From Blacker Hill to Boltsburn
David Walker Barker
Landscapes reveal histories layered through sequences of time and scale. They resemble documents in which some of the text has been erased or re-written leaving traces of earlier text visible. This process of change and transformation is unremitting, embedding complex and obscure human and geological narratives in the fabric of the physical landscape. This most fundamental of relationships links human lives to the deep time context of geological history and the evolution of life itself.
Blacker Hill and Bolstburn, latterly known as Rookhope, are two small settlements seated upon Carboniferous strata, the geology of which provided both with a deeply rooted industrial character. They were the centres of distinctive mining communities whose identities were shaped and determined by the relationship that grew out of a human connection with geological material. Blacker Hill sits atop an escarpment in South Yorkshire over looking the valley of the River Dove and a landscape now depleted of its once heavy industry. Boltsburn-Rookhope, in contrast, nestles in a valley surrounded by the fells of the north Pennine landscape of County Durham, a valley that was likewise heavily industrialised. Boltsburn mined for lead and fluorspar; Blacker mined coal, minerals interwoven with geological strata some 300 million years old. As communities they now stand charged with constructing new identities in very different surroundings and in times so changed from the period when they were industrially active. Yet the landscape that enfolds them still resonates with a sense of what went before despite the disregard and in some instances a desire to eradicate the industrial legacy that was a fundamental and defining characteristic of those landscapes.
I have known Blacker Hill from childhood having grown up in close proximity to its coalmines, coking plants and foundries whilst Rookhope and the site of Boltsburn lead and fluorspar mine was discovered almost by accident in the early 1970’s. The two places are separated by over 130 miles and the journeys made between them covers several decades, interspersed with excursions to other locations equally significant in defining relationships between human and geological histories. The narrative that unfolds revisits several of these locations, remarks upon their character and a relationship to an artistic practice that seeks to communicate aspects of their uniqueness.
To open the account some words written in 1925 by Arthur Eaglestone, a miner at the New Stubbin Colliery, near Rawmarsh in South Yorkshire,
“I don’t know who my forebears were, for storied urns and animated busts are not in our family keeping. Our names are not preserved in ornate brass, and long stone effigies stiffly recumbent are not of us and our house.
We have no ancient banneroles, no antiquity of rags on poles, no ancient heraldry, no splendid armour of Castile.
No mediaeval parchment has our name; no cunning fingers traced our lineaments or gave us awkward life upon the old-time screed. And yet we are not upstart here.
Our roots are deeply driven in the earth and all we are and all we have is of the soil. How intimately, you who do not know the mine can never guess.
Three hundred years and more my horny-handed forebears were wrestling with the coal.”
A recurring theme in my school reports was “Needs to concentrate”, “Does not pay attention”, “David spends too much time day dreaming”, meaning looking out of the window.
It was hardly my fault the school was located where it was and that some of the classrooms overlooked a busy industrial prospect. Woodlands and rural landscape melded with the paraphernalia of railway lines and coking plants surrounding the old Barrow Colliery where my father worked. In the distance the small settlement of Blacker Hill overlooked the scene from the other side of the valley and was literally blackened by the muck from the pit. Cresting its escarpment an aerial ropeway trundled coal from a pit head four miles distant skimming cornfields along the way.
The scene was far more interesting than most of the lessons. A distant view and a routine overseen by the half hourly cycle of the coke ovens when smoke and steam belched slowly and sensually skywards. Adding to this was the frequent movement of coal trains headed by old Great Northern and Great Central railway locomotives. Occasionally a passenger train would pass by diverted on the “back line” to Sheffield. This was an agrarian and industrial landscape replete with reminders of an earlier industrial history. A derelict canal and adjacent to it a railway line built to take coal from South Yorkshire to Lancashire. Looking out of the history classroom window if I skewed my neck far enough I just caught a glimpse of the distant hills of the South Yorkshire Pennines.
As an act of youthful daring in school holidays a group of us would frequently jump the coal trains and lying flat on our bellies on top of the coal in the wagons and under the electrified wires, make the journey to the holding sidings at Penistone ten miles towards Manchester. There, with any luck, we would scramble off the wagons unseen and jump a train back. Our escapades stopped the day the train by-passed the sidings and continued its unbroken journey through the three-mile long Woodhead Tunnel with all of us still aboard. We eventually arrived in Mottram marshalling yard, cold, wet and scared and were immediately arrested by the railway police. Chastised by the bobbies then given pots of hot tea and biscuits we were sent back in the cab of a locomotive, a real treat as punishment for such a stupid escapade. No health and safety rules and no ASBO’s to teach us a lesson. We were told, “Never do it again”, and we didn’t.
This uncompromising industrial landscape was my playground, one my father knew well as he grew up in it as a child. It was through his experience that my earliest viewpoints of it were acquired. He introduced me to fossils from the coal, to traces of earlier industries and the events associated with them. He showed me those places where mining disasters had claimed numerous lives; where deep underground the remains of men and boys are still interred.
