I’m writing this on a morning when the seasons seem to have shifted on their axis. Summer heat came late to these parts this year: we had to wait until September for the warmest days. Last night I lay in bed listening to the pounding of a terrific rainstorm, and this morning a brisk breeze is blowing, the temperature has dropped by ten degrees, and it is raining hailstones.
So uploading these photos taken only last Saturday feels like looking back to another season. I had some business to attend to in St Helens, so I thought I’d take the dog with me and go for a walk afterwards up to Dream at Sutton Manor. It’s been more than three years since I last went up there – soon after Jaume Plensa’s sculpture had been installed following the successful pitch by a group of former miners to Channel 4′s Big Art competition.
It was a hot afternoon – it felt like the hottest this year – as spaniel and me wound our way along the paths that wind uphill through the 230 acre site where once there were enormous slag heaps. Now it is an evolving park of young woodland managed by the Forestry Commission. At the summit there are expansive views across to the Pennines and the Clywdian hills. Plensa’s elegant, luminous sculpture stands at the centre of Bold Forest Park, itself part of the Mersey Forest, the evolving network of woodlands and green spaces being created across Merseyside and North Cheshire. The paths wander through maturing woodland and wild flower meadows (apparently, in spring, there are great displays of Bee orchids).
Sutton Manor Colliery was the only St Helens pit to be opened in the 20th century, and it was the last to close. The first shaft was sunk in 1906, followed by a second, with the mine fully functional by 1912. Driving along the newly built M62 motorway into Liverpool in the late 1970s and 1980s, the great slag heaps and winding wheels of Sutton Manor were a visible marker that you were nearing your destination. The mine’s closure came abruptly in 1991, leaving a great amount of coal still underground, and only a year after it had reached its all-time productivity record. A year later, the buildings were knocked down and equipment removed. The land became a bare wasteland. Many of the miners had to leave the village to find new jobs. It was the end of an era.
Plensa’s sculpture honours the human heritage of a site where miners toiled and many died deep underground for nearly a century. But the artwork also symbolises the optimism that spurred a group of ex-miners to visualise the post-industrial transformation of the site, which has now become something of an iconic landmark which it is hoped will generate economic and environmental benefits, help preserve a community’s collective memory, and enhance local pride.
At the time of its installation, there were some who grumbled that Plensa’s sculpture didn’t literally represent the mining past. In fact, Plensa’s first design, thankfully rejected by the miners themselves, was for a giant illuminated miner’s lantern. The design they chose represents something more powerful and inspirational: a young girl reflecting, perhaps, on the past, but also looking to the future. At the time, Jaume Plensa commented:
My work is first and foremost about celebrating life and the human experience of standing in between past and present, present and future, knowledge and ignorance.
But since I was last here new artworks have been installed across the site: six flame-like structures grow from the ground, containing poems dedicated to the memory of miners past and present who worked at the pit at Sutton Manor. Entitle From Earth, Light, the flames, which start close to the old colliery gates can be seen at various locations. They were created by pupils from Sutton Manor Primary School, in collaboration with local artists Collette and Bernadette Hughes and the Shining Lights Heritage Group. It all dates back to 2006 when the primary school successfully applied for a £34,000 Heritage Lottery Grant to produce a project about the former colliery. They immediately involved a small group of ex-miners and borrowed a wide variety of artefacts which were exhibited at the school in June 2007. Two DVDs were produced that featured ex-Manor miners being interviewed by the schoolchildren about their lives in the pit.
Older voices echo deep
in this world-within-a-world
And in stone dust and darkness
We trace and retrace
The footsteps of our fathers
Where shattered men no longer drink
A flask of tea, or have a sleep;
Where the birds have fallen silent
We remain, and we remember
And blink the dust from our eyes.
Beneath us there’s a labyrinth
A tangle of forgotten pathways.
We walk alone in dreams
Among the twisted, rusted shapes
That litter memory’s lanes.
We make our own pathways
They disappear into serenity and sunlight
For beneath this world lies another
Filled with dreams and scattered memories
The footsteps of our fathers.
There is wisdom in our bones,
In our aching backs and blistered feet.
We blink the dust from our eyes
Every time we awake
And because we remember, we remain.
The former motto of St Helens and Sutton Manor was ex terra lucem – ‘from the earth comes light’. The miners dreamt of seeing the light again at the end of their long shifts working underground. Dream represents the idea of dreaming of a new future for the site and for the area.
- Plensa’s Dream at Sutton Manor
- Jaume Plensa at YSP
- Jaume Plensa: Beyond Limits
- Sutton Manor Colliery Part 1 (1906 – 1959) : excellent local history page
- Sutton Manor Colliery Part 2 (1960 – 1991): the rest of the story
- Sutton Beauty & Heritage: a celebration of the past and present of Sutton
- Dream St Helens website