it are of pretty much from the start of its final decade, when decay and decrepitude had begun to set in. Still being in use back then, it wasn’t a site I ever got to study from within. Above is a photo I found online of conversion work at the mill in 2006, beside which is my recent photo from the same spot.

Needless to say, for the passing photographer nowadays (eg me), getting truly representative photographs that might be compared to contemporary images from the heyday of the mills, is nigh on impossible. Even if I had harboured a dream of producing a set of photos like the black and whites I’d taken around 1974, I can’t, because those shots of mine have long vanished. I loaned them to someone who called himself a “local historian”, along with my final dissertation, many years back, and have not seen them, or him, since.

Photos of the mills from the late 19th century (ie after the invention of photography and while they were at their most numerous) are themselves scarce, in any event. The web has been helpful, however. A local named Phil Turner’s 2013 piece here includes several evocative photos. He references the once well-known local artist Donald Maxwell, who is buried in a churchyard not far from where I live. However, I have had little luck tracing Maxwell’s work in the Loose Valley, and I hadn’t heard of him back when doing my studies – no internet back then, of course.

Alfred Quinton was a fairly prolific watercolourist in the late 19th/early 20th centuries (see this) and I have copies of two postcards of paintings he made in the Loose Valley.

Here is his take on what I think is the Ivy Mill pond:


The other is of what was the workers’ pub, “The Bockingford Arms”. It is still immediately recognisable today, though long converted to a large house. Here’s how they compare:


My walks in the Valley have helped me exorcise some ghosts, and they become easier to do each time. Writing this has also been a key piece of the healing process. Thanks for your patience with an eccentric choice of subject for the blog this time.

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(Lock)Down by the River


Funny how these things go, isn’t it? It’s more than 14 months since I added to this blog. We’re embroiled in the biggest peace-time emergency that I and almost any of you reading this will ever experienced. Consequently, most of us are living under “lockdown”. And here I am, adding a new chapter to my writing about the landscapes in my life!

Not how I planned it, of course. 2019 was a difficult year for me. I’d have liked to share with you some photos from my trip to Venice last March. However, while I was there, I picked up quite a severe gut bug, which affected me for several months after I returned, and by then, the Venice visit was something I really just wanted to forget.

Then, I began to develop chronic problems with my knees, which ended up greatly restricting my ability to get out and about with a bagful of cameras. They were not a whole lot better by September, when we set off for two weeks in the Dolomites. It was a trip I was really looking forward to, but I hadn’t counted on EasyJet. I had hand luggage full of camera gear, and a big bag of hold luggage containing everything else. We flew to Venice airport, where we had a hire car booked for the fortnight. Trouble is, EasyJet never actually loaded any hold luggage for our flight. I had, quite literally, what I stood up in on arrival, and it had been a warm morning when we left home. To cut a long and intensely frustrating story short, it was five days before the luggage caught up with us at our hotel in Cortina d’Ampezzo. The arrival of our boots, jackets, warm tops, etc coincided with the start of an extended wet spell of weather and a flare up of my knee troubles. Another trip best forgotten. And don’t get me started on the wettest UK winter in recent memory….

So why am I kickstarting this blog in the depths of the coronavirus pandemic? The pandemic hit northern Italy very hard. It was one of the first areas to suffer really badly. We’d got flights and a hotel in Venice booked for the end of March. Both were early victims of the pandemic close-downs. But I digress….

The coronavirus lockdown permits me to get out for daily, local exercise. Gyms and most other places are shut, of course. After a few weeks exploring walks to places within reach of home that I’d not visited for a while, I found myself walking beside the River Medway most afternoons. This coincided with a spell of rather good weather that suddenly gave way to rain. This reduced the numbers using the path considerably. It also gave me some quite dramatic photos of familiar places.


