Interview: Caleb Yule director of Time and Tide

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How did you come across sea-coaling and Steve and Keith, who are the focus of the film?

 

I first came across seacoaling after discovering Chris Killip’s book of photography, which captures seacoalers on the beaches of Lynemouth in the early 80s. I was struck by the beauty of the landscape and the brutality of the occupation, and whilst I thought it would make for an incredible documentary, I was reasonably convinced that it was firmly a thing of the past. 

 

There is so little to read about seacoalers, but the few scraps of information that I could find pointed towards Hartlepool, on the north-eastern coast. I decided to go there, hoping I might find someone, somewhere, who was still clinging on. I wandered the beaches of Hartlepool for days on end, in the midst of freezing winter winds, but found nothing and no one that could point to what I was after.

 

Just before I was due to take my train home, I made one last trip to the beach, which, of course, was when I first met Steve. Steve, 78, shovel in hand, had been working as a seacoaler his entire life. Today, he works six days awake alongside his sideman, Keith, as they shovel tonnes of coal by hand every day. Over the coming months, I travelled up to Hartlepool several more times to meet them, and we came to be friends as I learned their stories and their way of life. 

 

The film captures a dying way of life, with the government phasing out coal. Were you conscious of this and wanting to archive the process?

 

Absolutely. The entire making of the film felt so melancholic to me. Steve and Keith’s trade is a beautiful thing, something antiquated but pure. Whatever I had read or seen of seacoalers, it was always suggested that they were the last in the line, the end of the road, and yet here these two men stood before me, upholding the tradition. Generations of knowledge and history will die with these men, and whilst I hope our film preserves a small part of that, it upsets me to think that we arrived so late when so much had already been lost. 

 

As much as this is a film about ending, I really hope that in twenty years, there is a photographer, journalist, or filmmaker who stumbles on another pocket of workers that are keeping this history alive. 

 

Could you talk a bit about the cinematography for the film, as you have captured a real sense of stillness and solitude, which is an interesting contrast to the activity and movement of the archive footage of sea-coaling shown at the end? 

 

What stood out to me most about seacoaling is the pace and effort, and power of the work, and also the landscape where it takes place. Seacoaling is backbreaking labour. Steve and Keith work hours on end and barely break a sweat. There’s a rhythm to their movement and an unspoken system that is adhered to. I wanted to capture the slow, gruelling work as I saw it amidst the sparse, open landscape where sand, sea and sky coalesce.

 

 

What do you think is the best way of preserving the memories of past industries such as sea-coaling and stories such as Steve and Keith’s?

 

In some ways, it’s a shame that the world is changing in such a way that trades such as these cannot be preserved through continuation, but I understand, as I think Steve and Keith do, why they have to come to an end. I believe there is a responsibility for us to document these stories through whatever medium because I think there is so much to be taken from them. If people are willing to listen and engage with stories such as this, I’m not even sure the medium matters; it doesn’t take long for the magic to reveal itself. 

 

 A couple of your other documentaries now focus on the sea, such as ‘Other Plans’, which looks at anglers. Is the coast a place you are drawn to in your work?

 

There is so much variation on our beaches. We live on a relatively small island, and yet the amount of change is staggering. I’m slowly developing a feature that looks to capture those living off the beaches because there is so much life there. The coast is beautiful, but it’s the people that inhabit it that make it compelling. 

This film was screened as part of Time and Tide a new online film event for sea/film. For more information about this film head to: https://www.storiesofnote.com