At Blacker Hill a journey began through a seemingly familiar landscape. Embedded in one’s youth the route has been modified and amended numerous times. Here were sequences of both access and isolation, touching the physicality of a landscape and its complex iconography. Here in a preferred youthful seclusion a preference for the sensuality of materials was nurtured beginning an obsession with remnants and traces that even then seemed to have significance.
The bedded sandstones once quarried at Blacker Hill form a scarp feature that faces north westwards. Hundreds of feet beneath this ridge lay other beds of sandstone, shale and the notorious fire damp rich Barnsley coal seams that have claimed many hundreds of lives in the district. This was the most important seam in the coalfield with fifty per cent of the output deriving from it. It was generally three meters thick with its consistency varying from top to bottom. The upper portion was a bright soft coal, the middle portion a hard dull coal known as the “Barnsley hards” and the lower portion another band bright and soft.
Today whilst little is left of an industrial richness that smothered the land surface the intrinsic fascinations that it spawned remain. The pits are gone, the coke ovens long dismantled, the railway lines lifted. Lanes that were tidy are now covered in litter, domestic rubbish or have become places to burn out cars.
The railway station at Dove Cliff is barely a memory though in the 1960’s it was still intact and lived in. No passenger trains ever stopped there then and it was dismantled without a thought. The old industrial sites are greened over or provide space for new but empty warehouses. The decline of earlier industry is replaced by retail parks or new faceless industrial buildings that are used to construct nothing or very little. The few monuments to mining disasters are vandalised or have disappeared. History appears to have been rewritten by evasion and disregard, little of it seems remembered in any deep sense.
From the Carboniferous to the Cambrian
In July 1970 I stood beneath the cliffs near St David’s in Pembrokeshire funded by a scholarship from the Royal College of Art and tasked with a summer of painting from the landscape. I set off in search of fossil trilobites as a more vital concern. That same summer the young Richard Fortey also journeyed to Pembrokeshire in search of the same fossils. Scrambling up a cliff face I found myself almost within reach of the remains of a trilobite. The eroded face looked down at me without blinking. It was the first ever trilobite I had seen outside the confines of a museum.
I am reminded of a passage from Thomas Hardy’s novel “A Pair of Blue Eyes” mentioned in Richard Fortey’s book “Trilobite; Eyewitness to Evolution”. The character Stephen Knight, upon following a treacherous cliff path, slips down the precarious face managing to break his fall.
“Opposite Knight’s eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned
to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight
and this underling seem to have met in their place of death”.
Perched precariously, stared at by my ancient and blind companion I could have viewed the prospect with the same dramatic pessimism as Knight. Whilst on the point of falling, I had no intention of dying that day, so I scrambled back down the fifty or so feet leaving the trilobite to the weather and the sea.
The Cambrian and Ordovian rocks of Pembrokeshire made the impression of the deep time fossil record and geology seemingly tangible, but they have remained ever elusive in their true magnitude. Several days later in a secluded bay on an intensely still evening I touched the crumbling surface of richly coloured Pre-Cambrian rocks. It was the most ancient pigment I would ever handle. That summer of 1970 clarified what had begun years before in the Dove Valley of the West Riding of Yorkshire impressing upon me the complexity of the world in layers of time, transformations through orders of scale, between deep time and the present moment. In Pembrokeshire a relationship began between fieldwork and art practice, collecting geological specimens, drawing and making images and notes on location, primarily though not exclusively in sketchbooks. This was at the time an unrefined practice. I dropped my first sketchbook over a cliff together with a rucksack containing fossils, very poor fossils I am pleased to say. As for the sketchbook, I didn’t miss that either.
Making images and collecting on location ran parallel for many years before converging more effectively to form an integrated archive. The drawings, various studies and notes act as a means of enquiry, a documentation of a broader engagement with landscape places and an artistic process identifying:
“The experience of moving from one place to another, recording various journeys, places and things discovered and collected, documenting
and commenting upon them in some way or another. The sketchbook acts as a harbour for thought, a touchstone, an encoding bridging time,
identifying a specific focus or relationship. Nor is it solely an objective record but one that embeds an emotional connection with its subject
matter. Perhaps most importantly it is a place to play openly and with least constraint. It is an extension of the studio engaging with a wider
location. The studio exists in various landscape places as well as a discrete space in South Yorkshire. It is both a work place and an archive,
the fixed space a repository, the landscape an ever changing record”.
From One Chapel to another
Patrishow near the old red. The Devonian Old Red sandstone was laid down at the time of the greening of the earth some 400 million years ago. The red colour is from the iron in the sediments, it is the rust of the earth, like haematite red, a blood red.
