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Water Cut (Instalment 4)
“The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown
Perhaps the self same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth when sick for home
She stood in tears amid the alien corn.”
The walk along this soaring, elevated track is always special, but never more so than it was on that euphoric morning. Patches of blue sky had emerged by then and the sun was filtering through the dispersing clouds in columns of golden dust. There were no nightingales, of course, but those avian, hill country heralds of spring, so conspicuous by their absence on the high fells, were cavorting above my head and consolidating their recent arrival in the dale with amicable whoops of joy. It is so strange to think that the Viking farmers, the Norman Knight Sir Hugh de Morville, Lady Anne Clifford, the highwayman Nick Ward and the thousands of railway navvies building the railway were all greeted at the start of all their springs by exactly these, one and the same, resonant calls of curlew and lapwing!
My pace quickened with the imminent prospect of reaching the vantage point ahead where, on a clear day, the upper Eden valley comes into view. It is also the place where the sculpture ‘Water Cut’ is sited and it would be false modesty, in the extreme, to deny that my exhilaration was also due to the fact that it was me who put it there. ‘Water Cut’ is one of ten stone sculptures called Eden Benchmarks which I commissioned whilst working for the East Cumbria Countryside Project. Each by a different artist and sited at various dispersed locations along the entire length of the river Eden, they were installed to celebrate the new millennium in 2000. The artists were selected by committees representing the communities concerned and worked in residence for six weeks in workshops provided in the local vicinity. This enabled them to formulate their ideas in relation to the chosen sites and discuss them with local people, including school children, who were encouraged to visit them and see the sculptures taking shape.
Collectively the sculptures acknowledge our visual appreciation of the river and its environment as a whole and individually foster a sense of place at each unique location. My brief to the artists was that Eden Benchmarks should be, first and foremost, sculpture for sculptures sake, harmonising with the landscape and facilitating sitting as an interactive focus for quiet contemplation rather than sculpturally decorated seats.
‘Water Cut’ stands on the hill like a huge milestone with a curvaceous gash cut vertically down its middle, carving the symbolic shape of a river in the sky and providing a window onto the real river in the valley below. Made with Salterwath Limestone, by the Scottish sculptor Mary Bourne, it was erected in 1997. Its principal theme is the power of the river cutting through the rocky landscape over aeons of time but it is also intended to evoke a feeling of our individual human journeys through the landscape and, perhaps more profoundly, our journeys through life. Dizzy with this heady mix of philosophical and emotional thinking I was glad to sit down on its flat polished base. Not least, for all its deeper meanings, ‘Water Cut’ provides a suitably majestic throne, commensurate with the stunning view, for simply sitting still and staring in wonderment at the surrounding scenery! As the Zen Buddhist master once said: “Don’t just do something – sit there.”
Mary Bourne was born in Brighton but brought up in Aberdeen. Graduating from Edinburgh College of Art in 1986 she now lives in the Scottish highlands. I first became aware of her work in 1990, at the beginning of her career, when she was an Artist in Residence at Irvine New Town. During a three years period, she created an impressive collection of stone sculptures sited around the town. When I first devised the proposal for Eden Benchmarks I searched for professional sculptors not only on the basis of their creativity but, most importantly, on their ability to carve stone. Mary stood out as a consummate artist and a wonderful carver of stone.
“My work deals with the forms and formations of landscape. Living in the north of Scotland the landscape has a dominant influence: to go anywhere one must travel for hours through deserted mountain scenery or rich farmland. On these journeys, features within the landscape take on significance as landmarks with many subjective associations. The romantics showed us that the landscape can be a means of escape and refreshment. As such it inspires longing and hope, while a knowledge of its immensity and potential dangers inspires respect and awe. In my work I strive to encapsulate such intensities of feeling. The time consuming and arduous technique of hand carving stone dictates simplification and concentration on the essential. In time I arrive at images which are crystallisations of my subjective experience of landscape.”
Local farmer Steve Alderson and his son Kevin installed ‘Watercut’ for us. Mary had carved the massive blocks of stone in one of Steve’s outbuildings and gained his increasing respect on a daily basis with her sheer hard work, perseverance and skill. He and Kevin transported the three pieces of the sculpture on tractor drawn trailers and, with enthusiastic efficiency, assembled it on site. Once the base was secured to a concrete foundation in the ground, they lowered the two vertical pieces onto it and fixed them with steel pins. They completed the operation over two days, with a minimum of equipment and fuss, utilising all the resourceful ingenuity and good humour that is so characteristic of Cumbrian farmers.
In the months leading up to the installation I was involved in numerous meetings with local people, consultation with the local authority’s planning officer and, most importantly, the landowner concerned. The site is on Mallerstang Common, which was then owned by the late Giles Thompson, who was Lord of the Manor and lived at nearby Hanging Lund. I’d approached him with some trepidation as he was a somewhat eccentric and formidable character with conservative and traditional opinions. I didn’t expect him to be sympathetic to my proposal that we erect a piece of ‘modern’ sculpture on such a prominent part of his estate. In the event he was charmingly supportive.
The local authority chief planning officer had also pledged his approval and given me an assurance that there would be no need to seek formal planning permission, based on my description of sculptures that would function as seats. This, of course, had implied they would all be low horizontal objects and therefore exempt from planning restrictions relating to structures above a certain height. Consequently as I drove away along the bottom of the valley, on the evening we finished installing ‘Water Cut’, I was rather alarmed when I looked back up the hill and realised that it was clearly visible from that distance, albeit a very small protuberance on the horizon. I lay awake that night worrying that there might be disapproving repercussions from the Planning Department but to my great relief nothing was ever said to suggest disapproval. In fact, photographs of ‘Water Cut’ are regularly featured in Eden District Council’s tourism brochures and it is much acclaimed by locals and visitors alike.
Local residents were virtually unanimous in their support and an intrepid group of them, with several dogs and a pony, assembled on a rainy and very windy day to watch Lord Inglewood and I attempting to drape a length of white net curtain, I’d bought for the purpose, over the sculpture for a formal unveiling. The wind was so fierce, however, that it snatched the veil wildly into the air with Lord Inglewood holding valiantly to one end; the sedate unveiling we anticipated was spontaneously transformed into a triumphant and exhilarating flag flapping, banner billowing, gale force celebration instead. Mallerstang just wasn’t in the mood, that day, for a sedate unveiling!
The meaning of the name Mallerstang is uncertain but commonly thought to derive from a variant spelling ‘mallardstank, meaning ‘a duck inhabited marsh’. According to better informed opinion, however, it originates from a combination of ‘moelfre’, a Celtic word meaning bare hill, and a ‘stong’, which is a Norse word meaning landmark. We didn’t know this at the outset. It could well be a reference to the cairns near the top of Wild Boar Fell but ‘Water Cut’ does provide a suitably iconic sculptural ‘stong’ to commemorate our particular moment in history at the head of the Eden Valley. It certainly represented a culminating moment for me, in the context of a massively liberating and regenerating phase of my life.