Category Archives: Journal

Sunday Morning

The town of Hastings in a golden glow as the dawn sun breaks through the rainSunday is my favourite day for riding, especially early in the morning when I go out. The roads are quiet and I have the luxury of having the whole morning to myself, at leisure. No need, or perceived need, to be back home at a set time and at my desk, and one of the usual Saturday morning chores – just empty hours to fill with riding, as far, as fast, and wherever I choose.

This Sunday  morning it was over to Pevensey Castle and back home again along the Hastings seafront. It’s an old familiar run I have made hundreds of times and so has a kind of comfortable lazy Sunday appeal – no thinking, no special expenditure of energy, just a thirty mile slice of Sussex countryside and two hours of fresh, if rainy, air to recharge the batteries. On the way back home, as I pedalled up Galley Hill, just east of Bexhill, I came upon this view of Hastings seafront bathed in a luminous golden glow, with the dawn sun struggling to break through a heavy pall of rain cloud.

I pulled over, leaned by bicycle against a bench and scrambled to get my camera out of my saddlebag even as the light was retreating from the town. I still managed to get this shot off before the scene faded away entirely, and came home feeling privileged to have been out and about on my bicycle and seen it.

The Selfie

A full moon beckons a dawn cyclist along the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea, East SussexThe ‘selfie’ has been much in the news this week with British nature photographer David Slater going public with his battle with Wikipedia, which has apparently appropriated a ‘selfie’ photo of a crested black macaque (monkey) that Slater engineered whilst on a visit to Indonesia in 2011. Having set up his camera and tripod, he watched while one of the monkeys came up and, while peering into the lens, snapped hundreds of ‘selfies’. Most of the images, not surprisingly, were blurry but one of them was startlingly clear – and cute.

Delighted with how things panned out, Slater thought – not unnaturally – that he might make a little money with the shot and so he did, for a while. But then Wikipedia, and presumably its lawyers, decided that the image was public property and that the copyright, if any existed, would belong to the monkey that ‘shot’ the photo.

Since the intellectual rights of a monkey, as regards copyright, are not recognised by law, that would mean that Slater’s image would be in the public domain – free for anyone to use at will. Understandably, Slater, as the photographer who engineered the shot, is less than thrilled by this interpretation and, with Wikipedia refusing to budge, is threatening to go to court. I don’t blame him. (I am deliberately not running the photo myself – if you want to see the monkey selfies, they can be seen here on Slater’s website)

Incredibly, though, there seems to be a substantial body of legal thought that Wikipedia may in fact be correct in its interpretation of copyright law – or at least be able to get a ruling in its favour – on the grounds that since the monkey was the one that actually tripped the shutter, it ‘owns’ the copyright. Words fail. That is such a dispiriting interpretation of photography, framing, composition, lighting, focus and artistry one scarcely knows where to begins.

The capturing of an image is far more than the pressing of a button. It is not for nothing that the phrase intellectual property was conceived; the use of the adjective ‘intellectual’ is not meant to be ironic. The monkey had no conscious part to play in the planning, composition, or focussing of the shot. He – she – it did not determine the f-stop or ISO setting, nor did own the camera, lens, shutter release or tripod. And as far as I know it did not participate in the post-processing of the image or its later dissemination. The one who did all of the above things was the photographer David Slater. Why such a thing should even be up for debate is beyond me.

As someone who has taken many a sefie for this blog I find myself wondering where this bizarre train of thought could lead. Does Canon own the rights to my selfie photographs because they were taken with one of their cameras? After all, I did not personal trip the shutter – the self-timer did that; I merely set it to go off. What about the camera trap images of the rare Iranian cheetah that ran in my National Geographic story on cheetahs (November 2012)? World famous wildlife photographer Franz Lanting was responsible for those – at least by my reckoning, Franz Lanting’s, National Geographic’s and just about anybody else with a modicum of common sense and fair play.

If all this were to be suddenly thrown up in the air, and camera trap wildlife photography were to be declared in the public domain, that would pretty well put an end to that. That kind of photography costs serious money to produce and nobody will do that just to give away the images.

More intriguing perhaps might be the copyright standing of images captured on speed cameras. If the owner and operator of cameras are not held to be the legal copyright holder of images that are shutter-released by someone else – in this case the subject of the image – it would mean that speeders would therefore own the copyright to the images. Unlike crested black macaques, who have no legal standing in terms of copyright law, and therefore cannot claim or hold copyright, motorists – as human beings – could certainly claim it. Wouldn’t that throw the cat among the pigeons?