On tv, there are currently a lot of programmes making “virtual” trips to museums etc, for the entertainment of those currently unable to visit them, because those museums are under lockdown themselves, of course. I’ve been contributing to several things like this myself, because there didn’t seem to me any point in my photos gathering dust in cyberspace. The great team that looks after the Medway River Park had been posting some nice shots of the Medway Path, and they responded very positively when I asked if they were interested in me also tweeting, over a series of weeks, the set of photos that formed the basis of my 2016 exhibition “Watching the River Flow” (about which, see here if you missed it at the time).

This was a great bit of fun, and a stroll down a memory lane mostly full of good memories.


I gained several new followers on Twitter, and heard from numerous appreciative fans of the Medway Path. When all 35 or so photos used in the exhibition had been shared, it occurred to me that I could carry on for quite a bit longer, using the best of the images that made it to the exhibition shortlist but, owing to lack of space, not to the exhibition walls. At time of writing this, that’s what I’m up to. If you’re on Twitter, look up the hashtag #WatchingtheRiverFlow to see everything that has been posted there. I’ve also (within the limitations of Twitter’s allowed 280 character per tweet) told a bit of the story behind the individual shots and the exhibition itself.

This also allowed me to show off the photo I’ve used at the head of this blog. I think of it as possibly the best monochrome landscape image I have produced. It’s taken from one of two spots I seem to return to time and again with camera in hand. It seldom disappoints.

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He Ain’t Heavy…..


I suspect this rather overdue episode of this blog will turn into a camera nerd thing, only of real interest to fellow camera nerds of the same vintage. If that’s not you, I hope to see you again sometime, out the other side of it. But you might want to hang around and see where this leads, nevertheless.

Just before Christmas 2018, I had a week in Florence, basically armed only with my iPhone 7Plus. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. My luggage included my trusty Lumix GF1 camera, with its long and short lenses too, plus several memory cards and a spare battery. Somehow, though, a) I forgot the battery charger, b) the battery in the camera was more than half-used, and c) the spare was flat. Not really like me, because I live in virtual dread of running out of power. Florence has an excellent “real” camera shop, of the kind I was sure could bail me out with a replacement battery, a recharge, or something. But no, I was just met with sympathetic shakes of the head on both counts. So, after a couple of days exhausting such life as I had in the Lumix battery, the iPhone it was, then.


Of course, if you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know I had no real reservations about the ‘phone’s ability to cope. I wasn’t disappointed, either. Our trip was principally to have a week immersing ourselves in Italian Renaissance culture. Much of most days was spent in museums and galleries, dodging the crowds where we could, and occasionally doing a bit of street photography – something Florence can be great for. It was a modest week – all told, about 1,000 photos. Nicest thing of all was to be shooting for myself, not to a brief, or a deadline, etc.

We travelled home right at the end of that “drone” thing at London Gatwick, which you may remember caused utter chaos and uncertainty, even though, by some miracle, we arrived home only 30 minutes later than originally scheduled. It was then that things like Christmas and New Year, having a new mains water supply pipe fitted to the house, and a major bout of interior decorating, took over. The latter hadn’t really been planned at all. We’d had some new double-glazed windows fitted in early December, and a few bits and pieces needed tidying up. I’d also declined some work from a client I’d been meaning to part with for some time (my patience with bad payers only lasts for so long), and I found I had time available for one of those month-long decorating binges that you know right from the start is going to extend into major reorganisations of books, CDs, camera gear, and so on. And it did.

Now, one thing that definitely needed sorting, as an adjunct to all the other tarting up of the house, was my stock of film. Several years back, I’d bought a fridge-full of mostly short-dated 120 and 35mm film from a very traditional photographer friend I’d known for a very long time. Ill-health had forced him to give up his business, and I was offered the film for a pittance. I’d bought it at a time when I also had great ambitions to get some serious use out of of my two Bronica medium format camera outfits. I wrote a couple of blogs about these beauties here and here the last time I’d begun to feel guilty about the many boxes of film still in the fridge, all getting older day by day. Life, and a bit of ill-health and sports injury had interfered with my plans for a few more regular trips to the Alps and Dolomites, which would have made big in-roads to that film stock. Key to that would have been the fitness to allow me to cart a medium format film camera outfit around on my back in the mountains. Suffice it to say that it just didn’t happen. I started this blog with a 2012 shot that amply shows the rewards from such exertions. Here’s another:


The Florence trip maybe presented an opportunity to shoot some film. I’d done so on a visit there in 2011. However, the cost of hold-luggage on what were once regarded as “budget” flights has skyrocketed since then, and this time we just about got by on cabin bags. The Lumix digital outfit packs down small enough to travel that way. On this occasion, however, for the pathetic reasons already mentioned, it turned out to be mostly just useless dead weight. So, during the reorganising of the house, and almost as an act of revenge against my own poor preparation and packing, I’d vowed to take the earliest opportunity I could to get out a bit more with a Bronica. Again.

Then, in January, an opportunity to pay a visit to Venice came up. This was unexpected, but would help me solve a few other problems, so it went in the diary immediately. I also realised it was also 2011 when I’d last spent any time photographing Venice on film. That was when armed with my “baby Bronica”, the ETRSi, a wide angle lens, and its very useful panoramic format 35mm film back. I got shots like this:


What I really wanted was to see Venice through the eye of my best camera: the big Bronica GS, with its 6cm x 7cm negatives. That trip is still a few weeks away, as I write this. There will be a blog, be assured.

The final part of the decorating/reorganisation of the house involved clearing cupboards etc of quite a bit of what my late mother would have called “old toot”. Mostly “old photographic toot”, in fact. Dead flashguns, broken lenses, bits and pieces I had acquired or held on to because I thought they “might come in useful one day”, and which never had. When sorted, it made a sorry little pile, all of which went in the bin without any further expenditure of emotion. It was nice, though, to find a few pieces that I’d given up as lost. These included two now very hard-to-get Bronica GS viewfinder screens, still in their original boxes. One was designed to work with a spot-meter viewing prism – something I now own, but certainly didn’t have when I bought the screen! Ah, faith!

Once everything being retained was neatly tidied back away, I sat down one evening to give the big Bronica a good look over. The baby Bronica had been professionally serviced a couple of years back, because it had been in the wars, but it was probably at least that long since I’d even changed one of the big, beautiful GS lenses. So, in a matter of minutes, I had dismantled it into its component parts. These things are completely modular. The camera body is little more than a plain cube containing the electrics, mirror and shutter button. To it, one clips on a choice of film back, viewfinder/metering prism, and lens. There’s also a useful optional carrying handle/flashgun bracket. Every piece is made to last. When all fitted together, the GS weighs in at almost 3 kilograms on my kitchen scales, proving how much of a lie the title to this blog is. By comparison, my Lumix GF, with its standard 14-42 lens weights just 0.7 of a kilo The Bronica is effectively a big, modular single lens reflex camera, but the experience of using these things is very different indeed to my workaday Nikon DSLR cameras, for example. Not better, not worse, just different.

I was quite chuffed that I also still had all the plastic protective covers for lenses and all the holes in the body, designed to protect the innards when the parts are in storage or transit. My inspection of the camera showed that little was actually needed to any of it, by way of remedial work, other than to remove a few bits of fluff with tweezers, and blow some dust off the mirror, etc. And it was while playing around with the parts that a thought came to me.

The big Bronica is one hell of a lump when assembled, and I’d never have considered putting it, fully assembled, into my cabin bag suitcase when flying. However, went the thought, each of its parts pack down neatly. Like this:


The rubber lens hoods come off the lenses and fold down. The film back has its own leather carrying pouch, for example. I have a useful padded compartment that fits inside that cabin suitcase, which takes my Lumix GF1 outfit perfectly, along with a second lens, the battery charger, spare battery, plug lead, download lead, etc. I took the Lumix and its family out of the bag, and it dawned on my how much of what was in there comprised the “back-of-house overheads” that go with working with a properly equipped digital outfit. None of which (second lens excepted) has an equivalent in a thirty year old analogue kit. Well, ok, there’s rolls of film that make up some of the difference, I guess.

