Back to nature – a day at Pensthorpe Natural Park

Finally, after more than two years confined to barracks by the pandemic, we’re back on the road again. Not overseas: the timing still doesn’t seem right, and in any case the burning desire to visit far off foreign parts has cooled a bit. Maybe the passion will return in due course, maybe not, but unless and until our outlook changes there’s plenty to keep us occupied here in the UK.

Created by the gravel extraction industry, the lakes at Pensthorpe are now managed for wildlife. This shot shows only a small section of one of the reserve’s lakes.

The county of Norfolk is one of our favourite English destinations, and it was the obvious place for us to take our first proper UK holiday (that’s “vacation” to you guys in North America!) since summer 2019. And every time we visit Norfolk we make a point of spending a day at the wonderful Pensthorpe Natural Park.

Mandarin ducks are one of the more exotic species found at Pensthorpe

Pensthorpe started out as a large gravel extraction enterprise, with over 1 million tonnes being dug out and carted off to who-knows-where. But instead of becoming a permanent scar on the landscape the site has been sensitively transformed into something of real value to the local community, and to visitors from further afield like Mrs P and I. Today it’s a bit of an oddball mixture, part old-fashioned waterfowl exhibit, part nature reserve, part conservation hub, part sculpture park, part kids’ activity centre. There’s something for just about everyone at Pensthorpe Natural Park.

We were pleased to get good views of this Four Spotted Chaser

The Park is run as a business, which in principle sits a little uncomfortably with me. In practice, however, the owners – Bill and Deb Jordan, top dogs in a family-owned breakfast cereal company – appear genuinely committed to the restoration and protection of the natural world. There’s nothing to suggest they put profit ahead of sound conservation practice, and I’m therefore relaxed in saying that they get my vote.

“Wild Boar” by George Hider (2014), one of the eye-catching sculptural pieces dotted around the Park.

Bill and Deb win further brownie points from me for setting up a charitable trust, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, to work with their commercial operation. Established in 2003, the Trust aims “to establish a centre of excellence, habitat management and restoration alongside conservation of wetland and farmland bird species through captive breeding programmes in national conservation partnerships.” Corncrakes, cranes, red squirrels and turtle doves are amongst the species currently benefitting from the Trust’s activities.

Pensthorpe is a partner in a captive-breeding conservation project to boost numbers of wild corncrakes

Our return visit to Pensthorpe last month did not disappoint, even though the management has yet to erect a commemorative plaque at the spot where I broke my ankle in a fall on a snowy winter’s day in 2013! The lakes and woods teemed with wildlife, and although there was nothing exceptionally rare to be seen on this occasion it was great to get back into natural world after the miseries of Covid.

Lucky visitors to Pensthorpe may stumble across a muntjac deer

It was also great to bump into a former work colleague, albeit totally unexpected given that we were around 120 miles (nearly 200 km) from the office and had not seen each other since she moved on some eight or nine years ago! Amanda is a lovely lady, passionate about sport, physical fitness and wellbeing, and – as I now discovered – birdwatching too.

Great Spotted Woodpecker, an unexpected Pensthorpe bonus

Amanda explained that she is currently working on the government’s Green Social Prescribing project. The initiative enables doctors to help improve mental health outcomes and reduce health inequalities amongst suitable patients by prescribing “nature-based interventions and activities, such as local walking for health schemes, community gardening and food-growing projects.”

Families of Egyptian Geese wander the Park, helping to keep the grass short!

I was previously only vaguely aware of Green Social Prescribing. But hearing Amanda talk about the initiative as we sat together in a bird hide, gazing out over a tranquil lake where ducks, geese, and swans were going about their daily business and squadrons of swallows whizzed happily overhead, it now made perfect sense.

A large walk-through aviary allows visitors to get close to Bearded Tits (aka Bearded Reedlings), birds that are tricky to see in the wild

I felt more at peace on our day at Pensthorpe, and during the visits we made the same week to several other Norfolk nature reserves, than at any time since Covid hit. For me there is no doubt that getting back to nature – close to wildlife and wild places, distant from the stresses and strains of 21st century urban life – revives the spirit and nurtures the soul.

“Stag” by George Hider (2017)

Before our visit last month it had been around three years since our last trip to Pensthorpe. But guess what – we’ll be going back real soon!

So, follow our example and get back to nature, guys. You know it makes sense!

Yorkshire Sculpture Park again: Damien Hirst, handbags and hats

Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the gift that keeps on giving. Although it’s featured in two previous posts – you can read them here and here – there’s still more I need to say about YSP. Our latest visit was in September last year, when we explored parts of the park that had so far eluded us. In the process we got acquainted with the work of Damien Hirst, not to a mention a monstrous handbag and a plethora of hats.

Let’s start with the handbag. Bag of Aspirations by Kalliopi Lemos (b. 1951 in Greece) is fashioned from steel, although it’s painted to look like leather. Here’s what the YSP website has to say about it:

Bag of Aspirations is a vastly scaled-up version of the famous Birkin handbag made by French fashion house Hermès. This expensive and highly sought-after bag has become associated with luxury and exclusivity, and embodies the values and desires of a consumer culture. Lemos often investigates how such trends in society affect and frame women in particular, exploring the way femininity is constructed and defined by narrow and restrictive ideals of beauty and behaviour

Source: YSP website, retrieved 28/03/22

Bag of Aspirations by Kalliopi Lemos

So, far from being frivolous, this monstrous handbag is making a serious point about 21st century society. Who would have guessed? Not me obviously: I saw the piece and just couldn’t help grinning. You see, Mrs P recently downsized her handbag but ever since has complained that it’s simply too small to hold all those bits and pieces that a girl just has to have with her at all times. I took one look at Lemos’s big beast of a bag and thought: there’s your solution Mrs P, but good luck carrying it!

