Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Road Racing

For some reason road racing is an integral part of our culture hereabouts.  There are a myriad of meetings which take place around the country during the spring and summer.  One of the largest is the North West 200, where young and not-so-young men (and women nowadays) hurtle round the roads connecting Coleraine, Portrush and Portstewart at a high rate of knots.  The races take place on normal roads, complete with white lines, kerbs and manhole covers.  And alongside the roads you have the usual furniture of trees, lamp-posts, road signs, walls, pillars and houses. You can imagine the dangers - particularly now when speeds of 200mph are not uncommon on the straights.

When I was a lad, back in the late 1970s, the annual NW200 was a not-to-be-missed event and the camera was always present.  Sometimes we would head for the pits and other years The Brother and I would stick our heads through a hedge along one of the straights and practice our panning technique, hoping for the best.  Nowadays the public are kept well back from the racing and it's not so easy to get close, which is probably a good thing from a safety point of view.  Names from the past included the famous Dunlop brothers Joey and Robert, Frank Kennedy (also from Armoy), Tommy Herron, Mick Grant and Tony Rutter (whose son Michael is currently a very successful racer).

Road racing, NW200 style, c1979
You can see from the above photograph that wet roads were a not uncommon occurrence, which must have added to the adrenalin rush for the racers.  In those days the circuit went the full length of the Cromore Road to the Shell Hill - nowadays the circuit takes a shorter route over the Coleraine-Portrush railway line at University Corner.

Safety was sometimes less than optimum in the old days - the odd bale of straw roped around pillars and lamp-posts, if you were lucky.  Riders really did take their life in their hands.

Not much protection if you came off
The NW200 is a proper race - the riders all leave the start line at the same time.  Well, at times of course the excitement gets too much for some and they fall over before the race even begins:

Fallen over on the start line - D'oh!  c1979

Unfortunately many of the top riders from that era are no longer with us.  It's a very dangerous sport, both then and now, and several have lost their lives as a result of accidents.   1979 was a particularly bad year and we were unlucky enough to be close by when two bikes touched on one of the fastest stretches of the Cromore Road.  

As you can see one bike is in flames and the local medics are rushing to help.  This is what a bike looks like after it's been engulfed in flames - not much left:

Burnt out chassis of bike
On better days we got to see some of the best road racing ever - two giants of the late 1970s were Mick Grant (number 10) on the green and white Kawasaki and Tony Rutter.  These were top riders and I can remember this duel well.  This was taken around the Primrose Hill area of Portstewart, just after the stop/start line.  You can just about make out both riders picking their spot for the next corner.

Mike Grant leading Tony Rutter, late 1970s.
Spectators were able to get real close to the action in those days.  Yes it's safer today, but some of the thrill has gone, to be sure.

All the above photos were taken and printed around 1979, by either me or The Brother.  FP4 was the film of choice then (and now) and either printed on Kodak Veribrom or Ilford Ilfospeed Grade 2 papers.  I know that as the prints have been residing in old paper boxes for the last 35 years, while the negs are still sitting in their glassine protected Paterson Sleeves.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Iron Gates and Stone Pillars

Where I live, in the North West of Ulster, there's a lot of agriculture.  And cows.  And sheep.  Of course it wasn't always so.  Sometime around the 12th Century, when the Normans were in ascendancy, there was a move away from semi-nomadic clan life towards the creation of boundaries and, in turn, fields to demarcate small holdings, where tenant labourers could keep a cow or two and grow vegetables and crops.  Raised walls of earth were formed to make these boundaries, ditches were cut to channel water and raths were built to fortify dwellings.

On higher ground, such as the Antrim hills, sheep can still be seen wandering about the boggy areas, where turf or peat is still dug by hand (or hand and foot, to be precise) and few fields exist.   But the lower ground is largely made up of relatively small fields, even with the advent of modern farm machinery designed for larger areas.  Round these parts some crops are grown - mostly potatoes with the odd field of barley or corn, but by far the most popular use of land is to graze cattle, for either dairy or beef.  This makes sense, as our grass is very lush and green, what with all the rain and what have you.  Some fields are left entirely to grass, which is then cut for silage, to feed the cattle during the winter.

