Monday, 5 March 2012

Revisiting the Irwell Sculpture Trail

Exercise, muddy feet and fresh air are among the less celebrated benefits of viewing works of art, but visiting the Irwell Sculpture Trail is a chance to experience all three at the same time as seeing works by locally and internationally renowned artists. The 33 mile sculpture trail, which follows the River Irwell from Salford Quays all the way to Bacup in Pennine Lancashire, has been around for over a decade now, but recent reinvestment means that, as well as restoring some of the sculptures to prime condition, new, interactive features make the experience far more than just looking at art and going for a walk.

The sculpture trail started in Rossendale in Pennine Lancashire following a lottery bid and gradually expanded to reach as far south as Salford Quays, with artworks leading the visitor through the history of the industrial towns and cities that grew up alongside the River Irwell and the changing uses of the river and surrounding areas. It's a story not just about the Irwell, and the trains, canals and mills that follow its course (the trail regularly meets other waterways such as the Manchester and Bolton and Bury Canal, and the clusters north of Bury can be conveniently reached on the East Lancashire Railway), but local people, incorporating memories and experiences into several of the sculptures. However, some of the artworks on the sculpture trail fell into disrepair over time, and have only recently been restored. Diana Hamilton has been project manager for the Irwell Sculpture Trail since 2007 and is setting the direction for its future. She explained: “It's a really unwieldy project as four local authorities are working together. In the past there was a lack of thought when commissioning and a lack of understanding who would be responsible for maintenance, and that's a problem right across public art. Now there's a new mindset when commissioning public art of making sure there's a maintenance plan.”
Working with the Arts Council, an audit of the trail was carried out, looking at the state of the sculptures, the pathways and the access to the trail, and a five year plan developed. Diana explained: “We discovered some sculptures no-one knew about and incorporated them into the trail. Some people had walked past a sculpture for years and not known what it was. Some of the sculptures melted back into nature and naturally disappeared. Some had been vandalised and some were never meant to have a longer lifespan than they have.” The lack of public information previously available had also meant that some sculptures were very hard to find, and some of the trail went through private land or land that flooded. Suggested routes have now been changed to avoid private land, and the Environment Agency is looking at the land that floods. Diana said: “The trail has gone through a real period of change. It all happened organically. We heard people's frustrations about not being able to find the sculptures so turned the trail from a linear trail into clusters.”

A consultation was also held and, while there had been opposition to some of the sculptures at first, Diana says the artworks are now part of their communities: “There was so much local opposition to Tilted Vase in Ramsbottom, and Halo in Halsingden when they were planned, but people love them now.” Each area has a steering group, including representatives from tourist information and community groups, and they have a practical role commissioning temporary artworks alongside the trail. Some of the sculptures came about through the Section 106 planning clause, and councils along the trail made a commitment to spend the money on the arts, often involving the community.

Many of the artists lived in the area where their contribution to the trail is based, and artworks reflect local stories. In Whitefield, near Bury, the artist talked to park rangers and discovered there used to be 'fancy birds' in the park in Victorian times, leading to a simple but effective artwork entitled Canaries in the Park, which comprises still, hard-to-spot model birds sitting still on the railings, and acting as silent spectators in the bowling green. The colour scheme was drawn from tropical sweets from the local sweet factory. Some of the birds have also been adopted by the community and adorn the town's rooftops.

Other artworks give a sense of place. Diana describes Lee Quarry, near the Stacksteads cluster, where bikers interact with the sculptures and use them to perform tricks, as “an amazing performance space”, saying: “It's like being on the moon. You can use the sculptures to find your way around. They give you a sense of where you are.”

New signs and interpretation will help visitors make the most of their visit to each cluster, and QR codes have been added to the sculptures which anyone with a smartphone can scan to hear local stories as well as recordings of the artists and videos of events which have been held alongside the sculpture trail. Diana gives a macabre example: “An old mill owner used to throw children into the river in Salford when they were no longer needed and you can still see the gravestones along the river. There are little nuggets of stories like this to bring the trail alive. Children love gruesome stories; it adds another layer to the experience.” Visitors can also take part in a monster hunt in Rossendale and a geo treasure hunt.

However, you won't need a fancy phone to enjoy the trail. Diana says: “It's all very well if you have a smartphone to use a QR code but we also want to satisfy the rambler in their sixties and seventies. There's a really wide audience, from families with small children to ramblers on their annual expedition. We're keeping all these audiences happy.”
The Irwell Sculpture Trail works closely with other venues along the trail, and sculpture trail activities will tie in with events such as Bury Light Night and the chocolate festival in Ramsbottom, as well as the Olympic torch passing through Rossendale and Bury. An exhibition in light boxes at Piccadilly Station is currently linked up with the Ghost Cam at former stately home Ordsall Hall in Salford, one of the attractions which hosts sculptures along the trail, and performers from Salford's DIY Theatre Company have been bringing alive the Salford section of the trail. It's hoped future events will also include guided walks.

Diana said: “The sculpture trail is a free day out that gets people out and about and walking outside. Because each cluster of sculptures is part of a bigger project, people visit other areas they might not have been to before. Visitors might pick up a sculpture trail leaflet in Salford and end up in Rossendale in Lancashire to see more sculptures. Some people just go to visit a particular sculpture, but others might want to make a day of it and go for a walk.” Among the most popular sculptures are those at Clifton Country Park in Salford, which draw on the park's past as the site of a colliery. Diana said: “So many people don't know there's a country park in Salford, but the park treats the sculptures as an asset.”

With the relaunch of the sculpture trail website, and publication of a free, 32-page brochure in March, there's no better time to visit. The brochure, which will be available from local tourist information points, features information on each sculpture, including road names, parking, bus stops, toilets, places to eat and nearby attractions such as museums, and the website will host a route planner, ordnance survey information, news about events around the trail and resources for schools.
The sculpture trail works with other organisations involved with the environment and public art, and Diana is looking forward to collaborating with the Environment Agency. She said: “We want to experiment and challenge the idea of public art and public art commissioning. The Environment Agency is working on the Irwell and getting rid of the weirs, but they're not allowed to get rid of any of the material from the site so it needs to be reused, which gives us an opportunity to work with environmental artists. There is so much potential along the trail.”

Plan your visit to the Irwell Sculpture Trail at

This interview with Diana Hamilton took place during the writing of an article on the Irwell Sculpture Trail for Creative Tourist, which makes more detailed recommendations of some of the highlights along the trail in Greater Manchester:


Gerald (SK14) said...

First time I've heard of this. I must try and visit some bits of it when I get the chance.

Laurence Perkins said...

People are dying. PEOPLE are dying. People are DYING. People ARE dying.

A million shames on you, decadent Westerner. I hope you drown in your cryptofascist bullshit.

Long live Gaddafi!

Fuck YOU!