There is a semi-isolated place in Northern England referred to as The Wilds of The Wannie, this is an expanse of rocky moorland found at the headwaters of the river Wansbeck. It is a bleak and inhospitable stretch of perpetually windswept northern moorland. Sadly, over the years the area has become much less of a wilderness. It is now hemmed in by two major roads, it now boasts a large wind farm up on its plateau, which is visible from over 40 miles away. It is no surprise then to learn then that this ‘isolated’ landscape has become the centre of a long-running debate over whether or not it is a suitable place for a monumental piece of public art as well as whether the said piece of artwork is even wanted by, or beneficial to anyone living within the local community. Ascendant’s original purpose was a commemoration of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. There was a small competition to find a design that best suited the requirements of such a monument before a winning design was chosen. It has changed now from a commemoration of her reign to one of her life as she sadly passed away last month.
Not everyone was pleased with the idea, the placement of such a large construction in such a rural area has been vehemently opposed by locals for a variety of reasons. They formed an active group through which they could keep an eye on the project and campaign against the monument’s construction. However, their efforts may not have been enough as planning permission was eventually given, meaning all that stands in the way of Viscount Devonport is the matter of raising enough money for the construction of Ascendant.
Ascendant: The Elizabeth landmark is a project which Viscount Devonport first produced twenty-five years ago in the late 1990s.[i] The intention was to build a monument which celebrated “Queen Elizabeth II” and “the anchoring of the Commonwealth around shared values of Tolerance, Respect and Understanding”.[ii] With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on the 8th of September 2022, the vision for the monument appears to have shifted slightly in favour of celebrating her reign.
Originally there were three competing designs for the artwork, which is planned for the top of Cold Law, a local hill. All of the designs had different characteristics and had been proposed by different artists. These proposals were made by Colin Rose, Peter J Evans, and Simon Hitchens, all three designs engaged with the site and attempted to meet the requirements which had been set in the brief.[iii] Colin Rose’s offering was a thick tapering spire which went from red at the bottom to gold near the top. Sitting squatly on top of the hill, its design is simplistic, functional, and relatively austere in its surroundings. Peter J Evans had a much more outlandish vision, a small building sat on Cold Law, with a light blue spire that would wave gently in the wind. The artist describes “I’m imagining a piece which moves and sits within the landscape rather than being placed upon it”, his vision being to incorporate motion, from the near-constant wind which blows around Cold Law into the artwork itself. Finally, Simon Hitchen’s design, which was a huge, tapered spire set at an angle into the hillside, taking the shape of a slice of hillside cut away and angled towards the midsummer solstice sun at midday. Out of the three designs, Hitchens is the one that looks the most likely to both attract an audience and have the best longevity up in the harsh landscape of the Wannie hills.
The proposed location up on Cold Law is interesting as it’s not the highest point in the Wannie hills, but it is a prominent and quite visible spot above Redesdale. There have been claims made about Ascendant matching the height of an existing monument which was built in honour of Queen Victoria. This monument however is not visible on Historic England’s list, not visible on the map, and I haven’t managed to find it when I visited the area.[iv] Among other reasons for the location which are cited online include that the height of the Ascendant will match that of a nearby hill and also that the colour of the steel as it rusts will interact with the colours of the moorland flora. There is a small allusion to the industrial heritage of the site itself which is tenuous at best as the site is mostly unspoilt moorland.
In their original press release regarding the project, back in 2018, it is stated that the “landmark will celebrate unity, diversity and the shared heritage between The Commonwealth Nations”, however, so far all it has sewn is disunity within the local area.[v] The siting of the landmark however demonstrates a lack of respect for the local people and their surroundings by the project organisers. A large portion of the local community are opposed to the siting of the landmark in such a quiet, wild, rugged, rural place such as within the Wannie hills. There was even enough outrage that a Facebook group named Keep the Wannies Wild was set up to raise awareness about the project and to gather public support in the fight against Ascendant.[vi]
The Keep the Wannies Wild group on Facebook exists to oppose the project, as well as to raise awareness of the environmental destruction which its construction would cause also highlighting that this project is seen as an invading object intruding into the lives, and views of the people who live locally. The hill on which the monument is planned to sit is a much-loved place of leisure for the local community who use this part of the countryside for their personal recreational purposes. The group has fought the project for a couple of years, even thinking the fight may be over when the planning application was originally refused. However, this decision was overturned on appeal in early 2021, which has led to a resurgence of the grassroots fight against the Ascendant.
