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Archive for June, 2019

Letter from Lancaster 11

Horizon Line Chamber at Sunderland Point.

I cycle downriver. Wind turbines turn in perfect synchrony, like slow cartwheeling acrobats. High wires crackle on pylons striding across the wide estuary from the nuclear power station. The causeway to Sunderland, a village cut off twice a day, is a ribbon of muddy tarmac between flats of salt marsh grass from which convexes of shining mud, their sea-smoothed surfaces impressed already with the cuneiform of bird footprints, curve down to trickling water. A curlew flies by. Its bill curves down; its call curves up: you take your pick. A flotilla of swans, dazzling as yachts, far out. I walk across to the Morecambe Bay side. The high blue nobbled back of the Lake District dragon on the horizon curves down, long neck low, to the head at Barrow, ready to breathe nuclear fire. Offshore from the mouth a haze, like breath, churning, indecipherable until binoculars reveal a vast array of wind turbines, turning slowly.

I’m here to visit a new art work. It is next to Sambo’s grave (more on that in a later letter). Horizon Line Chamber, by land artist Chris Drury, is a drystone, corbelled beehive, beautifully constructed, that looks like a high-spec hermit’s cell from an Irish island, or a reconstruction from Skara Brae. Odd, this heap of stone in a landscape of grass, mud, water, air. And deliberate, the sugarloaf hump that holds the eye that habitually sweeps across, following birds or carried on the prevailing wind. It is designed to stop, to still the restless eye. Perhaps to still the restless spirit. An oratory.

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Inside, in the darkness, within the density and thickness of stone, isolation. Except, on the wall, a circular image, dark above light. This cell is a camera obscura. A lens in the west wall draws the image of outside in, inverted (as the eye experiences images, which the brain then inverts – I’m seeing as the eye sees), and projects it on the east wall. Still as a photograph – and then birds fly across, the light changes as a cloud passes. I imagine watching the equinox sun setting. And yet. I feel like Plato’s man, his back to the ‘real’ world, experiencing only flickering shadows cast on a wall. I want to burst out, into our ‘real’ world! And yet. There is in confinement, in concentration, in single-point focus, an intensification of experience. As I leave I wonder if I will come to terms with it. I will return.

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Letter from Lancaster 10

The Hogback Stone and Ship at Heysham, a fable.

They were inseparable. From childhood into adolescence they dressed the same, cut their hair the same, such that no stranger could tell who was girl, who was boy. The hogback, convex, massive, stone, covered in images, became their home,
IMG_5564IMG_5565 where they dwelled, safely guarded by the great beasts enclosing the ends. They pored over it in the church with eye and touch – her father was churchwarden, she had the key – sometimes at night, blindly, or in the mystery and clarity of moonlight. They endlessly talked about, made up stories, adventures in which they were the heroes. Entire sagas, if anyone had written them down. And the images on the stone changed as they grew. The man by the tree was Adam in the Garden, naming the animals – until one day she suddenly saw the serpent that had wreathed itself around the stone – where had it come from …? – and he became Sigurd the dragon-slayer. The stag, at first in the wild, with companion birds and beasts – even playfully carrying one on its back! – became the hunted, by wolves and then, worse, by men with dogs. The four men with raised arms were, for cowboy-mad he, in a hold-up, “Reach for the sky!”; as they learned, they became the dwarfs who hold up the sky in Norse legend. They puzzled over the lemur-like creatures with long curling tails – had they escaped long ago from Heysham Head Zoo, found refuge on the stone? The figures and beasts on the stone spoke to them, from a time when there were gods everywhere, and everything had a voice. They sought words to join themselves to the plants and animals, and beyond to the sea and stars. They asked, ‘what does the wave say?’

Then Ship arrived,
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beached on the shore, concave, slender, steel, empty. Standing in front of it, gazing through it to the sea and sky, he said, ‘when the modern era began, the exterior world, hitherto teeming with gods, muses, fairies and ghouls, became empty space.’ ‘No!’ she cried. ‘While the interior world became deep and rich beyond measure. Language changed from poetic to descriptive, men and women no longer spoke to the world but about it, replaced connection with control, named all things but did not sing them. It’s called progress.’ ‘NO!’ But she saw that the identical figures on Ship were facing away from each other, to different worlds. She saw that he would go far, naming, and doing great things. While she would stay, come again and again to experience the sea and sky cupped in the steel hull, and listen for what the wave says.

