Journeys From My DoorstepA Visual Diary
Photography by Roff Smith
Seizing the day on the old marsh road…
No, this isn’t a black-and-white photograph but real life: the result of thick sea fog, dense shadows and diffuse sunshine that created this stark monochrome landscape through which I rode along the old marsh road to Pevensey this morning.
Pink dawn by the old beach huts along the seafront at St Leonard’s-on-Sea
A pause at a deserted beachfront café near the ruins of the old lido at St Leonard-on-Sea.
Sunrise over the English Channel: morning sun shimmers on the low tide sands along the beach at Hastings
Good old marsh road – always worth the trouble of rising early and setting out by lamplight to be there for the dawn’s early light. It wasn’t just the magic of mists and golden sunshine that made the morning special, but the lively dawn chorus of chattering birds, waterfowl and the insects whirring in the tall grass that brought the landscape to life.
A spin along the seafront promenade at Bexhill-on-Sea at the start of what promises to be a warm and sultry summer day.
Bursting into morning sunshine along a leafy Sussex lane just at daybreak, near the village of Fairlight
A rolling sea mist and a smouldering orb of a sun combine to cast a rich orange glow over the landscape at the start of a hot summer day along the old marsh road not far from Pevensey.
The sunken mediaeval lanes that meander through the Sussex weald are delightful to ride along – moody and atmospheric, they’re like pedalling into the pages a storybook. But gosh, they are tough to photograph. The shade beneath the forest canopy is dense enough that even on a bright summer morning you can find yourself in need of a headlamp – especially with potholes and damp leaves and broken branches along the way. At the same time the shafts of sunlight coming through breaks in the canopy create hot spots in the image. It’s tricky to find the right balance. This image taken early in the morning along Pannell Lane, between the villages of Pett and Winchelsea.
A silvery disc of sun shimmers through a break in the clouds on a thundery and unsettled morning along the marsh road.
Could this possibly be the soft leafy Sussex whose lanes we know and ride each morning? It was over 20ºC when I went out the door at half past three this morning and when the sun rose over the old marsh road it dawned hot and harsh – none of that gentle English glow today. Instead a metallic glare that bleached out the colours and cast hard shadows.
Purple shadows and a sky full of promise and bright yellow sunshine at the start of a warm sultry summer day on the old marsh road.
There’s a delicious satisfaction in being out and about on a country lane, spinning along under your own steam, while all the rest of polite society is still home in bed with the shutters drawn. This image was taken about twenty past four this morning not far from the village of Brede.
Like Thoreau in Walden I am a self-appointed inspector of sunrises and moonsets. Where he was obliged to make his rounds on foot, I have the luxury of making mine on a doughty old English tourer.
With many people returning to work this week and hardly anybody using public transport, the roads are filling up with traffic. Even the lonely marsh road is suddenly surprisingly busy, at four o’clock in the morning no less, with early bird commuters taking a short cut to Eastbourne, Lewes or Brighton. This morning a thick sea mist lay over the landscape and as I was shooting I kept being interrupted by the passage of automobiles. I cursed under my breath as I heard them motoring up out of the fog behind me, but later when I was home and editing the images I found I was rather intrigued by the sense of menace created by their approaching headlamps.
After setting out from the house by starlight at quarter to four this morning, full of jaunty expectancy and visions of capturing the crescent moon hovering over the bicycle path along the promenade at St Leonards-on-Sea I arrived at the seafront twenty minutes later to find the moon hiding behind a creeping veil of cloud with little prospect of change. I loitered anyway, hoping for a break in the cloud or, failing that, an attractive slant of sunshine once the sun finally rose. I got neither, but as I idled on the promenade, in the pale light of dawn, I looked out to sea and noticed this fishing boat surrounded by gulls, not far off shore, catching the makings of today’s fish & chips. And so instead of doing a cycling shot this morning I aimed my camera out to sea, channeled my inner Winslow Homer and came up with this image.
I liked the stylised simplicity of this composition – the repetition of these beach huts and the silhouette of the lamplit cyclist against the dense navy blue of a hazy June pre-dawn sky. I set up my camera in the weedy lot which back in the 1930s was the huge public swimming pool of the St Leonards lido and made a few passes along this stretch of the seafront bicycle path. The time was about 4:20am – half an hour or so before sunrise.
A bit of an urban vibe this morning with a spin along Bottle Alley, the 1930s covered promenade on the Hastings seafront.
In this new era of isolation and aloneness, my take on Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930), captured along Cambridge Road in Hastings in the blue hour before dawn – on a Sunday, naturally.
Blink and you miss it. Like the iridescence in carnival glass the colours in the pre-dawn sky this morning were shifting constantly. As I photographed this scene with the moon and the domes of the King George V Coronation Pavilion the colours in the sky shifted rapidly from deep blue, through a suite of mauves, violets and purples each shade lasting only seconds…
I was delighted to see that clear skies for forecast for early this morning – to coincide with the setting of the Strawberry Moon, as June’s full moon is known. And with the sunrise at 4:46am and the moon scheduled to set at 5:17am it gave me a nice window for shooting. Having a low tide as well was icing on the cake.
Travels at Home: I like the old wooden mileposts one encounters on the lanes, legacies of an era when distance and miles meant more than they do today. Given the way the world is evolving at the moment, this quaintly old-fashioned grasp of distance and travel may be coming back into vogue.
This lonely column is all that remains of the once glorious St Leonard’s Lido, built back in the 1930s doing the glory days of the English seaside holiday. At the time of its opening it was the second biggest lido in Britain, sporting a million-gallon pool, diving platforms, a roller skating rink, cafes, and underground parking. More than 33,000 visitors flocked to the site the first week it opened, late in May of 1933. Alas that was the only summer the enormous complex ever turned a profit. It was closed and demolished decades ago, with only this solitary column standing as a reminder.
This old ice cream kiosk on the deserted seafront promenade at Bexhill-on-Sea and the impersonal space around it called to mind the sort of after-hours melancholy of an Edward Hopper painting. I pedalled down there at 4am this morning and making use of the rich blue pre-dawn twilight, and the isolating taillight on my bicycle, with its suggestion of solitude and retreat, made a Hopperesque image of my own.
Civil twilight is the unromantic astromonical term for that magic period just before sunrise (or just after sunset) when the sun is six degrees or less below the horizon, near enough to cast a pleasing glow in the sky. This morning, according to the almanac I use to plan my rides, Civil Twilight began at 4:05am in my part of Sussex at this time of year. That means an early start. I had already ridden twelve miles by then, and was pedalling along this leafy little lane near Rye to a cheerful dawn chorus.
I have been planning this shot for some time, waiting for the leafy canopy to thicken and for the leaves themselves to get that rich summery green. The plan was to head out very, very earlyone morning wearing a scarlet jersey for contrast and to arrive at the hilltop on this little lane near Fairlight just at sunup, wen the sun’s first rays pop through an opening in the greenery enough to illuminate a cyclist churning up this steep grade. I had the vision, and the ambition, but when it ame to crawling out of bed and being on the road by 3:30am, with the prospect of a long and very hilly ride on darkened lanes to get where I needed to be, I found myself conjurnig up reasons for putting off this particular shoot. Eventually though I summoned the resolve and made the hilly, lamplit trek out here and then put in the effort of doing multiple takes on this fourteen per cent grade. It was definitely a case of suffering for my art, but I was pleased with the results.
A quiet spin along the seafront promenade at Hastings, in the blue hour before dawn.
Sentinel oaks and a splash of early morning sunshine along a country lane near the town of Rye, East Sussex. Who’d be anywhere else?
It’s a quarter to five in the morning along an evocative old sunken lane near the village of Winchelsea. By now I’ve already ridden over an hour by lamplight along darkened streets and down winding country lanes to be here. A subtle pink glow in the sky and just barest tinge of warmth on the sandstone facade of the farmhouse on the hill behind me is the first tantalising hint that sunrise is not far off.
I had an audience on my ride across the marsh this morning – something I’m not accustomed to given my early starts – and for novelty’s sake I paused to capture this image. A friend of mine, seeing it, said it reminded him of the opening scene to Great Expectations. I rather liked that. Although I took several frames, this one appealed to me the most: where the cow is breaking the Fourth Wall, staring into the camera and communicating to the viewer her wonderment at what was going on.
A burst of intense golden sunshine on my morning ride to Pevensey. There’s no more satisfying place to enjoy a sunrise than from the saddle of a bicycle when you’re miles from home, having been up and out and taking a measure of the day while the rest of the world is home in bed.
No prizes for guessing why Sussex is known as “Leafy Sussex”. The richness and vivacity of the spring leaves in the forest canopy along the lanes makes them a delight to ride along on a bright Sunday morning in May. This image captured along Stonestile Lane, between Hastings and Westfield.
I love crescent moons. There is something magical about them. So when I saw that a fine thin crescent moon would be rising at 3:59am this morning, and the prediction was for generally clear skies, I realised that an early start would be in order if I wanted to catch it before the sun rose and faded it out. With sunrise this morning slated for 5:05am it gave me a narrow window of opportunity – especially since the particular country lane I had in mind for the shot, where I knew I could get a good view of the rising moon, was a good 45 minutes’ ride away. I was out the door by 3:40am, pedalling hopefully into the darkened countryside. The result, I think, was worth the effort.
There is something exhilarating about pedalling into a sunrise when you’re miles from home, having already ridden a long ways by lamplight while all the rest of polite society is home in bed. It makes a day feel as bright and full of possibilities as a new-minted penny.
As spring advances towards summer the leaves on the trees take on a rich summery greenness and form dense canopies over the little lanes in the weald – such as this one near the village of Fairlight. Pedalling along them by lamplight in the grey hours before dawn and then bursting out into clear morning sunshine, with the rolling Sussex countryside spreading away, gives me a giddy sense of adventure and going places on my morning rides.
It’s surprising what you can discover when you explore your neighbourhood by bicycle – slowly, intimately, camera in hand, looking upon the familiar with fresh eyes. I’d been past this corner on London Road countless times in the past, by bus and in cars, but I’d never before noticed its peculiar Hopperesque quality. I love Edward Hopper’s art. Always have. His distinctive blend of pensiveness, melancholy, solitude, use of stark impersonal space and the edgy after-hours feel he manages to conjure in his work has always appealed to me. When I came upon this desolate street corner at 4:30am as I pedalled along the seafront in Hastings, I immediately thought of Hopper’s iconic 1942 painting Nighthawks. And so I set up my tripod across the street and created this tribute to it.
What a glorious thing a bicycle is – jaunty, elegant, easy to repair and maintain, almost glib in its 19th century simplicity, it can carry us anywhere we want to go, anytime we like, at the drop of a hat, be it just down to the shops or around the world. And it will do it swiftly, cleanly and for free. And yet at the same time it’s lightweight enough to tuck under your arm and carry up a flight of stairs.
Sunrise cast a soft painterly glow over the landscape this morning – a contrast to the histrionic sunrises, blown highlights and rosy-gold mists I’ve been witnessing lately on my marsh rides. Today’s show came with a better soundtrack though – an overture of waterfowl honking, quacking and splashing, songbirds trilling and countless insects buzzing and whirring in the grass – everybody getting an early start on what promises to be a fine warm summery day.
A landmark hill on the homeward leg of my old familiar ride across the marsh to Pevensey. Here I’m still a good forty-five minutes out, with home and hearth and a fresh pot of coffee waiting up the road. I have been wanting to capture this image for quite some time, but until this morning the lure of home and fresh coffee would invariably bring out the procrastinator in me: I’d do it another day. This morning though I was out on the marsh especially early – before 5am – and the light was perfect, irresistible. And so I pulled over, set up tripod and camera and captured this image.
I just had a feeling it was going to be one of those smouldering sunrises this morning, and so I left the house extra early to be sure to be in position in time – and given the early sunrise times around here, and the time it takes to pedal out into the marsh, that meant setting off at 4am sharp. My hopes built when I saw the thick ground mist shrouding the landscape and sure enough, this luminous orb of sun simmered above the horizon at twenty past five. Looking at it, one could imagine being somewhere exotic and far away – Africa, perhaps – instead of familiar old Sussex, but such is the magic of travelling at home.
As a travel romantic, escapist and cycling Luddite who rides an old-school tourer with quill stem, flat pedals and an old-fashioned Carradice saddlebag dangling from a Brooks saddle, it’s no surprise that I seek out images that evoke a long-lost, possibly mythical golden era of cycling in the English landscape. This picturesque stretch of Sussex lane, near the village of Doleham, was too evocative to pass up.
I especially love those murky pre-dawn rides along the promenade when a thick sea mist is rolling in off the Channel, although they can be awfully tricky to photograph. This image taken along the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea
Some of the hills in the Sussex weald are no joke – such as this gentle rise coming out of the village of Doleham. To be fair, this particular hill looks a bit steeper than it actually is, thanks to the foreshortening effects of a 200mm telephoto and the fact that the landscape in the backdrop is also on a steeply rising hill on the opposite flank of a narrow valley – so call it a poetic truth. The hills up here are steep and engaging and the crooked little lanes that go up and down them put the ‘travail’ back into travel and involve you richly in the landscape.
Luck plays a role in getting an image like this but as with many things in life I find that the more I plan, the luckier I get. I’ve witnessed countless sunrises from the saddle of a bicycle and have become adept at gauging the density of haze along the horzon on warmish mornings. Seeing the heavy band of violet haze along the eastern sky this morning, I guessed that we wee in for one of those haunting “luminous orb” sunrises. Knowing – through much observation – roughly where the sun was going to appear at this time of year, I hastened to this well-placed, picturesque bend I knew about on the old marsh road hoping that I might just get ‘lucky’.