Since no one is obliged to incriminate themselves, it follows that the subjects of these speed camera images would have the right to choose not to have them used as evidence in court – or indeed appear anywhere outside their own photo albums. With no evidence that speeding had taken place, unless the driver cared to make a voluntary admission, the case would have to be dismissed. At the very least it should make for an interesting debate.

In the meantime Slater is hopefully benefiting from the publicity surrounding the case, even if he is not earning a penny from the selfie itself.

Eastbourne Pier

Eastbourne pier at duskI was very saddened to hear that Eastbourne Pier caught fire last week. I read about it when I was up in Wales. Bad enough to hear that a third of it was destroyed, but to hear later that the fire is being treated as suspicious is dispiriting indeed. I always liked Eastbourne Pier, and liked riding over there to see it. It was far prettier than the drab and rather boxy looking pier we had here in Hastings (until it too was burned) and with its lacy ironwork, domes, fretwork and cupolas it evoked a pleasing Victorian seaside elegance.  It was a particularly pretty sight at dusk, with the fairy lights festooned  along the promenade and twinkling on on its huge pavilion domes. Indeed I had been planning this week to ride over there one evening with my big DSLR and tripod and try to capture a little of that twilight magic.

Now I am not.

I understand there are already moves afoot to rebuild the pier. I sure hope so. I hope too that if they do indeed go ahead and rebuild it that they build just the way  it was, a like-for-like replacement as far as possible. The fact that the 144 year-old pier is/was a Grade II* listed structure gives me some hope, but my journalists’ in-built scepticism tells be that there will be some get-out clause and that the pier’s replacement pavilion won’t look much at all like the old, and be architecturally and visually much at odds with the remaining two-thirds of the pier on the seaward side.

Like Hastings Pier, Eastbourne Pier was built by Eugenius Birch, a renowned Victorian naval architect and the greatest of the Victorian fun pier designers. It really was a treat to look at – just as Hastings Pier was in the old photos. A structural fire in 1917 and what was evidently a pragmantic, budget-minded reconstruction afterwards gave Hastings  the rather boxy, warehouse-like pier that existed until it was torched a couple of Octobers ago, after having lain derelict for years.

The replacement pier for Hastings will be quite modern in tone, from what I gather, but since it is replacing something that was 95 per cent destroyed and not terribly pretty or evocative anyway, I really don’t mind. In fact, the design looks kind of cool.

But Eastbourne Pier is different. It was  pretty, postcard pretty, and two thirds of it is still there, still evoking its old Victorian charm. Hopefully they won’t hand its restoration over to some architect who feels he (or she) just has to gild the lily, ‘improve’ upon it, inflict his own personal biases and tastes and render some ghastly post-modern interpretation of a Victorian pier.  My sense is that is exactly what will happen, with the local MP assuring everyone that plans are afoot for a ‘fantastic’ replacement. I sure hope not. I liked the old pier just as it was.

 

 

Landscape Photography

Kiosk on the promenade at Bexhill-on-Sea Bexhill East Sussex EnglandThanks to the need to provide illustration for this blog, I have rediscovered my love of photography which I had buried for a good many years. Looking backI a not quite sure why I abandoned photography the way I did. In part I think it was because I spent a lot of time in those days travelling aboard cruise ships, giving lectures on behalf of National Geographic.

It was a fun gig, taking ships around the world, coasting along South America, visiting Antarctica, sailing in the Baltic, circumnavigating Britain and Ireland and travelling up the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, visiting some of the most remote islands in the world – the Falklands, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, Ascension, St Helena and so forth.  It was the perfect gig, really, for anyone who likes doing landscape photography. And yet through most of those years I did not carry a camera with me – not even a point and shoot. I could kick myself for that now, but at the time I really didn’t want the burden.

So many of the people I was travelling with – the well-heeled passengers who I was lecturing on various topics – came with thousands of pounds worth of camera gear, the biggest best lenses on the market, and big beefy pro DSLRs to put them on. Overlooking for a moment their photographic talents (or in some cases astonishing lack of same), or any gear-envy I may have felt, what bothered me was the way none of them – or very few – actually seemed to see or experience, in real time, any of the things they were paying so much to come and see and experience. They saw it all later, on their laptop screens back in the ship’s lounge, while they tinkered with Photoshop to get the exposures dialled in and the white balances correct.

