Chilling out with Nature

We’ve booked to go out for lunch, and with a couple of hours to kill before our appointed time, we decide to treat ourselves to a spot of birdwatching. Straw’s Bridge Nature Reserve was once home to a sewage works and an opencast mine. It doesn’t sound promising, but in recent decades the local council has done a good job of restoring it as a wildlife habitat and local amenity. The locals call it Swan Lake, but the Reserve has plenty more besides the eponymous Mute Swan to tempt nature lovers.

On arrival we’re surprised to see that the Straw’s Bridge lakes are frozen in places. Instead of swimming elegantly across wide expanses of open water, the Mute Swans are reduced to an ungainly waddle and appear in mortal danger of ending up flat on their beaks at any moment. Meanwhile, Black-headed Gulls huddle together miserably on the ice, as if bemused by the sudden meteorological change that has turned their familiar surroundings into an unwelcome skating rink.

As we set off to walk a series of trails around the lakes we spy a robin sitting atop a rubbish bin. Like many of his species, our red-breasted friend seems unperturbed by proximity to humans, even as Mrs P creeps ever-closer in pursuit of the perfect, full-frame photo. She snaps away merrily, the robin sings lustily and I take a bit of video footage. Contentment reigns supreme!

A bit further on we watch an unexpected face-off between a Grey Heron and a mob of Mute Swans. The heron has staked its claim to a section of ice, and although they have a whole lake to choose from the swans evidently decide that the ideal place for a family gathering is the precise spot on which it’s standing. They close in on the heron, which eyes them warily. I train my video camera on them all, expecting to see feathers fly. But the heron clearly thinks better of it, and goes slip-sliding away from the mob in search of a swan-free life. Good luck with that at Swan Lake, my friend.

We continue our stroll around the lakes, revelling in the golden colours of the winter reedbeds. Despite the glorious sun beaming down at us from a clear blue sky, it’s a bitterly cold morning. But we’ve come prepared, wearing so many layers of thermal clothing that we feel comfortably toasty. In the leaf litter beneath a small stand of trees, a solitary redwing – a refugee from Scandinavia, where winters are much colder than our own – searches energetically for anything edible. Meanwhile, in the far distance we spot a flotilla of mallards and coots circling in a patch of open water, while a buzzard scans the landscape hopefully from its vantage point at the top of a nearby tree.

And finally, we happen upon the star of this morning’s birding expedition. It’s another Grey Heron, this one sitting amongst the dead vegetation at the edge of an ice-free section of the lake. The bird is indifferent to our presence as we creep ever closer, and looks majestic in the soft midwinter light.

Thoughts inevitably turn to my Mum. After Dad died in the mid-1990s, we started taking her out on birdwatching excursions with us. She got to love it, and the bird she loved most of all was the heron. The tall, long-legged, long-billed wader fascinated and enthralled her, and was her highlight of any outing to a wetland habitat. Such happy memories!

Far too soon, it is time to head back to the car and drive a couple of miles down the road to where we will be taking lunch. There’s one final surprise in store – in the lakeside car park we see a Pied Wagtail cavorting across a car bonnet, presumably in search of its own lunch of splattered insects.

It’s been an uplifting morning. As reserves go, Straw’s Bridge is hardly spectacular, its list of regularly occurring species totally unremarkable, and yet this is a truly wonderful place to chill out with Nature. We’ll be back again very soon, although next time I hope we can manage without the thermal underwear!

Scouting for squirrels

Last Saturday, 21st January, was Squirrel Appreciation Day. Who knew? Not me, that’s for sure, until it was mentioned in passing on Winterwatch, the BBC’s seasonal wildlife programme. I think the presenter referred to it as Red Squirrel Appreciation Day, because – and let’s be brutally honest about this – nobody here gives much thought to grey squirrels. Reds, however, are an iconic species in the UK, universally loved and widely regarded as a national treasure.

Grey squirrels are everywhere, impossible to miss and, for some, difficult to love. Red squirrels, however, are altogether more elusive. Brownsea Island, located in Poole Harbour on the south coast, is one of the few places in England where a sighting of red squirrels is pretty much guaranteed. Also guaranteed, if you visit at the right time, is a sighting of Boy Scouts, a reflection of the island’s special place in the history of the scouting movement.