I visited the Church of Methyr Issui at Patrishow to witness an ancient figure painted on an interior wall. The chapel is almost hidden from view in a small valley in the Black Mountains of South Wales. You have to seek it out, to make a pilgrimage to find it. The reward for doing so is all consuming. I came across the small building shrouded in early morning mist, sitting on a steep hillside awakening with the day. Inside its cool interior is an image of death, its surface a crystalline film. The figure bleeds through layers, the tissue of its iconography sealed with calcite leached molecule by molecule out of the mortar in the walls. A puritanical faith could not devour it, nor obliterate its gaze.
Let us consider further this migration of substance through time, aptly stated by Richard Fortey in his publication “The Hidden Landscape”.
“It was in Dulverton, Devon, that I ate the perfect cream tea. There is no greater sensual indulgence. Cream so thick it is reluctant to leave the
spoon. Strawberry jam heavy with fruit and crumbling scones with a hint of astringency to balance the sugar in the jam and piled as high as
they would go. Thus by the migration of the indestructible molecules the eroded waste from the Caledonian mountains (which laid down the
sediments of the Devonian red sandstone) shifted across the plains to the Devonian sea and was incorporated at last into the Old Red.
Ultimately they came to supply nutrients to the grass grazed by cows that produced the cream that was the centrepiece of the perfect cream
tea. So it was that molecules from the Caledonian itself came to be eaten with considerable pleasure in Dulverton in the late 20th century”
In the making of his Great Geological Map William Smith passed this way on his journey to the north and the younger strata of the Yorkshire and Pennine regions. That trail may have led through the Derbyshire the Peak District, even then an industrialised landscape, and into the foothills of the South Yorkshire Pennines, those foothills I often glimpsed out of the classroom window. He might have passed by Midhopestones on his journey and would there have found an industrial place set amidst a rural scene and overlooked by its ancient chapel.
Midhopestones and an Old Brown Bottle
The Chapel of St James serves the small settlement of Midhopestones in the rural landscape of South Yorkshire. Despite its close proximity to a main trunk road the place appears to have resisted the changes that have characterised much of the twentieth century. Yet Midhopestones was industrialised in the early 18th century with the erection of a small pottery that produced slip glazed earthenware in the Staffordshire tradition and utilised the plentiful raw materials available from local geological formations. Old levels in the nearby Ewden Valley exploited deposits of galena that were uncommonly deposited in rocks recognized more for coal seams than metalliferous minerals. Such deep time events provided convenient materials for the industries that then flourished in what is now a seemingly unspoiled rural scene on the edge of the Peak District National Park. The chapel and surrounding landscape became the subject for several artworks, and a prolonged search for the site of the old pottery which fired its kilns for the last time in 1820. After particularly heavy rains I came across an old brown glazed forenoon bottle, its neck protruding from the riverbank at Midhope, its body carrying the slip trailed initials “A G”. They represented Abraham Grayson who was living at Midhopestones in 1809 and who had interests in the pottery there. Further excavation of the riverbank revealed a waster dump full of broken pottery from the old works. The lost site had finally been found.
From the Local Towards the North
During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries prodigious quantities of urine were transported to the alum works located along the North Yorkshire coast. This pungent substance in part fed England’s first great chemical industry. From its derelict remains atop Boulby cliff current day industrial Teesside shimmers in the distant haze.
Ravenscar, Saltwick, Sandsend, Kettleness and Boulby, names now associated with a heritage coastline and seaside holidays were the sites of alum production sustained for over two hundred and fifty years. The ancient workings now appear as eroded and barren platforms half way between the cliff tops and the foreshore.
Little remains of the industry that once excavated these cliffs save for the traces of an occasional stone conduit or the foundations of a building. Here miners excavated the alum shales, ironstone and jet uncovering numerous fossil remains including examples of the great marine reptiles as well as commoner ammonites, a location on a par with Dorset but with no Mary Anning to oversee the discoveries. This coastal landscape still allows access to layers of strata where the cliffs are cross-sectioned by the North Sea. They are notoriously unstable and subject to sudden landslides; certain horizons are replete with fossils whilst at low tide the foreshore shows traces of ancient lives imprinted and embedded in the shale. In the eroded mounds of a once industrial “cliffscape” are found fragments of bone and shell, the delicate tracings of ammonites or the burnt shale left long ago by workmen, a signifier of a barely traceable human history.
From Coastal Scenery to England’s Last Great Wilderness
These once industrial landscapes are rich in visual contrasts, a sense of dislocation and human identity enmeshed within their fabric. Such a landscape is often considered an eyesore, a view shared by many who see the industrialised or the once industrial as the despoliation of the natural; a view reflecting an 18th and 19thcentury construction of the world that still has currency at various levels of modern society. Yet ironically it was these centuries that saw the British natural landscape mined, quarried and otherwise exploited as never before.
