These dark satanic mills

cooling towers

Didcot Power Station

These are the cooling towers and chimneys of Didcot Power Station, near where I live. The Power Station consists of two generating plants: Didcot A, coal-fired and Didcot B, gas fired. Didcot A closed as a generating plant in March 2013 and is due for demolition, which will see the well-known landmarks of the cooling towers disappear from the landscape sometime in 2014.

I wanted to have photographs of these landmarks before they disappear and took the opportunity this month. This photograph was taken from Sutton Courtenay looking south towards the power station. At the time I was taking this photo I was thinking of the effect of contrast created by the contre-jour aspect and although shooting in colour was already thinking of a mono conversion in editing. This brought to mind the phrase, “these dark satanic mills”, which I have always associated with the mills of the industrial revolution and so was thinking of the contemporary revolution in which we are ever looking for cleaner and more environmentally-friendly means of power generation, industrial production, travel etc. I was thinking that whereas the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution were seen as detrimental to those who worked in them, perhaps this power station stood as a symbol of a means of production that had been detrimental to the environment and therefore a dark satanic mill of a different sort.

With those thoughts in mind I returned home and set about some research into “these dark satanic mills”. I was surprised to learn that this phrase actually comes from William Blake’s Jerusalem:

“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land”      (emphasis added)

Further reading showed that there are broadly two schools of opinion regarding these dark satanic mills.

One is that it does indeed refer to the mills of the industrial revolution. The other is that it refers to the established Church of England and the formality of the cathedrals and large churches. Blake was a Christian and, it seems, quite critical of conventional religion and so the reference to the established church as dark satanic mills could be taken to suggest that he was criticising a mode of religion that sought to limit and control people. The likely reality, perhaps, is that he was using the term as a metaphor and that it therefore held meaning in both senses.

So, it was interesting to discover all this additional information about these dark satanic mills. Does it change what I was thinking when I took this photograph? No, but it does now make me think that perhaps I should get a similar photograph of a cathedral, place the two side-by-side and consider the wider issues once I’ve thought about it a little more.

My goodness, photography can be educational.

For those interested, this photograph was taken using a Canon EOS 70D set to ISO 100, shooting at 1,000sec at f8, on a focal length of 55mm. It was shot in RAW format then processed and converted to monochrome, to reflect the feel of “these dark satanic mills”.


Water storage amid flooding


Water is said to cover around 70% of the Earth’s surface and is vital in sustaining our life here. That makes it a good thing, but recent experiences in some parts of England would suggest that maybe we can have too much of a good thing.

The flooding we have seen this winter has certainly been devastating for many people. Some have lost their lives, others their homes, their livelihoods. There’s been an unedifying game of blame ping-pong played between the government and the environment agency but this is nature and we are not its masters. The best we can do is prepare ourselves to cope with whatever we feel nature might throw at us and the blame game is only played with the benefit of hindsight. Surely the right response is to care for those people who have been affected, learn from the experiences and plan for the future.

According to Wikipedia: “The existence of liquid water, and to a lesser extent its gaseous and solid forms, on Earth are vital to the existence of life on Earth as we know it. The Earth is located in the habitable zone of the solar system; if it were slightly closer to or farther from the Sun (about 5%, or about 8 million kilometres), the conditions which allow the three forms to be present simultaneously would be far less likely to exist.”  If this is right, then we are perfectly placed in space with a 5% margin of error;  outside of that our planet would probably not have water and we would not be here. We have much to be thankful for.

This photograph was taken on 16 February at Crawley, near Witney in Oxfordshire and shows the flooding from the river Windrush. I was intrigued by the water container in the field which seemed quite ironic and out of place. It suggested to me the absolute necessity of water, such that we need find ways to store it yet here it was signalling an unwanted excess.

The photo was shot at ISO 200, 1/200 sec at f/8 on a focal length of 55mm.

standing still

Water sculpture

Water sculpture

One of the joys of photography is the ability to capture a moment in time and sometimes that stops movement and freezes the flow of action to reveal something new and different. This photo was taken at Evian on the shore of Lake Geneva at 1/1600 sec at f5.6 at ISO-200.

I like that the fast shutter speed froze the movement of the water fountain revealing within it shapes and textures that we simply don’t see otherwise. It stimulates the imagination in a completely different way to watching water moving and it reminds me that there are times when we need to stop our own hectic activity and take time out to pause, reflect and marvel at some things in life that we otherwise miss in the busyness of life.