Background

The origins of Squirrel Appreciation Day lie in the USA. In 2001, wildlife rehabilitation specialist Christy Hargrove founded National Squirrel Appreciation Day in Asheville, North Carolina. Her aim was to encourage positive attitudes towards, and practical support for, her local squirrels. It’s perhaps ironic, therefore, that it is American squirrels that are responsible for the collapse of our own native red squirrel population.

It’s difficult to believe that here in the UK grey squirrels were once regarded as an exotic species. Some wealthy landowners thought it would be a great idea to brighten up their estates with wildlife superstars from across the Atlantic, and grey squirrels seemed like the ideal candidates. Adaptable, resourceful and tougher than the native reds, the greys soon began to out-compete them. Worse still, the greys were carriers of a disease – squirrel pox – which did them no harm, but was lethal to the reds.

The first recorded release of grey squirrels in the UK was in 1876, at Henbury Park in Cheshire. They thrived, as did other greys that were released elsewhere. Before long, the red squirrel population was in steep decline as greys spread rapidly across the country. Today, Brownsea Island, which is protected from a grey invasion by the waters of Poole Harbour, is one of only a couple of places in southern England where red squirrels still run wild.

Brownsea Island

Brownsea Island is tiny, just 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long and 0.75 miles (1.2 km) wide. It consists of around 500 acres (200 ha) of woodland and heathland, and a brackish lagoon. The island is owned by the National Trust, and much of it is actively managed for the benefit of nature. As well as squirrels, the island is home to a wide variety of bird species, including dunlin, kingfishers, common and sandwich terns and oystercatchers. A major conservation project is currently underway to improve habitats for wildlife, focussed on woodland management, heathland restoration and the removal of invasive plant species.

The island is also notable for having played an important part in the development of the International Scouting Movement. In August 1907 Robert Baden-Powell, its founder, held a week-long camp there to test out his ideas. The experiment was deemed a success, and the following year he published his seminal book Scouting for Boys, thereby kick-starting a ground-breaking organisation which thrives to this day.

Boy Scouts and Girl Guides continue to camp on the island, but none were evident when we took a trip out to Brownsea a few years ago. But that didn’t bother us, as the purpose of our visit was to go scouting for squirrels. We were not disappointed. The red squirrels for which Brownsea is justly famous were present in large numbers, and not at all camera-shy…I guess the feeders, well-stocked with tasty and nutritious nuts, probably had a lot to to with that. Mrs P snapped 335 pics of squirrels that day, some of which are featured in this post. Oh, the joys of digital photography!

Over the years we’ve been lucky to watch red squirrels in several parts of the UK where they are still gamely hanging on, but nowhere have we ever had such wonderful views as those we enjoyed that day on Brownsea Island. I think it’s probably time for a return visit!

Art and Nature in harmony: the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden

The Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden is a very special, magical place where art and nature exist in perfect harmony. Hidden away in the leafy Surrey countryside, the garden was the brainchild of Dutch journalist-turned-art-curator Hannah Peschar and her New Zealander husband, the landscape artist Anthony Paul. They acquired the property in 1977, and spent over half of their adult lives turning it into a place to enjoy – and maybe even to purchase – some wonderful sculpture.

Fragment, by Jill Sutton

At the heart of the site stands a 15th century cottage, set in 10 acres (4 hectares) of gardens. These were first landscaped in the 1920s, but had been left unmanaged for around 30 years and were therefore vastly overgrown when the couple moved in. Anthony spent the next five years restoring order to the chaos they had purchased. Hannah, meanwhile, was contemplating how the reclaimed and newly landscaped garden could be put to good use. Her “big idea” was a public sculpture garden, a courageous vision at a time when such ventures were all but unknown in the UK.

The 15th century, Grade II listed cottage where Hannah and Anthony lived from 1977

The Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden opened to the public in 1986. Every year around 200 pieces are on display, the work of more than 40 artists from the UK and Europe. The sculptures come in various shapes, sizes and styles, and make use of a range of materials including bronze, stone, wood, wire, glass and ceramics. Most are available to purchase, but only by those with gardens and bank balances that are big enough!