Drills for seed potatoes, c1977

Elsewhere in Ireland stone walls are used to separate field from field, but around these parts fields are mostly separated by thorn hedges - usually hawthorn, which is also known as may, whitethorn or just plain haw.  The common phrase heard every springtime is 'Never cast a clout till (the) May is out' - in other words, don't discard any clothes until the May has blossomed, which is usually around May-June time.    A wise saying, since our springs can be still very cold into early May.

But I digress, as usual.  The subject for today is our lovely vanishing gates and pillars.  Mostly these examples of old iron-mongery have simply rusted away and have been replaced by horrible galvanised vanilla gates, which have little character.  Unlike this one:

Iron gate and stone pillar, c1977
Now isn't this a beauty?  Cows and all in the background and a lovely pillar to boot! You can the problem - the stone pillar is falling to pieces.  This photograph, taken and printed by The Brother, c1977, shows a lovely 7-bar gate which used to be not too far away from home and is long since gone.  I like old gates and all being well you'll see a few more of them here in the future.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Zenit and Yashica

Here's one for all you camera-loving peeps.  Delving through my archive of old prints, I came across these stowed away in a box of Kodak 3 1/2" x 5 1/2" Bromesko WFL.2D paper.  The first is of my very first camera - a Russian Zenit B.  Built like a tank it was, coming in at nearly 2lb weight.  An SLR - Single Lens Reflex, which means you look into the viewfinder through the lens thanks to a series of mirrors housed in the prism.  M42 screw mount lens (58mm f/2.8), totally manual - no light meter!  And - remember this? - no automatic diaphragm!  You had to manually stop down the lens before pressing the shutter release - there was an 'extra' ring on the lens, just before the aperture ring.  So you set the aperture and shutter speed from the readings on your handheld exposure meter, focus with the lens wide open and then close the diaphragm before releasing the shutter.  Simple and effective, provided you remember to stop down the diaphragm, that is.

Zenit B - taken and printed around 1975.
Nearly a million Zenit Bs sold, apparently, and of course behind every camera lies a story.  The Zenit was my first foray into the art of photography.  If I close my eyes I can still see it.  It didn't have much smell, of course.  Talking of smells, it's amazing how opening a box of photographic paper in the darkroom can take me back 35 years - the smell is the same.  Now I'm not sure if it's the aroma of the black plastic pouch holding the paper or the paper itself (or both) but when I opened a pack last year - wham! - I was back in my youth, instantly.  Amazing what those olfactory sensory neurons can do to your brain...

I wish I still had it - the Zenith, that is.  Don't know where it ended up, but I guess ££ was tight enough in those teenage years so it probably got traded for something.

Now the question is begged, isn't it, what did I use to take this snap with?  Actually that's one of the questions I always had about the Apollo 11 moon landings - Who filmed Neil Armstrong walking down the steps?  But that's an easy one - there was (apparently!) an assembly attached to the side of the Lunar Module which housed the camera.  In the strange case of the Zenit photo above, it was taken using one of The Brother's cameras.  He had one of these:

Yashica TL Electro X, c1975

For some reason The Brother liked his Yashicas and as time progressed he spent his hard-earning cash from his Saturday job on a beautiful Contax RTS.  But at that time, around 1973, he had a TL Electro X.  Compared to the Zenit this was an advanced camera - it had a meter! A weighted TTL (through-the-lens) meter at that, so you metered the image that would end up on the film - weighted so that the bias was towards the bottom of the image and landscapes and the like wouldn't be overexposed due to the sky.  Lights, visible in the viewfinder, indicated whether the current settings would lead to over or under exposure and you could then alter the aperture or shutter speed accordingly.