The art of seeing

Mont Blanc massif

Mont Blanc massif

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922)

The ability to see things in a new way is as much a discovery as seeing new things. This is one of my favourite landscapes featuring the Mont Blanc massif which appears to be floating on clouds above the surrounding landscape. It isn’t, of course,  but it reminds me that we can’t simply take everything we see at face value and that’s just as important to the truth of Proust’s quote as any artistic or creative interpretation.

This was one of those fortuitous moments when an image just presents itself to the photographer. For those interested the photo was taken at 1/250th sec at f5.6 at ISO-200 and a focal length of 75mm.

The light of hope

Old Afghan


The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, December 2003.

I took this photograph on a filming trip and it remains one of my favourites from the set for the way it speaks to me.

Here is a man with eyes cast down, looking world-weary. And why wouldn’t he be? Life expectancy in Afghanistan is 49 years for both men and women. And he looks to be older than that. Most of his life is behind him and here he is living in a country best known for a history of conflict and war.  Afghanistan’s location is almost asking for trouble. Located pivotally between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent it was centred on the ancient “Silk Route”. This geographic significance has made it a much disputed and fought-over territory for centuries.  But what’s happened within this man’s lifetime?

In 1953 General Mohammed Daud became prime minister and sought economic and military assistance from the Soviet Union.  He was forced to resign as prime minister in 1963. Ten years later Mohammed Daud seized power in a coup and declared a republic.  In 1978 he was deposed and killed in a pro-Soviet coup. There then followed violent infighting with USA-backed mujahedeen groups beginning to feature. In December 1979 Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet army which then supported the communist government.  Mujahedeen groups continued to fight the Soviet forces backed by arms from the USA, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In 1988 Afghanistan the USSR, the USA and Pakistan signed peace accords allowing the Soviet Union to start the process of military withdrawal. Then, in 1996, the Taliban took control of Kabul introducing a hard-line regime featuring severe punishments for disorder and disobedience, which included stoning and amputations.

In 1998 the USA’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden led to missile strikes at his suspected bases in Afghanistan then, following the 9-11 attacks, a bombing campaign began in October 2001 followed by a USA-led invasion.

Finally, in August 2003, NATO ISAF forces took control of security in Kabul providing a foundation for relief and development efforts.

So, in December 2003, this photo epitomised for me the struggles, conflicts and heartbreaks that a nation had suffered for centuries, reflected in microcosm in one man’s life. At the time I took the photo I was struck by the light falling across this man’s face. I like to think of that being the light of hope for a future that might bring a lasting peace to this troubled land and its people. I find it significant that the light is falling across his eyes in the hope that he might see peace and reconciliation in his lifetime.

Historical source:

blending in

a colourful character

costumed character

Parading the icons

Catholic parade in Ecuador

trombone player

a musical reflection

It was an unexpected assault on the senses. Shouting from a gathered crowd, music from random instruments and much jostling for a better position was a clear indication that something was afoot.

This was a filming trip with BMS World Mission in December 2006 and we had reached the final stage high in the Andes in the capital city of Quito. Whilst trying to find a local contact we came upon what seemed to be some kind of festival, so we went for a closer look. The first thing I spotted was the colourful characters with painted face masks that appeared to be handing our fruit and other items to the crowd. The painted faces were resonant of an Inca tradition but the costumes seemed much more in tune with a Spanish influence. Whilst this had the initial feel of a traditional festival the costumed characters were followed by icons carried in glass cases and it quickly became apparent that this was a local Catholic festival.

Between 1544 and 1563, Ecuador was part of  Spain’s colonies in the New World after the conquistadors landed in 1531. Since the Spanish colonization, Ecuador officially became a Roman Catholic country with the Catholic Church holding a significant place in government and society.  One of the observable aspects of the development of the Catholic church in Ecudaor has been the effect of syncretism. “Religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. This can occur for many reasons, and the latter scenario happens quite commonly in areas where multiple religious traditions exist in proximity and function actively in the culture, or when a culture is conquered, and the conquerors bring their religious beliefs with them, but do not succeed in entirely eradicating the old beliefs or, especially, practices.” [1]

What we saw in the parade was a living example of this religious syncretism – the blending of unrelated traditions into something that clearly made sense to the people, but leaves so many questions about the accurate transfer of core beliefs and truth.

The photo of the trombonist with the reflection of some of the crowd in the horn of the instrument summed up for me the need to reflect carefully on how we deal with change without losing the basic principles. To what extent does blending add colour and value and at what cost to the essential elements?

For those interested, the photographs were taken on Fuji Pro 800 colour film using a Nikon 35mm camera. Sadly I took no notes of the lens I used, the shutter speed or aperture and as it wasn’t digital there’s no metadata to cover for my inadequate note-taking.