But enough of this handbag nonsense, let’s move quickly on to Damien Hirst (b. 1965). Hirst rose to prominence in London in the late 1980s, and is one of the most notorious artists of his generation. He’s also said to be the UK’s richest living artist. His reputation precedes him: any man who displays whole animals pickled in formaldehyde and calls it art inevitably courts controversy, so we were intrigued to see what all the fuss is about.

First, it should be noted that no animals were pickled in the creation of Hirst’s works on display at Yorkshire Sculpture Park! However, they do make one hell of an impact. Standing 10 metres high, the Virgin Mother looms over the landscape in which it stands, and given that the skin has been peeled back from half the torso to reveal a foetus curled within the womb it’s also very hard to ignore. The pose reportedly echoes that of Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. However, unlike Hirst’s sculpture, Degas’s piece is fully clothed, has no skin hanging off and doesn’t appear to be with child, so the resemblance – in my humble opinion, anyway – is somewhat superficial!

Virgin Mother by Damien Hirst

Do I like Virgin Mother? Strangely, I think I do, even though on one level it’s macabre, even a little grotesque. For me it argues that beauty is only skin deep, and that if we are truly to understand what is before us we need to be sure to look beneath the surface rather than rely on what is in plain sight.

On a somewhat similar theme, Myth enables us to see beneath the skin of a unicorn. And we learn that even iconic mythological beasties depend on a framework of bones, tendons and muscles in order to do whatever it is that unicorns do. Again, Hirst reminds us not to be seduced by appearances, however romantic, and to look instead for the earthy reality that normally lies hidden from view.

Myth by Damien Hirst

Altogether more challenging is the statue of a disabled child that Hirst calls Charity. The 7 metres high, painted bronze sculpture may look oddly familiar to anyone who was out and about in the UK in the 60s and 70s, being based on the Spastic Society’s charity collection boxes that could be seen at that time on high streets up and down the land.

But times change, and so too do judgments as to what society does – and does not – find acceptable. The word “spastic” is today regarded as grossly offensive, and the charity that bore its name is now called Scope. And the design of its collection box also looks as if it comes from another, less inclusive age, an age when disabled people were regarded merely as objects of pity, poor vulnerable souls totally dependent upon the charitable handouts of others.

One may question why Hirst chose to imitate a negative image of disability that many people now find offensive. Crucially, all is not as it seems. Seen from the rear we notice that the gigantic collection box has been broken into, with coins scattered around and a crowbar left behind. Clearly this is not in any sense an homage to the original collection boxes, but an invitation to think about how society views disability.

The break-in fundamentally affects the meaning of the sculpture. For me it says that the negative portrayal of disability inherent in the original collection boxes – which reflected views that were widespread within British society at that time – was in itself an act of theft, stealing the dignity and self-esteem of the very people the boxes were designed to support. Other interpretations are possible, and Hirst’s piece remains controversial within and beyond the disabled community. But although it’s not a comfortable image, if the artist’s primary intention was to stimulate debate and reflection about disability Charity certainly succeeds.

The Hat makes the Man by Damien Hirst

Another painted bronze by Damien Hirst – The Hat Makes the Man – is altogether more playful, suggesting that, although he normally keeps it well hidden, the artist does have a sense of humour. This bizarre, disjointed piece was apparently inspired by a tiny Max Ernst drawing dating from the 1920s. It features a plethora of felt hats, interspersed with the occasional straw boater and random sawn-up pieces of wood. Sigmund Freud, the famed founding father of psychoanalysis maintained that hats are a symbol of repressed male desire, so I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that – although I haven’t a clue what it means – this sculpture really appealed to me!

Network by Thomas J Price

Another of the sculptures that I liked a lot was Network, by Thomas J Price (b. 1981) There’s been a lot of controversy in the UK recently about who is – and is not – represented in public art. In particular, there have been loud protests that although sculptures of men who made huge fortunes from the slave trade in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries can still be seen, their victims are invisible. For this reason Price’s three metres tall sculpture of a casually dressed man of African (Caribbean) heritage studying his mobile phone seems to hit just the right note.

One of Mrs P’s favourite pieces was Wilsis by Jaume Plensa (b. 1951 in Spain), one of a series of heads of young girls from around the world, with eyes closed in a contemplative state. Intriguingly the view from the front appears traditionally three dimensional, but viewed from a different angle it’s plain that the statue is almost flat. Standing at over 7 metres tall, Wilsis makes a stunning impact within the lightly wooded landscape.

Next on this whistle-stop review of our most recent visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, consider The Garden of Good and Evil by political activist Alfredo Jaar (b. 1956 in Chile) . It references secret one metre square detention cells (aka “black cells”) reputedly used by the CIA around the world. It is partially hidden within a lake, reflecting the fact that these secret centres are also hidden.

The Garden of Good and Evil by Alfredo Jaar

The Garden of Good and Evil makes uncomfortable viewing once you understand what has inspired its creation. But let’s end this post with a feel-good sculpture. Sitting, a monumental work by Sophie Ryder (b. 1963) is fashioned from wire and divided into two sections by a split that is clearly visible from the side. The anthropomorphic figure combines the head of a hare with a body modelled on Ryder’s own, and dominates the surrounding parkland.

Sitting by Sophie Ryder

Ryder is fascinated by hares, and features them frequently in her work: you can read more about what they mean to her here. But while I fully understand that for her the piece has great symbolic significance, for me the main point is that Sitting is exquisitely beautiful. This plainly isn’t true of all the sculptures at YSP, some of which are more intellectually challenging than aesthetically pleasing. And it is this sheer range of artistic endeavour that makes Yorkshire Sculpture Park such a great place to visit. so Mrs P and I will be making another return trip very soon!