Notes:
1. I have incorporated texts from Homo Deus, by Yuval Harari, and The Broken Notebooks, by John Gilmore.

2. The hogback stone is a 10th century Norse/Saxon memorial to a Viking trader. It is in St Peter’s church on the cliffs at Heysham Head.

3. Ship is a new artwork, by Anna Gillespie, on the shore close to Heysham Harbour and the nuclear power stations.

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Letter from Lancaster 9

Thomas Harrison’s Towers

Lancaster has its share of towers, spires and domes: the castle gatehouse and Priory church, of course; then the Ashton Memorial folly, the grandiose clock tower on the (new) Town Hall, the sublime skyrocket of the Catholic Cathedral, and the Prussian helmet on the Storey Institute.

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But my favourites bring me back to Thomas Harrison, architect of Skerton Bridge. (See Letter 7.)

From a standing start as a 38-year-old who had built nothing, Harrison quickly developed a busy practice, designing the Bridge Houses, laying out Green Ayre for housing, designing bridges in Derbyshire, Westmorland and Lonsdale, and a mansion for a plantation-owning, sugar-processing, and bank-owning local man: together with an ongoing programme of work to remodel the castle as a modern prison, in which for the first time men and women, felons and debtors were separated. By 1785 he had moved to Lancaster, married a local woman, and started a family.

But it was his clock tower and church tower that drew me as a child, knowing nothing of architecture or aesthetics, finding them, ‘friendly’, ‘reassuring’, regarding them with ‘affection’. And, later, admiring their beauty, while knowing nothing of their history – they were just ‘there’.

The new (now old) town hall had been built in 1782, overbearing in the small

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 market square with its double-height Doric columns, and heavy pediment. Harrison was commissioned to add a clock tower. He created a tall, intricate, light structure that draws the eye up, lifts weight from the facade. An octagon contains the clock, from which rises a rotunda with eight tall, slender Ionic columns around the bell chamber, above this a low dome decorated with garlands, capped with a little dome. It has such lightness that I see it in a landscaped garden of the time, a temple dedicated to the muses of music and dance.

For his next commission, a tower and spire for the solid, austere St John’s, home chapel IMG_5191IMG_5188 IMG_5190

of the borough Corporation, he matched the solidity and austerity of the chapel in the square clock tower to roof level. Then, in three cornice-separated phases, he took off. First is the belfry, a Palladian cube, lightened with wide openings and Tuscan aedicules (triangular-topped ‘houses’). Then comes a rotunda, shorter and more robust than on the Town Hall, with eight Doric half-columns and a frieze, open through and airy. Then a low dome decorated with garlands is the launch pad for a slender spire, with eight concave sides – something about the concavities accelerates the eye up to the pinnacle point. From four-square cube to the vanishing point of the tip of the spire, in three stages, that both transforms the existing church, and is itself an aesthetic delight from wherever in town I see it, reassuring in its beauty.

And, as with Skerton Bridge, behind his assured judgement and good taste was a knowledge of Classical models, and an ability to adapt them appropriately. Both towers are derived from the 4thc BC Choragic Monument to Lysicrates in Athens.Version 2
It had been ‘discovered’ in 1751, and a copy built in Staffordshire in 1771. But Harrison was the first British architect to use it as inspiration for new designs, rather than simply copying it. As seen in these very different structures. As with is other buildings in Lancaster, the Classical vibrates within, echoes through, connects them, through his good taste and great learning, to the root of European architecture.

Lancaster did not keep Harrison long: having added remodelling Chester Castle to his portfolio, he fell out with the Lancaster magistrates, and in 1795 moved to Chester. All his subsequent buildings are in Cheshire and South Lancashire. But at least he got his start in Lancaster, and we still have his buildings.

Note: All the facts above come from: ‘Thomas Harrison, Georgian Architect of Chester and Lancaster, 1744 – 1829’, by John Champness, an exemplary account of Harrison’s training and work.

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1. Halcyon moment.

