Locality expresses itself in stone in so many ways. While nature does it best, culture, in England at least, often does it most.
Gravestones, stone walls, gate posts, sunken lanes, buildings, small quarries, railway cuttings are all part of the matrix of our cultural landscape, and taken so much for granted.
So often, particularity is being eroded. Stone walls, with their local ways of building guided by the nature of the stone, signal changes in the underlying rock. The toadstone (the local name for basalt) of Derbyshire proves its presence by showing dark in the pale limestone walls. Barbed wire does not have this quality – its effect is to homogenize.
Likewise the increased use of imported brick for building and marble for gravestones is pushing out local brick and stone, whose role of revealing the geology, playing host to local lichens and nurturing particular craftsmanship, have reinforced local identity. People are being disinherited from their own local heritage and wisdom. If they have no direct link through work and everyday experience, no cultural relations with nature, how can they sustain an interest? If no-one values what they know and value all around them, how can they be asked to care for special things for someone else?
Common Ground works through different projects to encourage local people to stand up for what they care about in their everyday landscape.
The New Milestones project
The New Milestones project is about our relations with nature and the land. It encourages local people to commission sculptors to help them explore and celebrate that relationship, and to leave modest momentos of positive feelings between people and places. In so doing, our hope has been that social sentiment about locality may focus discussion, and the works themselves continue to provoke people to consider the things so easily taken for granted.
Works have been commissioned by landowners, parish councils, farmers, local organizations, inner city tenants groups and are about the ordinary things and actions which make places what they are.
Our hope is that this process, of exploring and enhancing local distinctiveness and acting as a catalyst for heightening awareness of how the locality is valued, will further stimulate acknowledgement and active caring for the things which create a sense of identity.
Using Dorset as a pilot county, Common Ground started to try out the idea in 1985. The project is not about geology, but we have found that people’s relationship with nature makes frequent reference to the land. Two examples must suffice.
Wayside carvings for the Weld Estate, Lulworth.
The very first commission came through an enlightened landowner Wilfrid Weld who had just worked with the county landscape architect and archaeologist on an ecological and historical survey of the estate. One of his many concerns was to help visitors to enjoy the area and to lure the many visitors away from the most-used places. The chosen sculptor, Peter Randall-Page, worked with the help of the land agent, tenant farmers, estate workers and people from the pub, on a public footpath two miles from the nearest habitation. It is instructive to hear his evolving thoughts.
“The first time I made the spectacular walk from Lulworth Cove to Ringstead Bay, I felt quite overwhelmed both by the beauty of the place and by the sheer scale of the landscape. One feels very small in such places and I wanted to make work which would relate to the intimacy of human scale – something on which to refocus the senses before returning to the enormity of land, sea and sky.
My objective which ran parallel with this was to make something which would strike up a resonance with the surrounding landscape by making a distillation of certain aspects of it. This area of the Dorset coast is famous for its abundance of fossils – in fact the chalk cliffs beneath this downland are literally made up of tiny fossils and the nearby Purbeck limestone comprises the fossilized remains of the gastropods, bivalves and ammonites etc. which once lived in an ancient sea. I liked the idea of making a kind of tribute to the ancient lives which now constitute our terra firma. I also wanted to incorporate something of the rhythms of the hills into the work – sweeping in broad rounded curves, tightening and plunging into deep gullies.
I decided to make three carvings in Purbeck marble – not a true marble but a very hard local limestone, blue in colour and itself consisting entirely of tiny fossilized gastropod shells. Much prized by mediaeval carvers, Purbeck marble adorns many of our churches and cathedrals in the form of columns, foliage, fonts and other details of special importance. I have always thought Purbeck marble to be one of the most beautiful native stones and I felt that the look of preciousness that this material has would enhance the sense of intimacy I wanted to achieve. In the event I found that Purbeck marble is no longer quarried but was extremely lucky to find a small number of pieces which had been quarried over twenty years ago.”
The sculptures retire into their drystone niches in a hedgebank almost like wayside shrines, they start eddies of conversation and quiet contemplation. There are no plaques or signboards. In the village two miles away postcards and local knowledge will give glimpses into the background. But the real point is they are there for you to make of them what you will, to start reveries and musings, to provoke the imagination.
The Isle of Portland, linked to mainland Dorset by the extraordinary Chesil Beach has given stone to England, and indeed the world, for centuries. One of its settlements, Chiswell, decided to celebrate its safety from flooding following the completion of a multimillion pound sea defence scheme : to signal renaissance.
