Thursday 24 June 2010


Abandoned shoes created by artist Viv Mousdell examining the mutability of sand and time in an installation by the beach huts , Whitby.

'Even castles made from sand fall to the ocean'
Jimi Hendrix

Simon Verhoef populates the beach with phantom footwear. Their advance and reclaimation by the sea is being documented with time lapse photography.


Saturday 19 June 2010


Herman Melville

'There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea, by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror.'
From The Mast Head , chapter 35 of the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

An extract from Moby Dick relating to Captain Sleet
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is considered to be a masterpiece of modern literature, written in a distinctly modernist style, it uses symbolism and metaphor to tell what appears to be a simple story of a young mariner called Ishmael and his adventures aboard the Pequod, a whaling ship captained by the tyrannical Ahab.

The book itself is epic in scale encompassing a vast array of themes, including Melville’s personal beliefs on the concepts of class and social status, good and evil, man’s place in the natural order of things, religion and the existence of God.

But this strange tale of one man’s vengeful battle against nature can also be viewed as a rather unorthodox whaling manual, with a variety of chapters about different whale species, including an in-depth analysis of the sperm whale and its secretive behaviour.

A sailor on duty at the Mast Head

There are also large sections of the book concerned with shipboard etiquette and the mechanics of the whale hunt. One such chapter is ‘The Mast Head’ which deals with the art of standing atop the ship’s t’gallant-mast on two thin parallel sticks called the t’gallant cross trees, where it was the sailor’s duty to keep a look out for any sign of the whale.

Melville goes on to describe in great detail a romantic history of the Mast Head and the fact that it has been irrevocably altered by the invention of the ‘crow’s nest’ by the Greenland whaler called Captain Sleet - it seems that the author is having fun at the expense of the Greenland whalers and the extreme weather conditions they had to endure, because when he refers to Captain Sleet he is in actual fact talking about the real inventor of the crow’s nest William Scoresby Senior.
Later in the chapter Melville admits to a secret admiration for William Scoresby and his crow’s nest, but still he adheres to the fact that an aspect of seamanship had gone forever. He considers that the endless hours, days and months spend atop the ship’s mast, with nothing but the vast sprawling ocean below and a sailor’s wild romantic thoughts for company, would be all but lost to the poor soul hidden inside the closetted confines of Sleet’s crow’s nest.

'Heed it well, you pantheists!'


Barnacles and limpets are a common sight on any of the rocks around Whitby, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the two creatures are somehow related. Indeed for a long time naturalists classified both as molluscs, along with the whelks, mussels, cockles and winkles familiar from seafood stalls.

Its true that both barnacles and limpets are apparently sessile, that is to say they don't move much, and both have similar shaped shells. However in 1830 an army surgeon called J. V. Thompson published a paper snappily entitled On the cirripedes or barnacles; demonstrating their deceptive character; the extraordinary metamorphosis they undergo, and the class of animals to which they undisputably belong.

Thompson, who was an amateur naturalist by inclination, examined the life cycle of banacles and discovered that they had a planktonic larval stage called a nauplius exactly like that of a crab or lobster. The nauplius then went though transformation into another unique stage known as a cyprid.

Thompson found that the non-feeding cyprid had the job of finding a suitable rock or shell on which to settle and spend the rest of its adult life. Once a desirable location was found, the cyprid would cement itself to the surface with its attachment antennae and then form calcified plates around its body becoming a fully formed young barnacle.

Thompson's dilligent work placed the barnacles once and for all alongside the crabs, lobsters, shrimps and prawns in the class Crustacea.

In effect they glue their heads to a rock, build a protective casing around themselves with a door in the top, stick their legs (cirri) out and waft water containing tiny items of planktonic food into their mouths.

This is known as cirral beating, but you have to creep up very quietly to see it in action. Once there is a slight hint of vibration, or once a shadow is cast over the rockpool, the cirri immediately contract back into the safety of the shell in the blink of an eye.

The picture below shows several examples of the common cirripede Semibalanus balanoides on a Sandsend rock. As well as the adults there are plenty of youngsters with much smaller shells which are approximately a month or so old.