What makes this place particularly appealing is the placement of the pieces. Unlike some similar enterprises, there is no sense here that the curators have crammed in more sculptures than the garden can tastefully absorb. The positioning of each amongst the verdant foliage has clearly been planned with great care, and all are given sufficient space to sit comfortably within their surroundings. Every sculpture has the opportunity to shine, and no doubt this helps with the sales figures, which – let’s face it – is the name of the game.

I would be lying if I claimed to like everything I saw when we visited last October, but overall the collection was a pleasure to view. And to do so in the tranquil surroundings of a beautifully landscaped garden was an absolute delight. Nature and art are in perfect harmony here, each enhanced by its juxtaposition to the other.

Standing Mare, by Stuart Anderson

Sadly, Hannah Peschar passed away in 2021, but Anthony Paul continues to live in the Grade II Listed cottage he and his wife bought nearly half a century ago. The garden that encloses it is a fitting tribute to their enormous vision and creativity, and is well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area. You’re certain to see something you really like, but do check the prices carefully before reaching for your credit card!

Clockwise from top left: Scylla, by Giles Rayner; Pinnate Leaf, by Peter Clarke; Keeper of the Light, by Jeremy Moulsdale; Interred in Aluminium by Joseph Hillier; Flight of Fancy, by Jilly Sutton, 2022; If, by Guy Stevens; Big Red Flower by Neil Wilkin.

Beautiful, extraordinary and utterly magical – Watts Cemetery Chapel

I must confess that I’d never heard of the Watts Cemetery Chapel before our visit there a few months ago. The little building doesn’t appear to be well known, either locally or nationally. Maybe that’s because it’s hidden away in deepest, darkest Surrey, on the outskirts of a little village, languishing on a road to nowhere. Or maybe because it was designed by a woman, and has therefore – until quite recently – been under-appreciated by the male-dominated architectural establishment?

The designer in question is Mary Watts (1849-1938). She was the wife of George Frederic Watts (G F Watts, 1817-1904), one of the most accomplished painters and sculptors of Victorian Britain. Mary was herself a hugely talented artist, and when their village decided to create a cemetery to increase the capacity of the local graveyard she saw an opportunity to push herself further than she’d ever been pushed before. She offered to build for the village a mortuary chapel, which is a consecrated space in which bodies of the dead can lie briefly before burial or cremation. Mary’s loving husband, 33 years her senior and significantly wealthy thanks to his successful career as an artist, provided financial backing for the project.

The Chapel was built between 1895 and 1904, with a floorplan that is best described as a circle intersected by a cross. Mary’s work oozes with mystical symbolism, and the floorplan is just one example. She described it as “the Circle of Eternity, with the Cross of Faith running through it.”

From the outside, the Chapel looks like a Byzantine or Orthodox Church that has been lifted intact from its place of origin and incongruously deposited two thousands miles away in the leafy Surrey hills. It is built from small bricks made from a local red clay, and the exterior is decorated with a variety of intricate terracotta panels. These boast a complex array of symbols derived from Celtic, Romanesque, Jewish and Egyptian traditions.

Magnificent though it is, the external appearance of the building gives no clue to the wonders that lie within. The walls and vaulted ceiling are totally covered with rich, vibrant decoration. The senses are assaulted by the range of colours, by the glitter of gold and silver, and by a magical, metallic lustre. Angels stand in a circle around the walls, and in the centre of each group of them rises a Tree of Life, its roots entwined below like the arms of a crazed octopus. Above each group, a Seraph (a form of high-status angel) clad in “the crimson colour of love and life” raises its hands in a sign of blessing.

Taken as a whole, externally and internally, the Watts Cemetery Chapel is truly mind-blowing, so it is no surprise that the noted writer and broadcaster on architectural matter, Lucinda Lambton, wrote this about it:

It is no exaggeration to say that the Watts Cemetery Chapel is one of the most beautiful, one of the most extraordinary, original, marvellous and magical buildings in the whole of the British Isles!’

