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‘Whistle’ is about more than just a whistle. It’s about time – the here and now as well as historical, and place – both the ‘North’ and the individual places of the whistles. What the whistles do is link all those big and small ideas together.

At the heart of ‘Whistle’ of course are the whistles themselves.

As with previous incarnations, it was really important to get the right whistle and make it sound right. But as the project progressed the creation of the whistles took on their own narrative.

It started at the North Yorkshire Moors Railway in October last year. We went to see an LNER B1 locomotive in action and hear what the whistle sounded like.  The driver that day was a little reluctant to sound the whistle for any more than absolutely necessary for fear of upsetting the neighbours, so I could only snatch little snippets of sound but enough to get a feeling for the character of the whistle, and importantly, a pitch.

The whistle on a B1 is an ‘LNER standard design whistle’. It’s name is a little misleading as the London and North Eastern Railway had a number of different ‘standard’ designs over the years. The smaller bell-designed whistles on the large express locomotives, like ‘Flying Scotsman’ were higher in pitch but lacked a full bodied tone. The streamlined ‘A4 pacifics’ like Mallard drew heavily on their design from the massive art deco styled american locos and their whistles were similarly drawn from the US with distinctive tri-tone chime whistles. While these whistles were certainly distinctive and would have been a common sound in Newcastle up until the end of steam, these were quite complicated and expensive things to manufacture. The LNER imported their whistles from a Chicago based manufacturer, whereas the 1920’s ‘Standard Whistle’ was more homegrown in its design.

The first step to building a replica whistle was to see how the originals were built. I couldn’t find one for sale anywhere so instead with the help of the North East Locomotive Preservation Group, we took one off a loco at the historic carriage works in Darlington and took it apart to see how it went together.

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Whistles were traditionally made by apprentices at loco works. They were a great way to demonstrate a wide range of engineering skills without the precision and reliability of a mechanical part. So, while there are drawings for the whistles, the parts as constructed vary from piece to piece and no two are ever exactly the same.

The whistles for the piece were to be powered by cylinders of compressed air. While the principle of sounding whistles the way had been proven with my previous piece, this time the whistles would be outdoors for over three months in all weather and would need to fire reliably every day. On top of that, at least one of the whistles would be indoors and would need to be significantly quieter so it didn’t deafen the public.

A period of testing took place over a couple of months to find out how everything behaved in various conditions. We tested various solenoid valves to see what difference they made to the overall sound volume. The same with different brands of air regulators. Whistles were fired at different air pressures to find the optimum working pressure. A whistle was sounded repeatedly in a remote part of the countryside to find out how many blasts we could get out of each cylinder of air and in a separate test, we needed to see if rain got into the whistles and what would happen if it did. Importantly we needed to find out just how loud the whistles were  and also, how could we make a whistle quieter without ruining the tone?

With any project that’s not been done before, you really can’t do too much testing – as we were to later find out.

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The bell type whistle we used has been around for over a century and was built using the techniques and skills commonly used in loco building. We started off looking to see if there were any improvements we could make to the manufacturing process using modern techniques, but after a number of failed attempts we resorted to the same tried and tested techniques as the originals.

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original whistle in its constituent parts

The whistles are made in three parts – a large bell over the top, a cup at the base and a central stem that sat inside the cup that made the important air gap and held the whole whistle together. The key factors in the volume, pitch and tone of the whistle are the size of the gap in the bottom cup – this creates a column of air that is split by the lip of the bell and makes the sound. The cleanliness of the tone, and to a certain extent the volume is determined by the sharpness of the bell edge. The bell edge has to sit at a sweet point above the cup for the note to ring well. If the gaping the cup is too big or the bell edge is too blunt, the tone is muddied and the volume is reduced. Get everything just right and at the right air pressure the whistle screams loudly and the bell rings with a beautiful harmonic overtone.

As with the previous whistle piece, the whistles had to be re-tuned to allow for the colder temperature of compressed air as opposed to steam in the originals. This was done with a plate cast as part of the central pillar. In the finishing stages this plate could be machined at different thicknesses and heights to give a variety to the final notes. We could have made all the whistles exactly the same pitch, but by retuning them all very slightly, there is a general dissonance between the whistles adding to a more cacophonous sound to the ensemble.

A set of blank patterns were made in steel for each of the sections. These were then sent to the foundry to be cast in brass.

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The casting was done at William Lanes in Middlesbrough. Once a town synonymous with steelworks and metal foundries, William Lane is now the last working foundry in Middlesbrough. Started in the 1890’s as a brass works, the methods used have hanged very little over the past 120 or so years. The patterns are embedded in wet sand to create a negative moulds. Lamp black is used to coat one side of the mould to prevent the second from sticking so that the patterns can be removed for making the next mould. A new mould is made for every casting. The brass is prepared from copper and zinc and melted to around 900º C. It’s then poured into the mould and left to cool. Once cooled down sufficiently, the sand is knocked out of the mould and the casting is revealed. The pouring channels and other flashing is removed along with the outer layer of sand residue in the fitting room and the the castings are then sent back to the engineers for finishing.

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The finishing was mostly done on a lathe – the bell sections were taken down to a thickness of a few tenths of a millimetre. the angle of the knife edge being taken to around 15º (it was more accurate than that even). The cup section was similarly turned down and included a small, but vital parallel section at the top lip. The centre stem was threaded to fit inside the cup and the tuning baffle turned to the right pitch for each whistle and made a snug fit for its corresponding bell. Any gap between the bell and baffle would result in extra overtones and spoil the purity of the tone. Once all machined, the whistles were polished to a brilliant shine and numbered wth a stamp on the stem.

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The finished whistles were wrapped and crated ready for installation.

Along with the drawings made from measuring real whistles, I also tracked down an original engineering drawing for a standard whistle  – drawn at Stephenson Works in Newcastle for all engines built at Darlington. This cemented the heritage of the whistle we used. For me it was important that not only was the design we used from Newcastle itself, but that the engineering was done in Darlington – the birthplace of railway engineering. I wanted the build of the whistles to say something about the engineering history of the North East. Its so much part of the life blood of the region in understanding where its come from. But also vitally important with the narrative of the Great Exhibition that we can show that not only do these skills still exist but they exist at a level of excellence that can only come from that depth of heritage.

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Above all, these were whistles fit for a Great Exhibition.

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Great Expectations

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Last Friday we stood in the entrance of Newcastle’s majestic Central Station. Waiting. Looking up at the clock and list of departures. Watching the seconds tick by. Fairly normal activity for a station and we certainly didn’t seem out of place (apart from the observing TV camera crews). We we waiting for a sign. A signal. The starting gun. Only it definitely wasn’t a gun. This was a family friendly cultural event.

As the seconds ticked down – 40… 45 .. the anticipation grew. It was quite literally any second now. Then at 10 seconds to the hour the first pip sounded. A loud and confident sound from over in the concourse. Swiftly followed – within the same click of the seconds – by another, fractionally lower pitched peep. Then a third, more distant outside, across the road.

The next few seconds seemed to last minutes. The most pregnant of pauses. Then as the seconds, minutes and hours flicked over to 13:00:00 it arrived. The unmistakable blast of steam engine whistles. A dissonant chord, a cacophony of tone that filled the voids of the vast Station building, its great curving roof, its cavernous imposing portico, and bursting out the doors into the city beyond.

Elsewhere, another dozen whistles were bursting from rooftops – their ringing bouncing off the walls and windows of the city.

This is Whistle. This is the start of the Great Exhibition of the North.

The Great Exhibition of the North is an 80 day event spread over 50 venues across Newcastle and Gateshead, showcasing the best in art, design and innovation from the wider North of England. over recent years there’s been an increasing awareness of the ‘Londoncentricity’ that’s pervaded arts, culture, economy, media, politics. pretty much everything. The concept of the Northern Powerhouse was a way to devolve some decision making and profile to places north of London. The idea of a Great Exhibition of the North was launched by the government back in 2016 with northern towns and cities invited to tender as host for the event. In the end it went to a joint offer from Newcastle and Gateshead. There’s a lot of politics involved in the concept, decisions and role of the event, which apart from occasionally being a bit murky and occasionally insulting, is mostly unfortunate as at the core is actually quite a good thing and better off if you ignore the politics.

The nub of the idea stems from the Great Exhibition of 1851. This extravaganza, held in a vast contemporary glass and iron construction (later to become the Crystal Palace) was advertised as ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ – although in reality it was to promote the industrial superiority of Victorian Britain. Businesses from across the world showcased exotic materials or used specially commissioned artworks to promote their place in a fast moving technological time. Over six million people visited the exhibition in London and the profits generated from ticket sales went to establish the Kensington Museums (the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and the V&A).

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‘Opening Day of the Great Exhibition – 1st May 1851’ by David Roberts RA. image © The Royal Collection Trust

Great concept to recreate. Somewhere to show off all that the North of England contributes to the world. I envisioned all the major industries and hundreds of smaller and newer businesses showing the cutting edge of technology and innovation within the context of the historical powerhouse of invention and industry that is the North of England. We were promised water fountains the height of the Tyne Bridge, George Stephenson’s Rocket back in the North East, John Lennon’s last piano and the largest free event in the UK the summer.

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Having lived north of Preston for most of my life, I’m passionate about the area and the influence it has on my work, so naturally I wanted in.

I wanted to do something that looks at the industrial heritage of the North, celebrates Newcastle as a place and utilises current technology to link that ongoing narrative. despite it being in an urban environment I also wanted to say something about the landscape. It’s the landscape of the North of England that gives it identity and character and the reason it was the birthplace for so much technology and industry.

A few years ago I had done a pilot piece for a large-scale landscape installation using steam engine whistles in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. We’d done fair bit of research and development on that project to get to a point where it was possible and viable, but for a number of reasons had never been fully realised. The role of the North East as the birthplace of railways made it seem appropriate to revisit this piece.

There was a an open call for projects last year – something I don’t usually respond to – but I was taken by the whole idea of an exhibition for the North and it’s potential to realise ambitious projects so I put something in. The idea was for a mass of steam engine whistles to reverberate across Newcastle and the river once a day. The sounds echoing off the buildings and the river valley. Marking time and place – both the 1 o’clock in Newcastle, but also where we are in the 21st century in a digital world, with a reminder of how we got here. A fusion of past, preset and future in the spirit of that first Great Exhibition in 1851.

And so, standing in that 1850’s John Dobson designed train shed of glass and iron to hear those whistles from the age of steam ring out with split-second accuracy to open a new Great Exhibition, that spirit rose again.

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Up until late last night, it was feeling like proper winter here in the Durham Dales. We’d had a nice covering of snow, which despite it forecast to disappear within hours, was topped up the following night giving us two days of prettiness. It wasn’t particularly deep – just an inch or two mostly. Not enough to cause any problems, but enough to coat everything around and transform it in the way only snow can.

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But it’s gone now. Washed away by ‘storm’ Dylan overnight. Now there’s no trace of it left – not even in the high gunnels on the fells. Our winter wonderland is just a memory – until the next time. Preserved only in the millions of pictures circulated on social media. The fast flicked repository for all the moments of all the people.

And now, on the last day of the year, 2017 is about to fall into the vault of past years. I seem to do a blog post of the year this time every year. It’s a good time to take stock, reflect and sometimes enjoy the moments that were far too hectic at the time.

As I reflect on all the things that happened that make up my experience of the past year, there are also the things that didn’t happen.

Lots didn’t happen in 2017.

Compas‘ was to be the centrepiece for my solo show at Mellerstain House in the Scottish Borders and the launch piece for the Borders Sculpture Park. A giant, double pointed form aligned with the lines of site and travel through the estate, the angles were drawn from the slope of the lawn while the dimensions – 60m long and 16m high – were the exact dimensions of the Robert Adam designed house.

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It didn’t happen.

For a new arts festival in the Lake District, to celebrate its World Heritage Site status, I proposed a life-sized bouncy castle tower to go on the top of one of the lakeland fells. From a distance it would be a visual reference point on the horizon – the red standing out against the verdant landscape. For those venturing to the top of the fell, it would be a unique experience (and a lot of fun).

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There are a lot of issues with commissioning bouncy castles. It’s a steep learning curve and one that ultimately proved too steep for far too many reasons. So it was changed to a solid nylon inflatable. Infinitely easier to handle and fabricate. However, the unpredictability of the weather on lakeland fells caught us out on the day and it didn’t happen.

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

Also not happening was a floating installation in a city centre location. This might still be subject to an NDA so I can’t say anymore.

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But it didn’t happen.

I almost built the world’s largest freestanding paper arch in Vienna in the spring. Situated in a prime location amongst some incredible architecture and outside a UNESCO listed coffee house, the arch was built from standard copier paper with decorative colour accents reflecting the architecture of Otto Wagner. Standing 5m high at the apex, unlike my previous paper bridges, this didn’t spring off fixed abutments. Instead this was entirely free-standing. Just paper. Nothing else.

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But arches are complicated mathematical models and what seemed like such slight discrepancies in ground levels and the behaviour of lighter weight paper than previous bridges, despite all the scale modelling and calculations, it ultimately wasn’t stable enough to stand on its own.

It didn’t happen.

What did happen though was..

XXX – my first solo show at the newly launched Borders Sculpture Park at Mellerstain House. The ‘compas’ piece was replaced with ‘Scattered‘ – a series of large white spheres floating elegantly on the lake.

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These accompanied the more architectural ‘Pointed‘ and ‘Towered‘ pieces elsewhere in the gardens.

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Keep was successfully installed on Castle Howe in Kendal, Cumbria, on the site of the first castle in the town. Its bright red contrasting with the ‘Auld Grey Town’ and a line of sight to the slightly newer castle ruin on the other side of the town.

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‘Keep’ from above Kendal Castle. Photo © Tony Watson 2017

Volume‘ was a photographic series of images of very temporary installations in the Newcastle City Library. The collection of images will form the basis of a very large scale bookwork that contemplates the space within the architecture of the building through the use of time and light.

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TreeBubble‘ was the last of the inflatable installations for the year. A 5m bubble wrapped around an ancient oak tree within the grounds of the Bowes Museum in County Durham.

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It was never an intention to do so many inflatable artworks in one year. Like so many things, it just seemed to happen that way. By contrast, so far none of the major pieces I’m currently working on for next year are inflatable, but that’s not to say i won’t return to them at some point in the future.

It’s certainly been an interesting year, with lots of challenges, lots of learning and lots of great people making all these things happen.

None of these things happen in isolation. There are so many people involved with each and every one of these project – bot the ones that happen as well as the ones that didn’t. It’s a long list but they all deserve my gratitude. So a huge THANK YOU to:

 

Susan & Franz Brunner, Mondi Group, Jon Stynes, Peter Foskett, Jane Haddington, George Binning, Jane Malloch, Sarah Coulson, Debbie Cunliff, Navigator North, Automated Cutting Services, Hendersons Textiles, SpaceCadets, Lisa Smith, Jen Morgan, ABC Inflatables, Four Colman Getty, Penny Anderson, Archifringe Festival, Lakes Alive Festival, Phillippa Haynes, Netty Miles, Tony Watson, Amanda Sutton, Rob Ives, Ian Horn, Helen Tuck, Jane Shaw, Andrew Scrogham, Mark Thurston, Gary Chapman, Points North, Phil Carr, UTASS, The Bowes Centre for Art, Design and Craft, Matthew Read, The Bowes Museum, Sarah Collicott, ProntaPrint Darlington, Artiq

and of course, everyone who comes here to read all the things I post. Comments always welcome, whether here or on all the other social media channels.

I’ve had a sneak peek at 2018, and it’s looking OK from here. So onward and upward. have a great New Year. See you on the other side.

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It’s been so long since I last posted to this blog I’ve forgotten how to begin a new post. I know where I want to end up and part of the journey of getting there, but how to start is turning out trickier than it seemed.

Art is a bit like that. For me at least it’s largely instinctive. When students or journalists ask ‘where did the idea come from?’ I usually have some kind of answer to keep them happy. But the real answer is usually a lot more complicated and involved than that.

Ideas – inspiration if you like – is an ongoing process and one that probably started at birth. There are things you remember from various parts of your life that you recall or associate with places, sounds, smells, concepts, emotions. Sometimes they may feel quite random or spurious in their association at the time. But that’s just the way your brain works. To the extent that when someone inevitably asks ‘what’s the piece about?’ the answer is rarely straightforward either. In fact Ive recently decided to put a time scale on answering that. Three years minimum. That’s about as long as it takes to absorb the work and start to understand what it was really about.

Of course, art doesn’t have to be about anything at all. Francis Bacon was famously quoted as saying “The purpose of art is to deepen the mystery”.


Presence‘ – an album by Zed Zeppelin, has cover artwork featuring an obsessive hole. The nostalgic images from the 40s and 50s appear to show everyday people obsessed by an ever present mysterious void.

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Art directed by one of my heroes – Storm Thorgesson – the premise was to put an object from the future into the past. In true Thorgesson style rather than use archive images from the 40s and 50s, the cover images were shot for real on the basis that ‘nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’. There’s something unsettling about a familiar setting disrupted by something that is clearly not meant to be there. Yet in these images the ‘thing‘ appears not only to be accepted, but hold a real presence in all the situations. The irony being the ‘thing‘ is not even a ‘thing’ but a hole. The ‘presence’ is actually an ‘absence’. When the concept was first pitched to the band, Robert Plant’s response was “Who the hell needs to understand everything anyway?”.

The mysterious black object motif is also drawn in part to the monoliths in Kubrick’s film  version of ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey‘.

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In the film we see three large, black monoliths  – the first in prehistoric earth that appears to mark a turning point in evolution, the second one on the moon and the third orbiting Jupiter. The monoliths are a key marker in the plot of the movie – in many respects they are what the film is all about, yet they are also a source of endless discussion and conjecture about what they are. In Arthur C Clarke’s original books, the monoliths – and there are more than just those three – have a presence but no substance, only that their shape is in the proportion of 1:4:9 (the first three squared numbers). In the books it is also suggested they have dimensions beyond the physical three with ever increasing proportions (…16:25:36…). Of course their meaning and purpose could be very simple. They just are. What are they? – something else… where did they come from? – somewhere else… when did they appear?… they’ve always been there.

In short, they’re follies. Objects designed to be mostly there to just be there. I’ve written before about the Chinese tradition of placing man made objects in landscapes to make sense of the scale, form and colour of the vastness of their environment. As a kid I was always a little obsessed by the presence of follies. I remember seeing Horton Tower in Dorset and asking my grandparents  what it was for. “It’s just a tower. It’s not for anything” was their reply. Grandparents never lie. So it must have been true. Weird, maybe. But true.

Through my teens I learnt to appreciate the surreal-ness (is that a word?) of follies. The Belvedere Tower at Claremont Gardens was always tantalisingly behind gates, locked out of reach.

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‘Belvedere Tower’, Claremont Gardens, Surrey. A low-resolution scan from an infrared negative, but you get the gist…

There was always something Alice in Wonderland about its inaccessibility. Those clipped hedges framing the view up the lawn. It must have been a great view from the tower across the gardens and lake, only the windows aren’t real. They’re painted on. Part of Capability Brown’s masterpiece in landscape design. The tower was there for its presence. To look over the landscape, and while it obviously couldn’t actually look over the garden, it reinforced the idea that the landscaped garden was designed to be looked over. That looking was fundamental to what the garden was about.

Another favourite was Leith Hill Tower. A wonderful piece of gothic architecture built in 1765 to enhance the countryside. No more, no less. There’s stairs up to the roof which is (at just over 1000ft above sea-level) the highest point in southern England. However, the steps weren’t built until 100 years after the rest of the building. So for a century it was just a tower for tower’s sake.


This summer I built ‘Keep’ – a 10m high folly for the Lake District. OK, so I didn’t actually build it – Debbie in Manchester did the hard work with the sewing machine. Originally it was going to be a bouncy castle inside, but a number of design issues and some disastrous fabrication decisions put pay to that idea, so it was redesigned as just a folly. It was commissioned by the Lake District National Park as part of their Lakes Alive Festival. The original brief was around the theme of Cultural Landscapes to celebrate the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing for the Lake District. The English Lake District has it’s very own and important history in the world of landscape appreciation. Unlike most of the rest of England, Follies are not part of that tradition. However, I wanted to look at the role the Lakes played in the wider English Landscape Tradition and put a folly in that landscape.

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Original mock-up of ‘Keep’ on Latrigg, above Keswick, Cumbria.

‘Keep’ was designed to be a very light touch in a protected environment. As an inflatable artwork it was easy to get onto site and install. It could be installed and taken down again the same day which meant in theory it could be taken to quite isolated spots and places where a more permanent folly would never be allowed.

However, as mostly made from air, it is very susceptible to weather conditions.  On the location I’d originally intended it to go – being around 2000ft above sea level and very exposed, the weather was prone to sudden changes. On the best day of the pre festival week, the conditions looked like they would be right to get the tower up for a few hours. However, during inflation the wind suddenly picked up to more than twice the safe maximum and the install had to be quickly abandoned.

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

The following weekend was the festival itself. Confined to Kendal, the piece was installed on Castle Howe – the site of the original castle in Kendal, but with a line of sight to the latter and existing castle ruin on the other side of the town. For a day the weather played ball and the piece did its job as being a tower.

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For the Kendal installation, I chose Castle Howe partly so that there would be some kind of dialogue between ‘Keep’ in red and the existing castle in white – rather like rooks on a chessboard – maybe another Alice through the Looking-glass reference. It was also partly about the vibrance of the colour with the ‘Auld Grey Town’, as evidenced in Tony’s drone shots.

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Drone view from above Kendal Castle looking back to ‘Keep’ on Castle Howe. Photo © Tony Watson.

The install on a fell in the Lake District will happen at some point. I’ll keep a look out for the right conditions, both in terms of windspeed and in the colour and light quality of the surrounding landscape. When it’s right it’ll be stunning and ‘enhance the landscape’, whatever that means.

Two months on and I’m starting to understand what the piece is about. Having seen the piece working in Kendal, I’m getting a better idea what the piece is and how it works. It’s also something I’m keen to continue in the future. That may be taking ‘Keep’ out on the road for a series of installs, or it may be more involved than that. Who knows, maybe a whole series of follies in different landscapes.

More importantly, I’m happy not really understanding what the project means yet. All good art has at least ten different meanings. I’m quite sure using temporary follies to interrogate the landscape has at least that, but it may take me a while to discover what they all are.

There’s something about follies that seems to fit with the work I’ve been doing for the past few years.  I still don’t know what that something is, except it’s probably something else. But I do know it’s always been there.

 

 

 

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The curlews are back.

As a phrase it’s simple and short. You can pack so much into short phrases. In Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, the pivotal moment in the whole play is written as just ‘He died’. There’s no how or why or wherefore. No big announcement or speech. No high drama. Just two words.

The curlews are back.

it’s four words, granted, but in the upper reaches of the North Pennines it says so much. In any normal winter it would mark the end of it. A return to normal and the reassurance that everything will be OK again. With the numbers of curlew and lapwing and oystercatcher and redshank on the ever decline in the North of England, it marks something of a sigh of relief to hear those first whirring, bubbling, almost alien calls echoing around the fells.

Hearing those sounds also reminds me I’m in the Upper Dale, which is where I got to after leaving Cronkley Bridge. Heading ever onwards, downstream towards the distant sea.

Today the river level is up a bit and the water is running at a fair pace. Not quite in spate, but in a decided hurry nonetheless.

Following the Pennine Way, the path is well marked and maintained, but moves away from the course of the river as it swings right and left and right in big sweeping curves beneath Dime Holm Scar. Up on Bracken Rigg the path flatten out to a brief plateau and the gentle mounds of a bronze age settlement.

The path next meets the river just before the crushing plants of High Force Quarry loom up on the opposite bank. A still very active whinstone quarry, it’s a present reminder of the industrial activity that’s shaped all of the landscape around here. This now barren and wild landscape bears the marks everywhere of centuries of mining and quarrying and the wealth and poverty of those that came to make their fortune from what lies beneath the surface.

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But the landscape is vast too, and easily swallows up the industrial workings. A mere dot on the wider view.

 

And opposite, barely visited and overlooked by the rumble of machines and steel and rubber tyres, is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in this part of the Pennines.

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Bleabeck Force is the final leap where two becks from way up the fell meet and tumble down in a race to get to the river. From the Tees there is a small concrete beam bridge that gives you a view up the lower cascades and the top of the highest one. A short scramble over the boulders rewards you with a great view of the main fall and plunge pool below. The water levels on these fellside becks and gills are fickle and I’ve walked past this many times and never seen it look quite so spectacular. I’ll definitely make the journey up on a spate day.

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Back at the Tees, the river is still in a bit of a hurry. Skipping over the rocky bed which itself is becoming increasingly jarred and jagged with much larger outcrops appearing to grow up from the river bed. These angular intrusions breaking up the flow of the river and churning it white and chaotic.

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A quarter of a mile further on the river meets a wall of whinstone and is forced into a narrow channel down one side. The full width of the river – maybe 10 metres or more squeezed into a gap no more than a metre in places. here the water shows it’s true potential. You sense it’s speed and sheer will power.

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It’s sprinting now.

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Then with one last twist and pirouette it leaps.

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and over a 35m vertical drop. In one, two steps.

As it collides with the pool below, large quantities launch back up against the incessant downforce.

This is High Force. The ‘biggest’ waterfall in England. I’m not sure how they quantify these things. It’s not the highest or the widest, but when in full flow it certainly has the largest volume of water per metre drop. Or something like that. Well, it’s impressive and it’s the biggest tourist attraction in the upper dale.

There’s two ways to see this. From the carpark beside the High Force Hotel on the main dale road there’s a very attractive path that leads down the steep gorge to the base of the water falls for a few pounds entrance. Here you get to be as close as you’d want to get o experience the full power of the falls. When it’s in full flow the spray can be so much it’s difficult to see the falls. But the sight of that much water in full motion and the continuous roar is a real experience.

Alternatively, from the Pennine Way on the other side of the river, you can get scarily close to the very top of the falls and watch the water disappearing down to the river below. Further downstream, there’s a little path off the main route that takes you to a small, unmarked viewing clearing where you get to see the whole waterfall in it’s full glory. And this one is free.

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Breaking yourself away from watching the waterfall, the path continues through a very ancient juniper forest while the river runs through a steep wooded gorge below and largely unseen for about a mile. The path meets the river again at the next bridge.

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It’s bridges we’ve really come to see and this is a fine one. Holwick Head Footbridge links the main Teesdale road with Holwick Head House and the track down towards Holwick village and the Earl of Strathmore’s estates.

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Upper Teesdale is split into two major estates – to the north is the Raby estate of Raby Castle and the ownership of the Lord Barnard. It can be distinguished by its whitewashed buildings and dark blue paintwork. To the south of the river at this point is the estate of the Earl of Strathmore who has a country house at Holwick Lodge. Holwick Head Bridge marks a link between the two estates and was originally built by the then Duke of Cleveland in 1896 and was known at the time as the Duke’s Bridge.

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It was rebuilt as a single footbridge by Durham County Council in 1998, but still retains the rather grand cast iron gateposts of the original bridge made by Motley and Green of Leeds.

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It’s a simple steel girder construction over a central stone pillar with wooden decking. It’s a popular bridge with walkers making circular trips along the river, or just as a stopping place to stand and watch the river run below. But its still only a footbridge. The first proper road bridge across isn’t for another six or seven miles yet which makes you realise just how isolated the south side of the river is. These bridges may be few and far between, but they’re vital for getting around this landscape.

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From the top of the bridge the river is busy on its way and largely ignores the passing of people overhead. It may have lost some of its width since High Force, but it’s lost none of its sense of purpose. There’s no slowing down or pausing to catch a breath. It will need all its energy to get past the next bit.

 

 

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Twelve years is a long time. Twelve years ago was a very different place for most people. Twelve years ago, on a whim, I did something I’d never done before and it’s shaped my life ever since.

March 5th 2005. I don’t normally remember dates of things, but I seem to remember this one. It was a calm, sunny day and we were rowing giant red balls across Grasmere in the heart of the Lake District.

The year before I’d helped create a new festival of art in the landscapes of Cumbria and the Lake District in the North of England. Off the back of that, the local tourist board wanted to know if I could do something to get a bit of media attention for the Lakes out of season. Maybe something big? I think their original idea was something along the lines of a big red nose for Comic Relief. The normal PR stunt thing. But while they were thinking of something 12ft tall, I was thinking something over a mile long.

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The original idea was a dotted line weaving the length of Grasmere – north to south. Needless to say the budget didn’t run to that, so a much smaller version was devised whereby the balls would rush towards the southern shore beneath Loughrigg with the balls getting progressively larger to accentuate the perspective.

The piece I believe was to be installed for a week or two. The balls were PVC and commissioned from a fabricator based on a farm in Devon and arrived in three large boxes that fitted in the boot of my Renault Clio. Lengths of sinking line were bought from the Ropemakers in Hawes, Yorkshire and concrete breeze blocks were bought from my local builders merchant in Kirkby Stephen for anchorage.

Grasmere was chosen as it was both a relatively small lake (one mile by half a mile, approx.) and conveniently placed at the edge of two local TV regions in the hope that both would show up and double the coverage. However, Grasmere has a little-known by-law prohibiting the use of powered vessels on it. The only way to get the balls in position was towing them in rowing boats.

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The largest ball at 4m diameter. Photo © Tony West

Luckily, the Faeryland Tearooms at the top of the lake had a small fleet of boats to hire and kindly stepped in to help, along with a bunch of artists volunteering for the cause. The prevailing winds off the Helvellyn range blew north to south in the mornings and with a relatively still day the elements were on our side. That’s not to say there’s anything even vaguely easy about towing big inflatable balls the size of a small house 3/4 mile across a lake. There was a small window in mobile phone coverage so the fine-tuning of the installation was done with me halfway up Loughrigg with binoculars and a cell-phone calling the people in what from there looked like very small boats.

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Starting to tow out the balls. Photo © Tony West

From the clients’ perspective it worked well. We had TV and radio coverage across the whole of the North of England, some cracking photos and a good news story of artists doing things with the iconic landscapes of the Lake District National Park.

For me it was a very steep learning curve and baptism of fire into doing things of that scale. Among the things I learnt were practical things like the importance of calculating wind drag on large objects on water (they drifted lots), and the general volume of logistics to do something that looks quite simple.

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Installing the balls. Photo © Tony West

But I also learnt lots more fundamental things about work of significant scale – the way light and weather affects and adds to the piece; the way colour works in landscapes; the interaction of people in appreciation of scale; what it feels like to experince work of that scale.

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The ‘final’ installation

The public were similarly receptive too. We were a little apprehensive as to how people would react to such a bold statement, but the fact that it was temporary, had a very light touch and used the surrounding landscape to become part of the work rather than challenging it drew visitors in their hundreds. We have no idea just how many people came to see it – we weren’t even thinking about that – but the local National Trust Estates Manager reckoned it was thousands based on the carpark use alone.

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Me 12 years younger!

We had no idea what the longer term effect would be. Nothing like this had ever been attempted in the Lake District. There was a perception of overprotection from major stakeholders like the National Trust and the Lake District National Park Authority. However, that the piece was successful and very positively received made it so much easier to do similar works in the landscape in the future. Certainly from where I stood it was the piece that created a significant mind change in those organisations.

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The following morning the balls had drifted a little. Photo © Tony West

As landscape works go, this was very simple. It was made with very little thought to a wider context or depth of meaning. In the wider scheme of things it’s not a great piece of art. This wasn’t the first piece I’d done outdoors or using the landscape, but in terms of scale it was a new benchmark. I was hooked and almost every piece I’ve created since has a direct link back to that piece.

And it was 12 years ago today.

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Maybe it’s that new year thing when you start out with good intentions – bold ideas, long-term plans, fresh start or whatever, but I guess every new thing has to start somewhere, at sometime. It seems that the winter months are when I look ahead to the coming year and finally get to start working on new projects. There’s still some gaps in the overall view of the year, but from what’s already there I’m getting a feel for the overarching themes. While last year was more about textures and moments, this year looks like being one of spaces and voids. Strange how things find their own threads.

Last year I really got to know some of the river where I live. I spent large chunks of time watching it, filming it, photographing it, editing the results and creating the major piece of the year – ‘Waterfall‘. I’ll probably do a more in-depth post about that at some point, but for those new to the game, ‘Waterfall’ saw three white-washed field barns wrapped in slow-motion film footage of the three main waterfalls of the River Tees. Each barn became a visual cube of slow moving water in the night sky. It was big and awesome and probably the best thing I’d done in a long long time.

Since that piece I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with the river. I used to go down there almost every day, but the daily photographing and research has probably made me over familiar now and some of its magic is somehow lost. I kind of know how it does all its tricks now.

So I needed to find a way to re-engage with the river. There are new things I need to discover. I need to find another story in it.

Then last week I caught up with Andy Carters ‘270’ project on his Calling All Station YouTube channel. Over the next 52 weeks Andy  is aiming to visit all 270 stations on the London Underground. To make it more interesting he has to pass through the ticket barriers at least once at every station – either coming or going through them, not just passing through on a train. It’s this slowing down of the travel that makes you stop, look, think and examine the familiar. About 40 stations in (starting with the boring bits of the  Jubilee Line) and I’m already hooked. Each station is documented on his blog as he goes along too, creating a comprehensive gazetteer of architectural gems and subterranean secrets beneath the capital.

Inspired by his journey, I’ve decided on mine – to visit and cross* every crossing of the River Tees from source to sea.

Bridges are fascinating things. I’ve had my own experiences in constructing them. Essentially they are practical engineering – a way of traversing in this case water. Yet as purely man made structures in what is on this route, mostly open countryside, they have a very distinctive presence within the landscape to manage.

Today I made a start. The purist in me wanted to start at the source and work progressively downstream. However, it’s still very much winter and as the Tees starts just below the summit of Cross Fell – the highest peak on the Pennines – and very much buried under snow for the next few weeks I’ve decided to scrap that and not be precious about the order in which I visit the bridges.

My first crossing then wasn’t even a bridge. It was also one of the biggest structures on the river – the dam wall at Cow Green Reservoir.

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Between 1969 and 1971, a section of the Upper Tees was flooded to create the 2-mile long Cow Green Reservoir as a part of of a series of interventions to regulate the flow of water down the river for abstraction purposes. The 1/4 mile long concrete reinforced embankment holds back 40,000,000,000 litres of water (count those zeros!) while the entire river flow is regulated by sluices on the southern bank. So technically the River Tees flows beneath it, so the dam wall is a crossing.

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The reservoir sits in a natural basin of pasture land high in the North Pennines. The landscape here is a unique blend of very specific geology and rare botanical habitat. Widdybank Fell which sits along the Durham side of the water is home to the rare Blue Gentian  and the only place in the UK where alpine plants have survived since the last great ice age. The land here is fertile and remains of bronze age summer farms lie beneath the reservoir – themselves an indicator of how climate changes over time. Back then temperatures in these upper fells were around three degrees warmer. It might not sound much but the weather here is now too cold for most wading birds to breed on the reservoir. On a fairly bright day like today it felt relatively mild a few miles downstream, yet up here the shaded bays on the water are still iced over and pockets of snow lie in the heather.

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Today the reservoir sits in the Moorhouse National Nature Reserve – the largest nature reserve in the UK taking in the highest fells in the Pennine chain and the upper catchments of the River Tees.

The wall is an immense brutal slab of industrial infrastructure. Its scale and construction means it’s never going to blend in (whatever that means) and makes a bold statement within the landscape. Yet, the sparsity and relative bleakness of this part of the dale tolerates its monolithic brutality. The scale of the landscape seems to just swallow it up. As the river rushes quickly away from the wall thinly over bedrock, there is a greyness and roughness, that is almost alien in spirit and the concrete meets the bedrock as an ancient ancestor and the family resemblance is still there.

Within yards of the wall, the river passes beneath Birkdale Footbridge. This is the first of the bridges in County Durham and is still a border crossing between Durham and Cumbria. Built in 1966 – and just predating the dam wall – it’s made from a concrete span sitting on two reinforced stone pillars in the river. Like the dam, it’s a very utilitarian structure and supports a private access road and the Pennine way.

Downstream of the bridge the river disappears down a series of dramatic cataracts between basaltic columns of winsill. At a total of over 200ft, Cauldron Snout is one of the main waterfalls of the River Tees and shows how fast the water develops its wild character from the man-made sluices of the reservoir.

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So this is where my journey this year begins. I’ll back track when it’s warmer to find the source of the river and the only bridge beyond the reservoir, but I’m looking forward to discovering the journey of the water from the sluices as it cuts its way through the landscape towards the sea, and how people have built ways of traversing it.

It’s a long a winding story and I’m looking forward to discovering the stories and narratives of those crossing places. it’s a rich history and along the way I’m going to find Romans and Saxons, and JMW Turner and Lewis Carroll and railways and steel and plutonium. Lots of landscape and lots of engineering. And lots of walking.

 

*ok. so I won’t walk over the railway bridges,or motorway one and will probably give the pipe bridges a miss too

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