Monday morning and I find myself sat in a coffee shop easing myself into a new week. It’s not my normal thing. I don’t drink that much coffee and I’m normally miles from anything more metropolitan than a tearoom. But I like change. Change is good.
I live in a beautiful corner of the country. The North Pennines is simply stunning. It’s wild and remote with big skies and very few people. However, I seldom get the chance to create work here, let alone the time to really explore it. So, this year I decided to do something about that. Now the harsh winter is a fading memory I’ve been able to get a out and about and explore the gems on my doorstep.
The most revealing bit about exploring a geopark is how much the landscape becomes as much about what’s underground as the stuff on the top.
Lately I’ve been lucky enough to be working with a bunch of other interesting artists exploring a local geo anomaly known as Gods Bridge. It’s part of a project run by a local arts organisation with mentoring support from Tania Kovats.
Gods Bridge is a natural limestone bridge over the River Greta on the edge of Stainmore Forest and about 2 miles upstream of Bowes. I’ve got a bit of a thing about bridges at the moment and there’s a bunch of projects in development which use some of the engineering forms of bridges.
The project is doubly interesting for me. Not only is it a local thing and a chance to understand the landscape on my doorstep, but the resulting artworks generated by all the participating artists are going to go on a touring gallery show. And that for me is the big challenge. I like challenges. Challenges are good too.
Over the past few years I’ve carved a career based on temporary works which take advantage of the scale of landscape. For me, working outside the gallery environment offers just so many more possibilities than the confines of four gallery walls. For me I’ve come to regard gallery based practice as far too limiting and a compromise for arts true potential.
However, there’s nothing like sleeping with the enemy to keep things exciting, so I’m biting the bullet and going to see if there’s a way my practice can evolve a parallel gallery-based strand. One that won’t compromise my ideas or deviate too far from my true roots, but add a new and valid dimension to it.
What that will be and how that will work, at the moment I have no idea. But that’s exciting.
So back to the river…
The first site visit was good and it was fun to climb all over it with a bunch of other artists, but it was really too unfocused to get any real insight. So last week I went back for another explore.
I remember when I stayed in Suzhou last year the hotel was next to a 2000 year old bridge. That was mind blowing in itself – we don’t have any bridge in the UK close to that kind of antiquity. Let alone one still in daily use. Gods Bridge though is millions of years old. Made by the gentle erosion of the limestone over millennia by the slightly acidic river water, the natural fissures in the limestone have maintained its sharp lines.
It’s not a well-known site in the wider sense of things, but thousands of boots trudge across it as part of the Pennine Way. The route from Tan Hill to Middleton-in-Teesdale is one of the lonelier stretches. The only bit of civilisation you get is crossing the busy A66 just beyond Gods Bridge.
The bridge itself is a protected structure. It was made a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in the late ’80s. The two lime kilns either side of the river are grade 2 listed buildings and have been subject to a preservation order longer than the bridge. Not sure what that says about our attitude to architecture and geology, but still. The SSSI statement covers the bridge and a couple of hundred metres of the river either side. It’s the river course though which is in some respects the most interesting.
Upstream of the bridge, the River Greta is a fairly bog-standard upland river. Just a couple of miles old, it has already got a fair bit of pace in it and a good bit of meandering is going on…
but then, just before it gets to Gods Bridge, it just disappears. It’s as if all the water has just evaporated. Gone.
It’s a bit like that magic trick where you pour a pint of milk into a newspaper cone, then you open up the newspaper and it’s all gone.
A bit of geological magic.
There’s water under the bridge, and beyond it it’s business as usual.
The River Greta takes its name from the Viking ‘Griota’ which means a stony stream. It’s clearly been like this for a long time.
On my revisit I went to see where all the water goes. This time around there was a bit more water around and you could easily see where the water was rejoining the riverbed from a large fissure in the bank on the side.
— Steve Messam (@rougeit) May 20, 2013
Exploring upstream I managed to find where it mostly disappeared down a parallel subterranean gully.
— Steve Messam (@rougeit) May 20, 2013
The SSSI statement explains this a little more. The river has found new routes through fissures in the limestone and is still carving them out. Give it a few more millennia and there’ll be a new and bigger bridge. This is an ongoing geological process with the river and shows how even at the really slow pace of geological change, the landscape is constantly changing.
Over the weekend we had some torrential rain with some of the highest river levels for decades. Unfortunately I couldn’t get back to the site right after the rain, but managed to pop over the next day.
Sure enough, the river bed which on the Friday had been a barren rocky path, was once more a shimmering, flowing river. Unfortunately I had missed it in a raging torrent, but the debris line showed just how high the water had been the day before.
With more water flowing through the bridge I spent a lovely couple of hours floating sticks and moss down the river with my kids and explaining chaos theory to a four year old while I sketched out the paths the sticks took through the bridge.
I’m still not sure where this project is taking me or what will come of it, but getting to know and understand this little bit of limestone is fascinating. At the moment I’m thinking about how Gods Bridge isn’t really a bridge but a tunnel. It’s the underneath bit that’s the most interesting.
It’s this subterranean narrative which transforms SummerHill force into Gibsons Cave through the erosion of sandstone underneath the Whin Sill, and Shacklesborough becomes a glacial island (although the presence of giant boulders from the lake district on the top show it wasn’t always an island, but let’s not get picky).
This is going to be an underground journey I think…