Lucinda Lambton

Interestingly, the decoration of the Chapel was a community endeavour. Mary encouraged local people to explore their own creative potential by getting them involved in making some of the external terracotta panels and internal decorative features. The faces that decorate parts of the vaulted ceiling are cherubim and are representations of local children who helped with the project.

Work on the project was completed in 1904, the same year that Mary’s husband G F Watts died. Appropriately, the casket containing his ashes was displayed in the Chapel, before later being buried in the cemetery. The Chapel, and the adjoining cemetery, continue to be used to this day. It is good to know that this wonderful, Grade I Listed building is not simply a tourist attraction, but continues to be used for its originally intended purposes. Long may it continue.

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Postscript: To learn a little more about the Chapel please view this brief video produced by the Watts Gallery Artists Village.

What energy crisis? Dinosaurs light up Yorkshire Wildlife Park

While Brits will know it only too well, overseas readers may be unaware that – due to the knock-on effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the UK is in the middle of an energy crisis. Prices have gone through the roof, and we are warned that energy rationing, through a rolling programme of power cuts, is a real possibility if there is a prolonged cold snap later this winter.

Everyone is being urged to be energy aware, and to cut down on power consumption if at all possible. But you’d never know that there was any problem at all, if you were basing your opinion on the Festival of Lights and Lanterns at Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP).

As I’ve written before, I have some reservations about keeping wild creatures in captivity (don’t we all?), but YWP seems OK. The animals are plainly well cared for, with plenty of space to roam. Importantly, the Park supports a number of conservation initiatives to breed highly endangered species in captivity, and seeks to educate visitors about their plight. But conservation costs money, so managers are happy to embrace initiatives that will attract paying members of the public through the gates. And what better way, at this festive time of year, than to flood the place with countless coloured lights?

We went to last year’s Festival of Lights and Lanterns, and had a great evening. It’s not the most obvious way to celebrate Christmas, but it worked for me and countless others too. Giant, glowing coloured lanterns were distributed throughout the Park, representing some of the critters living there, including polar bears, tigers, giraffes and okapi, and a few others that just wouldn’t feel quite at home, such as whales! There were even a few dinosaurs, poignant reminders of the world we have lost.

The regular critters – tigers, giraffes and the like – were back in force for this winter’s Festival. It was good to see these old friends, and also pleasing to note that last year’s favourites had been recycled and not simply trashed. But the big change, for the 2022/23 season, was in the population of dinosaurs, which seems to have exploded over the last few months!

And don’t the visitors love them, T-Rex and Triceratops, and all their brutish buddies? Children looked on in awe, and adults lapped it up too, a welcome opportunity to escape – if only for an hour or two – the stresses and strains of life in the UK at the end of 2022. Just for a short while it was possible to forget the energy crisis, and bathe irresponsibly in the light of a thousand colourful lanterns. But spare a thought, if you will, for YWP’s Director of Finance…he may be in for a few sleepless night when the Park’s next electricity bill arrives!

Kedleston Hall – a masterpiece that lasts all year

Kedleston Hall is yet another of our local stately homes that gets dressed up for Christmas, so one morning a couple of weeks ago we decided to check out its latest festive makeover. Poor Kedleston, Derbyshire’s forgotten treasure, is forever in the shadow of the local legend that is Chatsworth House. However, in my view anyway, the place is a seriously under-appreciated masterpiece that’s worth visiting at any time of the year, not just at Christmas.

Chatsworth, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, has a national profile and is beloved by locals and tourists alike. And very fine it is too, if bling is your thing. I like Chatsworth well enough, of course, but if given the choice I’d prefer to potter around Kedleston any day.

The Marble Hall

Kedleston Hall is an 18th century Palladian and Neoclassical wonder. To build it, local bigwig landowner Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale (1726-1804) flattened an entire village of the same name, thus ensuring that he wouldn’t have to endure unwanted encounters with the local peasantry while wandering his estate.

