documentary

Lost pubs: Ascot Arms by Nigel Rumsey

Central Aveue, Gravesend

The Public House, the pub, with maybe the church, was once at the centre of every English community. In my parent’s generation most men, and sometimes women, would have ‘a local’ a place to go and chat with friends about their lives, their troubles, or at least how poorly their football team were playing that week.

Yes, they sold beer, but mostly they were about community. Where I grew in south-east London, they served a very small clientele, that might only be the residents of half a dozen streets. Most of their regulars knew each other, they knew their partners, their parents and their children. It was a very territorial thing, half a mile if that sometimes, further up the road would be another local with its own regulars, another separate, distinct community.

Over the last 25 years, maybe more, that’s changed. In my own town of Gravesend since the turn of the century, 24 pubs have closed. Granted we started with a lot, being an old port on the Thames, Gravesend had more than its fair share of pubs. Nevertheless, the attrition rate is shocking.

The Ascot Arms is the latest to close, finally shutting its doors earlier this year. The brewery has advertised for new tenants, but it seems more likely it'll be turned into yet another convenience store, or demolished and the land used for housing. The Ascot Arms started life as the Central Hotel; opening in 1932. It’s a huge rambling place, so it’s hardly surprising the latest landlord struggled to keep it open.

Part of an ongoing project.

Mecca-on-Thames by Nigel Rumsey

Marks & Spencer, Bluewater shopping centre

Gravesend like so many towns is caught between the twin threats of online shopping and the out-of-town mall. In our case that is Bluewater. 

Built in a former chalk quarry the Bluewater site occupies 240 acres and has 154,000m2  of sales area, making it the fourth-largest shopping centre in the UK and the sixth largest in Europe. It has 330 stores, 40 cafés and restaurants, a 13-screen cinema and parking for 13,000 cars. This is a shopping destination.

It’s something of a blessing and a curse employing 7,000 people many of whom live in Gravesend.  Yet the overwhelming majority of the stores are national or international chains so the bulk of that revenue heads of elsewhere. Bluewater serves over 27 million visitors a year, that’s a huge number of drivers on local roads, very few spending other than at the centre itself.

What to do? Gravesend certainly can’t ignore the behemoth only 5 miles west. I for one would hate to see it become a ‘theme town’ resting on its history and connection to the Thames, but I’m not sure I know the alternative.

Sanctuary: talking with Steve Nolan by Nigel Rumsey

Steve Nolan, Sanctuary Project Manager

Steve Nolan, Sanctuary Project Manager

“Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, come to the community and share the gospel”. I’m sitting in the small very busy office at Sanctuary, the night shelter for the homeless in Gravesend, talking to Steve Nolan. Steve and his wife Lorna are the unpaid Project Managers for Sanctuary. Steve is explaining the mission of their church the City Praise Centre. An ex-policeman Steve is a big guy, although quietly spoken I can imagine him being quite imposing in a police uniform. Today he looks tired, really tired. This is no easy retirement.

Steve spent 30 years serving with the Police and then working for a local authority, much of that time justifying for one reason or another why he couldn’t help the people Sanctuary now exists to care for. Lorna worked in education and in 2015 after a year Steve describes as their ‘year of hell’ they both found themselves out of work.

Guests at Sanctuary night hostel, waiting for opening time

At that time the lead pastor of their church Tom Griffiths and his wife were going out onto the streets in the evening to help people sleeping rough. Steve said at times he’d go with them “we found people sleeping in doorways, sleeping behind bins, people sleeping in tents. We’d chat to them, share a cup of coffee.” In October that year, Tom asked them if they’d like to go to a meeting in a local town where the organisers of the night shelter there were talking about their experiences. Steve jokes, he answered, “not really”. “It was on a Friday evening and we had a regular meeting with friends which we didn’t want to miss.” At 6 o’clock that evening the friends called to say they couldn’t make it. “We took that as a sign that God wanted us to go to that meeting in Dartford.”

Steve and Lorna came back determined they had to do something similar in Gravesend. They met with their church, ”within five weeks of that first meeting Sanctuary was birthed.” 

