Art Installations Along the Sunderland to Consett Cycle Route

The Consett to Sunderland cycle route was created by Sustrans between the late 1980’s and the mid 1990’s, it was conceived as a 20 mile car free route connecting places, later to be incorporated into the C2C and the National Cycle Network.  From its inception, artworks were placed along the route at regular intervals, some of these were earthworks, others were sculptures, in this article, it is three of the sculptures, all of which are made from recycled materials which will be discussed.  Towards the Consett end of the route, close to Pontop Pike, there is a pair of robots sticking from the ground like a pair of Easter Island heads, they are situated with a prime view down the valley towards Lanchester.  The are called The Transformers and their presence is hidden from most people as they are only visible from the cycle route itself, and down the valley, not from the road above.  The Beamish Shorthorns further down close to Beamish appear to be idly grazing on the verge in between two bridges along the track, and King Coal sits atop a mound surveying the land all around him with a regal dignity. 

It’s no surprise that all three of these sculptures were created from recycled materials as they were commissioned by Sustrans, who are an organisation committed to sustainability and the promotion of cycling.  It’s when cycling down the trail that we first happen upon Kemp’s The Old Transformers: Miner and Ironmaster appearing to peek out of the tops of the bushes along the side of the route.  Their giant heads and torso’s sticking out from the side of the embankment like a pair of Easter Island statues created not from stone, but from the scrap metal of old industrial transformers.  These two recycled giants keep a silent vigil over the once highly industrial landscape around them, watching as the valley slides into the same industrial decline and disrepair, the spirit of which gave birth to them.  Even though these are created from found materials, a lot of care and attention has gone into their construction to create a semblance of humanity within these constructions. 

The old Transformers: Miner and Ironmaster  (David Kemp) (1990)

Each of the two statues in this grouping has it’s own look, and as a result, they both appear to have different personalities based upon how they look.  As it is unclear which statue is Miner, and which is Ironmaster this leaves it open to my interpretation based upon how they look.  To me, the one which has a more pronounced cap set right above the eyes and a skinnier torso gives the impression of being Miner.  Taking the cap as something akin to the “working mans cap” of the working class in Northern England coalfields this would make sense.  The other with the broader build and what appears to be a beard made from what appears to be a recycled industrial radiator.  This one also has glasses on its head and looks more mature and dignified, sadly this last point is slightly eroded by the fact that both of these fascinating examples of post industrial sculpture appear to have been daubed liberally in graffiti on all sides. 

The old Transformers: Miner and Ironmaster  (David Kemp) (1990)

A few miles down the route, close to the entrance to Beamish Open Air Museum, there is a small grouping of “cows” that if one is going a little too fast, are quite easy to miss just a few feet off the track.  There are four of these constructions in total, they all appear to have been created from reclaimed materials, the majority of which appears to have been scavenged from heavy construction machinery.  As the first of these cute little sculptures is approached, it is quite an odd encounter, the skeletal looking sculpted cow has its head raised as though it is sounding the alarm to the herd that an intruder has arrived in their midst.  These cows are all arranged in a straight line, about the same distance from the path, but because they all appear to have a different action going on, and differing personalities, they don’t appear obviously aligned.  Personally, I think that in a heavy fog, one may be able to cycle right past these and not even notice that they are not real. 

Beamish Shorthorns (Sally Mathews) (1990)

At a walk around, the structure and composition of the arrangement becomes more clear, they are moving somewhere, led by the mooing cow.  Sally Mathews has created a wonder with her technique in welding together the aggregate ageing industrial components that have gone into the creation of each of these quite magical cows.  Though these cute sculptures are smaller than the previous pairing, because they appear so closely in form to what they are, they evoke a good sense of nature in the casual viewer who may  be travelling by at quite a speed.  I feel that the slow plodding of these cows is intended to be glimpsed as opposed to interacted with, in the same was that nature is glimpsed from the track with little interaction as one passes through it. 

Beamish Shorthorns (Sally Mathews) (1990)

Not far past the halfway point of the route, we come to the last of the sculptures that I am intending to discuss here today, King Coal, another large scale piece by David Kemp.  King coal is obviously a reference to the highly industrialised nature of the area in previous times, with the coal industry being one of the biggest employers in the region.  The huge face, again has the appearance of an easter island style statue, as it protrudes from the very ground that once would have supported the coal industry.  Like the other artworks discussed here, this is built from reclaimed items, old bricks, sleepers, and even a huge iron contraption of some sort which has been repurposed as the crown on the king’s head.  It appears a long  face, with a regal nose, and a fat lip sticking out among facial hair that has been designed from serried rows of brick and stone that are semi random in nature.

King Coal (David Kemp) (1992)

King Coal openly shares a beautiful view which includes several old pit villages to all who may wander by, that fat lip doubles as a seat, so that the passer by can have a rest and take in his view for themselves.  The statue itself looks vacant eyed, as though it is reminiscing about the times when coal was indeed the powerhouse of the area, this is helped in part by the quite small eyes set into such a long face. 

Without the industrialisation of the area, the heavy industry and the coal, there would have been no railway here, and in turn would have been no route for Sustrans to repurpose into their network of cycling routes.  While all of these art installations are well constructed, it’s obvious from the usage and arrangement of materials that none of them were expected to be remaining in situ for an eternity, while they haven’t yet begun to degrade in any serious manner, the materials used will eventually succumb to the hostile weather of the north of England, but this in turn is likely to take another few decades.  Whether they perish to the weather, or succumb to removal as the ever expanding urban and suburban areas surrounding them encroach into their space will remain to be seen.  These installations are in essence a fleeting memorial to a once great, but environmentally ruinous industry. 

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