The Drawing Room

Behaviour like this was typical of men of his ilk at the time, and from a 21st century perspective is totally inexcusable. The only mitigation one might offer is that Curzon built a damned fine house on the land he so rapaciously reclaimed from his tenants, though I doubt that this was much of a comfort at the time to the poor people he made homeless.

The Library

Although the Curzon family still lives in part of the Hall, the property and surrounding parkland is now owned on behalf of the nation by the National Trust. Here’s what the Trust’s website has to say about Kedleston:

“Kedleston Hall is an extravagant temple to the arts designed by the architect Robert Adam…The house is framed by historic parkland and boasts opulent interiors intended to impress. Designed for lavish entertaining, Kedleston Hall displays an extensive collection of paintings, sculpture and original furnishings, reflecting both the tastes of its creators and their fascination with the classical world of the Roman Empire.”

Source: National Trust website, retrieved 13 December 2022

Neo-classicism may not be to everyone’s taste, but it works for me, The elegance and sheer beauty of Robert Adam’s work is breath-taking, and while I was looking forward to a bit of Christmas cheer at Kedleston I was concerned that it might detract from the majesty of the Hall’s state rooms. But I need not have worried: the Christmas decorations were tastefully restrained, and the Adam’s interiors remained the stars of the show.

The Saloon

Entrance to the mansion is via the grand Marble Hall. With walls boasting multiple niches that display statues in the classical Roman style, and lined by 20 soaring, fluted alabaster columns topped with elaborate Corinthian capitals, the Marble Hall is clearly a statement piece. It is designed to overawe visitors, to advise them that they have entered the home of someone richer, more cultured, and more powerful than they can ever hope to be. Know your place! it proclaims.

The Music Room

Equally impressive is the Saloon, a circular room rising 62 feet (19m) to a grand glass skylight. It was designed as a sculpture gallery, the style being based on the temples of a Roman Forum. The modest Christmas tree at its centre did little to distract our attention the sheer elegance of the room’s design.

Clockwise from Top left: The Library. Top right: Ante Room / Dressing Room. Bottom Right: The Saloon. Bottom Left: View through Ante Room / Dressing Room to the Christmas tree in the Saloon. Middle (bottom): The Dining Room. Middle (top): The Family Room

The other state rooms, including the Library, Drawing Room and the Dining Room, are equally impressive. And that’s the point. This place was built to impress, and it does just that. More than Chatsworth House, and more than just about every other stately home I’ve ever visited, it positively exudes the wow factor. I love Kedleston Hall just as much as I’m sure I would have disliked Nathaniel Curzon, the guy who commissioned this spectacular mansion…anyone with an ego that big must have been seriously bad news!

In the Deep Midwinter: Christmas at Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, is one of England’s foremost stately homes. It’s run as a business, depending for its survival largely on the income it generates by welcoming paying members of the public to explore the stunning house and massive ornamental gardens. As with so many visitor attractions, the Christmas season is vitally important for the health of the enterprise. This is even more true in 2022, as Chatsworth seeks to recover from the damage inflicted upon the business by Covid.

Chatsworth’s famous Cascade, which dates from around 1708, flanked here by rows of eerily lit trees

And when we visited a couple of weeks ago visitors were out in force to experience this year’s Christmas extravaganza. Here’s what the website told us to expect:

Deep Midwinter: A Nordic Christmas at Chatsworth brings to life the Christmas folklore and traditions of the Arctic and Nordic regions through a series of themed roomscapes. Sculpted ‘ice’ walls, tranquil pine forests, lanterns, traditional Nordic Christmas decorations and foliage foraged from woodlands and hedgerows across the estate evoke the sights, sounds and scents of the natural world at wintertime…

Our Nordic theme continues into the garden with an enchanting Christmas light trail. Experience our ‘northern lights’ over the Canal Pond, let colour guide you along Broad Walk into a glade of glowing lights and, for the first time, see the Maze illuminated and filled with festive music.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But sadly, it didn’t live up to expectations. In 2019, the last time we visited Chatsworth at Christmas, we were blown away by decorations on the theme of “a land far, far away.” This year, however, we were distinctly underwhelmed: the Nordic associations pretty much passed us by, and the decorations lacked impact. Worse still, we paid nearly £30 (USD 37) per head for the privilege.

