Tag: England

Story of the week: Discovering public art around England


* Image: Krzysztof Nowakowski for www.dphotographer.co.uk

They bring new meaning to ‘the greatest show on earth.’

Permanent works of art are now part of the British landscape and examples of monumental art have become part of our heritage over the years.

We discover some of the best for a day trip around the UK:

The Headington Shark, Oxford

A shark became the most famous resident of Oxford’s Headington district when it landed on the roof of 2 New High Street on 9 August, 1986.

The private residence is the home of BBC Radio Oxford presenter, Bill Heine, who commissioned the shark and still owns the house. The headless sculpture, officially called ‘Untitled 1986’, was erected on the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

Created by the sculptor John Buckley, it is made of fibreglass and is 25 feet long. The shark had to be winched up by a crane overnight and local police were powerless to intervene as there is no UK legislation to prevent a man from putting a shark on his own roof.

Oxford City Council subsequently tried to get rid of the shark on the grounds that it was dangerous to the public, but engineers inspected the roof girders that had been specially installed to support it and pronounced the erection safe.

Today the shark lives on and, in the words of Heine: “{it} says something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki.”


Another Place, Merseyside

There’s a crowd gathering on Crosby beach – about 100 of them, in fact.

Cast-iron, life-size figures every one, they spread out along 3km of the foreshore, stretching almost 1km out to sea. Merseyside’s latest favourite artwork, Another Place, is the creation of Anthony Gormley, the winner of the 1994 Turner Prize and the man best known for his controversial sculpture, The Angel of the North (see below).

The Another Place figures, each one weighing 650kg, are made from casts of the artist’s own body, a trademark of Gormley’s work, and are shown at different stages of rising out of the sand, all of them staring out to the horizon in silent expectation.

The artist has described his work as a poetic response to the universal sentiments associated with emigration – sadness at leaving, but the hope of a new future in another place. It has proven so popular that a campaign is now under way to keep the work in Crosby and not relocated, as previously planned, to, well, another place.


Angel of the North, Gateshead

She has a captive audience of over 90,000 motorists each day, plus rail passengers travelling on the East Coast mainline from London to Edinburgh.

She’s taller at 20m high than a five-storey building and has a wingspan of 54m wide – almost the same as a jumbo jet. The 208-tonne Angel of the North has gone from controversy to garnering praise as a landmark site for the Northeast England and one of Britain’s most important contemporary public artworks.

Another creation by Anthony Gormley (see above), he designed the stark, landscape-dominating sculpture as a link between earth and sky. The Angel is built to last for more than 100 years and withstand winds of more than 100 miles per hour, constructed from weather resistant steel that mellows with age.

The lady is not beyond some minor tinkering, however: the body is hollow to allow for internal inspections with an access door high up on her shoulder blade.


Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield

Founded in 1977 and set in the beautiful grounds and gardens of a 500-acre, 18th-century country estate, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is one of the Britain’s leading open-air galleries with a changing programme of international exhibitions.

Most of all, it is synonymous with its display of 50-odd outdoor sculptures, of which the ten works by Henry Moore, the iconic figure of the Yorkshire sculpture scene, are the best known.

Scattered around the wide-open fields of the park, Moore’s works include Reclining Figure Arch Leg, located by the entrance as you drive up with the park stretching out behind it; and Draped Seated Women, one of his most-detailed female figures.

Get there for the 10am opening to enjoy the quietest time of the day and try to visit mid week rather than a Sunday to soak up the juxtaposition of nature and sculpture without the hordes. Unlike some stuffy indoor galleries, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is ideal for families.


B of the Bang, Manchester

Manchester has changed dramatically since the city hosted the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

And nothing symbolises the urban renaissance of the city quite like B of the Bang, designed by the Heatherwick Studio and inspired by Olympic Gold Medal winning sprinter Linford Christie, who said that he started his race on the B of the Bang.

