Giant-sized sculptures and art installations have proved to be hugely popular in recent years.
‘The bigger the better’ seems to be the motto as town and countryside compete to get the most impressive, large-scale sculpture to show off to the world.
Northumberlandia is the latest massive land sculpture project – and yesterday I got the chance to see what all the fuss is about.
Designed by artist Charles Jencks this unusual public art work is set in a 46 acre community park built on a former open cast coal mining site in Northumberland in North East England.
So what is it?
Well, it’s a giant female landscape art work… a mother figure with giant breasts and a curvaceous figure imprinted in the soil.
It’s the voluptuous Ava Gardner of the art world rather than the artistically sublime Venus de Milo.
Dubbed ‘Slag Alice’ by some, on account of its pit heap origins, I prefer its more flattering nickname of ‘Goddess of the North’.
There’s four miles of footpaths around the landform whose centrepiece is a sculpted, reclining woman made from 1.5 million tonnes of rock, clay and soil.
Her figure is flaunted in an obvious, slightly sexual way but there’s also something reassuring and motherly about her shapely curves.
At 100 feet tall and 1/4 mile long it’s a striking visual feature that certainly brightens up an otherwise industrial, drab landscape.
It’s all very impressive, if fantastically muddy in midwinter.
Our family group weathered the gloopy gunge to ascend to the top of the female giant, and narrowly avoided sliding down the muddy banks.
By the end of the trip the British boot polishing industry had scored the biggest kill… and shoe cleaning products were the real winners on our return home!
Splat – down went the camera cover into the muddy mire. Tammy polished it to perfection for the next two hours to hide her unhappy accident from Tony van Diesel who is fastidious about his photographic kit.
Let’s hope that these slightly muddy, darkly-lit stills don’t give the game away…
Northumberlandia is designed to be an evolving landscape. The idea is that the land art work will mature over time and change with the seasons – a bit like Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North in Gateshead.
It’s easy – even in the winter mud – to scramble to the top of the viewing platforms. An impressive panoramic view of the surrounding area awaits at the top of each peak.
Look across the landscape and you can see into the Shotton Surface mine which, we’re told on the publicity blurb, is of “particular attraction for fans of big machinery”.
Our contingent preferred to assess the artistic merit of the gargantuan art work… and were less than interested in the heavy trucks!
All of us enjoy looking at patterns and shapes in the landscape so it’s no surprise that land art has become a big hit with visitors.
The art work is designed to appear as a series of graceful sweeping curves and interlocking shapes.
It’s supposed to echo the landscape of the nearby Cheviot Hills in the Borders of northern England, although I’m not entirely convinced by the comparison.
Northumberlandia has been built by the Banks Group as part of the restoration of the adjacent Shotton coal mine.
The project claims to be a restoration first – taking a piece of land adjacent to the mine and providing a new landscape for the community to enjoy while the mine is still operational.
The £3 million cost of the project has been privately funded by the Banks Group and the Blagdon Estate… so nobody can accuse it of wasting public money in recessionary times.
The creative force behind Northumberlandia is Charles Jencks who was born in America and is well known for co-founding the Maggie’s Centres for cancer patients.
He has developed a reputation for creating exceptionally beautiful buildings which give dignity to sick and terminally ill people.
In a weird way Northumberlandia’s land art is also about well-being and feeling good.
The sculptured hillocks have a strange serenity that calms the soul, even on a Christmas holiday when everybody is feeling tired and over-stuffed with turkey.
Looking ahead to the spring I can imagine that this will be the perfect place for an impromptu picnic on a sunny, bright day.
It’s also just a stone’s throw away from Tyneside which makes for an excellent short half day trip. There’s even the option of a quick walk on the beach at nearby Whitley Bay on the way back into Newcastle.
Although the land art feels very new and manicured, I suspect that its character will develop over time. It has the distinct advantage of being very accessible to everyone from kids and adults to the downright curious and art fans.
For now it was a thrill to see something a little different – which has the potential to develop with nature and time. It’s not quite in the same artistic league as the Angel of the North but it’s an interesting experiment in sculpting land.
I’ll certainly be back in a short while to check out its changing curves.
Tammy’s top tips
Northumberlandia is located on Blagdon Lane near Cramlington about 7 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne in England. Follow the A1 north from Newcastle and tun off just before Cramlington at Blagdon Lane.
There’s a large car park and the terrain is easy going – albeit very muddy in winter and spring.
The site is open daily from 9.30-16:30 (no car parking on Mondays) and admission is free.
A new visitor centre is due to open from spring 2013.
Whilst in the vicinity check out the Blagdon Cheese Farm which sells an interesting range of specialist cheeses and deli fare.
There’s a public house called The Snowy Owl next to Northumberlandia which is handy for snacks, meals and Sunday lunch.