Some grand stately homes in other parts of the country charge quite a bit more for their Christmas celebration – Blenheim Palace, for example – but, if recent television coverage is to be believed, they offer a lot more too. Clearly, £30 per head isn’t a fortune, but that’s not the point. The question is, does it represent value for money, particularly as we are currently in the midst of a nationwide “cost of living crisis”? I don’t think so.

One of the more attractive features of the “enchanting lights trail” in the garden.

Don’t get me wrong, our visit wasn’t a total waste of time. Parts of the garden lights trail were pretty good, while the best of the decorated rooms of the House were very well done. And if you’d never been to Chatsworth before the whole show probably made a good, although very crowded, introduction to the House’s splendours. But we know the place well and – based on what we saw in 2019, and what we paid for our tickets this time – we expected rather more. The photos I’ve used to illustrate this piece feature the highlights, but the majority of “the experience” was a lot more mundane.

Maybe they had a limited budget in 2022, as a result of Covid’s impact on revenue streams? Or did they spread their resources too thinly, by having “an enchanting lights trail” in the gardens as well as decorating the House (in 2019, the Christmas extravaganza was limited just to the House, and didn’t extend into the gardens). But I can’t help worrying that Chatsworth’s trading on its name, making a calculated underinvestment in this seasonal attraction on the assumption that people will turn up anyway, just because it’s Chatsworth?

Top left: The Painted Hall. Top right: Another room, another group of trees, and a stray speaker playing Christmas music! Middle right: The Library. Bottom: The Chapel. The golden statue between the trees is by the notorious contemporary British sculptor Damien Hirst.

If so, I fear that may be a bit short-sighted, as there are plenty of other stately homes around here that also put on a show at Christmas. People who shared our disappointment with Chatsworth’s efforts this time may well choose next year to get their seasonal cheer somewhere else, somewhere offering the prospect of seeing more while paying less.

Hopefully, this is a one off, and Chatsworth will be back on form in time for Christmas 2023. Until this year they’ve had a good track record, so we’ll probably give them another chance. I’ll report back 12 months from now!

Burton Agnes celebrates Christmas

Although Burton Agnes may sound like the upper crust villain of an Agatha Christie novel, the reality is altogether more interesting. Built between 1598 and 1610 near the village of Driffield in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Burton Agnes is a magnificent Elizabethan mansion that’s been associated with the same family for over 400 years.

Although the Hall is now managed by a charitable trust, the family still lives there. To help cover the cost of its upkeep, paying visitors are invited to have a poke around this Grade I Listed architectural masterpiece. And, inevitably, the period before Christmas is a great time to pep up the income stream.

The Great Hall

This, of course, is nothing unusual. Up and down the land the good, the bad and the ugly of British stately homes open their doors to the Great British Public at this time of year, anxious to milk the cash cow that is Christmas.

Some do a great job, investing heavily to decorate their mansions with festive frivolities that are sure to get their visitors into the mood for Christmas and, hopefully, will encourage them to return the next year. Others, I suspect, do the absolute minimum that they calculate is necessary to prevent the paying public demanding its money back.

Burton Agnes, which we visited a couple of weeks ago, felt like good value for money. The place was tastefully, but not excessively decked out in seasonal finery. They say that “less is more”, and whoever planned the Christmas decorations here clearly understands the benefits of measured restraint in such matters. The seasonal adornments seemed in tune with their setting rather than simply overwhelming it, which has been the case in some of the places we’ve visited over the years

To be honest, I would normally find it difficult to feel festive in mid-November, but by the time we left Burton Agnes I could happily have polished off a plateful of mince pies and knocked out a verse or two of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Roll on Christmas, I’m ready for you now!

The White Drawing Room

And, just as important, our visit to see the Christmas decorations also served as an introduction to a truly spectacular building. The Great Hall is just that, a masterpiece of plasterwork and panelling. The Long Gallery, with its barrelled ceiling, is light, airy, elegant (and very, very long!), while the White Drawing Room is comfortably tasteful. Although the decorations were great to see, the quality of the building itself shone through clearly.

