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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
Last month was Local and Community History Month here in the UK, which aims to celebrate and increase awareness of local history. And why not? After all, history is all around us if we only know where to look, or, to be more precise, if we can only understand just what it is we are looking at. Take, for example, those small, round, pyramidal-roofed buildings that are dotted here and there around our neighbouring county of Leicestershire. Their former role in community life is fascinating, but far from obvious at first glance. Read on to find out more…
The buildings in question are lock-ups, in effect holding pens where drunks and suspected criminals were held for a day or two until the civil authorities were ready to determine their fate. They would then be taken before a Justice of the Peace (aka J.P. or magistrate), whose job it was to decide what should be done with them.
Some would be fined or sent to prison. The most serious offenders would be sent to face trial before a jury, while those deemed to have suffered sufficient punishment through their incarceration in the lock-up would be released to return, shame-faced and chastened, to their local community.
There must have been thousands of these lock-ups in 19th century Britain. They came in all shapes and sizes. Several hundred still remain, scattered across the length and breadth of the country, including several fine examples in Derbyshire and Leicestershire (for overseas readers unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of English place names and their spellings, that’s pronounced Lester-shire!)
Smisby lock-up looked picturesque when we visited a few weeks ago, a small, round brick-built structure (well, octagonal if we’re being strictly accurate) just a stones-throw from the village church, its tiled, pyramidal roof partly clothed by a climbing plant bearing a mass of handsome blossom. It’s been there since the early 18th century when it was used to lock up drunks and minor lawbreakers while they sobered up, or until they could be taken to court at Derby. It was also used to temporarily confine paupers and vagrants.
Spare a thought, if you will, for the poor souls who spent time there, perhaps guilty only of enjoying rather more ale than was good for them. The space in which they were confined was tiny. It had no windows, light being admitted only through a few holes drilled into the sturdy wooden door – it’s no surprise, therefore, that lock-ups were popularly known as “Blind Houses.”
And let’s not dwell too long on how the men, women and children detained there managed when they had bodily functions to perform! It must have been a wretched, stinking hovel, freezing in winter and like an oven in the height of summer. Quaint and quirky though it looks today, Smisby lock-up was a grim place in which to spend time.
Built to the same basic design, although fashioned out of local stone, Breedon-on-the Hill lock-up was a similarly miserable place of confinement. It was built in about 1793, and remained in use until 1885.
Worthington lock-up also dates from the 18th century. It sports an unexpected slit window, which is believed to have been inserted during World War 2 when the building was earmarked as a potential defensive pillbox for use in the event of a successful invasion by Hitler’s Nazis.
Most of the lock-ups I’ve featured so far are to be found on the border of or in our neighbouring county of Leicestershire. But I wouldn’t wish you to think that Derbyshire folk were all so well-behaved that similar provision wasn’t needed here. Indeed the nearby town of Alfreton boasts an unusually large lock-up, perhaps reflecting the locals’ unusually large appetite for strong ale! It dates from around 1843 and contains multiple cells, evidence that bad boys abounded in Alfreton town in the mid-19th century.
Derbyshire’s Sandiacre lock-up dates from 1660, although it was substantially rebuilt in the 18th century. Above the door is a plaque bearing the words “Erected as a village lock-up and pound for the imprisonment of stray animals about the year 1660 AD”, which I guess tells us all we need to know about how drunkards, rogues and ne’er-do-wells were regarded when buildings like this were in use.
Finally in this round-up of local lock-ups, consider Jaggers Keep in the Derbyshire village of Curbar. This substantial two storey, single room building dates from the 18th century and boasts a conical roof and stone chimney pot. It was apparently used to temporarily detain drunken and miscreant miners who were on their way to Derby jail, and is conclusive proof – if ever it were needed – that folk in my home county knew how to party!
Architects have a frustrating life, don’t they, forever constrained by the briefs and the budgets of their paymasters, always wondering how much more they could achieve if their clients would only interfere a bit less and pay a bit more. But just occasionally, when the stars are in alignment and the gods smile benevolently upon him, an architect is given a free hand to express himself.
Augustus Pugin was one such architect, and when the chains were removed he built his masterpiece, St Giles church in the Staffordshire town of Cheadle. Otherwise known as Pugin’s Gem, St Giles is a Grade I listed Roman Catholic church built in the Gothic Revival style. With a spire standing 61m (200ft) high, it is by some way Cheadle’s tallest building, and is – in my humble opinion anyway – absolutely spectacular.