This particular Yashica had a very advanced vertical metal shutter, unlike the horizontal cloth shutter in the Zenit.  It had a wider range of speeds - 1s to 1/1000 (vs 1/30 to 1/500 in the Zenit) and a hot shoe for flash (cold shoe for the Russian).  It came with a 50mm f/1.9 lens, a full stop faster than the Zenit's f/2.8 lens.

Both these are SLR cameras - that was important back in 1973.  I mean, why would you not want to compose your image knowing that's exactly the way it would be captured on film?  What exactly is the point of rangefinders??  Funny thing is, in 2014, I love my rangefinders (as well as my SLRs).  Rangefinders are smaller and tend to have brighter viewfinders, since you're not looking through a mirrored prism.  And you have frame lines showing you what will end up on the film.  And they are much quieter than SLRs, since there is no mirror to swing out of the way before the shutter is opened.  There are pros and cons for each and often it comes down to personal choice and what kind of user the photographer is.  And if like me you don't mind using old cameras, you can have several varieties for not a lot of ££.

If you're into film - as a lot of people are, for a variety of reasons - then you are limited in choice if you want a new camera.  I suspect this might change and we might see a few more manufacturers adding a film camera to their stable.  In 35mm, Nikon has their FM10, and Vivitar has similar, although both these SLRs are marketed as 'student cameras' and not as full systems.  In rangefinder land, Voigtlander have their Bessa R3/4 and of course Leica have their MP and both have a wide range of lenses and accessories.  In Medium Format there are new offerings from Fuji, Mamiya and Voigtlander again.  Then we also have the Large Format cameras and at the other end the Holgas and Pinholes.

Notwithstanding the sole offering from Nikon, for film to survive as a medium it might be that we need the weight of a big consumer manufacturer to enter the market again.  But for now I'm not sure they would get many sales - certainly not among the professionals who normally need instant feedback for a shoot, where you might have make-up, designers, models, wedding parties all present and you can't bring them all back if you mess up.  Most amateur photographers who are into film - like myself - are happy to use second-hand gear to scratch this particular itch.  This is great for buyers&users - the market for s/h cameras is huge and prices are reasonably affordable.  As of today there are still places you can get film cameras serviced.  We don't know if this will still be the same in 10 or 20 year's time - time will tell but it would be safe to assume that a lot of service centres will disappear in time.  Even now, the 'newer' old film cameras - the ones using electronics to control shutters and meters - are less able to be serviced at economical prices and so these are more of a gamble.  But since the costs aren't huge its a gamble perhaps worth taking, particularly if you get 10 good years out of one before they give up the ghost.

Whatever camera you use, people who use film are by and large very enthusiastic about it.  It's physical, you can touch it, hold the negatives up to the light and print them.  Your skillset is very different to that of the digital photographer.  There are several very active web groups for film users - including APUG, FADU and Filmwasters as well as ones dedicated to particular camera users which include film users, such as the Leica Forum.

Sunday, 19 October 2014


Somerset Coleraine, that is, not Somerset as in The Levels, King Arthur and this place, what I used to live near after I left here and before I came back here, if you see what I mean.

I like nature and I like trees.  These were captured on film in late August, on a Sunday afternoon stroll what is known as 'The Trim Trail', in the Somerset area of Coleraine.  Taken on FP4 and printed on MGIV if you're interested.

Somerset Trees in late August afternoon sun
The Somerset area has, like so many places around these parts, a bit of history.  To put it in geographical context, it lies just on the southern outskirts of Coleraine, just across the River Bann from the famous Mountsandel, or Mount Sandy if you prefer - you know, the place what dates from 7000BC and is one of the oldest human settlements found in Ireland.