Above: The Red Drawing Room. Below: The Long Gallery

Burton Agnes has been described by the author Simon Jenkins as ‘the perfect English house’ and as one of the twenty best English houses. I’m not sure about that, but I do know that there’s lot to admire in it. Mrs P and I have agreed that we’ll make a return visit at another time of year when the Christmas decorations have been removed, so we can get to know it a bit better.

In the entrance hall

Art’s Not Meant to be Easy

A few months ago, while we were spending a couple of days in Birmingham, we stumbled across a piece of public art that is as controversial as it is unusual. A Real Birmingham Family, by sculptor Gillian Wearing, depicts two local sisters – each single mothers, one of them heavily pregnant – with their two children. Cast in bronze, the sculpture was erected in Centenary Square, prominently positioned in front of the Library of Birmingham, in 2014. A storm’s been raging around it ever since.

Most of the figurative public art found in cities and towns across the UK features folk who might loosely described as representatives of ‘the great and the good‘, although, to be blunt, a number of them were neither great nor good, but simply had an effective PR machine behind them!

Representations of past and present royalty, politicians, war heroes, cultural and sporting icons, and sundry local bigwigs clutter our public footways. Their subjects are predominantly male and overwhelmingly White, and the statues seemingly yell “look at me, look at me, aren’t I important!” to anyone glancing in their direction. Diversity is in short supply, and the sculptures mostly seem detached from the realities of everyday life. So I’m left wondering, what about ordinary folk? Where are the statues depicting people like me and you? Don’t we count too? What about our lives?

Similar thoughts may have crossed the mind of managers at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery of contemporary art in 2011, when they initiated a process to find a “real” Birmingham family to model for the sculpture. Nominations were invited, but what constitutes a “real” family was not specified. From the nominations received four families were shortlisted, with the eventual winners being selected by a panel of community, cultural and religious figures. Here’s what the curator of the Ikon Gallery had to say about the winners:

“Their story is compelling and says much about contemporary Birmingham. Two mixed-race sisters, both single-parents with happy, lively young boys, who identify themselves strongly with the city of their birth. The variety of nominations to ‘A Real Birmingham Family’ has shown us that while the traditional, nuclear family may no longer be the norm, the ties that bind us together are as strong as ever.”

Stuart Tulloch, quoted in the Birmingham Mail 28 August 2013, retrieved 17 November 2022

It’s evident from Tulloch’s statement that A Real Birmingham Family is a million miles away from the typical statue found on the UK’s streets. They are not drawn from the dubious ranks of ‘the great and the good’. Rather, in the nicest possible way, the Jones sisters and their kids are just ordinary people, a loving family supporting one another and living the best lives they can, even though the path they have taken does not conform with long-standing societal norms. Surely this something worthy of celebration?

And yet the sculpture has drawn stinging criticism from some quarters because, as one commentator has claimed, it is “a sad betrayal of the traditional values that held great communities like Birmingham together…[and] a totem for extreme feminists who more and more argue that women don’t need men at all.”

Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I don’t see it that way!

If the artist’s intention was to propose that single parent arrangements are inevitably superior to traditional, nuclear family set-ups, then there might be cause for complaint. But surely that isn’t what Wearing’s work is telling us? What she seems to be saying is that while most of us – I suspect – have been raised in a nuclear family, alternative family models can also be successful. Her piece is a commentary, an observation of one way in which families can function effectively in the 21st century. Other options are also available!

I fully understand that this piece of public art may be uncomfortable for anyone wedded to tradition, for anyone who instinctively believes that the old ways are inevitably the best ways, or indeed the only acceptable ways. But by seeking to challenge careless stereotypes and preconceptions, Wearing is doing one the jobs that it is an artist’s duty to perform: she is making us reflect, making us debate, making us think critically about the world in which we live, even if the process is painful. Art’s not meant to be easy.

Birmingham, the Venice of the North. Really?