Today the sculpture is based at the City of Manchester Stadium, home of Manchester City Football Club. The sculpture is inclined at an angle of thirty degrees from the vertical and represents a major challenge of both construction and engineering.

B of the Bang is made of 180 steel spikes, including its five legs, which are arranged in elliptical clusters that radiate outwards from a single central point. The highest point of the sculpture is 55.44m above ground level, and 56m above the foundations to its five legs.

This makes the B of the Bang the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom and just pips the 55.9m-high Leaning Tower of Pisa.

* It was subsequently melted down – see www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-18703854

The Scallop, Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Benjamin Britten used to take his afternoon constitutional along Aldeburgh’s windswept beach, a short distance north of the town centre.

To commemorate Britain’s legacy, the Suffolk-based artist and sculptor Maggi Hambling, also known for her memorial to Oscar Wilde in central London, created Scallop, a 4m-high sculpture in stainless steel.

The piece is made up of two interlocking scallop shells, each broken, the upright shell being pierced with the words: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.” The wording is taken from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.

Hambling unveiled her opus work to a storm of controversy in November 2003. The artist claimed she hopes people will take a seat on the clam and enjoy the view, but opinion among the local community was deeply divided.

In the first three months of 2004, the sculpture was twice vandalised by pouring paint over it; it was subsequently attacked with graffiti and there have been petitions to have it removed – controversy rages to this day.


The Willow Man, near Bridgwater, Somerset

Don’t panic: this is nothing to do the recent turkey of a film staring Nicholas Cage. It’s not even about the seminal 1973 original staring Edward Woodward.

The Willow Man is, in fact, southern England’s answer to the Angel of the North, an iconic image of Somerset’s rich willow heritage.

Immense wickerwork figures have been part of the English landscape since the time of the druids and the sculpture by the artist Serena de la Hay, who specialises in working with willow, was unveiled as a celebration of a rustic cottage industry. The creation subsequently burned down in May 2001, however, and the artists had to start on a replacement.

Today a new version of the man stands proud once more after the artist painstakingly reworked the fire-damaged structure.


The Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset

Drivers with delicate sensibilities are advised to avert their gaze when travelling along the A352 towards Sherborne.

The sight of a giant figure of a naked and impressively well-endowed man, on a hillside near the village of Cerne Abbas to the north of Dorchester, is quite an eyebrow raiser. The Cerne Abbas Giant or ‘Rude Man’ is the largest hill figure in Britain, and one of two representations of the human form along with the Long Man of Wilmington in East Sussex.

The origins of the 55m-high figure, carved in solid lines from the chalk bedrock, remains a source of dispute. Like other chalk figures carved into the English countryside, the Cerne Abbas giant is often mistakenly thought of as an ancient creation.

His history, however, can only be traced back to the late 17th century. Indeed, it is now believed that he was probably etched during the English Civil War. There has even been speculation that the figure is a parody of Oliver Cromwell, who was sometimes mockingly referred to as “England’s Hercules” by his enemies.

Either way, the combination of the enormous knobbed club, 36.5m long, and his equally impressive phallic talent, make for a distinctive landmark.


The Concrete Cows of Milton Keynes

It was the cows that did it for Milton Keynes.

The new city has one of the largest collections of outdoor public art in England with over 230 pieces of art located inside its boundaries. Since it’s inception in 1967, the city has commissioned numerous pieces, involving communities in the process, which vary in form from playground designs to street furniture.

The best-known example is, however, the Concrete Cows, designed by Canadian-born artist/sculptress Liz Leyh at Stacey Hill Farm, now the home of Milton Keynes Museum. Commissioned in 1978 using recycled materials, the work is among the earliest examples of conceptual art – the artist poking fun at the preconceived notion of the new city.

Their arrival was not greeted with universal acclaim. Indeed, during their lifetime the cows have been kidnapped twice, had pyjamas bottoms painted on them, been beheaded in the style of a Damien Hirst artwork and have acquired BSE (mad cow disease) graffiti.

The cows have had the last laugh: today they graze in peace.


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* This story was first published by Forward Publishing in 2006. Liked this? Try also Talking contemporary art in Burgundy.

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Story of the week: Civic pride on a memory-lane trip to Leeds


This is the latest post in a weekly series, highlighting stories from my travel-writing archive. Subscribe to the RSS feed for more.

It felt like a prodigal return.

Stepping off the train at Leeds station, the memories flooded back of filing my first copy in the early nineties for Leeds Student – a gig review of Mudhoney at the University Refectory, since you ask.

I soon developed a taste for bylines and, within a few years, had moved to a postgraduate journalism school in London, later turning freelance and travelling the world on newspaper travel assignments.

I always felt a certain fondness for Leeds but hadn’t been back in 17 years. That is, until now.

In those intervening years, while I was exploring Japanese hot springs and trundling through the Andes in clapped-out buses, something changed: Leeds became the story.

I missed the opening of the first Harvey Nichols outside of London in 1996 and the subsequent retail boom. I felt a frisson of civic pride as Leeds became largest financial and legal centre outside of London around the millennium.

When the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) voted Leeds Met’s Broadcasting Place, the best tall building in the world, I raised a celebratory pint of Tetley’s.

After all, Leeds had beaten Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

History class

So it was time to revisit some old haunts, witness the post-millennium wave of urban renaissance, the idea spearheaded by the architect Richard Rogers and the Urban Task Force, and explore the new face of the city.

But, first, it was time for a cup of tea and a crash course in post-industrial architecture.

I meet Dr Kevin Grady, Director of the Leeds Civic Trust, the body responsible for the numerous blue plaques around the city, under the lavish, stained-glass roof of the Country Arcade in the Victoria Quarter.

Around us cappuccinos are being frothed, designer labels by the likes of Ted Baker and Vivienne Westwood displayed, and flyers for new cultural events distributed. It feels very new Leeds.

Dr Grady, sipping Earl Grey, says: “I love the way the heritage architecture of Leeds has been adapted to the modern, vibrant city. The way the city was cleaned up in the Nineties to reveal its stunning heritage has really restored its civic pride.”

Leeds may have blossomed post millennium but, as Kevin explains, it wasn’t Leeds’ first flush of success as a business hub.

The Bank of England opened a satellite office in Leeds in 1827, a certain Michael Marks of Marks & Spencer fame first set up his Penny Bazaar in 1884 at Leeds Kirkgate Market and, in 1921, Montague Burton founded a huge clothing factory, which evolved into the high-street tailoring stalwart Burtons.

By the time Leeds gained city status in 1893, it was already a booming urban metropolis.

Kevin adds:

“If you stand at the top of Briggate today and look down the road, you get the same sense as standing at the top of Las Ramblas in Barcelona.”

Barcelona? The Leeds I remember was more like Belgrade.

The perpetual monotone-grey sky, the sucker punch of stale beer in the Union Bar and serious boys in long, dark-tweed overcoats walking cinematically through an urban wasteland to a soundtrack of Joy Division and the Sisters of Mercy.

I should know. I was one of them.

Zoned In

The heritage infrastructure of Leeds was physically shaped by the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

The Hull-born architect Cuthbert Broderick was a key figure in the city, designing the imposing Town Hall in 1858 and the Corn Exchange in 1863. Broderick is today represented with a huge modernist pub on the rear flank of Millennium Square, an area of the city that is completely new to me.

While much if the square feels soulless to me, it is home to the new cultural powerhouse, the £19m Leeds City Museum, which transformed the Grade II-listed Civic Institute building off Millennium Square into a state-of-the-art museum.

The Leeds Story, the permanent upstairs gallery, traces the origins of Leeds from Iron Age roundhouses to a recent concert by local favourites, the Kaiser Chiefs.

For me, the biggest surprise of my visit, however, is the development beyond the train station and south of the River Aire.

During my undergraduate days, it was pretty much a non-go zone. But Holbeck Urban Village, the crucible of the city’s Industrial Revolution, is today reborn as a regeneration-zone business hub with a focus on digital media start-ups.

The landscape is a work-in-progress mix of gritty industrial heritage and modernist new build, interspersed with a clutch of cosy gastropubs, refurbished workshops and fringed by apartment-style residential developments.

Back across the River Aire, the lower city centre has evolved dramatically with a clutch of new boutique hotels around a reformatted City Square, a huge retail and eating centre, The Light, on The Headrow and the new all-glass façade of the revived City Varieties theatre to be unveiled this autumn.

The Northern Ballet has a new purpose-built site on Quarry Hill, while the big new project for 2012 is Leeds Arena, a new music, entertainment and sports centre with a striking honeycomb design. Despite some faltering projects along the way given prevailing economic conditions, Leeds looks in rude health.

“Alumni returning to Leeds will find a hugely improved cultural offer, much-improved infrastructure, better pedestrianisation and street furniture, and a more interesting cityscape, mixing modern architecture with the cleaned-up Victorian buildings,” says Dr Rachael Unsworth, Lecturer in the School of Geography, who teaches on urban sustainability and resources.

But the city centre faces new challenges. A series of recent public meetings, organised by academics from Leeds University, highlighted the key issues.

Traders at Kirkgate Market continue to face an uncertain future, the independent shops of the Corn Exchange have been replaced by upmarket chain eateries and the slew of yuppie-hutch flats still search for owners while their equity turns negative.

While the city remains compact and architecturally rich, local voices are calling increasingly for more green space, tempting car users back onto public transport and increased support for independent local businesses to counter the clone-town Britain effect.

So, if I don’t return to Leeds for another 17 years, what could I expect to find? Dr Unsworth says:

“A greener city with a park on the south bank of the River Aire, no through traffic, hence a city more oriented towards pedestrians and cyclists, and a new phase of development, which is more environmentally sound.”

“That’s not just wishful thinking,” she adds. “It’s grounded in economic rationale to make Leeds a more liveable city.”

Sup up

For me, having explored changing Leeds, I was starting to crave something of frozen-in-time Leeds, a paean to a long-past but highly prized era of my life. I found it in a history-rich little alleyway just off Briggate.

Whitelocks [pictured above] is the oldest pub in Leeds – its first license was granted in 1715 – and the poet John Betjeman described it as, “The very heart of Leeds.”

With its stained-glass windows, Art Deco ‘Luncheon Bar’ sign and Yorkshire’s Black Sheep ale on tap, it remains an oasis of real ale, home-cooked food and good company, the kind of place I happily spent many a Friday afternoon reading Leeds Student and delaying those big decisions about life after Leeds.

I settled down with a pint and satisfied warm glow. The city may evolve with the vagaries of time, fashion and economic conditions, but Whitelocks remains a corner of the world that will be forever Leeds.

I felt, finally, at home.

This story was first published in Leeds magazine in 2010.

Liked this? Try also, Enterprise feature for Leeds alumni magazine.

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Reading up on D.H. Lawrence around Nottingham


I’ve been away somewhere exotic. A place where the taxi drivers call you, “Me duck,” and the cobs are something you eat for lunch, not get on.

Yes, the East Midlands.

More precisely the city of Nottingham and the former mining town of Eastwood, just outside the home of Paul Smith and Rock City.

Nottinghamshire boasts a slew of literary connections, notably Lord Byron, Alan Sillitoe of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning fame and, the subject of my research trip, David Herbert Lawrence.

Lawrence is known best for his outspoken views on sexuality yet, like Wordsworth (the subject of another of my recent commissions), his description of the sensuous quality of nature is the most compelling aspect of his work.