FOOTNOTE TO REGULAR READERS OF THIS BLOG

Spring is in the air, the days are getting warmer and my excuses for not painting the bedroom and tidying up the garden are wearing a bit thin. So, for the next few months, I intend to post on this blog every 14 days – rather than weekly as now – publishing early on Wednesday mornings (UK time). Weekly posts will resume in late autumn…always assuming, of course, that I’ve finally finished decorating the bedroom!

The Burghley sculpture garden

Back when I was a lad, if you wanted to see sculptures you had to go to an art gallery, or maybe a museum. True, if your interest extended no further than humanoid figures you could reasonably expect to see statues of former monarchs, politicians and sundry other ne’er-do-wells in civic spaces scattered throughout the urban landscape. But if your tastes ran to something less formulaic and more creative you were pretty much confined to museums, galleries and similar indoor areas.

And then, thankfully, some bright spark came up with the idea of sculpture gardens.

Vertical Face II

A sculpture garden, and its big brother the sculpture park, is an outdoor space dedicated to the presentation of durable, three dimensional works of art in landscaped surroundings. In galleries and museums sculpture is contained, hemmed in by walls and ceilings, often difficult to fully appreciate.

In sculpture gardens and parks however, sculpture sits comfortably within a spacious, natural environment, with room to breathe. And the sculptures and the landscape in which they sit enhance one another: the gardens and parks frame the sculptures, while the sculptures become visual anchors within their surroundings.

Held

Sculpture parks can now be found throughout the length and breadth of the UK, and visiting one can be an uplifting experience. Last week I wrote about our visit to Burghley House, a grand mansion dating from the late 16th century. In total contrast to the baroque excesses of the house itself, one of the joys of the parkland at Burghley is an excellent sculpture garden featuring a variety of contemporary and modern pieces.

Burghley’s sculpture garden dates back only a couple of decades, but is situated in an area of the grounds originally fashioned by the famed late 18th century landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown. It combines a scattering of works on permanent display with an annual themed exhibition. The theme when we visited in 2021 (carried over from 2020, due to Covid) was ‘House‘, originally conceived to honour the 500th anniversary of the birth in 1520 of Burghley House’s founder William Cecil. 

Cornu Cecilium

One of the most striking pieces on permanent display in the sculpture garden is Vertical Face II by English sculptor Rick Kirby. Works by Kirby are on display in various parts of the UK, and if Vertical Face II is typical I can see just why: it’s a haunting, enigmatic creation.

Equally serious – or, to be blunt, downright spooky – is Held by Anne Gillespie. The body of a man, folded into a foetal position and entombed in a rock wall, is not an easy piece to view, and is laden with hidden meaning. But what, exactly? I know what it means to me, but your interpretation may be totally different. And in the end that doesn’t really matter, the point is that we are required to exercise our brains and think about it…which, after all, is surely one of the purposes of art?

Trojan Horse

But art, and sculpture, doesn’t always have to be deep and meaningful: it can also, quite simply, be fun. The colourful sculpture of a snail, Cornu Cecilium by Pete Rogers, plainly fits into that category. However there is more to this piece than initially meets the eye. Commissioned for Burghley’s 2021 themed exhibition House, the shape of the snail’s shell echoes the grand octagonal towers of Burghley House.

I was also taken with the Trojan Horse. Fashioned from logs and standing several metres high it’s a quaintly rustic piece, and seems to be completely at ease in the lightly wooded landscape in which is stands.

Teddy bears’ picnic

Talking of wooded landscapes, if you go down to Burghley’s woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise: a family of whimsical bears enjoying a picnic, including mama bear in a faded blue dress. Again, there’s no great depth of meaning here, but it’s fun, isn’t it.

Also at home in the wooded landscape are the snowdrops of Everlasting Spring, another Pete Rogers creation. Snowdrops are “here and gone again” in the blink of an eye every spring, but thanks to Rogers they last all year long in Burghley’s sculpture garden.

Everlasting Spring

Italian artist Michele Ciribifera’s Elicoide BG is definitely eye-catching. Elicoide translates from the Italian as “spiral” or “helical”, and this gleaming metallic piece stands out boldly in the verdant landscape of grass and trees. Maybe there is a hidden meaning here? Or is it simply intended to please the eye? Personally I’m inclined not to overthink it: the latter explanation works just fine for me.

And finally, in this whistle-stop tour of a few of the sculptures we saw at Burghley last year, is City Cuts by sculptor Paul Cox. Inspired by the 2007/08 world financial crisis, a handsaw is seen slicing into a swanky city skyscraper. This one is rather poignant for me. At the time of that economic meltdown I was working as a senior public service manager, and found myself forced to make massive cuts to stay within my greatly reduced budget. I was compelled to wield not just a saw, but an axe too.

Elicoide BG

Several of my staff, including friends whom I respected and admired deeply, sadly lost their jobs in the dark days and months that followed. Seeing this stark piece at Burghley certainly gave me cause to think about my own very small, local role in dealing with the impact of the global financial crisis all those years ago. It was not a particularly happy part of my life, but life’s not meant to be easy all the time, is it?

City Cuts

Thankfully those days are over, and because I’m retired I don’t have to worry about how to navigate my service through the new financial crisis brought about by Covid. So, while my unfortunate successor wrestles with that impenetrable problem, I have time on my hands to visit some more wonderful sculpture gardens, like the one at Burghley. Don’t they say that good things will eventually come to he (or she) that waits?

Kedleston Hall – A walk in the park (no peasants allowed!)