In some circles Birmingham, a city in the English Midlands just 50 miles / 80km from Platypus Towers, is referred to as The Venice of the North. Really? Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the premier jewels in Europe’s cultural crown, “an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest building contains works by some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and others.” Birmingham, however…

Difficult to believe this was taken in the very centre of Birmingham, the UK’s “second city”, population 1.15 million

Although its origins are much older, Birmingham owes its prominent position to the Industrial Revolution. Central to the city’s growth was the production of metal-based goods. It became known as “the city of a thousand trades”, where a myriad of small workshops employed skilled craftsmen to manufacture high quality finished products. It was dynamic and prosperous, but it was no Venice!

Comparisons with Venice are woefully wide of the mark, except in one particular regard: canals. Venice is a city of canals, and Birmingham too has a web of waterways dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. These were excavated to bring in the raw materials needed by local workshops, and to carry away the finished goods they produced to markets throughout the country.

Pretty soon, Birmingham was at the heart of the national canal network. The city thrived, and the nation’s canals bustled with activity. But the development of railways in the mid-19th century heralded a change in fortunes for the canal network locally and nationally. Rail transport – and later, transport by road – proved quicker and therefore cheaper than the carriage of materials and goods by water. Birmingham’s canal network declined, and by 1980 all commercial traffic had stopped.

Once the lifeblood of the city, Birmingham’s canals morphed into fetid rubbish dumps and the warehouses lining them became neglected eyesores, derelict and anachronistic. They served no real purpose, and it’s easy to imagine that some bright spark might have thought it would be a good idea to fill in the waterways and bulldoze the associated buildings.

But fortunately, the City Council recognised that if they were sensitively restored, Birmingham’s canals could help drive the city’s regeneration. Work began in the late 1980s, and when we visited a few months ago we were able to see how this far-sighted vision has been put into practice.

Historic toll house, where users of the canal once paid for the privilege

Gas Street Basin is the hub of the city’s canal network, located in what is today the heart of Birmingham’s cosmopolitan nightlife and shopping districts. Here we walked along towpaths lined with vibrant cafés, bars, restaurants and modern buildings, and were also pleased to spot some fine examples of historic canal architecture. Several narrowboats were moored in the basin, adding to the area’s quaint charm.

As we continued our stroll along the towpath, past modern developments that included the International Conference Centre, the National Indoor Arena and the National Sea Life Centre, we encountered plenty of pedestrians and dog-walkers, and some cyclists and joggers too. All were taking the opportunity to get some fresh air, away from the noise and mayhem of the frantic city centre streets.

Gas Street Basin

Meanwhile, colourful narrowboats chugged slowly along the waterways, offering holidaymakers and tourists an unexpected perspective on what is known as the UK’s “second city” (after London, of course!).

Along the way we stopped off for a drink at one of Birmingham’s most distinctive historic buildings. The Roundhouse was built in 1874 as a giant stable complex where 50 horses that worked on the canal could be housed. The need for the facility is long-gone (none of the narrowboats now using the canals are drawn by horses), and for some time the future of the building was in doubt.

However, creative minds have come up with a way forward: now run by a charitable trust, the Roundhouse has been repurposed as a visitor centre, café, display space and offices. It also acts “as a launchpad to explore Birmingham’s brilliant stories and place…[offering] canal-based kayaking, city walking tours, [and] boat trips.”

The Roundhouse, which once provided stabling for 50 working canal horses

As we enjoyed our mochas there was time to reflect on what a good job the city authorities have done in revitalising Birmingham’s canal network and infrastructure. While Birmingham is clearly nothing like Venice, the canals give the city a distinctive character that reflects its unique heritage. A canal network dating back over two hundred years could have become a serious burden to the city and its people in the 21st century, but visionary, enterprising developments have turned it into a genuine asset. Well done, Birmingham, I salute you!

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Postscript: Venice of the North

Birmingham is not the only place that has been labelled the Venice of the North. Other nominees include Saint Petersburg (Russia); Amsterdam (Netherlands); Giethoorn (Netherlands); Bruges (Belgium); Stockholm (Sweden); Copenhagen (Denmark); and Alesund (Norway). To which I can only say, get a grip, guys. Each of these places has its own merits, and should stand or fall by those merits rather resorting to spurious comparisons with another, very different place!

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