If you’re not from the UK you almost certainly have never heard of Cheadle. I’m guessing most Brits aren’t familiar with it either. This is a humble West Midlands market town of around 11,000 people. For hundreds of years the main industry in the Cheadle area was coal mining, but the mines have all closed now and the town’s main employer (JCB) makes mechanical diggers and excavators. It’s a remarkably unremarkable little place, and would be instantly forgettable were it not for the efforts of Mr Pugin.
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), the son of a French draughtsman and designer, was a prodigiously talented and prolific architect whose output included the interior designs for the Palace of Westminster, and over one hundred churches and cathedrals. He also managed to find time to pen eight books on architecture and design before dying at the age of just 40, succumbing – it is believed – to the effects of syphilis that he first contracted in his late teens.
Pugin’s patron in the building of St Giles was John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury (1791-1852). In 1829, two years after Talbot succeeded to the title, Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act, better known as the Catholic Emancipation Act, 1829. This important piece of legislation allowed Roman Catholics to become Members of Parliament and to occupy all but a handful of public offices at a stroke, overturning restrictions that had been in place for hundreds of years.
Shrewsbury’s principal residence was at Alton Abbey – which he renamed Alton Towers – just 6 miles (9km) from Cheadle. The Earl took a keen interest in the spiritual welfare of Catholics in the town, and, emboldened by the Catholic Emancipation Act, he engaged Pugin to build a church there. Pugin, himself a Catholic, had previously undertaken an architectural commission for Shrewsbury at Alton Towers, and had impressed the Earl with his contention that Christian (or gothic) art and architecture could be a powerful weapon in the re-conversion of England to the Catholic faith.
It was a marriage seemingly made in heaven. The Earl had the money, Pugin had the creative talent and the pair of them shared a passionate commitment to the Roman Catholic faith. Cheadle’s Catholic population was modest in size, but Pugin’s design was the opposite: extravagant, exuberant and extraordinary.
When St Giles was consecrated in 1846, the service was attended by Bishops, Archbishops and overseas statesmen, as well as the great and the good from the world of architecture and design. Cheadle had never seen anything like it before, and probably never will again.
When we visited St Giles last year, I didn’t know quite what to expect, but insofar as I had expectations, Pugin’s Gem exceeded them one hundred fold. It is a breath-taking creation, all the more so for being located in this small and otherwise insignificant Staffordshire town. To describe it as totally over the top does not adequately describe its impact on the visitor, but you probably get the general idea!
I can’t agree with Pugin that architecture alone is capable of inducing religious conversion: in the 21st century such views are either wishful thinking or a dangerous delusion, depending on your point of view. My own spiritual beliefs were utterly untroubled by his masterpiece, but St Giles church remains clear in my memory, monumental and magnificent, a vivid testament to what can be achieved by an architect unchained.
It’s easy to underestimate the impact canals had on the early part of the Industrial Revolution. Today, if they are not drained of water or choked by vegetation, they’re mostly used for leisure purposes only. It is hard to believe that, 200 years ago, they were central to the industrial miracle that transformed society beyond all recognition.
The Caldon Canal is a mere 18 miles (29km) long, and runs from Froghall in Staffordshire to Etruria in Stoke-on-Trent, where it joins the much larger Trent and Mersey Canal. Completed in 1779 it was built primarily to transport limestone, so it comes as no surprise that abandoned limekilns can still be found along its route.
The kilns at Consall Forge, which stand 10m high and 50m long, are now clothed in vegetation. Back in the day, however, the view would have been very different. Raw limestone, quarried nearby, would be loaded at the top of the limekilns. Furnaces heated the rock and converted it into quicklime, an essential resource in the steelmaking process. The quicklime would then be removed at the bottom of the kiln and loaded onto barges for onward transportation to where it would be used.
The remains of more limekilns can still be seen at Froghall Wharf, and here too the serene surroundings make it difficult to fully appreciate how the place must have bustled with activity in its heyday. Froghall also boasts a handsome 19th century warehouse. This has been tastefully repurposed as a café catering for 21st century visitors who like nothing more than to replenish the calories they’ve burned off during their canal-side strolls with a hot drink and an enormous slab of cake!
One of the undoubted highlights of the Caldon Canal, and perhaps more unexpected, is the Cheddleton Flint Mill Museum. There was a watermill on the site in 1253, and by the 1500s there were two, one to wash woollen cloth in a process known as fulling, and one to mill corn. When the canal was driven past the mills in late 18th century it opened up the possibility of new uses.