Our county of Derbyshire has many exceptional stately homes, where ordinary folk like me can catch a glimpse of what life was like for the English super-rich before inheritance taxes prompted them to modify their extravagant lifestyles. Kedleston Hall, an 18th century Palladian and Neoclassical masterpiece now managed on behalf of us all by the National Trust, isn’t the most famous of these, but it’s definitely one of my favourites.

Rear of Kedleston Hall viewed from the Long Walk, with the C12th All Saints Church to the left. Note also the ha-ha, which is invisible from the Hall and stops wandering sheep getting too close.

Of course, when you’re obscenely rich, conspicuous consumption doesn’t have to end with your palatial mansion – when you’ve spent as much as bad taste will allow on alabaster, marble and gold leaf, you can always throw more of your wealth at the rest of the estate. Kedleston is a case in point. As you wander through the magnificent parkland in which the Hall sits, it’s easy to forget that this is an entirely man-made landscape.

Trees have been selected and positioned to add to the visual appeal of the parkland. The sheep help too!

Kedleston is the ancestral home of the Curzon family, who have lived in the area since the 12th century. Between 1759 and 1775, Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale (1726-1804) commissioned renowned Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) to design an opulent new mansion, flanked to the south and west by an elegant formal garden of trees and shrubs. Surrounding the Hall and garden, and separated from them by a ha ha – a sunken wall which was invisible from within and intended to keep livestock out – was a landscape comprising some 800 acres (324 hectares) of rolling, naturalised parkland.

Robert Adam’s fine three-arched bridge, one of the highlights of Kedleston’s parkland

Once there was a small village at the centre of the estate, clustered around the C12th All Saints Church. However in 1759, as was the custom of the time, the villagers were all evicted to ensure that Baron Scarsdale could go about his daily business on the estate without any danger of coming into contact with representatives of ‘the great unwashed.’

An idyllic landscape, now managed on behalf of the nation by the National Trust

The peasantry having been removed, it was time to set about taming the landscape. Adam put the stream that traverses the estate to good use, moving mountains of earth to create a series of scenic lakes and cascades. To cross the stream he built a fine three-arched bridge, and this remains one of Kedleston’s most impressive features. Other structures to adorn the parkland include a bath-house and a fishing pavilion, although several temples and follies proposed by Adam were never completed.

One of the civil engineering works required to create and manage Kedleston’s lakes

Robert Adam wanted his creation to be enjoyed from all angles, and to this end he designed the Long Walk, a winding three mile circuit through the estate, with views of the rear of the Hall and across the parkland.  It was this walk that Mrs P and I embarked upon a few weeks ago.

The bath-house, designed by Robert Adam

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, lambs frolicked playfully under the watchful eyes of their mothers, and the vistas offered by the Long Walk were uniformly pleasing. After long months confined to our own modest house and garden by the Covid restrictions it was great to escape its confines and to enjoy the wide open spaces that the Kedleston estate offers.

Aaah, cute!

Robert Adam was without doubt a genius: both the Hall (which I shall write about in a future post) and the parkland lift the spirits enormously. But if you ever visit Kedleston do spare a thought for the local peasantry, who lost their homes so that this magical place could be created as an exclusive pleasure ground for Baron Scarsdale and his idle-rich buddies!

The magic of bluebells

I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at.  I know the beauty of our Lord by itGerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899)

The celebrated English Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins clearly loved his bluebells. We do too, and one of our treats every spring is to seek out some local bluebell woods where we can enjoy them in all their majesty. That wasn’t possible in 2020 due to the Covid restrictions, so this year, as soon as government rules and the weather conditions permitted, we made a beeline for the gardens at Renishaw Hall. We weren’t disappointed! 

Renishaw Hall and Gardens can be found in the north-east corner of our home county of Derbyshire. I wrote briefly about their history in this post last year. Renishaw is famed for its stunning formal gardens, laid out in 1895 by Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) in the classical Italianate style. However, wonderful though these are, it is the bluebell-rich woodland that is our favourite springtime feature at Renishaw. It’s an area known as Broxhill Wood, although on a map of the estate dating from the 18th century it’s referred to as the Little Old Orchard.

With their drooping habit and deep violet-blue colouring, bluebells are distinctive residents of woodlands throughout the length and breadth of the country. They go under various evocative names including Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap, Witches’ Thimbles, Wood Bell and Bell Bottle.

They’re also referred to as the English Bluebell to distinguish them from the Spanish variety, which is available to buy from garden centres. The two species are subtly different: Spanish bluebells grow upright, with the flowers all around the stem, not drooping to one side like the English version. The Spanish species is a more vigorous plant, and may constitute a long-term threat to our more delicate native flower by out-competing or hybridising with it.

Bluebells are found all across Britain except Shetland, and although they’re also present in Western Europe the UK accounts for around half the world’s population of this beautiful bulb. Woodlands carpeted by masses of bluebells are magical features of the British countryside in late April and May, and have inspired generations of poets and writers. Here’s what the author Graham Joyce (1954-2014) had to say about them: 

The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and bushes seemed to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down on to the earth floor; and I didn’t know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky. But I couldn’t hold on.

As Graham Joyce implies, bluebells are a bold, unmistakable presence in the British landscape, so it’s no surprise that a rich folklore has grown up around them. Bluebell woods are believed to be enchanted, fairies using them to lure unwary travellers into their nether world and trap them there. The bells are said to ring out when fairies summon their kin to a gathering, but if humans hear them death will surely follow. And, of course, fairies are by their nature capricious beings, so when you visit a bluebell wood it’s best not to trample on any of their precious blooms. You have been warned!

On a slightly different note, folk tradition has it that wearing a garland of bluebells will induce you to speak only the truth. This, of course, is why you will never see a politician bedecked with bluebells.