Such expressions as “natural” and “beautiful” are utilised, erroneously, as general descriptors of the so-called natural landscape, the very landscape that contains visible post-industrial footprints. This is a reminder that British scenery is hardly natural at all but evidence of a fundamental relationship where geological, cultural and economic forces have inter-woven directly. Industrial exploitation has sustained communities, both large and small, forming a relationship that has significantly modified the once natural in a notable partnership where human interaction with geology, terrain and climate has produced landscapes of intricate character and unique distinctiveness.
“Geo-diversity” is a key term here, identifying the intimate and complex link between people, landscapes and their culture. It may best be defined as “the variety of geological environments, phenomena and processes that make those landscapes, rocks, minerals, fossils and soils which provide the framework for life on Earth”. This quote (Stanley 2001) establishes geology as fundamental to every aspect of life on earth, supporting bio-diversity to its deepest and most complex levels. In terms of human culture its importance has been paramount in providing raw materials for civilisation, the exploitation of which may now be leading us to the edge of environmental catastrophe.
“That Great and Good Place” The North Pennines
The abandoned quarries, hard rock mines and mineral wealth of the Northern Pennines have in great part defined the quintessential nature of its surface and under-earth. Minerals invest every corner, spoil heaps, adits and the levels they served are still visible on the fells and in the valleys, once connecting with deeply hidden workings. To the old miner and mine owner alike, below ground was a “Sparry Garniture” a place to be exploited and divested of its mineral wealth.
Minerals first brought me to these dales and fells in the early 1970’s when the cement works at Eastgate and the resurgence of fluorspar mining had brought economic prosperity to the area. Gardens and garden walls were at that time decorated with mineral specimens out of the mines, whilst miners stored others in boxes carefully hidden. The whole of Weardale was a jewel and sparkled in the sunshine. Rookhope, the site of Boltsburn Mine, was like an open-air mineral display resplendent with crystals collected decades before from the rich deposits beneath the valley. Now you see little of them, specimens having been sold or stolen.
My focus was on the working fluorspar mines and the accessible but long abandoned lead mines. Exploration of their extensive underground workings was a dramatic and claustrophobic introduction to the reality of a “hidden landscape” and the deep-time contexts that it embodied. Upon entering those places and touching the minerals for the first time there was a tangible sense of the people who had worked and fashioned them. The miner had left behind an extraordinary underground architecture hewn using black powder, pick and shovel in the dim light of candles.
This particular Pennine area was still an industrial landscape, not as extensive as once it had been but a working industry set in remarkable scenery that still embodied its protracted identity. Mining and quarrying together with farming still gave purpose and meaning to the people who worked in those industries and to the landscape itself.
Mining and mineral extraction on their original scale no longer exist within the region, but poverty and unemployment, the usual indicators of the demise of a major industry, are not immediately visible. Now that most industry is on the decline, including farming, the people who move into the area bring with them a range of views and expectations often at odds with that of historically local communities. The remains of an extensive industrial legacy are intimately embedded in what is now designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and European Geo-park. These are designations that preclude the continuation of time-honoured industries, seeking to curtail their development even when economic circumstances might be favourable. Appreciation of the history of the Pennine landscape including its industrial legacy is mitigated by the cultures of tourism and heritage and the conceptual limitations embedded in their objectives. One might suggest the re-emergence of the area as once again industrial, its identity a continuum that proposes for its future a concerted acknowledgement of its past. This is not out of keeping with the culture of heritage; it is after all that very inheritance.
We are now encouraged to consider the region a natural landscape, maintained principally for the tourist, the commuter and the retired, a concept that has little in common with local cultural roots laid down generations ago. Very few of the remnants associated with that industrial legacy would qualify for conservation. The cement works at Eastgate has been demolished; current quarrying operations are subject to suspicion, and the sites of the last fluorspar mines in the dales lie derelict and vandalised. It is a cultural tragedy in an area acknowledged for its deep industrial roots that many of the signifiers of an essential and unifying communal history have been erased.
Culture, Geology and the Ordinary
In “An Account of the Mining District of Alston Moor, Weardale and Teesdale”, Thomas Sopwith, engineer and manager for the Wentworth Blackett Beaumont Lead Mining Company provided descriptions of the area that embraced its geological, industrial, social and natural character.
“The lead mines are situated in the midst of magnificent scenery, so that in the north of England the mineral districts may be considered the most
interesting and romantic portion of the island. It may be seen that, considered as mineral districts, they not only afford most interesting subjects
of attention for their mines and subterranean treasures, but also lead the tourist in those directions where nature assumes her wildest and most
romantic forms – to lofty mountain and expansive view. Its antiquarian and various other attractions are comparatively unknown, and thousands
have passed either side of the mining districts on their way to the mountains and lakes of Scotland, unconscious that nature, science, and art
have combined to invest with peculiar interest the neglected but grand and interesting scenery of the mining dales of the north of England.”
Alluring as this description is it is couched in a language of nineteenth century privilege. He was the master and not the worker. It was left to the lead miner, to directly personalise a relationship with the “grand and interesting scenery”.
