Tuesday, June 21, 2011

From a Slag Heap to a Goddess

I continue to be amazed by how these things sometimes happen but, really, after all these years, I shouldn't be!

Anyway, just the other day in the 16th floor kitchen at the office I was reading an article about "fracking" and a new law that has just been passed by the Texas Legislature that, for the first time, requires some small degree of "transparency" in the "old" but increasingly controversial practice called, in the popular vernacular "fracking." That law now requires, for the first time, disclosure of the mixture of chemicals being pumped deep beneath the earth at tremendous pressure. Water pollution? Gag-me, illness-inducing emanations that somehow cannot be traced to any one place (or corporation) fouling local air? Earthquakes in Arkansas that some people think are caused by "fracking?" (None of the results of fracking were, of course, mentioned in The Wall Street Journal article!)

Anyway, fully aware of the "atmosphere" of where I was, I made a small tsking noise under my breath (and you readers thought I'm an overly-emotional, undisciplined old broad, heh).   Oh crap, that little whispery tsk was enough of a reaction to the article to be overheard by someone else. Being Ms. Grace in Action I(ahem), I opened with a conversational gambit and we entered into a whispered conversation. In the way that conversations go, the practice of "fracking" morphed into other nasty "production" practices such as slag heaps, particularly (so I thought) in the 19th century, the collapse of which had buried towns and killed hundreds of innocent people and led, eventually, to the passage of the "Progressive" laws that led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational and Safety Hazard Organization. 

I was absolutely amazed when the person to whom I was talking confessed no familiarity with slag heaps. I was momentarily stunned. Did this person not have history classes in junior high and high school that talked about the industrial abuses back then? How could anyone from the United States not know what a fricking (fracking?) slag heap is? But so it was.

So, I did a quick search under slag heap disasters on google and was shocked to my core when I discovered that on October 22, 1966 in Aberfan (Wales, Great Britain) 116 children in classes at a primary school were killed when a slag heap "suddenly" collapsed and buried the school and other parts of the town beneath it. BBC News, On This Day:  October 21, 1966 in Aberfan: Coal Tip Buries Children in Aberfan.  The United States had it's own shocking slag heap disaster in 1972, in Buffalo Creek "Holler," in West Virginia. Hey, Republicans, do you really want to repeal all the environmental protection laws that were passed in the years since then, in part because of this useless waste of life and, more importantly (to them,) billions of dollars worth of damage?  Time Magazine Online, West Virginia: Disaster in the Hollow, March 13, 1972. 

And so here, tonight, I was working on the blog. But I couldn't find anything that rang my bells.  The chess femme news - bleh.  Archeological news - bleh.  So, I did a search for "goddess" and "news" and up pops this article.  And so it goes.

From The Mail Online:
From a slag heap to a green goddess: How an aristocrat is turning a wasteland into the largest human sculpture ever made
By Robert Hardman
Last updated at 8:29 AM on 16th June 2011

A Goddess in the making out of slag heaps.
Many thousands of years hence, archaeologists may wonder what on earth the ancients were up to in a North-Eastern corner of the European sub-province once known as England.

What had driven them, in the latter stages of the Oil Age, to create the largest replica of the human body ever seen on Earth — a reclining female figure a quarter of a mile long and weighing 1.5 million tons.

Was she a burial mound or a deity? Was she supposed to send messages to other planets? Or was she simply a monument to the obesity of 21st century England? Perhaps they will even stumble across the truth — that she was none of the above.

In fact, she turns out to be a collaboration between, an international landscape artist, an unusual aristocrat and a mining firm.

When this earth sculpture, Northumberlandia, opens to the public in 2013, she will be so big that the best place to take in her gargantuan proportions will be from a plane. Drivers on the A1 will get a good view of her head, and rail passengers on the London-to-Edinburgh line will have a generous eyeful of her rear.

But everyone will be able to walk all over her, via a four-mile network of paths along the curves of her body to various strategic viewing platforms on her face, breasts, hip, knee and ankle.

To her designer, Charles Jencks, she is a ‘gateway’ and an ‘abstraction’, while her progenitor, the Honourable Matthew Ridley — journalist squire of Blagdon Hall and 10,000 acres hereabouts — calls her ‘a new green public open space’.

To the Banks Group, the mining company digging 5.4 million tons of coal from Ridley’s estate, she is an efficient and original use of the leftovers from their excavations.

But, needless to say, local Geordies have produced a few alternatives.  The mysterious lady is already, variously, known as Slag Alice, Fat Slag (after a character in the Geordie comic Viz), Big Bird and the Goddess Of The North. There will be many more. But as I stand, more than 100ft up on what will be Northumberlandia’s face, staring at the North Sea, wild hills and Tyneside, she seems an ingenious addition to the landscape.

This entire region is defined by colossal man-made projects — Hadrian’s Wall, baronial castles, coal mines, shipyards and, latterly, the Angel Of The North. So, why not have a grass-covered human Sphinx made from the detritus of a mine? And she is a lot prettier than the average slag heap.