During the Plantation of Ulster, in the time of King James I, the lands around here ended up in the ownership of the Merchant Taylor's Company of London.  The Somerset Estate, all 18,159 acres of it, was purchased from them in 1727 by The Richardson family, who originated from Edinburgh.  Fast forward a couple of centuries and the land was divided up, the Georgian House (which you can see photographs of here) eventually being demolished to make way for housing and a retail park in the 1980s.  The American firm Chemstand (later Monsanto) built a large facility here in the 1960s, manufacturing acrylic fibre. This was also closed and demolished sometime in the 1980s around the same time the retail park was established.  A bit of a metaphor for 21st Century UK Economy, really - out with manufacturing and in with shopping.

Anyway, today we are left with a pleasant woody area in which to walk.  There actually isn't much of the original 'Trim Trail' left (we're clearly fit enough in this part of the world) - now it's just a nice place to walk around for an hour or two.  Apparently the US Army had a base here during WWII, or so a very nice man told us during our Sunday stroll.  He was complaining about the overhead power lines, which stopped him using his metal detector in the area.  He had, believe it or not, been searching for hidden booty left by the Yanks, who were well known (apparently) for digging a hole and burying valuable consumables that they couldn't take with them - like barrels of whiskey.  There still are one or two old Nissan huts that we came across during our walk, so it seems feasible that the US Army were indeed here for a time.  As for the whiskey, we may never know, but it makes for a good story.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Ice cream, anyone?

Just a wee shot of Portstewart, from the lower Prom looking towards the harbour.  One of my favourite places.

Portstewart Bay
The seagulls are drying themselves on the rocks, the War Memorial is standing tall, not a sinner in sight.  All is well with the world.  I might have to get an ice cream...

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The West Strand

Took the Dog-Hound-Thing to Portrush the other morning to take the sea air.  Ended up under the railway arch in the West Strand, home to one of the many Blue Flag beaches around this area (and no, I didn't take the DHT onto the Blue Flag beach, before you ask).  The light was good, but the wind coming off the Atlantic was serious - had to be batten down the hat otherwise it would've ended up somewhere up in the Antrim Hills.

So, Portrush, or Port Ruis, if you prefer, meaning 'the landing place of the promontory', which is quite a mouthful.  Pieces of flint found along the coast from Portrush to Ballycastle point to human inhabitants in this area as far back as 4000 BC, which represents a fair few generations.  It started life as a small fishing village but in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries it was a popular destination for holidaymakers, largely due to the train line from Belfast, which opened in 1855.   Portrush will always have a place in history, thanks to the industry of a certain Mr W. A. Traill, a local gentleman responsible for the first hydro-electric system of public transport in the world, no less, which started in 1883 and ran from Portrush along the coast to the Giant's Causeway.  Sadly neither Mr Traill nor the tramline are with us any more.

These days Portrush still buzzes with holidaymakers in the summer which is great for the local traders and not so great for everyone else.  Best visited in winter if you ask me, when you've only got the biting wind and sleet for company.  Famous for Barry's amusements, The White House and the links golf course, which will host The Open in 2019.  More on The White House later, by the way - a department store with an interesting history.  Over 100 years old and going strong - how many business can say that?

So here is the West Strand in print.  Well, scanned that is - you know what I mean.  Now Mrs North East Liberties herself told me these photographs were boring.  I kind of know what she means, but there's an honesty about them which I like, so here they are - you can decide for yourself.

Portrush West Strand, looking West.  Donegal just visible in the distance
Portrush West Strand, looking East towards the town

Both snaps taken with a 35mm lens on 35mm FP4+ film, printed on MG IV pearl, just for the record.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Holy Trees and such

Here's another couple of prints from the Ballymoney walkabouts.  I was early for hydrotherapy the other day so had a wee dander around.  Just down the road from the hospital, on Rodeing Foot to be precise (Ed: Rodeing Foot - what's that about then?) lies Trinity Presbyterian church, all lovely stonework and everything.  As I walked past I spied a tree which spookily enough has 3 trunks, all Trinity-like and everything.  Nice, isn't it?

