The Sculpture Critic’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Sculpture Critic’s Tale

Dealing with Big Holes

by Sean Fugill

Sean Fugill
Sean Fugill

You cannot pass through South East Northumberland without noting how our thirst for energy has impacted upon the landscape. The twin winding shafts of Woodhorn Colliery museum still stand prominent on the skyline; a legacy of deep mining in the county’s past. The energy future is represented by a string of turbines that occupy the eastern jetty of Blyth Harbour and beyond them out at sea two giant structures sit in the bay. Looking inland a corresponding pair can be seen at Plessey.

But it has been the opencast extraction of coal that probably has the made the greatest visual impact. For what happens when the hole in the ground has been emptied? Always a resourceful bunch, the Northumbrians have come up with a variety of answers.

Firstly you can do the obvious, that is backfill and return the land to agriculture or other amenity use. The new golf course and sports club on the edge of Morpeth and a park at Pegswood are typical examples of this solution.

Then again you can just leave the hole open. That is what occurred at Hadston, south of Amble. In the 1980s such an excavation was turned into a watertight lake by placing a thick clay layer over the ground. Druridge Bay Country Park came into being as the remaining spoil material was formed into rolling ground on the perimeter, then planting some trees and bushes. Two decades on it has matured into a tranquil recreational space, home to a wide variety of wildlife. 40 species of bird have been known to breed in the Park, with many more passing through. Nearby Hauxley and Druridge Pools wildlife havens have also adopted this approach to redundant opencast pits, whilst Cresswell Pond has been created from the collapse of coal mines. Visit in winter to enjoy many species of duck including Pochards, Goldeneyes, Shovelers and Teal which come from Russia and Northern Europe for their winter holidays.

Yet to my mind these are mere rehearsals for the dramatic solution under way at yet another opencast site. For a decade Tynesiders have enjoyed prestige as art lovers flocked to admire Gormley’s Angel of the North, the huge steel winged human form overlooking Gateshead. But soon they will speed north into Northumberland to see a far earthier figure, what art in the landscape is truly about. For some 10 miles north of Newcastle huge bulldozers are busily sculpting 1.5 million tonnes of soil and clay into Northumberlandia, a massive landform of a naked and reclining curvaceous female figure four hundred and fifty yards in length with breasts and hips up to 100ft high, her left leg over the right and her hair spread out. And only at a life-expired opencast pit do you find that unique combination of 75 acres of industrial wasteland, a lot of waste material, some of the largest earth moving equipment on the planet and a wealthy mining company intent on keeping the local council and environmental lobby onside – it would just be too expensive to try anywhere else. Northumberlandia will take a few more years to complete but eventually she will be a lasting icon admired by the travellers who pass by the East Coast main railway line and the busy A1 on either side of her and those above, on their final approach to Newcastle airport.

Amazing what one can do with a big hole in the ground and a spoil heap isn’t it?

Editor: Some years ago during a University Student Rag Week, the iconic White Horse of Yorkshire, situated on the slopes of the North York Moors, was mysteriously transmuted overnight by huge strips of black polythene sheeting into the ‘Black & White Zebra’ of North Yorkshire. THERE IS NO TRUTH IN THE RUMOUR that Northumbrian students, outraged by the immodesty of this unseemly public display of female nudity, plan a similar operation to clothe the Goddess in a respectable fluorescent pink and yellow polka dot bikini. I repeat: ‘No Truth in the rumour’.