Returning from a hard bike ride I stop on Halton bridge, lounge with my elbow on warm riveted metal, gaze vacantly down on the glittering threads of water below the weir, at the newly-arrived swans with their looping necks feeding assiduously, dabbling ducks tipping up and back, black-headed gulls lifting and landing, when my eye is caught by a quiver, twenty feet from me, eye-level, a flicker of coloured lights. Hovering, twitching, hovering on barely-visible wings, blue green red, a humming bird from Portrait slipped through space-time, except no slip, this is here, real, now: iridescence vibrating green blue, plump rufous body, sharp beak – it drops, like a climber falling, through me, a tiny splash, then it shoulders out of the gluey water, fish in beak, streaks low across the water, up into the trees, gone. The river flows, the birds feed, it happened.
I know it is a kingfisher, that this is its normal behaviour, nothing special, “it dives, either from a perch or while hovering, to catch fish”, says my bird book. And yet. I have seen kingfishers four times, and I remember each time, place, who I was with, mood, circumstance, recall each perfectly, and in each a kingfisher.

Portrait is Tacita Dean’s film of David Warner and hummingbirds, in which both are hypnotic and memorable.

2. Water-skiing through Lancaster.

Bank holiday, high tide, crossing the bridge, coming closer is the whine and roar of a IMG_5315high-revving engine … and from round the bend under Greyhound Bridge bursts a speeding motor boat, followed by a figure on a single ski slaloming back and forth across the wake, whooping, under the bridge below me, and round the bend upstream. I think of the kids in Les Amants du Pont Neuf joyously water-skiing through Paris. Except this skier looks more like a supervillain.  Ten minutes later he reappears, shoots under the bridge, heads downriverIMG_5317 towards the mouth of the Lune, still whooping, is gone.

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Letter from Lancaster 7

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7. Thomas Harrison’s Bridge

There is a purity in Harrison’s early buildings in Lancaster that has run through me like a thread of spring water in a manifold river. I only realised this when I returned, looked afresh, lived next to his bridge, looked into his work.

Harrison was a 38-year-old unknown in 1782 when he won the competition to build a new bridge over the Lune from Skerton to Lancaster. But he had a backstory. Son of a joiner, from aged 25 to 32 he was in Rome, at the expense of Yorkshire’s richest man, Lawrence Dundas. There he studied the architecture, made many drawings, entered competitions (none of which he won). In 1776 he returned through France, studying and drawing. He then spent two years in London, trying to get noticed and taken up as an architect, but it was a bad time for building, he failed, and returned to Richmond.

Skerton bridge is mainly noted for being the first bridge in England with a level deck. It is a fine piece of engineering, so well designed and built that, unaltered, it carries 40-ton trucks. However, in what could easily have been a piece of practical bridge building, Harrison incorporated, hid in plain sight, elements from his years on the Continent. The level deck is taken from Perronet’s Pont de Neuilly bridge in Paris, opened in 1772 by the king to great fanfare. It is the same length, with the same five elliptical arches. Then into Perronet’s plain engineer’s design, Harrison incorporates elements from classical and contemporary architecture. The niches cut through above each pier derive from the Ponte Fabricio in Rome. Each is faced with an aedicule – the pointed house-like structure made to shelter an altar or god. He told the sponsors that they had the practical value of lightening the load on the piers, and relieving flood pressure; I see aesthetic decisions that allow the eye to flow through the bridge, and add a vertical contrast to the bridge’s horizontality. And the piers are rusticated (rough surfaced), in contrast to the ashlar (smooth-faced stone) of the bridge: this conforms to the Palladian epitome, contrasting basement with main building. In a practical bridge in a small Northern town he seamlessly incorporated Parisian bridge building, Roman design, Classical tradition, and Palladian ideal.

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There is a final element in this masterwork. The purpose of the level deck was to create a grand entrance into the town. Walk across in the centre of the road – traffic permitting! – and you see this intention. For you are walking towards the ensemble he built at the end of the bridge, built to the Palladian ideal of Classical house with two wings. (Although the fine house would serve simply as a customs house.) Again, this design came from his days in Rome, his competition entry for a grand entrance to the city. A grand avenue was opened from the bridge to the town centre, and the area by the river laid out for fine houses. It never happened. The ‘Green Ayre’ was first a shipyard, and then a railway station. For Lancaster’s port and prosperity were now in decline, the town entering its 70 years of stagnation.
So that when the ‘Little North Western’ railway was built on the Lancaster side of the river, the end of Harrison’s bridge was raised to bridge over it, ruining the connection of buildings and bridge. Subsequent road engineering and signage have further obscured the connection.

I will save my two favourite Harrison structures for another letter.

Note: All the facts above come from: ‘Thomas Harrison, Georgian Architect of Chester and Lancaster, 1744 – 1829’, by John Champness, an exemplary account of Harrison’s training and work.

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