When Sopwith as engineer was concerned over water levels in the Killhope lead workings it was, allegedly, a miners advice of, “Ah wad cut her and bleed her,” that prompted the driving of, “a new drift into the fell half a mile further down the valley to reach new veins of lead and bleed water from the workings above.”
This casually gendered reference to the landscape by the miner expresses the intimate, knowledgeable and pragmatic relationship that his work engendered. Deep in the under-earth are veins, strata and mineral deposits giving shape and form to the outward body, a landscape that reflected the hopes and aspirations of generations of miners, quarrymen and farmers.
An Artistic Process A Response to Place
There is an obligation towards the location for itself, for what it enfolds. How that is articulated becomes problematic given an awareness of the classifications imposed on certain types of scenery that restrict the perceptions by others of that landscape’s deeper origins. Much of the residue of earlier industrial exploitation has been swept away in order to accommodate the idea of a natural state. The idea of an idyllic nature stamped on a landscape seeks to define a place that in fact never was. Such attitudes are borne out of a failure to acknowledge the industrial in the continuum of human society; to realise landscape as cultural signifier rather than natural phenomena alone and to elaborate upon this complexity. If one celebrates the landscape, one celebrates its entirety, the agencies, industries and people who played an extensive part in its making.
Is the industrial footprint a blemish on the environment? Should it be considered alien to concepts of landscape conservation? Is it to be acknowledged as an integral cultural and human facet, as important as the natural fabric that underlies it and sustains it? Such questioning of the concepts of landscape conservation raises consideration of the purpose of artworks created in response to those landscapes and the human spaces embedded within them. Such a questioning may attempt to circumvent existing categorisations and in so doing influence an approach to the subject matter embodied by the landscape itself, seeking to reveal more than the current designations recognize. Meanwhile the landscape itself remains mute, it cannot speak for itself.
A Narrative of the Ordinary
When driving from Allenheads to Rookhope, over the fells and down through Rookhope Vale, one is aware that there is more than just scenery. As you begin the descent towards Rookhope the headgear of the abandoned Groverake Fluorspar Mine is clearly visible. The main headgear remains relatively intact though bereft of the fixtures that gave it a purpose. It is a strange cenotaph standing amidst the wilderness of the fells and the old workings that surround it. From the high points in the vale it still commands attention. Now that the elegant chimney at the Eastgate cement works has gone it stands as the sole reminder of a 20th century industrial legacy and the deeper history out of which it grew.
Rookhope Vale is one of several locations in the North Pennine region that has provided a major inspiration. It is a wild, often inhospitable landscape epitomising cultural and geological dimensions entwined. It represents the lost “other world” beneath the fells, where the lead and fluorspar miner searched for minerals in the cold and hard strata. Rookhope village, once called Boltsburn, is the site of the legendary Boltsburn lead mine, a relatively small concern until the great ironstone flats were discovered there in 1892 making it one of the richest hard rock mines in the United Kingdom.
The poet Auden visited here and sensing a deeply inserted loss within the fabric of the landscape wrote the following lines:
I could draw its map by heart
Showing its contours, strata and vegetation,
Name every height small burn and lonely sheiling
But nameless to me,
Faceless as the heather or grouse, are those who live there.
While you darken
in the valley’s shadow
the late sun lights
a half moon hangs
still as a hawk above prey
where larks lie low
other hunters hang
in the last lit air
Not knowing provides a point of entry. In considering the perception of a ‘place’ images are sought that provide an encompassing narrative. The metaphor that arose from this landscape was a sobering one re-encountering a sense of loss that seemed palpable. It was in Rookhope Vale early one morning wandering around the old cemetery at Stotsfield that I discovered a simple cast iron cross bearing the raised inscription:
In Loving Memory of
Who was killed by a fall in the Mine
July 5th 1898
Age 16 Years
The lad had been working in Boltsburn Mine. He was walking out-bye after his shift when a slab of stone fell from the roof of the level so ending his young life. He rests by the side of a mountain stream, a young man who had worked in a lead mine killed by rock that had been laid down over 325 million years before he was born. He mined amongst other things ironstone that may have been smelted and made into cast iron at Nenthead, 20 miles away, contributing to the plaque that now marks his grave.
The grave and the simple cast iron cross form a symbol of the ordinary, everyday facts of life that inform the basis of community and memory. It is through such ordinariness as the understandable, personalized and familiar, that connections are forged with the landscape that somehow contribute to an awareness of its deeper dimensions, both human and natural.
Who in Rookhope would remember Thomas Wall? Who would know him as an individual by name or remember his face? He would have been 10 years old when the rich mineral deposits were discovered that were to make the name of Boltsburn Mine famous and which lured him there as a teenager. The surname Wall is a lead- mining name, that of a lead-mining family. One of the exhibitors at the annual Mineral Exhibition held at Killhope Museum was a Wall who at one time worked in Stotsfield Burn Mine down the road from Rookhope and was part of that same family.