This must also be the only major public arts project in Britain today that is not costing the public a bean. The £2 million creation is being paid for by the Blagdon Estate and the Banks Group, without a single grant or Lottery handout. And when it’s finished, Ridley will donate the 30-acre site, including three man-made lakes, to a charitable trust.

‘There have been a few complaints,’ says Bob Downer, chief executive of the Blagdon Estate.
‘Some people think it’s wrong to have a female figure, and others think she’s some sort of pagan symbol, even though Mother Earth is part of cultures all over the world. But people moaned about the Angel of the North in the early days, too.’

Jencks points out that she is not modelled on any real person but is a collection of metaphors. And he is certainly not bothered by a spot of irreverence. ‘It’s a mark of any icon that it should be open to iconoclasm,’ says the author of The Universe In The Landscape. If it didn’t stir the horses, it wouldn’t be iconic.’

I suspect the locals will soon be as proprietorial about Northumberlandia as they have become about Antony Gormley’s steel angel.

The idea was born in 2004 when the Blagdon Estate and the Banks Group were applying for permission to dig for coal and fire clay (for bricks) on farmland near the new town of Cramlington. Arthur Scargill may be in his dotage, but the coal industry still employs 6,000 people in Britain and generates a third of our electricity. The local council received 2,500 objections and the consortium had to show how it planned to restore the land afterwards.

Ridley invited Jencks to get involved. It was when he saw the mining operation that he had the idea of a landform on a similar scale. Northumberlandia was born.

I begin my visit down at the coalface. And it is unlike any coal mine I have seen. There are no shafts or colliery wheels, just a hole the size of several Wembley Stadiums. It’s a surface mine, with Britain’s biggest digger spitting 70-ton mouthfuls into Britain’s largest dumper trucks, each the size of a Tesco Metro on wheels. Jencks calls it ‘a ballet of machinery’.

With this sort of surface mine, the topsoil and rocks are all put into piles. The coal and fire clay are then extracted down below, in an operation due to last another seven years. Come 2018, all the soil and rocks must be back in the ground as if nothing had happened and the land will be farmed once again.

Except that you always end up taking out more than you can put back due to a phenomenon known as ‘bulkage’ (take a lot of rocks out of the ground and you will find they never go back in as neatly before). And, in this case, a million cubic yards of surplus has been hauled over to a neighbouring part of the estate to form Northumberlandia.

‘It would have been cheaper to leave it where it was,’ says Mark Dowdall of the Banks Group. ‘But that would not have enhanced the landscape.’ [Well, fricking DUH!] 

A mile away, I stand at the base of Northumberlandia’s head which, at this distance, looks just like a mountain of mud. We drive up hillside tracks to her hip and one of her breasts (the other one has yet to take shape) and then wind our way up to her face. Even now, as bulldozers comb her hair and steamrollers flatten her skin, it is easy to make out her feminine contours.

Up at the top, site manager Iain Lowther, 26, is supervising a chap in a digger who is carefully defining the lady’s lips. Some lipstick!

Next will be her nose — due to rise another 13ft above her face. But every feature will be surveyed and checked against sat-nav, computer graphics and the beady eye of Charles Jencks. I ask him why her right hand is pointing west. ‘It’s an enigma!’ he says. [Yeah, right.  It's the "Land of the Dead" -- the place from which rebirth occurs.]

Lowther explains that the figure has a mudstone base with crushed sandstone above and clay on top.
In due course, Northumberlandia will enjoy a spray-on tan in the form of ‘hydro seeded’ topsoil. After a year of bedding in, the seeds will have grown into grass and she will no longer be browny-grey but green, while her face, her paths and her viewing platforms will have a hard stone surface.

Bob Downer points out various natural curves down her back which would lend themselves to open-air concerts. It should be a popular venue. Once they have appeared at Wembley, Glastonbury and the Dome, won’t pop stars want to say that they have done Slag Alice, too?

Matt Ridley, 53, is not around today, being on business in Australia. But I bump into his father, Viscount Ridley, the brother of the late and famously straight-talking Tory Cabinet Minister Nick Ridley. The lively 85-year-old peer is absolutely thrilled as he shows a plan of Northumberlandia to a visiting Austrian Archduke.

‘You see, that’s her face, those are her breasts and that’s her arse,’ he explains. ‘Her hip, Lord Ridley,’ interjects an engineer diplomatically.

It strikes me as a brilliant idea, reminiscent of Cornwall’s Eden Project, another monster regeneration project born out of a disused quarry and now a much-loved local landmark.

The Eden Project, of course, soon achieved global fame when it was used as the location for a James Bond film. Northumberlandia could do the same. She’d make the perfect hideout for a female villain, complete with missile silos in her embonpoint. I suggest the idea to Bob Downer.

‘We’ve never thought of that,’ he says. ‘But they used to film Byker Grove round here.’

It’s time to think big in Northumberland. Very big indeed.

1 comment:

Sandy's witterings said...

Another extended tea break pays off. I would never have found this marvel in Northumberland if I'd stopped read a 3 day old Telegraph when I should have gone back to work. Excellent article on Northumberlandia - definately on my list of things to see (perhaps I'll wait till it's finished.

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