My pursuit of the Salford Pals has brought me to Whitley Bay, a beautiful slice of North East England. I have travelled again, to make some location recordings for the ever-expanding ‘soundscape’ layer of my work God’s Own Caught in No Man’s Land. I have mixed feelings for this visit, since this will be my last location recording gathering session for the work. I am of course relieved to be finishing the piece (on time!) for the BBC Philharmonic, but the passing of this project will, for me, undoubtedly leave something of a hole in my heart.
The research and location-recording gathering stages of this work, has taken me to some beautiful places, all of which are in many ways hidden away. They will though, forever, remain places of haunting to me, since they are indelibly connected to the memory of the Salford Pals, whom of course are fundamentally linked to the countless young lives ended or desecrated during the First World War.
According to the historian Michael Stedman, the 1st Salford Pals (‘God’s Own’) spent a fortnight in Whitley Bay from 28th July 1915 “firing its first musketry proficiency course” (Stedman, M ‘Salford Pals’ p.74). One shudders to think that the 1st Salford Pals received their first rifle training just four months before departing to France (November 1915) to face one of the world’s then, most proficient, highly equipped, battle-hardened armies.
I managed to ascertain, according to an incredibly informative document Archaeology of the Twentieth Century Defence Sites of Tyne and Wear , that the Salford Pals, along with many other young recruits from all over Britain, almost certainly carried out their rifle training at the Rifle Range (now disused), in the historic (and very beautiful) coastal village of Whitburn, about 14 miles south of Whitley Bay.
As I arrived early in the morning to gather location recordings a beautiful sunrise was in process. It is entirely possible of course that the Salford Pals would have seen a similar sight, along with countless other pairs of eyes during 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918.
The rifle ranges – set at different distances – are still clearly present.
In the gathering of my location recordings I wandered along the coastal path, that winds its way along the cliff edges – at times dangerously close to them. The landscape is bleak, rather brutal, but starkly beautiful.
I struggled at first to make any suitable recordings of the waves breaking against the cliffs below since I couldn’t get close enough. However, eventually I found a way down to get up close to the tidal waters as they coursed over the rocks below. It did strike me as to how there were no bird calls for me to record – I wondered if the local bird population still possessed some atavistic fear of this place?
I managed to get (I think!) some beautiful location recordings here of the waters and my footsteps on the rocks and pebbles, strange though that the firing range – once so loud – was now so deathly silent.
I do hope that the local residents are successful in their attempts to preserve this site against regional property developers – we need to remember those poor young souls.
In my various travels for this project and perhaps because of its profoundly tragic nature, I have, time and again, been struck by the beauty and fragility of life that surrounds us all, in unlikely places. In many ways these opportunities to contemplate the beautiful fragility of life has been important in allowing me to remain creatively positive throughout my work’s otherwise profoundly harrowing aspects. I have photographed many instances of what I’ve been calling ‘hidden gems’ of life’s fragile beauty.
While in Whitburn, as I wandered the rocks trying to record some audio while at the same time attempting to dodge the breakers about me, I took these (unprocessed) images – hope you like them: