Green hillocks and winding paths
Art,  England,  Photographing Public Art

Is it art or is it nature? Northumberlandia

At first glance the land formations of this small country park look quite natural, if a little manicured – some small hillocks with ponds at their base. They are anything but, however! This is not nature, but art – art on a very large scale.

The launch of Marsha and Cee’s Photographing Public Art Challenge seemed to me a great opportunity to share a few images.

Northumberlandia, also known as the ‘Lady of the North’, is in fact a sculpture in earth, created from the waste produced by open cast mining in this area. It depicts a woman, lying on her back, about a quarter of a mile from head to toe. You can only really appreciate that this is the case by looking at aerial photos; but you do get some sense of it as you walk the many footpaths that wind between and across her features.

Green hillocks and winding paths
View down the body from the head, nose lower right

The genesis of Northumberlandia

She is the work of American artist Charles Jencks who specialises in these landform sculptures; there are several more in Scotland, for instance. She was ‘born’ when the Banks Group mining company applied in 2004 to dig for coal on land belonging to Blagdon Estates. They and the estate owners recognised that, while the mining would scar the local landscape, there was also an opportunity to enhance it. Part of the land next to the planned mine was donated by Blagdon Estates; and the project was jointly funded by them and the mining company. This has resulted in the art form being developed alongside the mining operation; although it is intended to remain here long after the mine will have been exhausted and work ceased.

Green hillocks and winding paths with lake in foreground
Face and upper body from the lake
Green hillocks with people on them
People on her face

Work began in 2010, with 1.5 million tonnes of surplus soil and clay being transported from the mine to the site and carefully shaped according to Jencks’ design. Once the major landscape works were complete the sculpture was planted, transforming it into a living landscape. Her face, paths and viewing platforms were constructed with a hard stone surface. Every feature was surveyed and checked against the carefully designed plans.

Man on a green hillock
On a certain part of her anatomy!

The finished piece

Grassy slope with stones at top
Looking up her nose!

The result is a sculpture that is 100 feet high and a quarter of a mile long. Four miles of footpaths wind across the site, some around the base of the features and others allowing you to climb to the high points of her face, knees – and yes, points between these! These vary in steepness – a map at the site helpfully categorises them as level, moderate or steep.

From the top of the features you get good views of the mining work still in progress nearby (best seen from the face) and of the surrounding area, including distant views of Newcastle city centre and the local shrine to football, St James’ Park!

The park is now administered jointly by the Land Trust, who look after the open spaces and the art work itself, and the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, who are responsible for the visitor centre and café. The intention is not to keep it ‘groomed’ but to let nature takes its course, so the forms will evolve over time.

I visited Northumberlandia in 2016, on one of our regular visits to Newcastle

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