The cross and the name symbolise a greater sense of loss, the passing of an industry, the passing of lives and the dynamically mutable nature of the landscape that enfolds them. It is reflections such as these that initiate a sense of responsibility to places and their history. A responsibility that is resolved in the artworks that attempt to combine both respect and solicitude in their making.
The Artworks: In the Beginning
How to begin? How can a landscape be understood, conceptualised and modelled? How can an individual interaction with a particular location be articulated visually? What to focus on, the detail or the generalised? Neither is satisfactory, neither narrates what is known or sensed or yet to be discovered. Appearance alone cannot be taken for granted as identifying a more complex reality, one that is hidden from view or lying beneath the visible surface.
When working on location there is too much to see and grasp. Traditional practice might encourage study of a specific feature, a focus on a detail acting as a means of creating a point of contact. However involvement in the detail loses a sense of the wider environment and its physical connectedness. The problem is one of simultaneously relating varied perspectives that embrace the seen, the known and the imagined. In dealing with this the detailed and the general are embedded in the form of a visual work as it develops on location and later in the studio. One brings to this encounter knowledge gained about and from the particular place, the broader landscape and the geology underlying it, an awareness of what is visible or partially evident and what is invisible yet understood.
From the depiction of the seen experience an idea is formed that is simultaneously intellectual, perceptual and emotional, an act of translation and transformation. A sense of the visual and physical aspects of a place form a point of entry through which a reciprocation between location and artist can evolve. These act as a means of encoding both thought and the sensual encounter with material, that of the landscape place and that of the artistic process. Both reside in separate continuums, but they are intimately connected at the point of contact and later in the artworks that seek to enfold an experience of them.
The imagery is not representational but an amalgamation of visual signs restructured into images. They contain information that articulates the surface and the structure of the artwork signifying a response to a specific location. How those elements of colour, form and texture are interwoven is flexible allowing a response to the visual work as it develops around the selected theme or towards a specific purpose.
Making direct studies and notation on location engages with responses to that encounter, one guided by the seen and the felt sensation, it involves a physical and mental touching. This establishes an approach that bridges the space between location and a reflective redirecting of the experience in the studio.
Material as Substance and Form
Balsams and wax bind vermilion and lapis lazuli. Iron earth from a crystal-lined cavity in a Weardale quarry locates a distant history. Powdered haematite, galena and crushed iridescent glass underlie obscure texts and barely decipherable traces. Copper leaf encrusts surfaces tarnished by pigments. Micron thick gold leaf, layered over lead resurrects the province of the alchemist, corresponding to minerals, their substance and chemistry. There are images on old wooden panels and archaic looking surfaces, painted – printed – transferred, overdrawn and abraded down through layers mimicking an imagined stratigraphy. These are brought together in a visual taxonomy, a response to specific aspects of landscape places. The art works made about such landscapes reveal the insignificant and inconsequential; industrial and domestic detritus; both manufactured and gathered, used in conjunction with the products of the natural world.
The Cabinet as Artwork
Surrounded by cabinets filled with all manner of objects and shelves crowded with vessels and specimens, collections lived alongside and stimulated artworks for decades before they were combined.
The cabinet, as artwork, is intended as a memorial to the ordinary, the unusual and the extraordinary, the lost and the barely remembered, to hidden places and re-discovered histories. In them are fragments and debris that have been collected from various locations, archived in jars and bottles, wrapped and bound or simply included as recovered objects. Flasks and vials filled with liquid, sediments and minerals are visual analogues for mineralogical and chemical processes reflecting the banding of strata or the colour zoning found in fluorspar and other minerals representing the residue of ancient hydrothermal dynamics.
The cabinets contain industrial debris, remnants and traces. The use of such material is a way of embedding a memory of a place within the fabric of the work. Ordinary things are used as a counterpoint to an extraordinary multi-dimensional relationship, as a means of questioning the nature of what is considered important; a corroded ball-bearing from the site of the Boltsburn dressing plant, some old boots and a miner’s candle from an 18th century level. These fragments are chosen for celebration. Within their commonality exists the signs of neglected and forgotten histories re-communicating lost narratives.
The narrative, like the landscape itself, is changeable as the organisation of the items within the cabinets is subject to re-assessment. A re-arrangement of the contents prompts alternative readings of them as an assembly of items. Re-positioning them might offer alternative resonances not just of the visual range or composition but also of their meaning. To make a textual analogy, they are the disconnected syllables, vowels and consonants of a language that can be re-assembled. The cabinets are choreographed as a composite map of the imagination intended to reflect a sense of intersecting histories.
Killhope and the Artwork
An adit is a threshold into a hidden terrain, a portal that occupies the ambiguous place of “between one space and a hidden other”, the transition from the known to the unknown and the mysterious. It acts as a symbol for a series of relationships that interweave layers of time and sequences of scale, a realm of transformations and dynamic processes that link the present moment with the deep time history of the earth. Such interconnections are barely intelligible, almost invisible, yet the miner in his ordinary interactions with the underground landscape that he fashioned was attuned to this extraordinary multidimensional inference.
