Eden Benchmarks
Exploring the cultural landscape in East Cumbria
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The Sheepfolds Project (Instalment 17)

“I would like Sheepfolds to be seen as a monument to agriculture.  It is a very big project but also discreet because you can see only one small part of it at a time”.

                                                                                    Andy Goldsworthy

At the southern end of Warcop village, by the side of the lane, there is another of Goldsworthy’s six pinfolds containing a sleek, egg shaped cairn.  Built up from the surviving foundation of a derelict fold using a freshly quarried supply of the characteristically red, Eden valley sandstone, the fold and its cairn glow enigmatically in a tucked away corner above Crooks Beck.

The pinfold had virtually disappeared and been forgotten, so it was a little like raising a stone wall Lazarus from the dead; new stone was used in its reconstruction and everyone was pleased that a neglected piece of local heritage had been revived – with the added bonus of the distinctive ovoid cairn, like the stamen of a flower representing hope for positive renewal in the future.  Unfortunately part of the pinfold wall sits on what is now a precarious ledge adjacent to a beck, where the ground is subject to subsidence, and the wall keeps falling down.  There doesn’t seem to be much that can be done about it other than regular rebuilding.

Goldsworthy built the six Pinfold Cairns in honour of the Nine Standards; three short of his original intention but the project had over run its allotted time and the Arts Council wasn’t prepared to give us any longer.  Two pinfolds had already been completed at Outhgill and Raisbeck and I supervised the proceedings at Warcop and the other three at Church Brough, Bolton and Crosby Ravensworth.  He had wanted to do two at Winton and Hartley but was refused permission by the Parish Meetings even though he’d suggested assembling one with slabs of ice which would quickly melt and disappear and the other a stone structure buried in the ground. I had three other possibilities on a short list including one just west of Kirkby Stephen on the road to Soulby, which would have provided a neat completion of the full set.

Back in the Yorkshire Dales, all those years before, my tussles with senior colleagues had continued unabated and finally came to a head following a chance reunion with Goldsworthy at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal.  He was Guest of Honour at the private view of a touring exhibition called Artists in National Parks and I was truly exhilarated by the artworks on display.  I especially liked the artists whose practice is literally interactive with the natural environment such as Richard Long and David Nash, both of them artists who had preceded the younger Goldsworthy.  The exhibition comprised a body of work by ten artists each of whom had been allocated to a particular national park.  Andy Goldsworthy was chosen to work in the Lake District National Park and the exhibition catalogue had a photograph of him on its cover putting the finishing touches to a half circular structure made from interwoven knotweed stalks standing in the shallows of Derwent Water, its reflection turning it into a full circle like a chunky spiders web.  Richard Long had worked in the Dartmoor National Park and David Nash in the Peak District.

“The light, the gathered plant, and a retaining paper containing the natural form as a light deposit, a radiant fossil”
                                                            Garry Miller

The artist appointed to work in the Yorkshire Dales was Garry Miller; I’d been aware of the project right from the start so when Miller arrived and embarked on his residency I was dismayed when there was no official endorsement of the project or even a simple polite acknowledgement of his presence.  I had decided, with some trepidation, to suggest to my adversarial boss that he might consider allowing me to write an article about Miller’s activity for inclusion in the next National Park newsletter.  My pessimism was well founded, of course, and he warned me, with spine chilling menace, not to get involved with what he considered to be a non event and an outrageous waste of money.  The following week I invited Miller home for supper and he outlined his intentions.  He had decided to focus his creative endeavours on Swaledale, collecting organic material as he walked along the course of the river Swale.  His technique involved making pictures by placing leaves and foliage in front of a photographic enlarger, shining light through them and producing crisp, bright images on photographic paper. The resulting artwork, in the shape of a cross, was entitled ‘From Heart to the Head’.

During my conversation with Goldsworthy at Abbot Hall Art Gallery he had told me about his recent interest in dry stone walls, emanating from the ‘Give and Take Wall’.  Alluding to a desire to make a wall sculpture in the Yorkshire Dales he asked if I would be interested in helping him make it happen, including the means to finance it; with careless abandon, I agreed to investigate the possibilities.

He envisaged a meandering wall, 76 metres long, with a tree planted in each curve, so my first task was to find a suitable site and a sympathetically supportive land owner.  I’d got someone in mind and, a few weeks later, I went to see the very wealthy owner of a vast moorland estate in upper Wensleydale notable for its derelict walls.  He was quite receptive to the idea and agreed to let me arrange a visit by Goldsworthy to select a suitable section of wall.  He didn’t, however, offer any financial assistance.  Goldsworthy came for a site visit, chose a conveniently dilapidated wall situated on a slanting bank of rough pasture and went away again, leaving me to make the necessary arrangements.