The Portland Town Council and the Chesil Gallery approached Common Ground for help. Our suggestion was for a community-led project. It was agreed that a sculptor would be commissioned to help demonstrate local people’s love of the place – for once stone would not leave the island to have value added to it elsewhere.
John Maine was chosen, and a small exhibition of his work and first ideas formed the focus of meetings with local people which helped expand horizons beyond ‘a mermaid in the car park’. A subtle idea began to emerge, which John hoped ‘would encourage people to look at Chiswell as a whole and perhaps act as a catalyst for other things to happen’.
Where the twenty-mile pebble beach reaches the island, a small triangle of sloping and slipping land – the West Weares – criss-crossed by paths, had been a dumping ground and had become a place to hurry through. John saw potential which the Borough Engineer also welcomed as echoing his ideas for stopping the landslips.
The sculpture would comprise five terraces, flowing waves undulating like the sea and making reference to the strip lynchets – 4000 year-old stepped field systems of this part of Dorset. But more than that the land would be held back by dry stone walls representing the Portland Beds in stratigraphical turn, and each being worked in their traditional ways.
The sculpture in effect would be a monument to the geology and to the masons : a powerful exposition of cultural intimacy with the land.
This ambitious work, begun in 1987 was completed in 1994. The national failure of a government employment scheme robbed the project of 14 promised workers for a year. But much help has been forthcoming from local schools, the Masonry and Carving Course at Weymouth College, the Portland Environmental Team, the Devon and Dorset Regiment, the local Borstal, local masons, art students from all over the country, individuals and businesses, Portland Plant Hire, ARC who have given all the stone, as well as dogged commitment from the artist, the Gallery owner, the Town Clerk and successive Mayors.
From the initial discussion, articles and letters in the local newspaper, Town Council Meetings, talking in the pubs and beside the evolving work, many people have been involved and offered their thoughts and criticism.
The sculpture is massive, covering half an acre and the longest of the five walls being 55 yards long. The lines of the paths have been respected, the walls dipping or stepping to let them through.
What has been created is a place with meaning for local people : something which they could not have accomplished without the vision of the artist, something which the artist could not have created without access to their intimate knowledge. People meet, play, sit and watch the sunset and the sea. Conversations begin; stories are exchanged; children bring visitors; tourists and questing artists who have heard this is worth a detour, seek out directions from the main street; the nearby inn does better some days; the Chesil Gallery used to host students and exhibitions which often connect.
Already people have visited from America, Australia and Japan. But more importantly, the everyday nature of this great building stone has been lifted out of the ordinary in its own place, the sculpture has helped make the everyday special.
The Chiswell Earthworks is a revelation of masonry techniques, and of the different Portland Beds, it demonstrates how each depends on the other. It will stand as a symbol of the culture of this place as well as adding to the cultural landscape in its own terms.
The quarries will always be a source of excitement to geologists. The whole island is a very particular place. One of its towns, Chiswell, of singular character, has initiated and demanded something unique to itself and has reinforced powerfully but subtley its own local distinctiveness. Its identity is now enhanced by a massive work of art, so integrated, it leaves visitors asking ‘Where is the sculpture?’ and local people being able to engage in more than ample reply.
Conservation and sustainability will remain elusive until we create a popular culture of wanting to care, and until we engage with the everyday landscape. Common Ground works to reclaim those difficult, intangible and elusive aspects of our relations with nature and places from the margins of professional activity, believing that we must embrace subjectivity, values, emotion, and we must include people. All of our projects from Parish Maps (which ask ‘What do you value in your place?’) to Save Our Orchards and Local Distinctiveness focus on the cultural landscape and offer ways in to locally initiated action.
The New Milestones project is about what places mean to people who live and work in them, and how to express that meaning in an imaginative and accessible way through sculpture which will speak of the love of nature and place which people feel moved to express.
Rarely is attention paid to the commonplace and familiar aspects of our local surroundings. They are often overlooked or taken for granted but have great emotional value and meaning for the people who know them well. By recognizing and sharing their feelings about their place, it is hoped that people will find new ways to take an active part in caring.
With the recognition that local people have wisdom to offer, are good guardians and powerful allies, scientists would do well to help build imaginative bridges which will keep richness and particularity alive in the everyday landscape.
Randall-Page's work with Common Ground
Artworks from the New Milestones Project
Sculpture and land
Locality expresses itself in many ways
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