Our ancestors found various practical applications for bluebells. Their sticky sap was once used in bookbinding because it would repel attacks by insects, and in early times it was also used to glue the feathers onto the shaft of an arrow. Herbalists prescribed bluebells to help prevent nightmares, and as a treatment for snakebites and leprosy – perhaps a somewhat misguided course of action, given that the plant is poisonous.

The bluebell is traditionally associated with St George, England’s patron saint, probably because it starts to bloom around his feast day on 23rd April. In reality, the flower’s connection with England is much stronger than that of George himself. Bluebells have been found throughout the country at least since the last ice age, whereas the celebrated saint never actually visited these shores (the historical St George was born in Turkey in the late 3rd century CE, and died in Palestine in 303 CE.) 

The connection between St George and bluebells may be somewhat tenuous, but the popularity of the flower here is beyond dispute. In a 2002 national survey organised by the charity Plantlife, the bluebell was voted Britain’s favourite flower. So overwhelming was its victory that voting for bluebells was banned in a repeat of the research in 2004.

The popularity of bluebells is such that they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This prohibits anyone digging up the plant or bulb from the countryside, and landowners are similarly prevented from removing bluebells from their private land with a view to selling them. Trading in wild bluebell bulbs and seeds is an offence.

Bluebells are an enchanting, iconic part of the British countryside at springtime, and have clearly captured our collective imagination.  To put it crudely, we Brits just can’t get enough bluebells. Let’s give Anne Brontë (1820-1849), the notable Victorian novelist and poet, the final word on their very special charms:

The Bluebell

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power. 

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

The Old Man of Calke – still hanging on after 1,200 years

At my age birthdays are a mixed blessing. On the one hand they’re a cause for celebration (Yes, I’ve made it through another 12 months!). But they’re also a time for reflection on how your body has fared over the last year, which bits of it have started hurting, begun to misfire or even stopped working altogether. Spare a thought, then, for the Old Man of Calke, who’s still hanging on after 1,200 years.

The Old Man of Calke

The Old Man is one of many magnificent trees to be found in parkland at the Calke Abbey estate in the south of Derbyshire. Calke Park extends to around 600 acres (240 hectares), and is managed for the nation by the National Trust. Around one third is designated as a National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest.

After the Covid restrictions earlier in the year, our visit to Calke Park in October 2020 provided a welcome opportunity to get close to nature again, strolling past picturesque ponds and along shaded woodland paths. There’s lots to see during a walk around the park, but without doubt the ancient and veteran trees are the stars of the show.

Ancient and veteran trees are common at Calke Park

Calke is home to over 650 veteran trees, of which 350 are regarded as ancient trees. What’s the difference? I hear you asking. The Woodland Trust explains that “an ancient tree is one that has passed beyond maturity and is old, or aged, in comparison with other trees of the same species…A veteran tree is a survivor that has developed some of the features found on an ancient tree, not necessarily as a consequence of time, but of its life or environment. Ancient veterans are ancient trees, not all veterans are old enough to be ancient.” Clear as mud? Baffled? Absolutely!

The technical definitions may be more confusing than enlightening, but at an estimated age of around 1,200 years the Old Man of Calke must surely qualify as an ancient veteran. To put it into context, the Old Man was a sapling when the Vikings were rampaging across the country, and already had some 250 years under his belt when King Harold took one in the eye during the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

Mere Pond at Calke Park

The Old Man is an English Oak, and although not very tall, it boasts a girth of over 10 metres. The trunk is gnarled, split and holed in places, giving the tree a somewhat battered and time-worn appearance. Despite this it is a massively imposing presence in the Calke parkland and seems to wear its great age lightly.

Thanks to the National Trust’s careful management, the Old Man of Calke will hopefully survive long enough to give several more generations of visitors to the Park the thrill of getting up close and personal with a tree that was in its prime when William the Conqueror first set foot on these shores.

The Old Man of Calke

The snowdrop – a flower not to be trifled with

Flowering at a time when pretty much nothing else is in bloom, snowdrops inevitably capture the imagination of all who encounter them in the British countryside. The ‘Fair Maids of February’ reassure us that the bleak midwinter is passing, and more congenial times lie ahead. Poets heap praise upon these humble harbingers of spring’s awakening, while storytellers speculate about their origins. Who doesn’t love a snowdrop?

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Interestingly, although snowdrops are widely distributed and recognised throughout the UK, they aren’t native to these islands. They originated in the damp woodlands and meadows of continental Europe, and were brought here – probably in the sixteenth century – to grace the estates of the idle rich. However these private collections inevitably ‘leaked’ into the surrounding countryside, and by the late 18th century the flower was reported as growing wild. Now completely naturalised, snowdrops can be found in shady woodland, on country estates and along river banks all over the country.

Hodsock Priory, 2016

Snowdrops are also a common sight in graveyards, and this could be the reason why they’re sometimes associated with ill-fortune and even death. In Victorian times it was widely believed that you should avoid bringing snowdrops into your house. If you disobeyed this rule the consequences could range from your milk turning sour to a member of your family dropping dead within a year. Plainly the snowdrop isn’t a flower to be trifled with!

Although these days we happily dismiss such dire warnings as fanciful nonsense, it’s worth noting that snowdrops are poisonous due to high concentrations of phenanthridine alkaloids, particularly in the bulbs. Now, I haven’t a clue what a phenanthridine alkaloid is, but (just like the average beer-swilling Saturday night out during my student days) it’s known to cause confusion, poor coordination, drooling, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and seizures. I humbly conclude that excessive student partying and eating snowdrops are both best avoided!

Hopton Hall, 2017

Paradoxically although some people make a connection between snowdrops and death, others view them as symbols of hope. The reason, I suppose, is that they show themselves just as winter’s drawing to a close, and their appearance is a sure sign that the days are getting both longer and warmer, and that spring will soon arrive.