I slipped the camera body, prism, film back and one lens into the compartment and to my surprise, with a bit of experimentation, there was room to spare. Several rolls of film’s-worth. You can see where I’m going with this, of course. Venice for starters.

(To be continued when I get back!)

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The Colours of the Rainbow

Florence panorama 25 12 11_HDR

It really pains me to find that I’ve not posted anything here since April. That’s six months ago! It certainly isn’t for want of opportunity. I can only really claim “other demands on my time” as some kind of excuse.

So, where are we?

Well, the reception for my Venice work (see numerous previous blogs here) has been really good. I’ve felt very flattered to have so many great comments from Venetians themselves who have seen some of the shots. Given how many images of their city they have no doubt been bombarded with over time, I am rather pleased a few of mine have made a mark. Sadly, I’ve not got another Venice visit scheduled until probably September 2019, when the European Masters Athletics Championships will be happening nearby, at Lido di Jesolo.

Aside from the routine of work here in the UK this summer – my photography has been mostly gardens and running – I got to Malaga in Spain in September. This wasn’t quite the visit I’d intended. The story is told in two blogs on my other site, here and here. The good news is that my leg is recovering well. My feet seem to be taking a bit longer. Malaga was great for culture – some great galleries, including a branch of the Pompidou Centre, but I got no time off to enjoy much away from the city centre itself, unfortunately.

I am excited at the prospect of a return visit to Florence in December (the header photo to this piece is a teaser). I had something of a love affair with the city a few years ago, and I was surprised to find that this was in the days before I’d even begun this occasional blog, which this time reaches its 54th chapter. I will make amends for that omission from here in the months to come, I promise.

I slipped a bit into the photographic doldrums after Malaga. Dealing with the (thankfully many) orders for copies of my World Masters Championships photos from there occupied many mornings, but adding in the need to catch up on other commitments rather robbed me of time behind the lens. My photographic mojo seemed to have left me a bit too, if I’m honest.

I’d been following a series of miniature “photo essays” on Twitter under the twin hashtags #LifeInColour” and #ROYGBIV for a few weeks. One needed a nomination to take part, and I was very pleased to get one, and have an opportunity to post a picture a day for seven days, covering a “spectrum” of typical stuff I shoot. The rules require each photo to major on a particular colour of the rainbow. I could have raided my archives and produced a set of photos going way back, but that would have taken time I didn’t really have. Therefore, by choice, my seven shots came from the past 12 months. Most came from the past six months, in fact.

What was unexpected was that this exercise taught me some interesting things about what I shoot. The work I do for myself remains varied, though maybe not quite so much as it once was. I definitely have colours that seem to attract me more than others. Green? No problem, I thought. But indigo? Who has a range of indigo shots to choose from? (An irritating aside was that a good few other contributors to LifeInColour didn’t seem to be able to tell indigo from violet, or vice-versa.) And shots with a predominance of red are quite rare in my recent collection. Maybe those things are not a complete surprise for someone whose roots remain in landscape photography.

Well, after that rambling intro, I thought you might like to see my chosen “rainbow”.


The team from India at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga mainly wore bright red. Here is a shot of one of their stars, Hardev Singh, who is over 85 years old, taking part in one of the relay races. I realised that I could equally have used this photo in the “orange” slot.



I love the tricks my garden sometimes plays on me. We had some beautiful crocosmia growing on a rocky patch for quite a few years. Then, about three years back, it simply disappeared. Until this summer when it came back, exactly where it had always grown! I cheated a little with this shot, and used a piece of black card to make a backdrop to the flowers, which were still growing at the time I took the shot.



Another colour I seem not to shoot very much as a dominant theme. My garden has given some really beautiful yellow roses this year, but when I remembered this photo, of one of the British Masters athletes hurdling in Malaga, I couldn’t resist using it. I’m proud of the composition and the colours.



