Public art in the Pennines - The panopticons perched above East Lancashire’s valley-towns are building-sized sculptures set in the midst of stunning views.
Those views are half the point—panoramas that incorporate the essential features of one of Britain’s oldest and most intriguing regions. The other half is, of course, the art—for the Panopticons are striking sculptures in dramatic landscapes, landmarks to be seen from afar.
“They are on the cusp of architecture and art,” says Nick Hunt, creative director of Mid Pennine Arts, who began the project and saw the effort to completion. They function as remarkable structures as much as pieces of art, forming a visual focus for redevelopment.
The views from the Panopticons reveal complex landscapes of industry and nature, and the four Panopticons show off four distinct aspects of East Lancaster’s heritage. Set in the central Pennines northeast of Manchester, much of East Lancashire is open moor deeply cut by narrow valleys. This is the rough land between the Peaks District National Park and the Yorkshire Dales National Park—the sort of scenery you’d expect to be a natural draw for British tourists.
In the late 18th century, however, these deep, narrow valleys drew industry instead, furnishing a plentiful and accessible source of water power. Factories lined the streams, concentrating wherever there was a fall in water, and gray stone towns grew around the factories, terracing up the slopes and forming string-like conurbations along the streams. Nor were the hills left wild; coal, iron, limestone and brick clay were all mined on one moor or another, and abandoned open pits still scar the hillsides. To these relic industrial landscapes, the late 20th century contributed cell towers and enormous electrical transmission lines, while the 21st century has added wind farms.
‘Evocative Pennine landscapes surround the Panopticons’
Yet the landscapes surrounding the Panopticons are some of the Pennines’ most evocative, not in spite of the industrialization but because of it. The abandoned mines provide the crags and cliffs, and follow the underlying geology as carefully as any rain-carved ones. Cell towers and high-voltage lines dwarf the isolated farmsteads beneath them, accidental sculptures both ugly and weirdly compelling. Wind farms are oddly beautiful, the 30-story towers standing like giants with flailing arms that dare not get too close to each other. The glory of the moors, however, are the towns, with their stone buildings emerging from the valley sides and disappearing into shadows at the bottom.
Haslingden’s Panopticon, The Halo, sits above town at the end of a narrow lane that once serviced Top ’o Slate, a slate mine. The site is now restored and managed as a nature reserve, its contours natural and covered with grasses and young forests. The Halo occupies the spot where these restored lands reach the moor’s edge, with stunning views. The sculpture itself is a basin-like lattice of aluminum tubing the size of a small house, set high on tripod legs, something like a temple bowl, and something like half a flying saucer. At night its circular members are lined with small blue lights, and its resemblance to a flying saucer takes over. Its odd appearance does not conflict with its surroundings, as this is a heavily used landscape, where a cell tower and power lines share a ridgeline with a traditional farm, and the cliffs across the valley have been carved by quarries. Below, the town of Haslingden steps gingerly down the valley sides. It’s a popular spot for locals to picnic, and when the evening sky is clear you can usually find a family or two who’ve come up to watch the sunset.
Factories can be surprisingly ephemeral; descend to Haslingden’s lowest reaches and a separate public art project leads you to and through the ruins of the oldest works. Called the Irwell Sculpture Trail, it follows the River Irwell, once a prominent water power source.
Upstream from Haslingden, the trail gives a different sort of view from the Panopticons, one that’s up close and intimate, with a dozen sculptures set in a five-mile stretch. In the short length around Riverside Park at Stacksteads, the new sculptures blend with remnants of abandoned manufactories. Stone walls that once funneled water into mill races now protect the path from erosion; the shell of a water-powered factory sits by a dry-stone sculpture that echos its ruins; a stone roller rests like a downed pillar among a mini-Stonehenge of slabs (some of which form picnic tables).
To get an idea of what all this industry might have been like in the glory days of Queen Victoria, go to the Queen Street Mill in nearby Burnley. Worker-owned for nearly a century before closing in 1982, it retains all of the original steam engines and manufacturing equipment, including hundreds of looms powered from overhead steam-driven shafts, the world’s only intact example of this type of factory. Volunteers fire up its hand-stoked boilers, the overhead shafts begin to turn and the full panoply of machines tighten their belts onto the shafts and operate at full clatter—an amazing, and deafening, sound. No modern artist’s installation could provide such a visceral experience.