The Caldon Canal passes through Etruria, which was – from 1769 – the home of Josiah Wedgwood’s ground-breaking pottery business. One of his highly successful products was “creamware”, which used ground, calcined flint to help achieve its distinctive light-coloured appearance. The mills at Cheddleton were converted to grind the flint Wedgwood needed, and the canal enabled its easy transportation to the potter’s Etruria factory.
Now owned and run by the Cheddleton Flint Mill Preservation Trust, the site offers fascinating insights into a flint milling process that I was completely unaware of before our visit. It also preserves the miller’s cottage, which dates from the 1800s, shining light on a lifestyle so very different from our own.
The cottage is dressed as a piece of living history. Recently washed laundry (sparkling white!) hangs drying in front of the range, which serves both as the cottage’s source of heat and a stove for cooking meals. Along the walls two dressers display cherished pieces of tableware, and the table in the middle of the room is laid ready for tea. The exhibit is totally convincing, and it’s easy to believe that the miller and his wife have just popped put for a few minutes, and will soon be back to carry on with their lives.
Cheddleton Flint Mill is just one of many fascinating points of interest along the 18 miles of the Caldon Canal which, although clearly short on length, is undoubtedly big on history. A visit (or two, or maybe even three) can be strongly recommended if you’re ever in the area!
Back in the early 19th century around 10,000 windmills graced this green and pleasant land. These days they’re pretty thin on the ground, but luckily my home county of Derbyshire boasts one fine example: Heage Windmill. Just a couple of miles up the road from Platypus Towers, it is a sturdy, reassuring presence in the local landscape, popular with locals and tourists alike.
Sadly, however, looks can be deceiving, and not for the first time the mill is currently in danger. Major repairs are urgently needed, so it’s all hands on deck to raise the money needed to get it fixed.
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The village of Heage (pronounced heej) lies 13 miles (21km) north of Derby. The name is a corruption of ‘High Edge’ and comes from the Anglo-Saxon Heegge meaning high, lofty and sublime. It’s therefore an ideal spot to locate a windmill, a fact that did not go unnoticed by an enterprising businessman in the late 18th century.
Reports in the Derby Mercury imply that construction of Heage Windmill began in 1791, and was completed by 1797. It had four sails, and as such differed little from a host of other windmills scattered throughout Derbyshire at the time. The local population was expanding rapidly in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and with it the demand for flour. In the circumstances it seemed certain that the new mill would enjoy a long and busy working life.
But any structure that is deliberately located to catch the wind is inevitably vulnerable to being wrecked by it, so it should come as no surprise that in February 1894 the cap and four sails were blown off in a violent storm. Repairs were soon underway and Heage Windmill was reborn with its now familiar six sails, which would have provided more power to the millstones than the standard four sail configuration.
The repairs were doubtless well made, but the wind kept on blowing and in 1919 Heage Windmill was once again severely damaged by a howling gale. This time there were no repairs: the country was in a financial mess as it sought to recover from the horrors of World War 1, and wind power was in any case regarded as outdated technology.
The mill languished, unloved and unlovely, for some 15 years before being sold for £25 (USD 33). However, its milling days seemed to be over for good: the tower was used only for storage and fell into ever greater disrepair, a situation made even worse in 1961 when it was struck by lightning.
Heage Windmill’s fortunes began to change in 1966, when a legally-binding Building Preservation Order was placed on it. Two years later Derbyshire County Council stepped in to buy it for the princely sum of £350 (USD 456). Although this meant the mill was now in public ownership, finding the money to restore it to working order was – inevitably, I suppose – beyond the Council’s capabilities. The sails would only turn again a generation later, when the local community and a motley band of mill enthusiasts took up the challenge.
In 1996, with the Council’s support, the mill’s supporters formed a charitable trust with the aim of getting it going. Hope at last! But just a year later, as Heage Windmill Society was finalising its plans, lightning struck the tower once more. The mill’s supporters were devastated, their dreams seemingly in tatters.
Luckily this time the damage done by the lightning strike was not serious, and work to restore the mill soon recommenced. It was an expensive project, but the Society rose heroically to the challenge, raising nearly £450,000 (USD 588,000) from various sources. Their efforts, together with the hard work of countless volunteers, prevailed and Heage Windmill finally opened to the public on 1 June, 2002.