In some cases – mainly birders – they would not bother making a landing unless they could be assured they would get a useful photograph of a new species. Instead they would sit in front of their laptops, getting a screen tan while they toiled away at Photoshop or showed off their images to each other.

And when they did come ashore, the unseemly elbowing for position and scrambling to outflank each other robbed many a lovely setting of its charm. I came to view photography as a real scene spoiler, and photographers in general as myopic anoraks who were wrapped in technology and forever missing the moment. I wanted nothing to do with it. And so the cameras stayed home. I didn’t miss them either, but felt liberated, a step ahead of the rest, and enjoyed the beautiful and exotic places I visited all the more for it.

But when I decided to start writing this blog, I knew I would need a means to illustrate it and so I dragged out my old cameras and put my (very) rusty skills to work, reluctantly at first – and then not so much. I made a discovery. Perhaps it was the added maturity of years or the linking of cycling and landscape photography, but I found that instead of missing moments I was seeing more of them – noticing little vignettes that had been slipping by unnoticed. The saddle of a bicycle is always a good perch for seeing the world afresh, but the camera gave me a sense of purpose in doing it, and this purpose honed my vision and enhanced the overall experience. Then too,  of course there was the logistical, artistic and technological challenge of doing cycling photography with myself as both  subject and photographer.

Whatever the reason, I rekindled my love for photography and discovered that there was no reason I couldn’t take pictures and live the moment at one and the same time. And so after many years away I have added that string back to my bow. This past month I have been building up a photography website – www.roffsmithphotography.com – with the aim of drumming up some business aside from what I shoot for fun and for the blog. You can see it here.

Caernarfon – Travel Tips

Caernarfon Castle and mediaeval gate into the old quarter of the town of Caernarfon.Back from northern Wales – Caernarfon to be precise – and thought I might segue briefly into travel writer mode. A few years ago, autumn of 2009, I cycled through Wales along the Lôn Las Cymru, the Welsh cycling path that runs 251 miles from Chepstow, in the south, to Holyhead, in the north.

Along the way it meanders up and down through three mountainous regions, the Brecon Beacons, the Cambrian Mountains and Snowdonia, the crosses the Menai Strait and runs the length of Anglesey, whose gently rolling landscapes come as something of an anti-climax after the drama of wild mountain ranges, passes and stunningly beautiful step-sided valleys. I would have to say that it was, without question, the most beautiful and lyrical bicycle tour I have ever undertaken. Absolutely stunning. Highly recommended.

This time around there were no bicycles – just me and the family and we did all the usual family-on-holiday things. Along the way though we made a couple of nice discoveries I thought I would pass on to anyone who might be planning their own trek along the Lôn Las Cymru, cycling in Wales in general, or just visiting Caernarfon. Stuff I wish I had known when I passed through.

First off, the Palas Caffi ice cream shop, just off Castle Square and just opposite the huge 13th century castle itself. This place is great. They make all their own ice cream and it is seriously good ice cream. Their vanilla is as good as I have ever tasted anywhere (good vanilla is really hard to find) and their wild cherry is unbeatable – best I have ever had. Cherry is my favourite flavour ice cream and I fancy myself something of a connoisseur in this regard. It is very rare you find a good cherry ice cream, one that doesn’t reek of artificial flavour, but theirs was superb. Their amaretto cherry was great too. Indeed all their flavours were spot on, and obviously made with nice ingredients. We went back there every day. Their sandwiches were excellent as well – really nicely constructed and flavoursome. Friendly place too. Definitely a place to head for if your travels take you through Caernarfon.

The other place worth mentioning is the Black Boy Inn just around the corner from the castle. We went there on a recommendation and the dinner we had was so good we were back the next night for more. Very hearty fare and, at least by southeast England standards, not very expensive either for really good pub fare. And this was really good. I had the local Welsh stew, my wife had the steak pie and the girls had lasagne – all of it was extremely good and very hearty. For our return engagement the next night wife had the mixed grill, girls had lasagne and I had the burger of the day which was probably the bet (and biggest) burger I have ever had.