Trinity Tree in ground of Trinity Church, Ballymoney
Yes, I know, there's something not right with the foreground of this print - not sure what happened there, apart from sloppy darkroom technique, that is.

I wonder if the tree was encouraged to grow like that on purpose or did nature just decide...in any case, it looks just right growing as it is in the grounds of Trinity Presbyterian Church on Rodeing Foot in Ballymoney Town.

A bit farther down the road and then a right turn brings you to Meeting House Street and eventually to Ballymoney Train Station&Bus Depot.  Not usually a lot happening here but I liked this old building with its stone work.  An uncommonly long building it is, as you can see, which makes one think it must have been built for something in the large transport line of things - railway carriages or the like.  Unfortunately I know not what.  Anyway, here it is:

Ballymoney Transport HQ
I also had a walk over the new funky footbridge at the Railway Station and took this snapshot:

Arty snap overlooking Ballymoney-Belfast railway track

Yes I did feel like a first year Photography BA student.  And yes I know its printed asymmetrically - on purpose, of course...(Ed: sure about that?). And yes I know there's something not right with the right-hand-side of the print - I was having a bad day in the darkroom, OK?

Friday, 10 October 2014

Cows etc

We have a few animals who share their lives with us - some permanently, like the hens, rabbit and Dog-Hound-Thing, and others temporarily, like the swallows who visit every summer and the cows in the fields beside us, which come and go at the farmer's discretion.  We like it when the cows are in - they are beautiful big creatures, inquisitive and very alert. They watch our comings and goings very carefully.  Sometimes they have calves, which is lovely to watch.  They all crowd round to see the new arrival and give us dirty looks as if to say 'Keep Away', which we do as we don't fancy messing with a few hundredweight of live cows.  Here's a snapshot of the current crop, so to speak:

Inquisitive cows in the field
Yes I know I've lost the blacks a bit here - just think of it in the Salgado style.  The Dog-Hound-Thing loves the cows coming in too - he gets to be all protective of his family (i.e., us) and spends most of the day on High Alert, watching their every move.  If they get too close he'll bark like crazy and make for them, although the fence keeps them separated.  The cows just treat him with disdain most of the time, looking at him curiously.  Unless he startles them of course, when they give a buck leap (as my grandfather would have said) and lollop away to another part of the field.

Now here's a rare event - the DHT in stationary pose.  Usually he's the sort that never stands still - it's either full on running around like a mad eejit or flaked out asleep (and mostly the latter it has to be said, although since he's getting on a bit that's OK).

The Dog-Hound-Thing, in static pose at Portstewart Strand
This was taken in the sandhills at Portstewart Strand, which are just fantastic to walk.  It is reckoned that early StoneAge Irish-folk used to live in the sandhills, using nearby Tober Patrick (St Patrick's well) as it is now known as a source of fresh water.  It's a feast for the senses walking through the sand dunes - I can heartily recommend it to revive the spirits.

There's a (mildly) interesting story about these prints, for those of you enlightened in the ways of the darkroom.  I had some Fotospeed WT-10 developer in my slot processor which was about a month old.  No problem, I thought to myself, I'll just replenish it with about 25% fresh (at 1:29 dilution it's very economical) and it'll be good to go.  But it wasn't.  Every print came out murky, little contrast, almost green in tone and after a couple of hours I was getting disillusioned with my printing session and life in general, as you do.  But I washed the prints as usual and decided to see how some of them toned in warm Selenium.  And guess what?  They had an impressive shift in contrast after toning - pretty much back to normal.   Now I don't think I'll be recommending this course of action in future - I think this developer at 1:29 dilution is good only for a couple of weeks - but it is an interesting result.  Looking at the prints today the un-toned definitely have a greenish look about them - which might well suit some subjects.  And it could be an interesting diversion to see just how long this particular developer keeps active for.  But that's for another day.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Too late

Same old story - more 'improvements' means tumbling some of our historic buildings.  This time its our old friend the local Council, who decided in their wisdom to demolish some cottages in Portrush Harbour.  The harbour in its present form was built in 1827, although ships had been stopping at Portrush since the 18th Century to pick up any passengers brave enough to try their hand in the New World of the Americas.  By all accounts these journeys were not to be undertaken lightly - the conditions were cramped, food scarce and disease rife.  Many young and old died.  But clearly for many the risks were worth it - some 400,000 emigrated from Ulster to America in the 18th Century.