Contemplation of this dynamic engagement of deep time and human time, aspiration and endeavor prompted consideration of the means by which such a narrative might be communicated, an account that could encapsulate the nature of both the ordinary cultural and the extraordinary geological dimensions.
What seemed apparent was that the artwork, in part, should be informed by the Killhope site and its spaces. The children’s signatures in the visitor books, the old spar cases made by the lead miners and the underground workings in Park level mine; these should contribute and add focus to the intention. The means by which access might be obtained to this hidden dimension could inform a way in to the making of the work.
There was a desire to return a sensation of life to the objects within the museum, to stir them into wakefulness, to re-animate them for Killhope as the place it once was. Selected spaces across the site provided the specific focus for the artworks. Those spaces, the history of the miners, the minerals and the landscape of the Northern Pennines determined the final forms.
Two artworks were placed underground candles lit on them every day over the duration of the exhibition.
“A Doorway into Unknown Levels”, was a large panel placed at the farthest point of public access in Park Level mine. Beyond it the level stretched into the abandoned nineteenth century workings and to dangerously unstable and collapsed passageways. The title serves as a reminder that when driving and extending new workings the miner was entering unknown territory. Older workings were often discovered during this process; sometimes connecting with adjacent mines. They serve to indicate the long distances miners travelled beneath the landscape surface.
“Where the Candel Always Burns”, was a small construction made for an underground chamber at Killhope that houses a sixteen foot diameter waterwheel. Until the late nineteenth century, the ‘candel’ was the main source of light when working underground in lead mines. It provided a steady and uniform illumination. Whenever, the flame dimmed or the candle would not burn was an indication of poor or foul air. It was a lifesaver in more ways than one.
“Distillations and Concentrates” signifies the history of the mineral earth and the human interaction with it, intimating both the natural processes of mineralisation and the industrial processes that produced concentrated minerals after their extraction. The work acted as a reliquary, housing remnants of material gathered from particular locations visited during the project. It was installed in the Mineral Room next door to the reconstruction of the Mine Managers Office.
Specific sites and their surrounding environment was the guiding factor behind all the exhibited artworks along with consideration for the nature of the places they represented. Rookhope Vale and the site of Boltsburn Mine, the workings at Sedling and Burtree Pasture, Wolfcleugh Cottages and Cambokeels Mine provoke a sense of loss that is almost tangible. They are places that appear to “speak” their history clearly, an essence that seeks manifestation in the artworks made in response to them.
Dereliction sits easily in the upper reaches of the Rookhope valley, a desolate and wild landscape. Long abandoned mineral workings characterise its upper reaches together with the remnants of the final exploitation of the mineral veins in the last year of the 20th century. The row of dwellings known as Wolfcleugh are abandoned and beyond redemption. They represent one of the many ruinous homesteads in the upland regions of the Northern Pennines. In the nineteenth century they were occupied by the families of lead and ironstone miners who worked in the valley. The image-object, “Wolfcleugh: The Old Cottages in Rookhope Vale.” is in part fabricated from materials recovered from the site and the surrounding workings. These discarded and forgotten remnants are witness, in the absence of photographs, to the unknown and generally un-remembered occupants of this now abandoned place, ordinary people who contributed to the fashioning of a landscape beneath the fells.
Cambokeels Mine, The Old Cammock Isle” represents another derelict place although its closure was more recent. It was abandoned in 1989 after a working life of over one hundred and forty years. The site occupies an area of land wedged between the A689 road and the River Wear. It has been seated in this constricted position amidst a pastoral landscape since the 1840’s as is testified by the date-stone over the entrance to the south facing old Horse Level which shows the inscription “TWB 1847” representing Thomas Wentworth Beaumont, the owner of the mine which at that time was known as ‘Cammock Isle’. Working ceased at a time when the mine was producing substantial tonnages and some ten years after a new decline had been sunk. Both the decline, flooded to the roof, and the original Horse Level are still visible acting as a reminder and testimony to a lost industry. The work contains objects and material recovered from the site.
Other mines such as Sedling and Burtree Pasture sit amidst a despoiled landscape that stands witness to the extensive exploitation of the rich mineral veins and ironstone deposits in the immediate area. Several photographs of Sedling Mine taken circa 1900 show it as a busy yet tidy place, whilst photographs of Burtree Pasture Mine taken in the mid-1970’s record it as a fully operational mine. Evidence of these workings still remains with the adit of Burtree Pasture Mine still visible and the two main shafts of Sedling Mine open to the surface. They provide evidence of the points of entry into the workings that exist deep beneath the fells. Physical evidence still remains of minerals in the weathered spoil heaps that can be followed across the hillside. The old workings reveal pockets of rich colour from the fluorescent chunks of purple and blue fluorspar scattered across the landscape. The work, “Into The Under-Earth: Old Sedling Mine and Burtree Pasture”, embodies aspects of this post-industrial landscape.