We would have come back a third time, making it three dinners in a row, to round out our time in Caernarfon but we were simply too full from the previous two dinners there. And so we bailed. But around dinnertime on our very long – and very rainy – drive home I heard coming from the backseat a plaintive sigh that it was a pity we were not nearer the Black Boy Inn for dinner. Indeed. Wish it was my local – or maybe not. I’d be as big as a house. But as a place to replenish the calories after a long hard ride through Snowdonia, you could do a lot worse than the Black Boy Inn, or the Palas Ice Cream shop for lunches and cooling ice creams. My travel tip for the day, for anyone venturing to Caernarfon.

 

De La Warr Pavilion

De La Warr Pavilion at dusk, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, England“Delighted to hear that Bexhill has emerged from barbarism at last, but I shall not give it a clean bill of civilisation until all my plays are performed there once a year at least,” George Bernard Shaw is said to have remarked upon learning of the De La Warr Pavilion‘s opening in 1935. It was one of the first examples of Modernist architecture in Britain, although – possibly because of its curves, streamlining, and the 1930s era it evokes – it is occasionally described as Art Deco.

There were no Shaw plays being performed there when I pedalled by the other evening, but Elvis Costello was there and his music could be heard drifting out in the warm summer night. I pulled over to listen, set up my tripod while I was about it and took this image.

On another subject I will be away from my desk for about a week – off to the wilds of Snowdonia, and will be unlikely to be able to post (or for that matter watch the last two stages of what has been an absorbing Tour de France) Enjoy the rest of July. See you in August.

National Geographic – August 2014

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney, Scotland with heather and wildflowersI was a ropey-armed kid roaming the backroads of Carroll County, New Hampshire on a second-hand Schwinn Varsity when the May 1973 issue of National Geographic lobbed on our doorstep and fired my imagination with a story inside about cycling the Alaskan Highway.

Even today, all these years later, I can still see some of those photographs in my mind’s eye – the inset shot of the four cyclists pedalling straight into the camera lens, their touring bikes loaded up for distant places; the picture of the guy straddling his bike in front of this tacky sprawl of hometown signs and mileposts somewhere up in the Yukon Territory, looking for all the world as though he were making up his mind where he might go next; or the picaresque image of the girl playing her harmonica one-handed as she spun along a stretch of wide-open Canadian highway, across the prairies, free as air, with the whole summer – the whole of her life – spread out before her.

The touring story was included as an accompaniment to larger piece about the cycling boom that was sweeping America in the early Seventies, but I felt as though it had been written especially for me. Like the America described in the main feature, I too was discovering the breezy freedoms of being out and about on a bike, and here before me, in vivid Kodachrome, was affirmation of the daydream that had been teasing my imagination every time I went out for a ride: the fact that I had, in my trusty Schwinn, a vehicle that could take me anyplace I wanted to go – even the wilds of Alaska.

Twinned with this was the idea that I would love to write for National Geographic. As benign providence would have it, I did indeed grow up to contribute to National Geographic – filing my first story in 1997. And it was a cycling story too, a three-part series about my 10,000 mile solo bicycle trek around Australia.

Jump forward another 17 years and something like 20 major features in the magazine, and I have landed my first cover. It is a story about a fabulous archaeology find in Orkney: an elaborate Stone Age temple complex that was built on the Ness of Brodgar centuries before Stonehenge.

For me though, this too was a cycling story. For the past few summers I have been travelling up to Orkney – a chain of hauntingly beautiful islands off the northern tip of Scotland – every August during the field season to follow the progress of the excavation at ‘The Ness’ as it is known. When I went I would bring my bicycle. I’d take it on the train to Inverness and on up to Thurso, and then take the ferry to Stromness. Late in the evening of my second day of travelling from Hastings I would pedal down the ramp of the ferry at Stromness and ride out of town to my B&B near the little village of Harray.

These became wonderfully familiar roads. Instead of renting a car I got about on my tourer: a savings for National Geographic and a delight for me. And it truly was truly delightful. Every morning, after a stout breakfast at my B&B I would set out to visit the dig or pedal around Mainland (the largest of the Orkney Islands) looking at other sites – the Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, Scara Brae or the Broch of Gurness – and absorbing something of the mystical beauty of the landscape. Sometimes I hopped ferries and explored other islands as well – Hoy, Westray, Rousay, or made a long rode down to the Churchill Barriers, cross Scape Flow and explored South Ronaldsay. These are perfect islands to explore by bicycle.

I loved every moment.

As I pedaled around Orkney during those summer idylls, working on what was to become a cover story in the magazine, I often thought about that long ago May 1973 issue of National Geographic and the daydreams it inspired. It can be nice the way things work out, even if it takes a little longer than you might think.

