If you take a look at even the least detailed map of the East Durham Coast of England, chances are that you will spot, in the smallest of letters in the blue wash of the North Sea, between the city of Sunderland and Jez Lowe’s hometown of Easington, the merest hint of an indentation that bears the name Shippersea Bay. If your sense of adventure is such that you are prepared to explore the reality of this coastline, you’ll find the bay itself is hardly accessible unless you are prepared to walk along the wild and windswept beach from Hawthorn Hive to Easington Colliery. There are no signs to indicate that you have reached it or are even in the vicinity, but at low tide, 50 metres off shore, you may come across the punished remains of some long forgotten ship wreck, embedded in the black sand and destined forever to be pounded by the grey waves of an angry tide.
The cliffs tower above you, the beach below foot is still the colour of a century of slag and colliery waste, that was chucked into the sea all down this coast line, only for the sea to chuck it back again and turn into a man-made volcanic-like blanket of black silt. At the foot of the cliffs you might even find the remains of some long deserted dwellings, that in some vague point in history, clung desperately to the base of the cliff above the high water mark in a vain effort to seek shelter from the unrelenting pounding of this untamed piece of ocean.
The flotsam and jetsum that litters the black sand is unremarkable now, as the days of the coal mine and the fishing net are long gone, but the occasional evidence, a coil of orange shot-wire or a ragged strip of conveyor belt, give their evidence that things were not always this way. No-one comes here now, but there was a time, and other times before then, when things were very different. Jez lowe first sang about this coast line, the angry shore line that leaned against the first few decades of his life, in the songs of other people in the early days of his career, such as Alan Todd’s SEA COAL WARRIOR, a fine song that he never recorded, and Bernie Parry’s DARK SHORES, a highlight of Jez’s 1980 debut album. But it wasn’t until 1983 that he tackled the subject himself and came up with a song that is quite unlike anything else he was writing in those days. Jez’s second album, THE OLD DURHAM ROAD, was apparently recorded but still unreleased when he came up with SHIPPERSEA BAY. His subsequent short-lived membership of the group DAB HAND provided a suitable sounding post for the dark brooding tune and vague lyrics, and it was that group’s arrangement of the song that was used (and credited) when Jez got around to recording it almost two years later, replacing the fiddle/cittern/guitar simplicity of the original with an even more brooding and unforgiving version with Jake Walton on hurdy-gurdy and Jez doubling on piano and guitar.
It’s never been a song that Jez has returned to often in live performance, (though ironically the Bad Pennies used it as a sound-check number in the early 1990’s), but it’s inclusion on the BACK SHIFT colection in 1992 has ensured it’s popularity among the faithful, and it was the track to get most airplay when GALLOWAYS was issued in America on CD in 1998.
The lyrics of the song are uncharacteristically unspecific – there are no characters, no incidents, just a build up of atmosphere that harks back to a time when fishing along this coast was a common-place thing, and everyone believed that the coal mines would work forever. It’s really not until you see the area itself that it all comes into focus. As recently as the mid 1960’s there were men living and working on this inhospitable length of coast, in wood cabins set up on stone platforms, the remnants of which are still visible today. They were fishermen, beachcombers, rogues and scoundrels for the most part, burning driftwood and sea-coal to keep themselves warm and drinking each night in the nearby Trust Hotel (where The Bad Pennies used to rehearse up until a year or two ago). Gradually they moved on or simply died out as the winters got colder and the police got less tolerant.
Back in the 1930’s a ship called The West Hiker ran aground at Shippersea Bay, and never left the place, becoming instead a fixture, an adventure playground by the sea for a generation of the town’s kids. During World War 2, with scrap metal transformed into precious metal, the wreck was cut to pieces for arms manufacture, but one section, the engine rooms, had been swallowed by the shore, and remains there to this day, doomed to be eternally washed and salted by a thousand tides.
It is probably quite fitting that Shippersea Bay is only a vague place, without boundary or geographical precision, because it seems like Jez lowe’s song uses the name to encompass a whole length of coast that includes bays and inlets, denes and rock formations, that like most shore lines, is awash with legend and memory. But this is a strange, strange place, make no mistake. Somewhere along here, Michael Caine met his end by an assassin’s bullet in the film “Get Carter”, and 30 years later the director Ridley Scott, a local lad who probably played here himself as a child, filmed an unearthly scene for Alien 3, and then only this year, Jez lowe returned to it to compose a piece of music to celebrate it’s reclamation for the Sea of Light extravaganza. But as anyone who has heard that music will tell you, and as the song SHIPPERSEA BAY testifies, Jez lowe wasn’t among those fool enough to believe that anything will ever change this wild piece of coast line. As he said in the BBC Radio 4 interview at the time of the Sea of Light, you just can’t reclaim what was never yours to start with.