Job well done, you might think. And it was, but of course nothing lasts forever. In 2015/16 severe rot set in, and a major fund-raising effort was needed to sort it. The money poured in and Heage Windmill was saved again. I guess the Society thought it could finally relax, but it was not to be. Earlier this year further structural defects were identified, and they need rectifying urgently. It feels like we’ve been here before!
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Heage Windmill officially opened for the 2022 season just a few days ago, and there was a good turn out to see local television personality and celebrity auctioneer Charles Hanson cut the ribbon. But although the weather was uncharacteristically balmy and a fine time was had by all, everyone “in the know” probably had just one thing on their mind: how do we, once again, raise a vast sum of money to save our precious windmill?
It sounds daunting, but this is no time to be downhearted. Like Lazarus, Heage Windmill has a track record of rising from the grave. It’s an iconic landmark hereabouts, and as the only working six-sailed stone tower windmill in England it is also a building of national significance. Losing it is unthinkable. This iconic mill has survived countless misfortunes in its 225 years of existence, and given the scale of support that was evident at the official opening I’m confident it will be saved again.
Mrs P’s father has set himself the challenge of photographing every Anglican church in our home county of Derbyshire. It’s a big ask – there are several hundred places of worship that meet his criteria – so we’re helping out when we can by snapping churches we come across during our travels.
Derbyshire churches come in all shapes and sizes, the good, the bad and the ugly. But the exterior view of any church is always improved by an interesting churchyard. When we drove up to the church of St Peter and St Paul, Old Brampton in the north of the county a few weeks ago the daffodils were in full bloom. The earliest parts of the church date from the 12th century, although the current vista owes much to a major restoration carried out in 1868. With the churchyard paths lined with daffs, it looked full of character.
Some of Derbyshire’s churches might be described as being located “in the middle of nowhere”. All Saints church, Ballidon, for example, sits in a field several hundred metres from the tiny village whose name it bears, a village way too small to support a church of its size. Once the rural population here must have been much larger. Records of the church date back to the year 1205, when it was described as a chapel-of-ease (in other words, an outlier) of a church at Bradbourne, some four kilometres (2.5 miles) distant from Ballidon. The church is much altered from its 13th century form, having been restored in 1822 and again in 1882.
Today, although still consecrated, Ballidon church is no longer used on a regular basis. It is owned and managed by the charitable organisation Friends of Friendless Churches. The churchyard is a little overgrown, but the church itself appears in good condition, and is a dignified presence within the wider agricultural landscape.
Another place of worship to have been substantially remodelled in the latter half of the 19th century is Holy Trinity church, Ashford in the Water, which has its origins back in the 12th century. Ashford is a famously pretty, “chocolate box village” in the heart of an area of Derbyshire known as the White Peak, and is visited by many thousands of tourists every year. Although the Grade II Listed church is not the major attraction, the building and its ample churchyard definitely add to the village’s visual appeal.
Derbyshire’s most famous village, however, is Eyam, which is known the world over for the sacrifices its residents made to protect surrounding areas from the Great Plague of 1665/66. I summarised the main events of that tumultuous period in this post, written when our very own Covid pandemic was in its infancy.
When plague erupted within the village the local clergyman, William Mompesson, was instrumental in convincing his flock that they should isolate themselves from the outside world and confine the disease within its boundaries. To further suppress the spread of the infection Mompesson also abandoned religious services within the church, holding them instead in the open air.
Today the church of St Lawrence, Eyam is a bit of an architectural jumble, boasting a Saxon font, Norman pillars, a nave built around 1350, a 17th century tower and sundry additions and changes made during the 19th century. But it’s not unattractive – quite pretty, in fact – and the churchyard setting oozes tranquillity. It’s therefore difficult to imagine the fear and despair that must have gripped the congregation when the plague was at its height.
However, look closely in the churchyard and the clues are all around, in a series of “plague graves” dating from the terrible 17th century epidemic, when death stalked an otherwise green and pleasant land. Amongst the graves dating from this era is that of Catherine Mompesson. Neither her husband’s devotion to God nor his instinctive understanding of epidemiology were enough to save her, and she sadly succumbed to the plague in August 1666.
Another churchyard boasting a monument that tourists flock to see can be found in the north of Derbyshire. The church of St Michael and All Angels, Hathersage dates principally from the 14th and 15th centuries, and like so many Derbyshire churches was substantially restored in the mid-19th century.