It’s for just this reason that, around about now every year, Mrs P and I traditionally mark the changing of the seasons by taking a trip to one of our local snowdrop hotspots. These include the gardens of Hopton Hall, an 18th-century country house in Derbyshire, the Dimminsdale Nature Reserve on Derbyshire’s border with Leicestershire, and two estate gardens in Nottinghamshire, at Hodsock Priory and Felley Priory. Each boasts a fine display of snowdrops, and looks splendid on a crisp and sunny February day

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Sadly, to visit one of these snowdrop havens in 2021 would contravene the government’s strict Covid lockdown rules and invite a fine of £200 (each!) from the local constabulary. Instead, we’ve had to get our annual snowdrop fix from Mrs P’s excellent photos and a small clump that survives against all odds in our unkempt front garden. Ah well, there’s always next year I suppose, once Covid’s back in its box.

Felley Priory, 2017

Paradise lost? – Elvaston Castle and Gardens

Determined to make the most of the short respite between the end of the first Covid lockdown and the start of the second, we decided to take a trip to Elvaston Castle. Sounds rather grand doesn’t it, conjuring up romantic images of sturdy curtain walls, a moat and a portcullis, and maybe intrepid knights rescuing distressed damsels from dismal towers. But the reality is very different, and a good deal less glamorous.

File:Elvaston Castle - geograph.org.uk - 6393.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Chris J Dixon / Elvaston Castle / CC BY-SA 2.0

Situated on the edge of the city of Derby, Elvaston Castle is a castle in name only. It might more accurately be described as a grand country mansion in the Gothic Revival style, and was designed for the third Earl of Harrington in the early 19th century. Successive Earls of Harrington made their home at Elvaston until 1939, when the 11th man to bear that title finally left for good, relocating to his estates in Ireland.

During World War II, the mansion was turned into a teacher training college when the original college in Derby was evacuated. The college vacated the building in 1947, after which it remained mostly empty for the next two decades and fell steadily into disrepair. Although proposals for the mansion’s demolition – to enable the extraction of gravel – were rejected, a comprehensive rescue package proved elusive.

The Gothic Hall (photo taken 2015)

Such is its poor state of repair that it wasn’t possible for us to view the inside of Elvaston Castle when we visited this autumn. Luckily, we’d visited in 2015, during a rare open day event, and were able to see some of what it has to offer. Mrs P’s photos from that time reveal it to be impressive, a fine example of Gothic Revival design.

With the mansion itself off-limits, our visit this year was confined to Elvaston’s 300 acre (120 hectare) grounds. These offer formal gardens and a walled “Old English Garden,” as well as woodland, parkland and a picturesque lake. Part of the estate is designated as a Local Nature Reserve, offering the chance to spot a variety of wildlife.

The Gothic Hall (photo taken 2015

The gardens have an interesting history, and if you sniff the air attentively you may detect the faint whiff of impropriety, otherwise known as the scandal of the earl and the actress. The earl in question was Charles, 4th Earl of Harrington, a 19th century eccentric and trend-setting dandy, a friend of the Prince Regent who designed many of his own clothes and was addicted to snuff. He reputedly had 365 snuff boxes, one for each day of the year, although history is disappointingly silent on how he coped in leap years.

Towards the end of the 1820s, Charles fell madly in love with Maria Foote, an actress 17 years his junior who was also an unmarried mother.  By the standards of the day it was a dangerous liaison, and inevitably incurred the displeasure of ‘polite’ London society.  Doors slammed in their faces, and the couple retreated to Elvaston to lick their wounds and pursue their relationship out of the public gaze. 

The Moorish temple (built c1846)

To ensure a suitably romantic ambience, the Earl appointed William Barron as his Head Gardener, with a brief to design gardens that would be a “private and secluded oasis of great beauty” for himself and his true love. Leading a team of 90 gardeners Barron set about creating a series of themed gardens, including an Italian garden based on designs from Tuscany, and the Alhambra garden complete with a Moorish temple. 

In all Barron spent around 20 years working on Elvaston’s gardens, and even developed the practice of transplanting mature, fully grown trees to help hurry the job along. Some of the yews transplanted to Elvaston were already hundreds of years old, and were moved over distances of many miles to reach the estate.

The walled “Old English Garden”

Following the 4th Earl’s death in 1851, his brother, Leicester Stanhope, 5th Earl of Harrington, opened the gardens to the public. They became renowned as “a Gothic paradise” and received thousands of visitors, many of whom travelled to Elvaston on special excursion trains. However, like the mansion, the gardens became neglected once the 11th Earl left for Ireland.

In 1969 absentee owner William Stanhope, 11th Earl of Harrington, sold the estate – both house and gardens – to Derbyshire County Council. A year earlier the Countryside Act had proposed the creation of “country parks…for the enjoyment of the countryside by the public.” The Council duly opened the estate to the public in 1970, when Elvaston became England’s first Country Park.

The Council has now owned Elvaston castle for more than 50 years, and given the poor condition of the buildings and the somewhat neglected gardens that we witnessed a few weeks ago, it’s difficult not to conclude that they’ve been asleep on the job. They will maintain their innocence, of course, pointing to financial pressures and competing priorities…but Councils always do that, don’t they?

The decline and fall of Elvaston has been a locally controversial issue for decades, with lovers of the estate incensed and appalled by the Council’s failure to restore and protect a house and gardens that both enjoy Grade II* listed status from Historic England.

