Five huge billboards have popped up around Killhope in Weardale, rather like the three billboards made famous in the Oscar nominated movie.
But these aren’t protests or advertisements, they’re part of an art project reflecting the landscape and history of this former mining area.
In the 18th and 19th centuries nearly 70% of the world’s lead production came from the hills of the North Pennines. This early industrial landscape would’ve been pockmarked with the signs and scars of mining.
Today the ruins of this industry are everywhere although sometimes it requires a bit of detective work to spot them. Now a contemporary artist is revealing them in all their former glory through a series of billboards.
The Architect of Ruins
“The Architect of Ruins” is the brainchild of County Durham artist Steve Messam who created five art installations around Weardale’s landscape during the pandemic in 2020.
During the height of the lockdown Weardale was one of the most deserted areas in Britain. Its moorland landscape is remote and thinly populated in normal times, but the lack of tourists made it feel even more deserted.
Messam’s project involved transforming a number of ruined mining structures into fantastic follies and visual landmarks. The sculptures he created were only in place for a few hours, a truly transitory experience.
Shortly after creating them, Steve Messam photographed the works to create five billboards which are now on display at Killhope. I was keen to discover these unusual art works so took a trip to deepest Weardale…
Billboard 1 – “Adit“
“Adit” is the first billboard you’ll see as you start your journey at the mining museum. It depicts a stone structure in the middle of an upland mining landscape with a gold inflatable ‘balloon’ blocking its entrance.
‘What is an adit?’ you may ask. In the mining industry’s heyday it was part of a network of tunnels and shafts which once extended for miles underground around the Middleton in Teesdale area.
This billboard illustrates the transformative effect of the railways and industry on Weardale’s landscape. It also shows how some of these structures still remain in place today because they were simply too difficult to remove.
Billboard 2 – “Winding House”
This billboard was inspired by a ruined building which sits high above Weardale hills. It’s one of my favourites of the five billboards. I like the way the shape of the pointy red object accentuates the visual impact of the abandoned stone building.
‘Winding House’ also has a sense of mystery. What is the structure and why is it located at one of the highest points in this landscape? Surprisingly it’s all that remains of a wagon incline which was once used to transport ironstone from the mines to the railway at the bottom of the valley.
Levers in the winding house controlled the speed of the descending wagons and stopped them at the bottom.
It must have been a precarious operation if you wanted to avoid a runaway wagon train.
The original building had windows which are thought to have exploded when the building was hit by lightning!
Billboard 3 – “Gap”
A high impact billboard called “Gap” features another old mining structure which the artist stumbled upon in the upper reaches of Weardale.
It depicts two stone pillars which were once part of the mining works although their exact purpose has been lost in the mists of time.
The billboard gives a good impression of the scale of these structures which were over two metres tall. Today they are dwarfed by the expansive surrounding landscape. The artist has used a bright red rocket-shaped installation to stress their size and importance. This piece is over 5 metres tall wedged between pillars in an old quarry works near Cow Green Reservoir.
The pillars are thought to date back to the 20th Century, much later than many of the other ruins in the area.
Billboard 4 – “Wagon”
“Wagon” is located at the far end of the Kilhope site, surrounded by wild flowers and former mining buildings.
This an example of an abandoned ventilated van. Over 3,000 of these wagons were built by the Great Western railway for use across the UK. Many clocked up thousands of miles on the railway network.
Later, many of them were sold to farmers when light goods traffic ceased on the railways. This is one of several that were left to rot once their purpose had been served.
This billboard with its billowing fabric wagon reminds me of something I once saw in Montana in the USA, but it was actually left abandoned in wild Weardale.
Billboard 5 – “Wall”
Another of my favourite billboards, “Wall” is trickier to find than the other four because it is located in the woodlands behind the Killhope mining site.
It depicts the track which wound its way through spoil heaps to the entrance of what was one of the busiest lead mines in Teesdale. Around 1,000 tonnes of lead were extracted from the mine over a 30 year period, using horses and heavy labour.
The miners also constructed a stone retaining wall as a bulwark for a spoil heap so packhorse ‘trains’ could move through the area safely. It’s thought that it was built in the late 1800s.
Review of the Ruins
The Architect of Ruins runs until 12 September 2021 at Killhope Mining Museum in Weardale.
I enjoyed discovering the five billboards in the remote old mining landscape of Weardale. The boards are thought provoking and intriguing in their concept and design.
Particularly impressive is the use of nylon textiles to make the installations. They add form, dynamism and colour to accentuate the scale and impact of the industrial ruins.
The art works reminded me of the installation projects undertaken by the great international artist Christo, famous for wrapping up large buildings.
There are also echoes of the transitory landscape installations of Andy Goldsworthy, another artist who has experimented with creating temporary art works in wild landscapes and photographing them.
My only criticism is that I would have liked to have seen the real ruins and art installations in the landscape. But I appreciate that their temporary nature was part of the artist’s concept. The video below gives a good impression of the original art works when they were briefly in situ.
Top Tips – Weardale’s Industrial Past
This Wearside trip was a journey of discovery. The five billboards encouraged me to go in search of the patchwork of old industrial and mining ruined buildings and structures strewn across the fells.
Driving down to Killhope, you can see odd ruins dotted around the landscape from abandoned chimneys and the remains of strange stone structures to the faint line of an old wagon way. Take a camera with you because they are extremely photogenic.
On the journey back we passed through Allenheads where I discovered a remarkable tunnel opposite the old mining offices. It’s a horse track where ponies were taken into the mines down a spiral incline. It was also the main entrance for miners working on this level.
Visiting The Billboards
Killhope is located in upper Weardale just south of Allenheads and Nenthead in County Durham.
The dramatic road to Killhope Mining Museum winds its way over the top of the dales before descending down to the site of the billboards. Turn into the museum car park and then he’d towards reception to get a leaflet about the billboards.
All five billboards are located within easy walking distance of each other within the Killhope Mining Museum complex.
The billboard exhibition is free as is entrance to the mining museum. You can also go down into the brilliant mining tunnel complex which takes you deep into the old mines but you’ll need to wear wellies (provided by the museum)! In the wheel chamber, there’s an impressive, massive underground waterwheel used to pump water.
Killhope Museum and the Billboards project sites are open daily 10:30-17:00