St Michael and All Angels is not without architectural merit, which is reflected in its Grade I listing. However its main claim to fame is to be found in the churchyard, in the form of the alleged grave of Robin Hood’s ironically named sidekick Little John.
The evidence is somewhat scanty: in 1780 one James Shuttleworth claimed to have unearthed in the graveyard a thigh bone measuring 72.39 centimetres (28.50 inches). This would have made its former owner nearly 2.5 metres (8 feet) tall, and as Hathersage lies fairly close to Sherwood Forest – the fabled hangout of Hood and his merry men – Shuttleworth concluded the giant outlaw’s mortal remains were buried here.
As theories go it sounds to me like utter rubbish – or, as the brilliant writer Douglas Adams would have put it, a load of dingo’s kidneys – but why let the truth get in the way of a good story? And anyway, the grave is planted with lots of colourful flowers and does a good job of brightening up the churchyard, so maybe just this once we can all forgive a little bit of fake news!
Although views of the churches I’ve so far featured in this post are generally enhanced by the churchyards in which they sit, the buildings themselves have significant merit in their own right. The same cannot be said of St James the Apostle, Temple Normanton. However glorious its setting (and let’s be blunt, that’s nothing special either) the church building at Temple Normanton will always be an architectural eyesore.
It wasn’t always so. The current building is the fourth church on this site. The first originated in the 12th century, but was rebuilt in 1623. However this replacement was undermined by subsidence due to coal mining and was in turn replaced by a wooden church in 1922. Sadly, this incarnation was wrecked by severe winds in the 1980s, and this time – out of desperation, or maybe penury – Anglican decision makers opted in 1986 to erect a cheap and cheerless utilitarian fibre-glass monstrosity.
I can safely say I’ve never see another church like the one at Temple Normanton, and I rather hope I never do so again. Having said that, Mrs P likes it and spluttered indignantly when she proof-read the draft of this post, demonstrating once again that beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder!
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And finally, while we’re on the subject of country churchyards, I invite you to listen to Chris de Burgh singing about that very subject. Chris de Burgh (b 1948) is a British-Irish singer-songwriter who found fame internationally with his 1986 #1 chart hit Lady in Red. However Mrs P and I have seen him perform live several times and know him to be a good deal more talented than might be suggested by that one song, which was much beloved by the late Princess Diana and the Duchess of York and much-derided by popular music critics of the day. In a Country Churchyard is a gentle, thoughtful love song that shows de Burgh’s talents as a lyricist at their best. Listen and enjoy!
Let your love shine on,
For we are the stars in the sky,
Let your love shine strong,
Until the day you fly...fly away ...
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
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!
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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!
What is it about steam locomotives that so captures the imaginations of young and old alike, both here in the UK and across the globe? Like Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Velociraptor they seem like monsters from another age, ill-suited to the modern world, and yet they hold their legions of fans enthralled.
Everyone loves a steam train, and Mrs P and I are no exception. We’ve experienced the romance of steam on several heritage railways (that’s railroads to you guys in North America!), but last year we decided to explore steam locomotives from a different angle when we took a trip to Barrow Hill Roundhouse in the north of our home county of Derbyshire.
Railway roundhouses were constructed to house and service steam locomotives. At the heart of most roundhouses was a turntable, where locomotives and other rolling stock could be turned around for the return journey. Radiating out from this central turntable – and thereby dictating the circular shape of roundhouses – were spokes of track where the locomotives could be serviced and stored.
Once roundhouses, and the turntables associated with them, were familiar sights up and down the UK’s rail network. But when, in the middle of the last century, steam locomotives were replaced with diesel and electric alternatives that could run equally well in either direction without the need to be physically turned around, turntables became surplus to requirements and most roundhouses were razed to the ground.
Barrow Hill Roundhouse was completed in 1870 and finally ceased operation in 1991. It quickly fell victim to vandalism and neglect, at which point a group of amateur train enthusiasts, the Barrow Hill Engine Shed Society, stepped in with a proposal to save it from demolition. Their vision won the backing of influential backers and charitable funders, and today Barrow Hill is said to be the last surviving railway roundhouse in the United Kingdom with an operational turntable. You can see the turntable in action, and soak up some of the atmosphere at the Barrow Hill Roundhouse, by clicking on the link below to my short YouTube video.
