Inside this issue
Ghost Ships and Tides
The treacherous waters of the Bristol Channel
Peter Britton is a professional photographer, videographer and award-winning lecturer. After a 15 year career in commercial photography, his practice is now more arts based. His work explores the relationships that people have to a place, and his projects visually investigate connections to memory, wellbeing and history. Britton is a senior fellow of the higher education academy and his photographic work is widely exhibited. His freelance work focuses on large format portraits.
The coastline of South Wales has a concealed history.
A history of tragedy and death.
A history of lives lost at sea.
The treacherous waters of the Bristol Channel have long been navigated by waterborne vessels and on many a gale driven night or fog laden morning, many of these vessels have foundered on rocks unseen. This photographic work investigates the history of these shipwrecks. The work also inspects the landscape that caused these catastrophes, in particular, Tusker Rock and the coastline of South Wales. Tusker Rock is a submerged reef that sits in the middle of the Bristol Channel. The 500m rock is only visible at low tide and is a notorious hazard for ships and as such it is scattered with maritime skeletal remains.
Ghost Ships and Tides is undoubtedly the most rewarding photographic project I have undertaken. For me, it is the culmination of my personal transfer from commercial/general photographer to art based/project photographer. The shoots that made up the content of the project were the most demanding photo shoots I have ever undertaken.
Unsure as to how best to present the work, the early shoots saw me photographing via large format, DSLR, drone and pinhole camera. The shipwreck locations across South Wales are fairly inaccessible, encompassing miles of walking over beaches, soft sand and dunes to reach them. An eight mile round trip, off road, carrying all the equipment, with a multi-format photoshoot in the middle, is an exhausting thing. In addition to the large format imagery that forms the main body of work, I also created four installation pieces for exhibition purposes. Comprised of drone photography of the surface of the sea, and shipwrecks on the sand, these two images are layered on purpose built stands. Printed via the duratrans method (the shipwreck) and suspended under the sea (glass gelatine cyanotypes), these cyanotrans pieces represent the tumultuous force of our sea in a new way.
The idea for Ghost Ships and Tides came about whilst watching a BBC programme called ‘Hidden Wales’. The presenter, Will Millard was taken to the rock by Ross Martin (a resident of my hometown, Porthcawl) and whilst standing on the rock, Millard said “I think something should be done to remember those lives lost”. I decided to create a project as a legacy to those lost by Tusker Rock.
My projects centre heavily around landscape, place and memory. These three constants are undeniably interweaved within this work, especially within the starting place, Tusker Rock. I feel enormously privileged to have stood on that rock with my large format camera. The emotions and feelings that I had as I traversed the treacherous rock were overwhelming in their contrasting calm and unsettlement. To be stood in that environment, that is only fully accessible twice a year, but that can be seen from the shore every day (and that I have been fascinated by from a young age) is a memory that I will hold forever.
Whilst landscape is the driving force and the main visual factor behind this project, in reality, the work centres around people. The people who lost their lives. The people who saved the lives of those shipwrecked. People are the most important things that we have in life. Connections that we make in life and an understanding of when something is good is an underlying driving force behind our decisions.
Therefore, this work looks at the people who have lost their lives at sea, in particular in the treacherous waters of the Bristol Channel. These people sailed on ships, on boats, and had an enormous impact upon the industry and economic make up of our land. This work pays homage to the people who on black, stormy nights floated to their salty doom.
This is a visual story of a treacherous history. A story of foundered ships. A story of submerged doom. A story of pirates. A story of pillars of rock that smashed wood and bent metal.
This is a legacy for the stuttering candles extinguished by the sea.
Imagine standing on Tusker Rock in the dead of night, as the waves wash all around you, your clothes are heavy and soaked. Rain and gale force winds pummel you from every direction. You are freezing to death and the water rises… Imagine…
It was 1882.
It was the year that I died.
I was killed by a rock.
I was killed by a reef.
I was killed by the sea.
I was swamped by waves and water and under I went into the flow and pull of the great tide.
I left behind two beautiful souls.
I left behind another soul, in whose presence I rejoice.
The night I died, the wind was high and the waves were wild. A storm blew in from the south. We lost our way. I couldn’t see the bow of the boat. Waves lashed at my face, rain soaked my skin and drenched my clothes. The sea roiled in a seething mass of foamy spume. And the boat struck the reef. We hit Tusker Rock.
The boat groaned I was thrown forward, and my chest hit hard a cleat. And I fell from the boat. I landed hard on something sharp and dark. The rock. It was beneath me. Blood poured from my arms, my legs, my hands; the rock was so razor sharp. The boat boomed against the black rock. It creaked and tore as the waves pounded it against the reef. I got to my feet and I clambered away from its hulking bulk; I was afraid of being crushed. The wind and the waves were everywhere. They became my world. The wind howled around my ears and I could not hear. The waves roared around my body and I was so cold that I could not feel. I slipped, tripped, slithered and slid across the razor rocks beneath me. With every fall the rock opened my skin and I bled red, red, red. I heard the boat groan again as it was wrenched from the rock and swept away. I knew not what to do. I heard the screams of my crewmates. The dark and wind and the waves were my world.
And the waters rose.
I stood upon the rock only to be knocked over, over, over and over again. The waves tried to wash me into the sea. I clung on with wrecked hands to the rocks, all the while the sea tried to drag me out. My knees tore, I felt bone meet rock. Two hard surfaces competing with one another for grip. All was heavy. Heavy clothes. Heavy waves. Heavy wind. My heart was so heavy, so heavy with the weight of doom that loomed overhead. So I pulled myself up, I pulled up my collar and I faced the cold, on my own. The rock mocked me beneath my heavy feet. And around me, my crewmates, my friends, were dead and drowning.
And the waters rose.
And again a wave knocked me from my feet. The rock vanished from beneath me. There was nothing on which I could stand. In the water, I was thrown around the ocean like a piece of driftwood. The saltwater burned my eyes. The sea filled my mouth. I couldn’t breathe. No breath. The rock that had killed me was nowhere to be found. I had nothing on which to stand. I was engulfed by waves. Torn by the wind. I struggled to stay afloat. My salty tears mixed with the salty sea; a tiny part of me merged with the fury of the ocean. And under I went.
And the waters rose.
I reached up with my hands and they breached the surface. I felt air on my fingertips. The cold brine seethed around my body. I breathed, I inhaled, but it was not aired that I breathed. I breathed water, but fish I was not. I was a man alone in the sea and I breathed water. Submerged, I coughed; the water expelled from my lungs. And I breathed again. Saltwater ravaged my lungs, my body, my mind, my brain. I was taken by the waves. In my mind, I saw…
His face; my boy.
Her face; my girl.
And her face; her face.
And all I wanted was to be out of the sea. The rain fell like a sad song and in that moment, the future did not exist. The only souls I saw were underwater ghosts. Stuttering candles are extinguished by the sea. Memories of old crashed like waves on the shore of my mind.
Life was a memory, and then it was nothing.
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