Finally, to help them get a grip, Derbyshire County Council established the Elvaston Castle and Gardens Trust to manage the estate on their behalf through a long-term lease agreement. In 2019 the Council and Trust agreed a revised Master Plan, and began touting it as the solution to Elvaston’s ills. Here’s what a Council spokesperson said at the time:

“Protecting, conserving and securing the estate’s heritage and biodiversity for future generations is at the heart of the new Master Plan which outlines proposals to revive and restore the estate to help bring in more visitors and increase revenue…Elvaston is a beautiful place to visit and enjoy and we are working with the Elvaston Castle and Gardens Trust to make sure this nationally important asset is secured for the future.”

Derbyshire County Council spokesperson, quoted in a report on the Derbyshire Live website, 15 July 2019, retrieved 3 December 2020

Sounds reasonable, I suppose, but are these fine words realistic in the context of the financial constraints ushered in by Covid-19? At the end of 2018, it was reported that the Council had identified a repairs backlog of £6.4m and annual running costs of £700,000. Those numbers were enormously challenging even before the pandemic; today I suspect they are unattainable.

I do hope the Council and the Trust will be able to deliver on their lofty ambitions. However I can’t help thinking that, before too long, Elvaston Castle and Gardens may be filed permanently under the heading of Paradise Lost.

Beyond amazing: Joana Vasconcelos at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

My last post described a recent visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Some of the sculptures displayed there can be seen in traditional galleries while others are to be found in the open air, in a magnificent parkland landscape of hills, woodland, lakes and formal gardens. The undoubted highlight of our visit was Beyond, a temporary exhibition by celebrated Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971).

Here’s how the Park’s website describes Joana’s work:

Joana Vasconcelos creates vibrant, often monumental sculpture, using fabric, needlework and crochet alongside everyday objects from saucepans to wheel hubs. She frequently uses items associated with domestic work and craft to comment from a feminist perspective on national and collective identity, cultural tradition and women’s roles in society

Sounds a bit wild and wacky, doesn’t it? I’m happy to say that the exhibition fully lived up to its billing. Joana Vasconcelos’ creations are amazing, a true delight in a year that’s been painfully grim.

There was an early indication of what to expect as we drove up to the car park: a multi-coloured rooster towering nine metres above startled visitors. It’s called Pop Galo [Pop Rooster] and is inspired by the Barcelos Rooster (aka the Portuguese Rooster.)

I’ve never been to Portugal and the legend of the Barcelos Rooster had therefore passed me by, but research for this post tells me that it’s regarded as the embodiment of the Portuguese spirit and love for life. Always vividly coloured, the Barcelos Rooster is a cultural icon and the unofficial symbol of the nation.

In Portugal the Barcelos Rooster is traditionally rendered as a colourful piece of pottery. Vasconcelos has fashioned hers from no fewer than 17,000 glazed tiles, creating a monumental and unforgettable artwork. Stunning!

And while we’re on the subject of monumental artwork, Solitário [Solitaire], is also pretty damned impressive. Standing seven metres high, it comprises golden car wheel rims topped with a huge diamond crafted from crystal whisky glasses, all fashioned into a stridently ostentatious engagement ring.

The website explains that Solitaire shouldn’t be seen as a blingy blot on the landscape but is, rather, a piece of caustic commentary on modern societal values. It says: “representing the stereotypical ambition of our society to acquire wealth and material possessions, the work unites symbols of luxury – cars, jewellery and alcohol – which bridge social classes.” So now we know!

Joana Vasconselos was born in Paris but lives in Lisbon, and trained initially as a jeweller before becoming a sculptor. The change of direction has enabled her to develop her craftsmanship on an altogether grander scale. In her world big is most definitely beautiful, whether outdoors or in.

And moving along to one of the indoor galleries, another of Vasconcelos’ startling pieces is Marilyn, a pair of oversized silver stilettos made entirely from hundreds of stainless steel saucepans.

The work’s title references Marilyn Monroe and is, in the words of the website, “[a commentary] on social conventions [highlighting] the division between women’s traditional domestic and contemporary public roles.”

Another work to be seen in one of the indoor galleries is Red Independent Heart #3, based on the Heart of Viana, a well-known Portuguese emblem symbolising life, love, friendship, honesty and generosity. It stands over three metres high and hangs from the ceiling, slowly rotating. As it turns, expressive and melancholy Portuguese fado songs play in the background, speaking of love, loss and the conflict between emotion and reason.

The piece is made entirely from red plastic cutlery which have been shaped and manipulated until its individual components are barely recognisable.

I’m not sure how I feel about plastic sculptures – there’s way too much plastic in the world already. But let’s give Vasconcelos the benefit of the doubt, and assume the thousands of items making up her Red Independent Heart are recycled cutlery that were otherwise destined for the nearest dump.

Plastic features in another of the works that make up the Beyond exhibition. At four metres high, Tutti Frutti dominates views of the landscape in which it sits. It’s made from plastic moulds of apples, pears, strawberries and croissants – all suspended from a stainless steel frame. Portuguese children apparently use these moulds at the beach to make a local version of sandcastles.

Tutti Frutti is one of those sculptures that can’t fail to raise a smile – who can resist such garishly whimsical frivolity? But beneath it all is a serious message about modern society’s tendency towards overindulgence and superficiality. The artist proclaims that the seductive moulds beguile and captivate unwary onlookers, who fail to spot the hollowness at their heart.

Of course cynics might argue that this is a metaphor for all of Joana Vasconcelos’ work, but I say “to hell with cynics!”

And finally, take a look at I’ll Be Your Mirror. Standing over three metres high and composed of countless elegantly-shaped mirrors, this work presents the classic Venetian mask as we’ve never imagined it before.

Masks have traditionally offered a hiding place, and never more so than in this year of Covid-19. We all wear masks at the supermarket these days, and behind each I see someone just like me, lying low and hiding from the virus. Mirrors, mirrors, everywhere…

Joana Vasconcelos’ work will not be to everyone’s taste. Indeed you may find it crass, pretentious or even banal – this reviewer for one was clearly unimpressed.