Never going to be a problem for a landscape photographer, I thought. However, nothing I had to hand really screamed “Green!” at me like this close up of some fuchsia leaves in early light, after a night of rain. The symmetry is pleasing, and the photo is as shot.



Blue troubled me too. No problem getting a load of stuff with blue skies, or even blue waters. I’d also, as you’ll have seen from the “Red” photo, recently worked in a stadium in Malaga with a bright blue track surface. However, as much for its memories of the place as anything, I chose this photo of a bicycle I saw in Padova when I was there ten months back. It may be understated, but it’s a lovely blue, nearly matched by the shop poster.



For those struggling to place it, indigo is a deep blue colour. Think night skies in classic paintings, etc. I’d bet there won’t be too many photographers with a large collection of indigo shots. My favourite is this one, with the indigo covers on the Venice gondolas.



Violet is the colour of violets. That’s not actually very helpful though. I have white violets in my garden, and even the other-coloured ones are not a classic shade of true violet. However, I couldn’t resist this shot – an overload of violet. It was taken on the Venetian island of Burano, when the wisteria was in bloom. This japanese couple had come all the way from Tokyo to get married in Venice.


Why not have a go at your own “rainbow”? If it causes you as much critical reflection on your photos as it did me with mine, I’ll probably have done you a favour.

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Pain or Paradise?


IMG_5841I’ve been back from my most recent trip to the charming crumbliness that is Venice for about a week now, and it’s time I put some thoughts in this blog. I have never really been one to write traditional “travelogues”. I don’t think I can muster my thoughts quickly enough to write “here’s what I’ve just done today” stuff. So, this is a blog with the benefit of a week spent letting my thoughts and impressions “marinade”, as it were. Quite a bit of that time was spent editing my photos from the trip, so my visual impressions were constantly being refreshed – and occasionally what I saw when I downloaded the images I’d taken at the time challenged my memories. Memory plays tricks, as they say, and I think that’s certainly so with colour.

It had been hardly four months since my last Venice visit. Weather conditions in late November were mostly kind, but we lacked for sunshine then, most of the time. Not so this trip. A few wispy white clouds were burning off as we waited for the boat shuttle from the airport to the City – the only way to arrive, by the way – forget the bus! The sky was pure blue an hour later when we fussed around doing all those useful jobs, like buying a week-long vaporetto pass, and studying the various offers available on admission prices to the better exhibitions etc. It was a deliciously warm late afternoon when we arrived at our hotel, buried in a quiet part of Dorsoduro. And I tell you no lie, but between arriving and leaving eight days later, we hardly saw a single cloud in the sky. Sunshine all the way.

For most of the way, when we travelled to our hotel. we were not struck by Venice really looking or feeling any busier than usual. It was basically the same journey we’d made in November. I’d estimate that more than half of visitor faces the nearer we got to the Rialto-St Marks axis were oriental – but then that too was about the same as November. However, we heard a fair bit of English being spoken. Hardly surprising, as the Easter school and college holidays at home were not quite over.


We’d got off the airport boat in Canareggio and walked to the railway station tourist office. What was striking was how empty Canareggio was, and how abrupt the change to more crowded streets came, once we were a few minutes’ walk from the Santa Lucia station. Tickets bought for the week, we hopped on a not very crowded vaporetto down the Grand Canal. This surprised us, as the big Piazzale Roma bus terminal and car park is basically the stop before we got on. But it’s just after lunchtime, we thought; people will have arrived earlier and be leaving a bit later on today.  Down the Canal, very few people got on and off the vaporetto. Mostly locals going about their daily routines. That changed the moment we pulled in to the Rialto waterbus stop. It was rammed solid with tourists. The Canal in every direction was providing good trade for the gondoliers at the regulation €80 for 30 minutes (a price, it seems, that somehow has not increased for nearly 5 years). The cafes and bars on the San Polo side were clearly in big demand. Only four more stops until we had to get off at Accademia. It’s a good job we started fighting our way forward from our seats at the back of the vaporetto when we did: we were lucky to be able to get off the thing when it reached our stop. Hard to fight the crowds when you’re carrying a suitcase. 

