We caught up with Martin Ellis recently and he told us about his ongoing project, which involves journeys of different types around the countryside and industrial areas of North East England. Although not connected to his current project it was great to hear him talk about the vibrancy of the art and culture that is available in Hull. All in all a great ambassador for the arts culture in North East England, which is what we at TPAR are all in favour of promoting.
North East Journeys
What is your connection to the North East?
I moved to the North East when I was eleven, despite moving away due to studying or work, I always seem to return.
What is it about the North East that attracts you?
My parents had been in the RAF, so we had lived in various parts of England before moving to the North East from Hampshire, it seemed like a long way. It may have been living close to Longsands near Tynemouth, but I felt there was something special here and hoped we would stay, at least for a little while.
Have you studied photography or art, if so where and when?
I completed my Foundation in Art & Design at Sunderland Polytechnic in 1981, during which, I received my only formal tuition in photography. My interest in photography may have started here, yet a week later I discovered clay. It was this which took me to Manchester Polytechnic and my subsequent career in the ceramics industry.
What is your favourite and least favourite aspect of this project?
I have always been inspired and influenced by my surroundings. Growing up beside the coast influenced my drawing and ceramics, hiking in Northumberland helped to develop my photography. Despite walks and occasional cycle rides, my local knowledge was somewhat lacking. I got the bike out of the shed and set off to explore. I didn’t take any photographs initially, just looked about as I cycled, stopping occasionally. This was all a bit different to how I normally work. Images began to develop in my mind’s eye as did the basis of the cycle routes project, I started taking my camera with me. It also became apparent that I was drawn to making images based on memories, some recent but many from my childhood.
With the cycle project, I enjoy being able to just go out, not really plan where I’m going and just look. I’m trying to shop local too, so I often head out without my camera, I have on one occasion regretted this. I always take my camera when out hiking, route planning is essential but I do like my maps and rather enjoy it. My least favourite aspect tends to be a strong westerly wind, closely followed by drizzle and the midge!
How did you come up with the idea for this project?
My journeys through the North East have been many and varied, they begin and at some point they end, although this is often not apparent at the time. The benefit of hindsight as I get a little older brings a bit of clarity and I can see where elements of this project developed.
I began as a studio potter with some teaching after Art College, selling my work through galleries, craft fairs and on Armstrong Bridge in Jesmond. My ceramics were inspired by the beach and rock pools at Tynemouth and Cullercoats. Growing up, I spent so much time here, absorbing it all. It seems quite natural that I would draw upon my surroundings and still do. It may take a bit longer to absorb it all now, which is no bad thing and may explain why I’m often the first and last person in the car park.
I made my way into the ceramics industry, finally settling into production and factory management. How this happened or how I got there, I’m still not really sure. Decisions made, paths taken just to see, I still do this now. The ceramics industry, like many others was in decline. I’m not sure if I had anything to do with it, but the decline appeared to gather pace as I arrived. Maintaining production on ever tighter budgets was challenging, I began hiking in my spare time.
I travelled by paths well-trodden at this point, up into the North Pennines and Simonside Hills, walks found in books. Wherever I went I could see The Cheviot Hills to the North. I drove up through Upper Coquetdale to Barrowburn, the road all Darden Red reminded me of the coast road when I first moved to Tynemouth, it had seen better days. The valley was narrow, Shilhope Law seemed to dominate with a quiet ominous presence, something I grew to love.
I made my way up beside the burns and into the hills, the landscape seemed vast and bleak, utterly beautiful. I felt I could lose myself here, immerse myself in the landscape, sometimes literally as I sank into peat bog. I bought a camera to document my journeys, thought I might do some drawing from them, yet photography became the reason for the journeys.
I took my first proper hike from Alwinton and headed up Clennell Street (once called ‘Ermspeth’ or ‘Eagle’s Path’), an ancient drove road that once linked Morpeth with Kelso. Passing the hillforts of Castle Hills and Camp Knowe, which seem to guard the entrance, I made my way past the ruined Youth Hostel at Wholehope and onto Copper Snout, another ancient track. It was here that I wandered down a path, just to see and came across the valley of the Usway Burn.
The Usway Burn begins on the southern flank of Cairn Hill close to the Scottish Border. Fed by further tributaries, it passes the remote farmhouse at Uswayford and into a wide open valley between Yarnspath Law and Hazely Law. I have a favorite rock here for sitting on and drinking coffee, one of many. It all gets a bit narrower as it passes Fairhaugh and more so at Batailshiel Haugh. With Shilhope Law on one side and Saughy Hill on the other, the valley is at its most dramatic. The burn twists and turns, as does the road before heading south towards The Coquet at Shillmoor.
This valley has become an important part of my life and my way into The Cheviots. All that really changes here are the seasons and yet it’s a working environment, where virtually everything revolves around sheep farming. Mainly Cheviot with some Scottish Blackface, lambing tends to be a bit later than the rest of Northumberland, it takes a while for spring to arrive.