Getting beds ready for the night, Sanctuary night hostel

“We called a meeting to ask for volunteers, we put out chairs for 60 people, we thought 60 would turn up and we got 180. Everybody was up for it.” It seemed incredible timing, the community centre in which we’re sitting, part of the Methodist Church, was being refurbished. Steve and Lorna were out of work and they had more volunteers than they expected. “We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. We had no idea how to run a night shelter, we just made it up as we went along.”

Hostel volunteers and guests chatting over dinner

In a way it’s a contradiction to refer to a homeless shelter as a success - the best success would mean not needing the shelter in the first place. However, by any measure, this is a success. Last year, Sanctuary had 104 individual guests, they prevented hundreds of nights spent on the streets.

“We had no idea how to run a night shelter, we just made it up as we went along.”

In the first six weeks of this winter they’ve had 95 guests, they have washed 334 bundles of laundry, 302 showers taken, 822 meals served and 481 items of clothing have been given out. Those 95 guests would have spent 202 nights in cars, tents or on the streets. Most importantly, with the help of other agencies including Porchlight and the Home Office, 23 people are no longer guests, they have been rehomed.

Volunteers pray at the start of each evening

Volunteers pray at the start of each evening

All the time we’re talking volunteers are coming in the office asking questions. One of the volunteers asks Steve if he wants dinner, Lorna thinks he ought to eat. 

sanctuary-rest.jog

During 2016 a drop-in shelter was launched. Steve explains, “It seemed wrong to run from January to March and then say ‘bye, you’re on your own’. So we extended to a drop-in centre that would only provide meals.” Now the Methodist church opens the centre during the day so that the guests can access the showers.

Dinner for one of the guests

I ask about the future. I can’t help thinking that without Steve and Lorna Sanctuary could easily come to an end. It takes a special person to dedicate so much of their life like this. For people with such a social conscience that must be a weight to bear.

It’s not until after I realise he doesn’t really answer the question. He does say he’d like to see the shelter open more than three nights a week. There are currently 130/140 volunteers, he estimates to open seven nights a week they’d need more than double that number. “We see Sanctuary as an advocate for the homeless. We are on the frontline and help where we can. Lorna and I are supposed to be retired, we don’t get paid to do what we do. We get by on my pension and Lorna’s small pension.”

Sanctuary guest resting before dinner

Steve’s dinner arrives. Meatballs with a tomato sauce, pasta and salad followed by a dessert. It looks great.

“We see God as making us available, our meeting was cancelled on the Friday night so we could go to Dartford, we had 180 volunteers when we expected 60, at the same time this building was available. I don’t believe in coincidence, I like to think of it as God-incidence. I think that God prepares you for times such as this. If this is all God intended me to do in my life that’s fantastic.”

A guest eating corned beef

Each shift at Sanctuary is run by a coordinator and several volunteers that in theory is so Steve and Lorna don’t need to be there all the time. However, every time I’ve been there so are they.

We are interrupted by the Sanctuary phone with it’s Superman ringtone. Steve laughs, “When I first started this I thought I was Superman. I soon realised I wasn’t. I can’t do this on my own. We come here because we like the interaction with the guests. If we were just project Managers and we never came here that wouldn’t work for us. We do it because we love it.”

There are more images from Sanctuary here.

Sanctuary is completely funded by donation - if you’d like to help.

A New City by Nigel Rumsey

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For me visiting a new city follows something of a regular pattern. For the first few hours, I don't like it, wherever it is. That's pretty much a given. It could be the holiday destination of your dreams - I won't like it. They could be scattering orchid petals in front of me on the street - I still won't like it. Period. I'm generally the trip organiser. I tell myself I do it under sufferance but in reality, it's a control issue - I think something would get forgotten if I didn't do it. So because I've arranged everything I have this performance anxiety thing going on. My wife won’t like it, the hotel’s going to be a roach infested pit and we’re going to get mugged - the usual stuff everyone worries about.

A woman waiting for fries in a Berlin fast food store

However, once that's passed and it is generally only a few hours. Then fairly quickly after that, I want to live there. Not lock, stock, and barrel sell our house and move. Just live there for a while, three months seems ideal. Long enough to get to know the place.