Visitors can see the turntable in action every day while also getting up close and personal with numerous steam and diesel locomotives, as well as a variety of other memorabilia in Barrow Hill’s impressive railway museum. The locomotives have been polished until they gleam, and standing next to them it’s easy to appreciate what magnificent, monstrous beasts they were.
Their time has passed and will never return – climate change and the need to control carbon emissions makes this a certainty – but they and their predecessors were at the heart of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Steam locomotives boosted the economy by enabling easy cross-country transportation of goods and materials, and changed society beyond recognition when they made swift, affordable long distance travel available to the masses. The display at Barrow Hill offers a pleasurable opportunity to wallow in nostalgia for few hours, and is recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the romance of steam.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
Have you ever heard of prodigy houses? No? Me neither until very recently, but although the terminology was foreign to me the buildings themselves are achingly familiar. I’ve trudged around numerous examples over the years, my eyes goggling at the ostentatious excesses to which previous generations of the idle rich would resort in order to show off to their peers. None, I would suggest, is more ostentatious than Burghley House.
Prodigy houses were large, extravagant country houses commissioned by the English aristocracy and noveau riche, particularly between about 1570 and 1620. They were the projects of families that had thrived under the Tudor dynasty, and were built with the intention of impressing visiting monarchs.
And yes, if you were a prominent, rich English subject your king or queen might well come a-calling. At this time in our history the sovereign, sundry family members and a large entourage of flunkies and hangers-on were in the habit of touring the realm every year on journeys known as summer progresses.
During these elaborate processional trips through the English shires Elizabeth I, and her Stuart successor James I, demanded to stay in the homes of their most wealthy, high status subjects. They expected to be entertained in the lavish style to which they were accustomed, and to avoid the risk of social humiliation – or perhaps much worse – their hosts invested in elaborate prodigy houses that simply oozed with the wow factor.
And nowhere did the wow factor ooze more copiously than at Burghley House, situated on the northern tip of Cambridgeshire close to the boundaries of Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. It was built and mostly designed by William Cecil(later Baron Burghley, 1520 – 1598), who looked after the royal finances for many years as Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.
The main part of the House has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors. In addition there are more than 80 lesser rooms, as well as numerous halls, corridors, bathrooms and service areas. William Cecil may have been dimly aware of the concepts of modesty and frugality, but plainly wanted nothing to do with them.
The exterior of Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys. Its intention is clear, to communicate a blunt message to anyone approaching the vast mansion: here lives a family that has more wealth, power and influence than you can possibly imagine!
Burghley’s interior, much of it remodelled during the late 17th century, is every bit as grand as the exterior promises. The Great Hall, for example, lives up to its name, while the rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the house’s owners and royal guests.
But it’s the painted ceilings and full height murals, many of them depicting scenes from Roman mythology, that really take the breath away. The Bow Room, for example, the work of the French painter Louis Laguerre (1663 – 1721) in 1697, is stunning. But can you imagine eating your dinner beneath that gaudy ceiling and surrounded by those huge, lurid murals? Plainly the 5th Earl of Exeter, a descendant of William Cecil could: it was his State Dining Room!
Meanwhile, another of the impressive state rooms, known as the Heaven Room, is reckoned to be the greatest masterpiece of the Italian artist Antonio Verrio (c1636 – 1707). It depicts a classical view of heavenly life, one in which countless fit, scantily clad gods and goddesses spend their days lounging around having a thoroughly good time.
Verrio was also responsible for the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, but its subject matter is altogether more sombre. Here we see the tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat. Definitely the stuff of nightmares.
I really don’t know what to make of Burghley House, but maybe – just like Verrio’s ceilings – it is a vision of both of heaven and hell. On one level the building and its contents are undoubtedly magnificent, and although much of it isn’t to my taste I can appreciate the quality of the artwork.
But on the other hand, isn’t it all a bit over the top, just too excessive to take seriously? Restraint, subtlety and simplicity are in painfully short supply, and may indeed be altogether extinct at Burghley. Less is sometimes more, and if there’d been a bit less of it I would probably have appreciated it even more.
However there’s more to Burghley than just the house, thanks to an inspiring sculpture garden in the surrounding parkland. The contrast between the overblown baroque excesses of the house and the pared-back, thought-provoking and sometimes witty and whimsical sculptures is stark. Taken as a whole, the combination of house and sculpture garden is enticing, and make Burghley well worth a visit.
In my next post I’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of Burghley’s sculpture garden. Meanwhile, here’s a taster to whet your appetite: