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I am already getting so behind in this tale. I set off weeks ago in all good faith half expecting to be at Barnard Castle by Easter. That hasn’t happened. While I’m more advanced in my journey than this blog would suggest – for those who follow me on social media will have seen I’m three bridges further on already – the annual awakening by people who want me to work with them has started and the day-to-day projects are almost at full capacity.

However, it’s a well-earned weekend off so I can pick up on where I was and start to clear the blog post backlog before I venture any further and make it worse.

In the previous post we’d got as far as Holwick Head footbridge. We’re now on very familiar turf. The next two stretches are very much my regular walking patch. It’s where I go most often when I need to get out to walk and think – or sometimes not think – frequently just as useful.

This is a well worn part of the Pennine Way and extremely popular with families at weekends. The while most set off from Bowlees to walk up past Low Force to High Force, a fair few will call it a day at Holwick Head, or head over the river to lunch at the High Force Hotel.

The river on this next stretch is always reasonably fast and it’s one of the steepest downhill stretches. Every hundred yards or so there is another little cataract or cascade helping it lose height. This stretch is also populated by a number of islands. When the river level is low, most of these are accessible from the south side. Some of the islands are barely separated from the bank, others are at points where the river splits and flows around them. The largest islands are separated by deep gullies which flow back up from the downstream end leading to a false sense of a very calm and flat river, when in reality on the far side of the island the river course is crashing down a series of violent falls with deep pools and jagged barricades of whinsill.

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On the day I walked to photograph it for this blog post the river was in full spate. A recent sharp thaw along with a day’s rain had really swollen the river and it was galloping along at a frightening pace. Leaping over every rock and boulder that still broke the raised water surface.

The largest of these cascades is Low Force. Here the river falls over a series of small drops before committing itself to the main 8m (24ft) fall.

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Low Force is actually two main fall paths – the main one to the left is bisected by a stubborn  outcrop at the top dividing an otherwise continuous drop to a deep pool beneath. Only when the river is in spate does this fall take on the full grace of a seamless curtain or river. To the right another gap in the whinsill allows another deeper but narrower column of water to escape. The volume of water through this narrower opening makes for a much more powerful spout that frequently carries rainbows in its spray in the late afternoon. Further across the river is another of the occasionally isolated islands. This one is accessible from the north bank for most of the summer months and gives a great view of the falls from the other side of the river. In the winter months this island is separated by a shallower stretch of river which in turns cascades into a an elongated still pool just downstream of the main falls.

Today the falls were in full flow and Low Force was mostly one giant wall of water charging over the sill. The waters below were deep and dark and constantly swirling with a menace of unseen currents.

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Downstream of the falls a particularly impressive outcrop of the now familiar dolerite columns act as a perfect picnicking spot with classic romantic views of the waterfalls through the trees in the woods beyond.

Low force is a popular spot for visitors and locals alike. The accessibility of the waterfalls and myriad of revealed views give a very real impression of the power of the river at this point. Weekends see often large number of people coming to look in awe and wonder. A beauty spot I guess some would consider it.

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Kayaking over Low Force on a sunnier day

Some get even more acquainted with the forces of nature. Most weekends in the spring and autumn when the water levels are up Low Force becomes a major attraction for kayakers, whitewater rafting or sometimes river rescue training. From Holwick Head footbridge to the sea at Redcar, the Tees is navigable all the way in a kayak. Only during extended periods of dry weather does the stretch down to Middleton in Teesdale become a problem when the rocky nature of the river bed and its dark water prove to be too difficult.

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Just below Low Force the river is crossed by the first of the genuinely interesting bridges – Winch Bridge. Originally built in the 18th century to allow lead miners in Holwick village to get to the newer workings above Newbiggin the first bridge is thought to have been the earliest example of a suspension bridge in Europe. The original bridge was made from hand wrought iron chain links with a single handrail across. In 1802, during a bad storm, three people were crossing the bridge when it gave way and all three were plunged into the raging water beneath. Two were rescued but the third was swept away to his death.

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The bridge was rebuilt in around 1830 and that is the form it takes today – two spans of cast iron chain with a timber walkway between. It has a handrail on each side suspended from cast iron towers on either side. Some additional strengthening was made in 1990, but it’s essentially the same 1830 suspension bridge and sways a fair bit when crossing.

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It’s a good place for a bridge. The rock faces either side make the river narrow so a short crossing. The density of the whinsill make it a very stable base to anchor a bridge. With the river running so fast on this stretch, bridging the river was a much safer option than fording it. A suspension bridge is a really good design solution for this site, but I wonder, given that this was probably the first suspension or chain bridge in Europe how the miners arrived at this solution in the first place. Even this 1830’s rebuild is an elegant solution and one that’s clearly stood the test of time. With its footings well above the waterline, this is the bridge that so far has lasted the longest in the upper reaches of the river.

The steep chasm below and the dark, swirling waters add to the sense of drama of this bridge. That combination of foreboding rocks, black water and the height above them being crossed with something as light and delicate and a few plank of wood suspended between thin pillars that makes this a memorable crossing.

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But there’s still another 50 miles or so to go before we reach the sea and there are many more ways that people have found to get across this river. From the centre of Winch Bridge you get a great perspective of the river turelessly working its way ever onward.

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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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The middle of winter is certainly feeling like it this year. It’s not particularly wintery in the weather, but it certainly feels darker and more gloomy. Anyway, we’ve past the shortest, darkest day, technically. Now the days are getting longer again we can look to the future and think about the year ahead. But it’s also that time of year where we look back at the past year and take stock.

For me 2016 has felt like a particularly busy year. The tail end in particular was a bit hectic at times. But it’s been a productive one. Lots of new things – new people, new works and new places to work with.

‘Lotus Souvenir’ – large origami lotus flower installation at Bicester Village, Oxfordshire. UK. in February.

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Lumb Mill Viaduct

‘The Scenic Route’ was a short research residency walking two former railway lines in Lancashire.

‘PaperBridge’ had a variety of outings over the year – includig being featured on a TV show on the Discovery Channel, being in a book on micro architecture and being presented to the King and Queen of Lesotho. A smaller working model was shown in an exhibition of paper design in Chicago, while drawings and a short documentary was shown in Nova Scotia and Montreal.

September saw the start of a series of back-to-back installations right across the North of England, starting with ‘Tower’ – an architectural intervention at the Festival of Thrift in Kirkleatham.

From September to November I did a series of installations across Lancashire for a commission. ‘When the Red Rose…’ saw temporary interventions in Preston, Blackpool and Lancaster. A fourth on the canal at Blackburn sadly didn’t happen, but I’ll keep that one back for another day.

The major piece of the year however, was just three fields away from where I live.

Three barns were wrapped in slow-motion projections of waterfalls from the nearby River Tees. Over six short nights over 2,000 people ventured to see the work, in the dark in a quiet, remote corner of County Durham. Blessed by a harvest moon the first weekend and by clear skies with resident milky way the second, no number of photos or videos can ever capture the experience those lucky 2000 had.

While it was a good year for interesting and ambitious new works, for me ‘Waterfall’ stood out as probably the best piece I’ve done so far. And to do it on my own doorstep, in front of my own local community was a particularly special thing to do.

Just as good as being able to do all those installations, exhibitions and workshops was all the wonderful people I got to work with. None of these can happen without teams of people dedicated to making them happen – from those commissioning the work and those fabricating some of the pieces to those who work tirelessly to promote the work or organise the epic tasks they can sometime become. So hopefully I haven’t missed anyone off but here goes:

Nancy Kryzanowski, Gemma Jackman, Sally-Anne Blaise, Caroline Ruddick, Paul Gray, Phil Carr and Alan Carr Print & Design, Premier Papers in Gateshead, Nick Hunt, Melanie Diggle, Diana Hamilton, Roy Halliday, Nick Lund, Julie Tomlinson and James Cropper plc, Lexi Gerry, Jon Stynes, David Metcalf and October Films, Aleta Florentin, Vianna Newman, Harvey Lev, Judith Bauer, Diane Spark and all at UTASS, Ian Hunter, Paul Chaney, Alex Murdin, Henk Keiser, Brenda Vrieling, Jan Hartold, Vicky Holbrough, Nicola Golightly, Stella Hall, Trevor at Kirkleatham Old Hall, Christina Hesford, Janet Rogers, Paul Murray, Becky Nicholson, Kirsty Childs, Jill Bennison, Karen Marshall, Kate Percival, Lowri Bond, Sara Cooper,  Jane Shaw, Fiona Goh and Holmfirth Arts Festival, Sarah Branson, Jamie Frost, Thomas Charveriat, Sarah Gent, Sarah Mayhew-Craddock, Lucy Jenkins, Rebecca Turner, Harry and Kate Vane, Ewan Alinson, Jill Cole, Malcolm Walton, William Burton, Chris Woodley-Stewart, Nicki Cullens, Shane Harris, Mark Tyler, Ryan May and Hightlights, DCC events team,  Lyndsey Waters, Tim Joel, Richard Baxter, Rita Whitlock, Ella Byford, Justina Ma, Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd, Anna Izza, Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Keri Sparkes, Jen Morgan, Catherine Shaw, Philippe Handford, Jamima Latimer, Louise Miller, Mike Neale, Stacey Walker, Julie Brown, Sandra Blue, Brent Lees, Friends of the Storey Garden, Rebecca Johnson, Laurie Peake, Sarah Steele and Preston Methodist Chapel, Alex Rinsler, Mykey Young, Richard and the Lightpool team, Zoe Dawes, Jenny Needham, Flossie Mainwaring-Taylor, Trevor Brookes, Martin Paul, John Gillmore, Heather Fox, Jennie Collingwood, David Turner, Andrew Barton, Paul Kingston…

I hope I haven’t missed too many off. That’s quite a team and a huge thanks to everyone on the list – I seriously could not have done all I have this year without each and everyone of you.

So, that’s it for this year now. Next year is another year. It’s going to be an interesting one for so many reasons, but I hope it’s more in a positive way.

Onwards and upwards…

 

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