Burnley’s Panopticon sits deep in the moors that separate it from Haslingden. In contrast to Haslingden’s Halo, the site of The Singing Ringing Tree is as remote and wild as East Lancs gets. It’s a spiral of iron horizontal pipes that slowly expands into a graceful tree-like shape perhaps 30 feet high. The pipes are tuned to hum softly in the wind, no matter which way or how gently the wind blows. The Singing Ringing Tree gives classic Pennine views over rolling hills with isolated farmsteads, with Burnley barely within view at the northern end of the valley.
To the east, however, are competing for sculptural structures—the 24 towers of the Coal Clough Wind Farm, one of Britain’s oldest.
If the Singing Ringing Tree represents the wildness of the open moors, and the Halo stands for the worked landscapes of industrialized Lancashire, then the third Panopticon, The Atom, embodies the traditional English countryside. Set on a slope at the upper end of the remarkable Wycoller Country Park, The Atom is the Panopticon for Pendle, where the industrialized moors blend in with Brontë Country. The Atom is meant to fit into a sort of scenery very different from the much-exploited moors of East Lancs. Here are patchwork fields bordered by stone fences, glades and old forests, isolated villages with old stone bridges (visited by the Brontë sisters in their walks), and a fast-running stream never enslaved to a factory wheel.
Directions to The Panopticons are on their website, www.midpenninearts.org.uk/panopticons. When you visit, don’t expect to find any of them to be easy, but the search is worthwhile.
The Irwell Sculpture Trail, which stretches from central Manchester to the moors above Bacup, has a fascinating website, www.irwellsculpturetrail.co.uk, with photos and directions. The Stacksteads section can be found by leaving the A56 at Haslingden to follow the A681 east for four miles, to a right on Blackwood Road, then 100 yards farther across the Irwell to park on the left by the trail-head. Walk eastward; the section I describe is only 1,500 feet of a 33-mile trail with more than 70 sculptures along its length.
Burnley’s Queen Street Mill is part of Lancashire County’s excellent museum system. Information on it can be found on their website.
Lancashire County also runs Wycoller Country Park, including a museum and visitors center, but does not have a dedicated website for it. Fortunately, its volunteer organization, Friends of Wycoller, has stepped into the gap with www.friendsofwycoller.co.uk.
The Atom is a shelter from which to view all this, with smooth lines and earth colors of the organic. Inside, however, is a brightly shining sphere that brings the views inside to the resting traveler. It still manages to dominate its skyline as a good Panopticon should, but without detracting from the very English beauty of Wycoller village. On the edge of Wycoller, the locals have erected their own public art project—a string of living sculptures made by entwining live willow branches, created as a part of the Halo’s construction.
Blackburn, East Lancs’ one full-sized city, forms the hub of the region’s economy and public art. Its Panopticon, Colourfields, is an embellished restoration of a 19th-century cannon platform (without cannon) at the uphill head of the town’s venerable Corporation Park. More modest than the other artwork, it nonetheless offers a fine view over the landscaped park to the proud Victorian city beyond. One of the two cannon bays has stepped down to the park, the other has a viewing platform shaped like the prow of a ship poised to transport Lancashire fabric to the ends of the British Empire. At the base of Colourfields, a series of sculptures made from carved, twisted tree trunks double as a jungle gym.
In downtown Blackburn, visitors can view public art at the center of a large and successful regeneration project. This small city center is a very walkable place, with shops and pubs, trees and benches—and art. Down the center of one pedestrianized avenue is a series of massive bronze pieces that depict industry emerging organically, like so many flowers. Rather strange, but it fits well with the pleasantly remodeled buildings, bustling with activity. Another bronze piece, smaller and quieter but more remarkable, shows a life-size woman hustling toward the train station with a child in tow, the child straining for a dropped teddy bear. More art is scattered about the town center, in the neighborhoods, and even in the roundabouts.
In the town center is Blackburn’s oldest and largest display of public art: Blackburn Cathedral, like all cathedrals an astonishing collection of masterpieces from many ages. Blackburn, however, is a new city and it has a new cathedral, created as such in 1926 to serve the working classes concentrated in the Lancastrian valley towns. The cathedral was not built from scratch; it’s an exceptionally large parish church “restored” in 1826 from a Tudor original with bits and chunks dating to Norman times. Converting it to a cathedral took from 1938 to 1977, and much of its current glory comes from the early decision to hire the prolific and talented John Hayward as an artist-in-residence during the 1960s. The interior throngs with pieces by Hayward and others—unusual for a cathedral only because we know the name of the artist. Public art in England goes back a long way.
* Originally published in 2018.