You can read this month’s National Geographic story on Orkney here 

While pedalling around Orkney I made my own gallery of images, which you can see here

 

Last Call – Bexhill Seafront

Old Bathing station ice cream kiosk on the seafront at Bexhill, East Sussex, at duskHere in Sussex we have been enjoying a week of especially fine summery weather with temperatures climbing up near 30C towards the end of the week – that’s 86 degrees in old money. I love it personally. Having lived in Australia for many years, and even growing up in relatively cool New England, I simply understand how people in Britain can refer to such temperatures as ‘scorching’ and keep a straight face. Yet they do, and frequently. To me, temperatures in the mid-80s Fahrenheit are just about right for summer, and perfect for going out on your bike.

Lately I have taken to going out for my rides in the evenings – all the better to enjoy the residual afternoon warmth and long evening sunshine after having been cooped up at my desk writing all day. There is also a sense of discovery in going out evenings after so many years of pre-dawn rides. The end-of-day atmosphere is so different from the early morning one, it is like visiting a whole new place.

Bexhill seafront, so desolate in the pre-dawn hours when I customarily ride along it, was positively buzzing the other evening at around nine o’clock, with people strolling along the promenade taking advantage of the long warm evening of what had been the hottest day of the year so far.

It was nice to hop off the bike and spend a while just lingering on a bench, absorbing a little of the old-fashioned summery feel and sense of nostalgia. As the light in the sky faded, the promenade emptied and the first lights began to twinkle in the dusk I took this photo of the ice cream kiosk at the Old Bathing Station selling its last two ice creams of the day.

Hastings Fishing Fleet

Shore based fishing fleet bring in the morning catch at Hastings, East Sussex, EnglandJust on a whim I took a spin down to the working end of the beach this morning instead of carving my usual left hand turn by the town centre and starting the long homeward climb up Queen’s Road. I don’t often come down this way and since I had my camera with me I thought I would poke around amongst the beached fishing boats.

Hastings, if you didn’t know it, has the largest fleet of shore-based fishing boats left in Europe. Shore-based fishing is a tradition that goes back a thousand years. Back in the olden days they launched their shallow-draft, clinker-hulled craft with teams of horses or oxen; nowadays they have hard-bitten old bulldozers and tractors to do the work, dragging them up or down the shingle beach.

I dismounted in front of the huddle of tall weathered fisherman’s shacks and walked my bike between them and down through the sprawl of lobster traps, nets and floats, old boats and tractors that covers acres of this part of the beach. The shingle was deep and mushy and pushing my bike was no easy task. I found my way out onto a breaker arm and, leaning my bike against a railing there, dug out my camera with an idea of taking some photos back towards town and the pier.

A dense bank of sea mist welling in the east spoiled the early promise of sweet clear sunshine and while I stood there waiting, and hoping, for better light, the fleet came in. One by one they hove into view, shimmering out of the horizon and into the shallows, their skippers driving them up onto the shingle. The air was full of the growling of tractors, shots of men and the greedy screech of hundreds of wheeling gulls. It was a wonderful spectacle – one I had never witnessed before. Alas, I was in just the wrong place to photograph it as it should have been photographed and the light was dull and flat. But I’ll definitely be coming back. I just love the discoveries you can make on a bicycle, and the way a bike ride can open your eyes and your willingness to poke around, take the long way, discover.

The Old Man and The Sea

Marine court building, HastingsI was lining up this shot early the other morning, of the old Marine Court building, when an weathered old council worker who had been picking up litter on the beach sidled up  and asked me if I knew what the building was and what it was supposed to represent.

I told him that I understood it was meant to resemble  the Cunard liner Queen Mary, at anchor.

He smiled at that. “You’re one of the very few people who know that anymore.”

“You must be a bit of a historian yourself,” I replied.

He was more than that. We fell to talking. It turned out he had been many years at sea with the British merchant marine, and the South African merchant marine as well, and had sailed all over the world, been just about everywhere before coming back to Hastings and finishing his career on one of the local fishing boats. “I finally did my  shoulder in hauling  a net just off Bexhill a few years ago,” he concluded . “And that was it for me. Now I just pick up litter on the beach.” He shrugged. “It’s better than sitting around though.”

We wished each other a good day and as he drifted away, to resume his morning litter patrol along the beach, I marvelled  at the untold stories of the people we see around us, all the lives that are lived out beyond the periphery of our own.