As an artist and keen observer of sunrises and the drape of light and shadow, I can never resist the thrilling geometry of a fan of sunbeans bursting through the branches. Not often do you find them so beautifully arrayed and in a place where hedgerows and a bend in the road form an almost perfect, if empty, stage. The only trick here was trying to place myself squarely in the spotlight.
Channelling my inner Monet this morning with the help of a dense sea mist and this soft yellow sunrise. I have been wanting to do something with this particular stretch of marsh road for quite some time. I loved the juxtaposition of creek, marsh grasses, the billow of trees and the sense of being abroad on the marsh, alone, early in the morning. I’ve stopped and photographed it a number of times but without ever capturing its magic – until this morning with this impressionist sunrise and the suggestion of romance and mystery.
One of the many joys of exploring the world that lies at your doorstep is the continual rediscovery of places that had seemed drearily familiar. I’ve ridden along the old marsh road countless times over the years but coming upon this serpentine curve this morning on my bicycle ride, seeing it bathed in clean lemony sunshine, was like seeing it for the very first time. I marvelled that I had never noticed its beauty before, and stopped to capture this image.
Oh the joys of being out and about on a bicycle early on these bright clear mornings and witnessing first hand the rapid progression of spring. Suddenly, and seeming out of the blue, the hawthorn has come into bloom along the hedgerows – a real spirit lifter on an early morning ride. And so I paused to capture this image.
An early morning spin through the sleepy village of Doleham in the Sussex weald. I liked the soft painterly effect of the light at this time of the morning. Coupled with the picturesque setting it created the pleasing sense of pedalling into a romanticised magazine illustration out of the 1920s.
I liked the backdrop of bare branches and these ancient ivy-decked oaks huddling close by this narrow lane not far from the village of Wartling. Once the leaves come into bud, the scene will change completely. I wanted to get it while it was still bare and autumnal – and so I pedalled for an hour and a half by lamplight in order to be here for sunrise and made certain to wear a jersey whose colour would stand out but still be in keeping with the mood.
I love the sense of mystery and adventure that comes with a ride by lamplight through the thick sea mist on the marsh – the great pre-dawn hush broken only by the whirring of insects, the eerie cries and splashes of unseen waterfowl, and the rhythmic whirr of my bicycle chain as I spin along the lonely lane guided by the glow of my lamp.
Sunrise this morning found me on the crest of this gentle rise, about a third of the way along the old marsh road between Cooden and Pevensey. I like the gnarled wind-shaped tree here and the way it frames the road and often I try to make use of this setting in my images. This morning it was was especially beautiful, illuminated by a vibrant red sunrise which, coupled with the dense ground mist, bathed the scene in this rich, rosy light.
We might not be able to travel much in these lockdown days, or indeed, stray far from home, but it doesn’t mean we can’t dream. This image taken King George V Coronation Pavilion, overlooking the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea.
Skeletal trees, a clammy ground mist and the eerie bluish light before dawn combined to create an interesting Forbidden Forest atmosphere to this stretch of the old marsh road on my ride over to Pevensey this morning.
This was one of those rare delightful mornings when I had the pleasure of two separate sunrises – the first when the sun peeped over the horizon, a bref burst of hard orange sunlight before the sun disappeared in a thick band of haze. The ‘second sunrise’ a few minutes later was altogether grander, shooting broad rays across the landscape, casting the marsh in a fine pink light and with the sun, gently dimmed by mist, riding moonlike on a sea of clouds.
A chilly dawn and a slant of pale wintry light illuminates this stretch of a narrow country lane not far from the village of Rye. I had scouted this scene earlier and liked the atmosphere created by the weathered fenceposts and the suite of withered browns and bare branches in the backdrop. I waited for a crisp clear morning and made a point of wearing a sandy coloured jersey to complement the overall colour palette of the scene.
A quiet moment to witness the sunrise at the end of a thirty-something-mile pre-dawn to Eastbourne and back. Like Henry David Thoreau in Walden, I consider myself something of an inspector of sunrises, phases of the moon and the state of the tides.
During the course of my daily ramblings on my bicycle, I go many places that aren’t on any map – to new ideas and old memories, passages in books, drafts of stories I mean to write and proposals I mean to send to editors, to imagined dialogues with the famous and infamous, to alternate paths by life might have followed. That’s one of the chief joys of a bicycle ride, something I felt stirring within me from the very first time I set off down the street on my doughty old Schwinn newsboy as a child: I can go anywhere!