garden tales from a Brit abroad
It’s been described as a pagan love goddess, a gesture of environmental stewardship, the largest human figure in the world, an abstraction of the Cheviot hills, a recumbent partner of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, and much else.
Charles Jencks’ Northumberlandia may be all these things. Its vast female form is certainly a rather extraordinary version of land art (the sculpting of earth, rocks and water into designed forms), recently installed near Cramlington in the northeast of England. Jencks is an American designer and theorist, probably best known for his Garden of Cosmic Speculation, in southeast Scotland. The prone female figure of Northumberlandia shares some of the swoops and surprises of that garden, but is altogether rougher and less refined. She forms the centrepiece of a new, privately funded, but very public, park, and is apparently a quarter of a mile long, with 100ft (30m) high breasts, and a body made from 1.5m tons of rock, soil and clay. Like much land art, the plan is apparently to let the form evolve gently with little or no maintenance.
We visited on a cold, blustery July day, a few months after the park was officially opened, and spent perhaps an hour strolling along the many paths that curve and climb around the site. As with other examples of Jencks’ work, it is hard to capture the experience in words. All you are seeing are simple man-made mounds and lakes, and yet the views shift and change as you walk and climb, constantly offering new glimpses and perspectives.
The most striking image hoves into view as you clamber towards that vast female face, when the adjacent Shotton surface coal mine suddenly becomes visible. Indeed, the mine is the sole reason for Northumberlandia’s existence, as Shotton’s owners created her to mitigate the impact of coal mining on the local community. As you descend, the mine disappears from view but remains in the memory, its steep, quarried cliffs and stockpiles of black coal serving as the industrial version of Northumberlandia’s grassy female form, similarly carved out of the land by big machinery. It reminded me of Robert Smithson (the great American land artist) and his fascination with creating modern art around what he described as “infernal regions – slag heaps, strip mines, and polluted rivers.”
Our visit felt strange, almost like dreamlike, and made us wish to return, and experience the lady (and her coal mine) in other guises – at dawn, in late afternoon sunshine, in snow, in rain….