I would like to think it’s been like this for centuries, all peaceful, except for when the big guns are out on the ranges! Yet it’s not always been this way. With the Pub at Alwinton named the Rose and Thistle, which alludes to the Union of the Crowns, it’s not hard to walk up Clennell Street and imagine a band of horsemen making their way by the light of a Reiver moon, intent on stealing cattle, or maybe worse. With Castles and Bastles frequenting the landscape, Northumberland is the most fortified of counties. Almost lawless, life must have been extremely difficult. It’s not surprising there are the faint outlines of so many abandoned villages.
I found this period of history fascinating, I read a great deal and found the folk songs and tales that brought it to life. What really interested and intrigued me though is the ancient landscape and my place within it. I research and visit hillforts, rock art panels, burial cairns and cysts. These became my destinations, the past within my present. I like to have a destination, even if it’s just for safety’s sake. Yet it’s the journeys to these destinations that give reason for making them. If I was to hike up to the burial cairn on Shillhope Law, I may start at Shillmoor or maybe Barrowburn and return via Kyloe Shin or Murder Cleugh. One destination makes for many possible journeys and different perspectives. Once found, I make them as often as possible.
Once I have a series of photographs that may convey the essence of where I am and how I feel, the maps seem to appear, new journeys are planned. I may move on for a while, yet I always return to the Usway Burn and hopefully always will. It’s where my photography developed, one taken here won The Sill photography competition in conjunction with Northumberland National Park, the only competition I’ve ever entered.
During the summer, I make my way down into the valleys and take photographs at the many events and shows. I very much enjoy the community aspect of these shows, as farms and villages in Northumberland are quite remote, there is a reliance that is quite apparent. I decided to have a stand at Harbottle Show, exhibit my photographs, maybe sell a few prints. It’s been a good and enjoyable way of meeting the farmers, shepherds and other hikers that I’ve occasionally encountered in the hills, with their family and friends.
I am still spending my time hiking up ancient drove roads and trails. Salter’s Road into the Breamish Valley and The Street which heads up to the border ridge from Slymefoot. Recent changes have brought me closer to home. I had started using my bike again after photographing cycle events, which coincided with a desire to shop a bit more locally. A new padded seat helped ease the way and I began to cycle into Newcastle, often quicker than driving, and in the opposite direction up to Newburn and beyond.
As I cycled, idea’s emerged and I began to develop a project based around the routes I was using. I decided to concentrate on the cycle paths between Newcastle and Wylam. Many of these are old railway lines or paths once used by those getting to work amongst the industries along the Tyne. A lot of these industries have gone, parts remain. Some derelict sites have been redeveloped with housing or even further with the Metrocentre, the paths are still there.
I didn’t take any photographs initially, just looked about as I cycled, stopping occasionally. This was all a bit different to how I normally work. Images began to develop in my mind’s eye, as summer faded, I started taking my camera with me.
It became apparent that I was drawn to making images based on memories, or maybe that’s what they evoked in me. Some recent but many from childhood. Memories of walks with my grandmother, to the River Dee and Hawarden Bridge at Shotton in Wales, workers would cycle past us between shifts at the steelworks.
I’m not sure what prompted this, it may have been my lack of knowledge and personal history of the area. It could have been the history of iron and steel working in the Derwent Valley that I cycle down or just impressions gathered along The Tyne.
It’s provided me with a new and interesting perspective I can move into and explore further.
I was cycling towards Newburn, wondering who may have used the path in the past, who uses it now and what for? I was making another journey amongst them all, one of many through the North East.
The title might be all encompassing, yet it seems apt as my work tends to be place and time specific. It encapsulates all that intrigues me and also reflects a bit about me. I’d already moved five times when I arrived in the North East, I was eleven. I didn’t really stop moving until where I live now, even now that feels somewhat temporary.
The initial challenge was what were all the buttons and menus for on my new digital camera. I wasn’t exactly a novice, I’d had a camera ever since my Foundation Course when I headed down to Wearmouth Bridge and the quayside with a Zenit E and a couple of rolls of black and white film.
There are certain similarities with learning to throw pots on the wheel or anything new, all very exciting and frustrating to begin with. I thought my throwing had steadily progressed and I was quite good until I got a job at Shire Pottery and met Ivar Mackay.
Having thrown over a quarter of a million pots, Ivar was a master potter by any definition. Working beside someone with that level of skill and ease of making proved very beneficial. It didn’t seem like it at the time though and I often felt like quitting, yet with time, practice and a bit of dogged determination…
So I know with my photography that there’s always more and I need to keep challenging myself, especially when working by myself.
I wanted my project to convey a bit about myself and how I feel in regards to where I am, where I’ve been, maybe where I may go to next and what I may leave behind.
I think that the projects I’m involved in now will keep me busy for quite some time. I have thought about exploring some of the sports events I cover. Particularly fell running as I don’t really understand it. There’s also a social side that’s got a strong competitive element that I find very intriguing.
Name: Martin Ellis
Title: North East Journeys