Mines need miners and ancillary workers. Children worked in the mines, often on the dressing and crushing floors, carrying out menial and hard tasks in unpleasant and dangerous conditions; some would work underground with their fathers or other family members; mining was a family affair and bridged generations. In the Killhope archive there is a photograph of the dressing floors and buildings at Sedling Mine, taken circa 1900 which showed the kids then at work in what for them was an everyday situation.
Killhope museum is renowned for its empathy with children and young people. They come and experience, albeit for a short time, what it was like to work the equipment that the lead mining children would have used and to experience the wet and cold conditions underground in the mine itself. The artwork, “To The Children, Then and Now”, is dedicated to the “kids”, inspired in part by their modern day signatures and comments recorded in the visitors’ book.
Mining for lead and fluorspar was a hard and dirty business often taking place in unforgiving and physically difficult conditions. One could be forgiven for assuming that the nature of such work would have a brutalising effect on those who undertook it. However, out of such an unsympathetic environment came a response to the underground environment articulated in the construction of spar boxes by some of the miners. These carefully made objects, often using scrap timber for the cases, held miniature grottoes fabricated out of crystallised minerals discovered during the mining process. Many of the examples reflect the aesthetic appreciation of the miner for the minerals that he encountered in his daily work.
Compendium of the Under-Earth, May 2006.
The large cabinet, “Compendium of the Under-Earth” was made especially for the spar case and mineral room at the Killhope Lead Mining Museum acting as a centerpiece for the room and the “Hidden Landscape” exhibition itself. It started life as a rather scribbled drawing made in the Killhope archive in November 2005. Its inception was a whim but two months later it was completed. Its intention, in part was to echo characteristics of the traditional 19th century spar cases on display and to provide a repository for a range of objects, artifacts and specimens collected prior to and during the research project. These included an abundance of mineralogical material recovered from selected locations supplemented by a series of carefully fabricated objects, fragments and traces that pay tribute to both the landscape and the people who worked this cultural and geological boundary.
Back to Home Ground and Unusual and Tragic Connections
We were out in the high Pennine landscape of the Yorkshire dales. The sky towards the west was dramatic and stormy but the weather was trailing in from the east. We were drenched. On the Monday evening the news broke. The rain had been heavily contaminated by the radioactive plume from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. We were the recipients, as was most of Europe, of one of the most devastating and insidious industrial disasters. This artwork arose out of that event. It contains the image of a young child suffering from the effects of radiation from the catastrophe. The face stands not only for this child of Chernobyl but for what is done to children, for the legacy they suffer. It is also a reminder of another more distant event.
Some years ago I came across an extensive mound of broken window glass in the grounds of Wentworth Castle at Stainborough, a country house not far from where I live. It was all that remained of glass from the estate greenhouses that was smashed by a particularly ferocious storm that took place on the 4th July 1838. It had been a hot and sunny day but a violent thunderstorm raged for several hours in the afternoon with hailstones reported to be almost two inches in diameter.
A memorial to the Huskar Pit Disaster is found in Silkstone Churchyard. It bears the names of 15 boys, the youngest, Joseph Birkenshaw aged 7 and 11 girls including little Sarah Newton aged 8 who perished on that day.
A government enquiry into the disaster led to women and children being prohibited from working in the mines; however in a poor mining community this Act was largely ignored for many years. The enquiry found that children as young as seven were working up to 12 hours a day in the pit. These children were nothing more than slaves, forced to work to earn a pittance for their hard up families. They were by no means unique to the mining areas of Barnsley, their “employment” was widespread throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.
On the 13th October 1992 the then President of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine, announced that up to 31 out of 50 remaining deep coal mines faced closure with the loss of over 31,000 jobs. The cuts were to take effect immediately for six pits, which closed at the end of that week, affecting 6,000 miners. Within six months it was expected that only 19 mines would be left open, grouped in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. At the time of the miners strike in 1984 the National Coal Board employed around 191,000 mineworkers in 170 collieries. By 1999 the mining workforce was more like 10,000 employed in 15 privately owned pits. Now in the South Yorkshire area collieries are a distant memory with some local authorities unwilling to recognise the history of the industry and the debt owed to the communities who served it.
In the Vale of Rookhope in the North Pennines on the last day of July 1999 the only remaining fluorspar mine at Groverake worked its final shift. The mine owners were Allisons; they had deep roots in the area, in the hard rock mining tradition and local community and had kept the mine working for over two years after it became economically unviable. Tradition and a sense of responsibility for the last miners had overridden hard economic reality. Its sustainability however was impossible.
The geology that formed the body of the earth and has claimed so many lives remains. The practical interrogation of that body for its mineral wealth is by and large ended.
David Walker Barker