Ian Hay’s photograph was trundling along a line opened in 1872 as part of theWhitby,RedcarandMiddlesborough Union Railway. The railway had closed during the 1950s, then reopened to carry potash from the nearby mine at Boulby. I didn’t know, until I read the caption by lamplight in Bath, that Boulby is the UK’s only commercial potash mine, and that potash is Britain’s most important mining operation after coal, oil and gas. No wonder they’re keeping the line open.
The caption also carried a neat, railway-related link through to Saltburn, the nearby resort, where the oldest waterbalanced funicular railway in the UK still carries tourists up and down the cliff. The captions attached to each photograph draw you in, making connections, triggering questions, opening doors.
s tark emptiness The scope of the show is enormous. A core set of images frame elements of undisturbed Britain; landscapes that look as if they have recently emerged from their ice cover and have yet to be ‘improved’ by human colonists. The highest peak in Britain appears from the air as a snow-crusted cradle divided by the silvery trickle of Allt a’Mhuilinn, carrying its meltwater along the incised bed of a khaki glen. Suilven, that mighty, isolated peak that has mesmerised generations of travellers on the long road across the bogs of Assynt, pokes from the tundra like a dorsal fin. The stark emptiness of these prehuman landscapes is exceptionally moving, but they are just a handful among the 96. Most of these ‘natural’ landscapes are coastal, for that is the one sector of the island that humanity has found most awkward to modify.
Among the truly eye-catching coastal shots are the ‘megapolygons’ of wavesculpted rock at Broad Bench, near Kimmeridge in Dorset, which have been eroded along jointlines to create a peculiar, angular boundary between land and water. The effect is beautiful. More familiar polygons are on show in a shot from the coast of Antrim, where the pillars of the Giant’s Causeway look from above like a gigantic piazza of uneven basalt setts. At the opposite end of the colour spectrum, the white-asbone Needles off the Isle of Wight are caught at just the right altitude and angle to illustrate how these crumbling chalk blades were once part of a waferthin wall that connected England’s largest island to the mainland.
Another shot that seemed to me to have been snapped in the Mesolithic was the looping, double meander of a tributary crossing the mudflats of the Dee estuary at low tide. There is nothing in the photograph to tell you that it isn’t a 10,000-year-old memory.
the hand of man Beaches and spits, the huge depositional features that decorate our coast, have favoured the lens, too. Fans of geomorphology will be rewarded by the portrait of an infinitely long Chesil Beach, cream on blue, and Pagham Spit, disfigured with stretch marks that formed as long-shore drift pulled sand
Warren ian dr
34 www.geographical.co.uk december 2010