After the project originally failed to secure planning permission from Northumberland County Council those in charge of the project took it upon themselves to appeal to the planning inspectorate.[vii] The entire planning of the whole project appears as though it was intended to be misleading the local community, The Facebook page of the Elizabeth Landmark claims that the project organisers held five weeks of public consultations, taking place at several locations within the local area, something vehemently argued against by the local community. One comment on this claim by James Skelly claims that “They were simply told that the landowner was going to do it and presented with illustrations of three alternative designs, all of them hideous.”, which doesn’t sound like a consultation at all, this is more like an open invitation to see what they have already planned and intend to construct regardless of opinion.[viii] It is no wonder then that the majority of local people feel misled by this project and that it is being forced onto them in a completely unsuitable rural location. Those against the Ascendant often highlight that access is along narrow roads which they think are unsuitable for use by increased traffic, or the heavy construction traffic required for the project, however, in reality, they are regular-sized roads which at present barely have much usage at all. While these consultations were actually held, there was little to no advertising of the events and no realistic ability for the public to put forth their opinions on the overall project, the only choice given was to tell the organisers which was their preferred design.
Now that the project has been given its planning permission despite the huge amount of public opinion against it, there is still the question of just who’s pocket the money is going to come out of to fund Ascendant. Originally, back in 2019, it had an estimated price tag of a million pounds, now, however, this is closer to five million. The Viscount Devonport isn’t actually going to pay for it himself, despite the land it will be situated on being on his estate. Instead, he is seeking money from private donors to fund the construction cost of the project. One of the current goals of Keep the Wannies Wild is to attempt to stymy any funding coming from local businesses and institutions by highlighting the massive environmental and ecological cost of the project, as well as vocalising the complete lack of any local community support for the project.
Simon’s design for the new landmark artwork includes a huge void cut from the top of the hill at Cold Law, with the structure of the monument itself taking on the same cross-section profile as the missing slice of the hillside. In Simon Hitchen’s own description of his design “The Elizabeth Landmark is as if a giant has taken a slice out of the hill at Cold Law, Northumberland, and elevated the slice, pointing up to the sun at its zenith on Midsummers Day.” which essentially is like saying that the monument will act as a giant sundial.[ix] The huge 55-metre-long steel blade will contain a number of fins which matches the queens’ age, these fins also serve as a reference to the invention of the turbine blade, an innovation of Charles Parsons who owned the estate during part of the nineteenth century. The turbine is an invention which has totally revolutionised modern life throughout the world and therefore arguably should qualify for a monument dedicated to the idea itself.
Although Hitchens has produced a range of other sculptural works, this may be the biggest single work which he has been commissioned for. All of his other sculptures appear to be constructed on a much smaller scale. All are unique and have a certain quality about them which just draws in the imagination. It is my hope that if Ascendant gets the go-ahead, it will be every bit as thought-provoking as his other work has demonstrated itself to be. The technical aspect of the production of Ascendant’s fifty-five-meter-long steel structure, as well as installation, will likely be handled by contractors rather than Hitchens personally, this then allows us to question whether it really is his sculpture if all he has done is design, rather than create it.
The location up on the moorland above the North Tyne and Redesdale valleys is already irreparably ruined by the addition of windfarms to such a sensitive area that I find it a moot point whether or not the area is considered as a distant far-flung wild place any longer. It is in fact just over 25 miles from the heart of a major northern conurbation and is flanked by two busy main roads. The area has already become a place of leisure for walkers, climbers, and fishermen to go to visit for quite a long time. What difference then is one more construction within the landscape that won’t top out above the highest hills and will stand out against the horizon less than the already existing windmills.
Despite the silence from those intent on creating Ascendant recently, it hasn’t gone away. It is looking increasingly likely that the queen’s death will spark a resurgence in their vigour for the project. If the project is realised, it is highly unlikely that it will have a significant impact on the local economy, by itself, it won’t be enough to attract extra tourism save for an initial burst, then the curious after that. Any comparison with the Angel of the North is not tenable, as that artwork lies just off a busy dual carriageway at the edge of a city rather than a three-mile drive from the main road. It would be interesting to see if it gets built, and whether or not Ascendant becomes incorporated into the regional identity in the manner in which Gormley’s Angel of the north has been.