I will admit that her sculptures don’t magically reveal the meaning of life. But for god’s sake, they’re fun aren’t they? And don’t we all need a bit of fun in these dark, dark days? For me these monumental pieces are genuinely joyful, they have a “wow factor” and – if you so choose – they can make you think about stuff in a slightly different way.

If this is art, then give me more. Joana Vasconcelos, you are beyond amazing.

Welcome to Yorkshire Sculpture Park

It’s been described as “Britain’s first and finest sculpture park,” an open-air gallery where works by many of the world’s most renowned sculptors are displayed in a magnificent parkland landscape of hills, woodland, lakes and formal gardens. It is a truly inspiring venture, and has without doubt been the highlight of our Covid year. Welcome to Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Travel is one of our passions and we’ve always spent as much time as possible exploring other parts of the UK, and visiting countries on every continent bar Antarctica. However 2020 has been painfully different, courtesy of official travel restrictions and our own innate caution in the face of a cruel and unusual virus. This year we’ve not strayed far from home.

But there’s been one unexpected bonus of the Covid chaos: we’ve had both the time and the incentive to make day-trips to places within reasonable driving distance of Platypus Towers. Yorkshire Sculpture Park has been in our sights for several years, but we’ve never managed to squeeze in a visit. Finally, this year, we got around to it…and what a brilliant place it proved to be.

Bretton Hall dates from 1720

Yorkshire Sculpture Park opened in 1977 on the 500-acre (200 hectares), 18th-century Bretton Hall estate in West Yorkshire. The Palladian mansion at the heart of the estate dates from 1720. In 1948 its owner sold much of the estate to the local council, and a year later the mansion became a training college for teachers of art, music and drama.

Nearly 30 years later, in 1977, one of the lecturers at Bretton Hall College suggested siting sculpture in the estate’s grounds. The proposal was to open-up the Bretton estate landscape to the public for the first time, and provide artists with a canvas upon which to explore the challenges and opportunities inherent in mounting sculpture in a natural, open-air setting.

And thus was born Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The college is no more – the mansion is being converted into a luxury hotel – but the sculpture park goes from strength to strength.

Promenade by Anthony Caro, with Bretton Hall in the background

In addition to some permanent installations, Yorkshire Sculpture Park has a programme of world-class, year-round temporary exhibitions. Many of the pieces are displayed in the open air, while others are spread across six indoor galleries. 

Yorkshire Sculpture Park is an independent charitable trust and a registered museum. The website describes its mission in these terms:

YSP’s driving purpose for 40 years has been to ignite, nurture and sustain interest in and debate around contemporary art and sculpture, especially with those for whom art participation is not habitual or familiar. It enables open access to art, situations and ideas, and continues to re-evaluate and expand the approach to considering art’s role and relevance in society. 

SOURCE: Yorkshire Sculpture Park website, retrieved 11 November 2020

I’m all for widening participation, and our visit quickly showed us that Yorkshire Sculpture Park is working hard to deliver on its ambitions. It is a truly inspiring venture, and has without doubt been the highlight of our Covid year. In my next post we’ll take a look at a stunning temporary exhibition by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos. Meanwhile, here’s some other stuff that caught my eye when we visited in September.

Buddha by Niki de Saint Phalle

Buddha, by Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), is a monumental work standing over three metres high. It dates from around 2000 and is fashioned from a glittering mosaic of coloured tiles, glass, mirrors, and polished stones.

Saint Phalle was born in France, grew up in America and started out as a fashion model. She later studied theatre and acting in Paris, before giving it all up to become an artist. I’m tempted to say that if this is what a self-taught artist can achieve there’s still hope for me, but plainly I’m kidding myself. In my book, this is a decorative masterpiece.

Octopus by Marialuisa Tadei

And talking of mosaic masterpieces, what about Octopus by Italian artist Marialuisa Tadei (born 1962). Dating from 2011 and with a spread (leg-span?) of over five metres, it stands 1.3m high. The glorious beast seems to slither across the parkland, watching the visitors through twinkling, inscrutable eyes. It’s made from coloured, hand-cut glass affixed to a sturdy, stainless steel skeleton. Superb!

However Incongruous by the Raqs Media Collective

The third installation that particularly caught my eye is a rhinoceros rendered in the form of a carousel ride. It’s called However Incongruous, which sums it up nicely, a rhino wearing a yellow saddle apparently grazing contentedly on the lawn of an English country estate.

The Raqs Media Collective based its 2011 work on Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of a rhino. The German painter and printmaker generated his creation from descriptions alone, without ever having seen the animal in the flesh. I wonder what he would have made of the Collective’s three dimensional reinterpretation of his woodcut?

Litter by Leo Fitzmaurice, and litter by a careless visitor!

The final work I want to feature on this whistle-stop tour is Litter by British artist Leo Fitzmaurice (born 1963). Its intentions are noble, to highlight the excessive debris and waste mankind discards on a daily basis. The Park’s website describes it as “a playful interpretation of rubbish bags with their handles tied in such a way that at a glance could be rabbits grazing.”

However what really made me chuckle – and shake my head sadly at the same time – was that amongst the enamelled, cast bronze rubbish bags was a real plastic bag, presumably discarded by a careless visitor. You can see it clearly in the photo above. Don’t they say that life imitates art?

* * *

So there we have it, a brief introduction to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Having finally – some 40 years too late – made its acquaintance, I know we will be frequent visitors in the future. We barely scratched the surface of the collection this time, and are looking forward to finding some more masterpieces scattered throughout the picturesque pastureland, woods and trees, as well as re-visiting a few old friends.

I wonder if there will still be plastic bag lurking amongst the Litter when we next pay Yorkshire Sculpture Park a visit?