Good things come to those who wait. Patience is a virtue. Cliché cliché maybe.
I’ve had my fair share of mad, short timescale projects. Some so short they almost felt like instant pop-ups. ‘Level’ in Peterborough earlier this year was devised and realised in 30 days.
The ‘Paviljong’ in Sweden was a 14 day project, while ‘Souvenir’ in Shanghai in 2006 was less than 10 days from concept to finished pieces. Pieces like this are born and raised on adrenalin. It’s the only way.
My latest project, on the other hand comes from the opposite end of the timescale spectrum. ‘PaperBridge’ has been hanging around my life on and off for nearly five years, but a couple of weeks ago it finally became a reality.
Around 22,000 pieces of paper arch over a beck at the foot of the Helvellyn range in the English Lake District. The bridge weighed over 4 tonnes and could support the weight of 60 sheep (if you could fit that many on it), yet it didn’t use any glue, nuts, bolt, screws or any other fixings. It was just pure paper wedged between two cages of stone.
Despite the long gestation period, it’s still felt a bit of a whirlwind project and the last two weeks of my life have been some of the craziest in a long while.
The bridge is in a fairly remote valley in the Lake District. The nearest village is Patterdale at the south end of Ullswater. Getting to the village from anywhere else requires either a long winding journey down the length of the second longest lake in England, or up and over the Kirkstone Pass – one of the steepest mountain passes in the country. From Patterdale (population 400) the bridge is a good two mile walk up the Grisedale Valley. A mass-tourist destination it isn’t. Because it’s a bridge made only of paper I wasn’t sure how well it would take to thousands of people crossing it, so I put it in a place where I thought not so many people would venture. It’s on the main Coast to Coast long distance path and there’s a nice 5 mile circular from the Ullswater villages, so it would get passing visitors OK and maybe the odd person venturing out just to see it.
I’d allowed four days for the install incase of bad weather and to have some breathing space. I’d got a good team to hep build – Phil had helped build an earlier test piece, Ewan and Michael built drystone walls in Teesdale together (Ewan was also part of the God’s Bridge project a couple of years back), and there was Li – a second year architecture student from Newcastle. It was a pretty simple build once we got started so it should all be straight forward.
Michael and Phil had built the gabion abutments the week before to give them time to settle. There was a fresh fall of snow on the fell tops that day. Walking up the track towards the valley head those rocky peaks looked the daunting mountains they really are. This was the wild Lakeland landscape I was after. Not the bit most of the 16-million tourists who visit the Lakes each year see. The shocking statistic is that around 95% of visitors to the Lakes don’t travel further than 80m from their cars. I’ve seen them down at Bowness on Windermere cooing over the water and boats, eating ice cream and happy to be in ‘The Lakes’. Chiang Yee had seen the same thing back in the 1930’s. It hasn’t changed. But for me, those mountains. Those scary crags are what have really shaped the western idea of landscape. Writers, thinkers, poets and artists have been inspired by these distant, towering rocks over the past 200 years. Their names as old and layered with hinted stories as the art they inspire – Dollywagon Pike, St. Sunday Crag, Pinnacle, Striding Edge. The stream the bridge crosses – Nethermost Cove Beck – its name littered with the remnants of a Viking past.
It had been a glorious April on the whole and every site visit I’d made this year had been still and sunny. It lulled me into a false sense of security. The Cumbrian weather had other ideas come May.
The first day was due to be just getting materials onto site. I’d arranged for all the paper and the wooden formers to be delivered on the same wagon so that everything could be carted up the track by tractor in one go. By the time the delivery wagon arrived it had been raining for over 12 hours non-stop. We knew this was no longer going to be as simple as we wanted. I followed the wagon up the narrow and steep track to the farm in the pouring rain, grateful that finally things were arriving. Only to discover that instead of 7 pallets with 4 tonnes of paper, there was only two pallets to unload. With no mobile phone signal in the valley I left the the farmer to cart what was there up as near to the bridge site as he could get and the team to move it the last bit by hand while I went off to sort the case of the missing consignments.
By the time the rest of the materials were delivered the next day so much rain had fallen in the valley that the farmer couldn’t get a tractor anywhere near the bridge site. A frustrating 24 hours where we could do no more than check into the cottage I’d rented for the team and twiddle our thumbs.
By 7am on day three the sun was out and the wind had dropped. After fuelling on breakfast butties and tea we got an early start on things.
First task was putting together the flat-packed plywood former that the bridge was to be built over. The form was designed with Peter Foskett who’d previously worked on the ‘Seven Spires’ piece back in 2011. The former was designed in two halves and precision cut by CNC machine in Carlisle. The form was held together by pegs cut from the same sheets so the whole thing could be assembled without tools. The form was then supported on screw jacks and acrow-props between the abutments. One of the key secrets in the formwork design was the way the two halves could be jacked-up in the middle to help get the final pieces of paper in and keep the compression high across the arch.
Once the former was in, it should then be a simple process of stacking the paper over the top. Two packs of paper followed by a wedge made of smaller sheets – the size and quantity having been predetermined in the design process. Nice and simple.
Only the paper was in packs of 100 sheets – each sheet measuring 900mm x 700mm. Each pack weighing 17kg. And ALL the packs were on pallets over 500m the other side of a bog. The only way to get the paper onto the site was to carry them by hand. All 168 of them.
This wasn’t going to be a quick process.
Paper that size and in those quantities isn’t an easy thing to handle. Once out of their protective wrapping the packs quickly lose their shape and rigidity. What started out as a one person job to stack the paper became a five person task by the end of the day.
As the day progressed we got slicker at building and got into a rhythm. The weather continued to improve so we kept going while things were in our favour. But by 8pm we were exhausted. Twelve solid hours hefting large packs of paper around was enough.
Elm How was a great base for the install team. A huge traditional farmhouse with amazing original flagstone spiral staircase, it was large and comfortable and quiet. And only 15 minute walk up to the bridge site. Surrounded by fields of pedigree swaledale yows with their newborn lambs and shorthorn cattle calving in the barn next door, by night it was all stars, hooting owls and wandering badgers. Its isolation came with disconnection from the rest of the world – no mobile signal, no internet. On a morning when the rest of the country was waking to the aftermath of the general election, we were blisfully unaware of any of it. And it was lovely.
My original plans had been to build the bridge mid-week and if we got ahead of ourselves we’d just wrap it up in tarpaulins until the Friday morning. There had been a fair bit of media interest in the bridge over the previous week or so and I’d booked a minibus to bring people halfway up the track for the press launch. The 16-seater bus had already been over booked with photographers and at least two different TV crews. However, on the Thursday night I’d driven down into the village to pick up some leaky wifi to send some emails and discovered that every single press photographer and TV crew had cancelled at the last minute to do vote counts.
So press launch was to be a no press launch.
At least the pressure was off. We just had to get the bridge built by late morning in time for whoever decided to still come on the bus.
As the final pieces were being hammered into place as small crowd was gathering on a rocky outcrop on the other side of the bog. The couple staying in the cottage behind Elm How had also come down to lend a hand. The plan to raise the centre sections up to get the last pieces of paper in didn’t quite work to plan as the acrow-props were being jacked further into the river bed rather than lifting, so the final pieces were done more with brute force and heavy whacking.
By the time the wooden formers were lowered and slid out there was a fair crowd gathered along both sides of the beck. a loud cheer as the final piece was removed and the pure red arch remained leaping over the water. I had expected the arch to sink a little at the top as the formers were lowered, but all that hammering and wedging the final pieces paid off and it didn’t move a jot as one side then the other was gradually lowered and I could see daylight between the paper and the plywood.
Despite the nearly five years of development, the many scale models, the months of testing in all weathers, and the long hours designing every last millimetre – that sense of relief when finally those thousands of sheets of bright red paper finally stood there on their own was immense.
While I tried to comprehend the wave of emotions sweeping through me as I stood next to that newly-born artwork, I had no idea this pile of paper was going to run my life for the next two weeks…