As no money appeared to be forthcoming from the wealthy landowner my first task was to find some funding and, unhappily, I fell badly at the first hurdle.  The local press, having heard about my fund raising efforts, reported the story in a derogatory and disapproving vein with headlines like “Wiggly wall grant plea ridiculous” and “Snake in the Dales sculptor”.  Even the Dry Stone Walling Association, an organisation that, in subsequent years, changed its tune and sang Goldsworthy’s praises, derided the proposal in its newsletter because it “wouldn’t be a proper wall”.

My name was mentioned in the articles, with a strong implication that I was involved in an official capacity as a representative of the National Park Department, when in fact I’d been scrupulously careful to act on my own behalf, in my own time, in a private capacity.  I was summoned to attend a disciplinary meeting at the YDNP office and all but hanged, drawn and quartered.  My days with the Yorkshire Dales National Park were incontrovertibly numbered.

They built a wall slowly,
A day a week;
Built to stand,
But not stand still.
They built a wall to walk.
                        Norman Nicholson

Twelve months after the contentious ‘wiggly wall’ debacle I bumped into Goldsworthy again at Newcastle Railway Station.  He was on his way to the annual conference of the Association of National Parks hosted that year by the Northumbria National Park Authority where he was booked, as the association’s principal speaker, to give a lecture about his work.  In the interim period since we last met he had built his wiggly wall in Grizedale Forest and given it the title ‘The Wall That Went for a Walk’ after Norman Nicholson’s poem.  Not many people know that this famous wall commenced its journey under such a dark cloud of disapproval in the Yorkshire Dales before materialising a year later in Grizedale.

A few weeks after that chance meeting with Goldsworthy I resigned from my job as a National Park Area Warden and tried my hand as an independent public art consultant.  In the ensuing months I picked up a few temporary contracts, notably at Grizedale, where I helped manage the sculpture trail with a range of duties ranging from repairing sculptures in the forest to setting up an exhibition in the gallery.  It was an interesting experience, but a hand to mouth existence I knew I couldn’t sustain.  Not for the first time in my life, I’d taken a wrong turn, precipitated by an impulsive desire to escape an unhappy work situation, only to find myself in deeper trouble. My predicament this time was complicated by the realisation that public art is something that mostly happens in urban areas and I was deeply, immutably attached and committed to a rural lifestyle.  Nature conservation had been my passion since early adulthood, along with an evangelistic compulsion to promote the conservation message and my vocation was the broader sweep of countryside interpretation.  I firmly believe that artists should be recruited alongside ecologists, naturalists and environmentalists to encourage peoples’ more profound engagement with nature and their active support in looking after it.

My self-esteem was at an all time low and my prospects of finding paid employment in countryside management again were ominously bleak - in the UK as a whole, let alone in Cumbria.  Then, just as I was beginning to succumb to feelings of utter despair, an advertisement appeared in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald inviting applications for a Countryside Projects Officer post with East Cumbria Countryside Project!  It seemed too tantalisingly fortuitous to be true and I was inclined not to apply; my confidence was so deflated. But I did apply and when I actually received an invitation to go for an interview I was petrified.  On paper, I knew, my sanitised curriculum vitae ticked all the relevant boxes but how was I going to explain the reality of my frailty in the flesh!  I arrived on the day of the interview convinced that a long and tortuous ordeal would culminate, at the last excruciating minute, with inexorable rejection.  It did prove to be a very long and tortuous ordeal and I was a nervous, inarticulate wreck throughout the day, utterly resigned to my expectation that I wasn’t going to be offered the post and I very nearly wasn’t.  Miraculously, as it transpired, Isobel Dunn had come to my rescue, apparently asserting her authority over other members of the interview panel, who had argued vehemently against appointing this obviously foolish, misguided miscreant.  Much later that evening she telephoned and offered me the job; Isobel had a liking for maverick and eccentric non-conformists and so, with infinite relief and pride, I became a member of a whole gang of eccentric, non-conformist mavericks.  I suspect she also had sympathy with my ideas about art and environmental interpretation.  She didn’t live long enough to see the start of Eden Benchmarks, but I think she would have approved and I’m sure she would have loved Andy Goldsworthy’s Sheepfolds.