It took no more than a few seconds to find the street we needed to head for our hotel. This is the university part of town, and was reasonably busy with youngsters we assumed (probably correctly) to be students. Our hotel was in a back street, not on the way to or from anything else, and soon it seemed as if we had Venice to ourselves. Had the vaporetto experience just been a bad joke? We were also the hotel’s only guests for the first two days of our stay. 



We spent our first full day in the Castello sestriere of Venice (basically the bit behind and north from St Mark’s Basilica). We walked through the Square to get there. St Mark’s was a sprawling mess of people and queues, even at 10am. The neighbouring streets of tat and trinket shops were full of window-shoppers, but once we crossed the first couple of bridges and left these behind, we were in much quieter territory. True, we’d glanced down towards the Bridge of Sighs as we’d crossed the Rio di Palazza and seen something like an illustration from Dante’s Inferno, but heading as we were, away from there in a north westerly direction, all was calm and very welcoming.

We made an early start next morning to visit the Rialto markets. I wanted some photos of the fruit and vegetable market in particular. We arrived at what seemed to be the dip between trade with the local hotels and shops etc, and the point at which the market is flooded with tourists. The many trinket stall that surround the market area were not even open. All well and good, and I got my photos (I’m from a family that ran a greengrocers, you see). We headed into the San Polo sestriere, aiming on a day spent fairly aimlessly rambling its maze of backstreets and little canals. It was there, a couple of minutes away from the market area, that we met them.


Them? Yes, nameless hordes of tourists, many led by someone waving a flag or umbrella. You could tell those who’d recently come in by coach to Piazzale Roma, because they tended to walk four abreast, with a gap between each pair – just as they’d probably sat on the bus. And these crowds confronted us like a wave of water flooding towards us down any of the streets we tried. No one seemed to be stopping and taking in the area through which they were passing. Their focus was pretty much straight ahead, where the guide/party leader was, Pied Piper-like, hustling them onwards.

On several of the following days, we experienced something similar, whenever we were heading out through part of the city not long after 10am. There was a very clear pattern too. I’d say 80% of the hordes we encountered were heading towards Rialto or St Mark’s Square. On the day we visited Burano, there were big numbers heading to and from the glass ornament capital island of Murano too, although we had no difficulty getting seats anywhere we wanted on our waterbus heading further out to the edges of the Venetian lagoon. No one at all got on or off when it stopped at historic Torcello. We were so surprised that we almost took the opportunity ourselves, to make up for a four year absence, though the insane colours of the next stop, at Burano were too much of a pull to resist.

Burano Panorama 19 4 18


Just in the last few days, I’ve read quite a bit in the media about how the Venetian authorities have erected “temporary” turnstiles in the Rialto/St Mark’s area, allegedly for the purposes of separating tourists from locals, and forcing the former on to designated “tourist routes”. Why “allegedly”? Well, I am enough of a cynic to believe that this might well be a dry run for what will eventually lead to a system of access charges for visitors to the most popular parts of Venice. These have been widely spoken about. It’s not my role, nor this the place, to debate the pros and cons of that. My only reaction to those who claim visitors are loving Venice to death is to say that their attention seems very starkly focused on a few areas in particular. Local people are worried about the “Disneyfication” of their city. It strikes me, every time I walk down streets like the Calle Largo San Marco, or San Polo’s Ruga Vecchia, that that battle was essentially lost quite a while ago when the tourist souvenir shops and fast food outlets (no mater how much of an Italian veneer they profess) became the majority. Venice, for many of its visitors, be they from trains, planes, cars, buses or the obscenely huge cruise ships, has become some kind of “experience” to be undergone; a necessary tick on life’s bucket list. 

I find myself wondering how many of those making up the sheep-like armies we dodged ever return to Venice for a second visit? I imagine that perhaps even they would say “No, it was just too full of tourists”.

There, blog done. And I didn’t even get started on another rant about “selfie” culture. That took a lot of self control, believe me!

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