My fantasy, which is fully developed by now, generally involves renting a small apartment. I like the idea of an apartment because it's easy to maintain, there are no distractions from the work in hand. I don't want to waste my time gardening or sweeping the yard. I'm going there to be an artist nothing else. Once settled I'd spend my time wandering the streets with my trusty camera documenting the life of everyday man. In the evening I drink red wine and eat at a pavement café.

That’s not so unusual, I hear you thinking, everyone does that, from time to time. But for me it's not time-to-time it's every time!

A woman working late at night seen through an open window

This fantasy doesn't always end when I leave the city. When I got home from visiting Eugene, Oregon, I spent several hours trawling rental properties online. Deciding which one I was going to rent like I was actually going to do it. I like the view from that one, but it’s a long walk from the town, that’s no good, I tell myself.

I picture myself like W. Eugene Smith trying to record the whole of Pittsburgh.

One property consisted of a small cottage at the bottom of the owners garden. I developed the story I was going to tell them about why I was there. As long as there's no gardening required that would be fine. I'm not going to have time for gardening.

Hands tending a plant through an open window

The latest object of my desire was Berlin. We visited last month and stayed in a great hotel in Neukölln. We loved it. The streets behind the hotel were jammed with suitable apartments, it was ideal. A new city to explore my imagination ran riot. There are lovely little bars and a really welcoming atmosphere. I don’t speak more than the very basics of German, but that’ll come, I told myself, once you’re living here, chatting to people every day.

A group in a bar watching a football game

Maybe this fantasising is the sign of some malcontent in my life as it is. Could it be I just have an overactive imagination? I’m going to Bristol for the weekend soon, so if you’re interested in the state of the rental market give me a few days and I’ll be the man to ask.

A woman waiting on a u-bahn platform.

Small town America: Port Orford, OR by Nigel Rumsey

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I have a great fondness for small town America. That eclectic mix of industry, commerce and residence rarely fails to entrance me. One of my longest-held ambitions is to take a few months out and complete a long-term documentary photography project in a small American town. I rather ambitiously see it as a scaled-down version of W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh project, with maybe slightly fewer than his 17,000 images. We spent our holiday in Oregon last year and in a small echo of that ambition while there I tried to document the buildings along US Route 101 in the town of Port Orford.

documentary photography shot of unmarked building, Port Orford, OR

For those who are in a hurry to get somewhere, and who are not flying, US Route 101 has been superseded by Interstate 5, but at one time it was the route along America's West coast. For 1,550 miles it runs near the mighty Pacific ocean.

..... a scaled-down version of W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh project .... slightly fewer than his 17,000 images

Even despite its inter-state scope when it runs through hundreds of small towns it becomes Main Street, the strip onto which stores open their doors. Onto its sidewalks churches open and schools empty, thousands of small General Stores, fast food restaurants and industry trades along its length. When you pull out of Coos Curry Supply in Port Orford it's easy to forget you're on ribbon of blacktop stretching from Port Angeles at the very top of Washington state, a wet two miles from the Canadian border, to Los Angeles in sunny Southern California.

documentary photography shot of Coos Curry Supply a hardware store in Port Orford, OR

On this trip I ran out of time in Port Orford, route 101 was pulling me ever northward, but I'm sure I'll be back to both to Port Orford and hopefully for even longer to some, as yet, unknown small town at which I can point my lens.

documentary photography shot of Chevron gas station, Port Orford, OR

documentary photography shot of gas filling rig, Port Orford, OR

Criminal podcast: It looked like fire by Nigel Rumsey

Edward Crawford throwing a tear gas canister during Ferguson Protests If you're interested in photography it's likely you know this photograph. What you may not know is the story of the people behind it; Edward Crawford, who's throwing the tear gas canister and Robert Cohen, the photographer. The story is told in a recent episode of the excellent Criminal Podcast. If you enjoy good audio documentary I'd recommend Criminal.

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This image is part of a series of photographs from the Ferguson riots shot for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography.

Congratulations to Robert Cohen and his colleagues.