In Sons and Lovers, his breakthrough and unabashedly auto-biographical novel, which celebrates the centenary of its publication this year, he writes:

The hills were golden with evening; deep in the wood showed the darkening purple of bluebells. It was everywhere perfectly still, save for the rustling of leaves and birds.

Local Heritage Assistant Carolyn Melbourne (pictured above in the doorway of 8a Victoria Street, the cottage where he was born and now a museum to his early life) took me on a whistle-stop tour of the sites associated with Lawrence and his early work.

She will be leading Sons and Lovers theme tours of Eastwood during the D.H. Lawrence Festival in September.

Lawrence was an outsider and spent many itinerant years travelling the world with his lover, Frieda von Richthofen. His journeys informed a new genre of travel writing, different to the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

But it’s the way he describes the flawed interior lives of his characters, many based on real-life people, that sounds so fresh today. These people, facing emotional turmoil and struggling to reconcile it, are living amongst us now. They are us.

Lawrence writes in the short story, Odour of Chrysanthemums:

Was this what it all meant – utter, intact separateness, obscured by the heat of living? She had denied him what he was. She had refused him as himself. And this had been her life, and his life. She was grateful to death, which restored the truth.

Do you have a favourite haunt of D. H. Lawrence around Nottingham? Are you planning to visit the city during the festival?

Post your comments below.

Read more about D.H. Lawrence in Nottinghamshire here.


Story of the day: Racing history in Chester


A story from the weekend. The Guardian are running a series of Visit England supplements currently to promote destinations around England. I did the Chester story.

The final edit was cut down quite heavily from the original, so here’s the original copy, incorporating the interview with racecourse historian Chris Clayton (pictured above).

Chester Races packs them in: 250,000 people annually over the 15-event racing season. But most race-day revelers are probably unaware that Chester Racecourse is the oldest racecourse in Britain and a hotbed of historical intrigue.

“Stand here,” says racecourse guide Chris Clayton, resplendent in his pale-blue guide’s gilet as we approach Gate Nine on the non-race-day tour. We’re overlooking the course from the medieval city walls. “This is my favourite view,” explains the Liverpool-born history and archaeology boffin, whose day job involves managing building projects for the course. “For a cross-section of racecourse history from Roman times to the modern day, it’s all alive here.”

The gate is now the main entrance to the Dee Enclosure but it overlooks the old Roman port build on the banks of the city-intersecting River Dee. The Romans established Chester as a safe anchorage point for access to the Irish Sea and it remained a bus trading port through the medieval period until silting left the land, known as the Roodee, as a public space.

Chris leads us onwards, taking the steps down the side of Restaurant 1539 to the Tattersalls Stand with views over the narrow home strait. The restaurant’s name refers to the first recorded race on February 9, 1539. Horse racing was introduced at Easter initially to replace the annual Shrove Tuesday football match, banned in 1533 for being too violent.

“Chester’s then Lord Mayor, Henry Gee, gave his consent,” says Chris. “That’s why we still talk about going to the gee-gees.”

As well as racing, the Roodee has also hosted public events ­from the Royal Agricultural Show of 1858 to Buffalo Bill and Geronimo Wild West Show in 1903. These days, events include the more sedate Chester Food, Drink & Lifestyle Festival at Easter and the Chester Rocks music festival in summer.

The tour ends at the Parade Ring, where famous jockeys and horses from Willie Carson to Shergar have paraded for their adoring public. Chester’s May meet acts as a trial run for the Epsom Derby and it attracts the Cheshire set en masse. “Henry Gee would be amazed to see how the races have become a major event on the city’s social calendar,” says Chris.

“I knew nothing about racing when I started here 12 years ago, “ adds Chris, a Chartered Surveyor by trade and confirmed non-horsey type. “The history of Chester Races fascinates me but, even after all these years, my equine knowledge is still limited.”

Read the published story, A Day at the races in Chester.

And post your comments below.