Anyway, back to the cottages.  These were used until very recently by local fishermen.  After asbestos was found in them (presumably in the roofs - corrugated asbestos was used before the 1970s) it was safely removed.  So far so good.  But no, the Council then decided that the most economic solution was to demolish them.  Now I daresay the cost-benefit analysis was carried out with due process and I understand they have a duty to the ratepayers - although where was this duty when the new council offices were built a few years ago?  To quote from their own website, "The reception area and Bann Gallery are lined in walnut. All of the walnut veneer used in the building was soured [sic] from one single tree. The tree was retrieved from a bog in the Gardens of Versailles in France. It dated back to the Napoleonic era and was particularly unusual because of its size."  And before you ask, this isn't the Council of Europe, or Westminster, or even Edinburgh...this is Coleraine, a long way from everywhere.  Enough said.

The local fishermen and harbour users wanted to keep the cottages and an article appeared in our local rag to that effect.  And a few days later I ventured forth to photograph same cottages.  And here they are:

Fishermen's Cottages, Portrush Harbour
Nice, aren't they?  Yes, I was too late.  Funny how quickly the Council can move to avoid any sort of protracted protest against one of their decisions, isn't it?   No doubt the replacement buildings will have lots of glass and concrete and may even win awards and all that, but just sometimes isn't it good to keep old things, in spite of the cost?

Anyway, to lighten the mood, here are some cute little boats I found in the harbour, oblivious to the wanton destruction going on around them:

Little boats
There were bigger boats too but I didn't photograph them.

Monday, 6 October 2014


Sorry about the lack of posting recently.  Had a bad week health-wise...as well as my ankylosing spondylitis, I have tinnitus which from time to time gets pretty bad.  Last week was a for instance, when it was all consuming and very horrible to live with.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I stopped off in Bushmills, or Portcaman as it was known in Norman times.  After the bubonic plague visited in 1348 the parish of Portcaman amalgamated with the parish of Dunluce (where the Castle is), which is just down the road a bit.  These days Bushmills is known across the world for this.  And to make that particular hard liquor requires water, which of course comes from the River Bush.  And since in the 19th Century the village prospered with water-powered industries we have the name it has today.

As I walked around Bushmills I found the old mill house (hard to miss in a village this size) but as it's now a private house with signs to that effect I decided it didn't warrant a snapshot in this little blog of mine.  That's the sort of executive decision I can take nowadays...

The river is beautiful though and the water has a distinctive rich, peaty colour (not surprising given its origin in the Antrim hills).  It enters the sea at Portballantrae, under the Three Quarter Bridge mentioned in a previous post.  Here's a little photo of it:

River Bush, at Bushmills
This might be nice shot with IR film, but as I only had FP4 that'll have to do.

I like Bushmills.  It's not that big but it's honest, no pretences.  Most people just drive through it en route to the Giant's Causeway but that's their loss and probably Bushmills' gain.   This row of older houses was interesting, although the shrubs got in the way.  I probably should have returned with some secateurs or something, but wasn't sure if that's allowed - don't we have to photograph what we see? Anyway, here they are, shrubs and all:

Some houses in Bushmills

I'm not sure yet why they are there - they're next door to the Old Grammar School, designed apparently by Clough Williams-Ellis (of Portmeirion fame), so they might have been connected to that.  Anyway, I liked them and hence they are here.  Like most old things around this part of the world no doubt they will be tumbled soon, so I captured them for posterity, as you do.

There'll be more of Bushmills to come I'm sure...