Also I've ringed a couple of 1-2 week old light brown post-larval individuals. These are just transforming from cyprid larvae into fully fledged barnacles, but have not yet become calcified.

Saturday 5 June 2010



It was a cold, snow covered morning on the 3rd February 1940, when the crew of the impressively large Radar station situated at Danby Beacon located and confirmed the presence of enemy bombers patrolling the seas off the North East coast of England.

The information was immediately relayed to the only airfield not snowbound that morning at Acklington in Northumberland, which was home to Flight Lieutenant Peter Townsend and the 43 Squadron. Once alerted to the imminent danger a section from B flight was dispatched to intercept the enemy force.

RAF Danby Beacon radar station as it looked in 1940
Flight Lieutenant Townsend and B flight eventually made contact with the Germans just off the coast at Whitby. The enemy plane sighted was a Heinkel III (a slow moving German bomber), which had been part of a bigger operation that day, its objective was to locate and destroy British shipping in the North Sea.The German plane stood little chance as the three British Hawker Hurricanes swarmed around it. Shot to pieces, the Heinkel limped on, desperate to escape the British onslaught.

The bomber, now out of control and losing altitude, made for land, and so it was that the town of Whitby awoke that morning to a dreadful sound as the damaged plane screeched over its roof tops.
The bomber finally crashed on the outskirts of town at Bannial Flatt, narrowly missing the farm house that stood there. Tragically two of the aircrew Rudolf Leuchake (observer) and Johann Meyer (flight engineer and ventral gunner) were killed in the attack. Of the two remaining airmen Unter Offizer Herman Wilms (pilot) survived and Karl Missy (radio operator and dorsal gunner) received severe wounds.

Then Flight Lieutenant Peter Townsend

The pilot having managed to free himself as well as being able to burn the official flight documents, tried to make good his escape, but was quickly apprehended by George Walker a postal worker who having seen the plane crash had been one of the first arrive on the scene. His Great Granddaughter Anna Welford would later recount George’s version of that mornings events:

“The pilot then gave himself up, however my Great Grandad and the other witnesses did not realise that the German was carrying a gun, luckily no harm came to him or the other witnesses.

As soon as the situation was under control my Great Grandad had to resume his postal duties…..all in day’s work”

A second witness, Roy Steele a ten year old boy from Hawsker, had been helping his Grandfather on the farm that morning when he happened to hear machine gun fire, looking up he saw the approach of the damaged bomber seconds before it crashed into the farm yard.

Quickly coming to the aid of the crash victims the boy was told by his Grandfather to climb into the wreckage and free the gunner who had been trapped in the rear of the plane. Both the surviving airmen were then unceremoniously locked in the farm’s coal house, where they stayed until Special Constable Arthur Barrett arrived with reinforcements.

Upon discovering the outcome of the attack Flight Lieutenant Peter Townsend along with two other pilots went to visit the survivors of the crash in hospital, bringing with them gifts of fruit, cigarettes and a sense of camaraderie for men, who like themselves, faced their fate every time they took to the air. The dead German crewmen were buried with full military honours at Catterick. A wreath was placed on their coffins, with a card that read 'From 43 Squadron with sympathy'.

The crashed Heinkel at Bannial Flatt farm

It would later emerge that this was in fact the first enemy plane to be shot down over England since World War One, but the significance of the bravery, heroism and tragedy of that day would somehow be lost as the war years continued to grind on and the subsequent death toll reached overwhelming proportions.

Friday 4 June 2010


On the 30th of May, BBC Radio 4's Poetry Please featured Liverpool poet Roger McGough investigating the wealth of poetry manuscripts held by Cambridge University Library.

Among these was the Moore Bede, an early manuscript of The Venerable Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ( Ecclesiastical History of the English People). It was donated to the library by George I who purchased it from Bishop John Moore (1646-1714).

Caedmon's Hymn as it appears in the Moore Bede

Dated to the eighth century, it cosists of 128 pages. The final page contains a version known as the Northumbrian aelda recension of Caedmon's Hymn, thought to be the earliest occurrence of the poem.

Here is a short clip of the programme in which, after a brief introduction, the poem is firstly read in Anglo Saxon with its rich rhythms and characteristic consonants, and then offered in a modern translation read by the actress Juliet Stevenson