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Philippe Handford on crafting a Sculpture Trail for the woods

Interview by Rebecca Smithson

With glowing testimonials from The Guardian, Philippe Handford is the master sculptor and leading artist behind the Pendle Sculpture Trail, commissioned in 2012. Megan and Jayne caught up with him at Aitken Wood in Barley for a tour of the masterpieces.

How did the idea for the trail come about?

In the winter of 2011, I started to build actual creations with whatever I could find. As these developed over the months, whenever I made one, I’d photograph it and I ended up with quite a portfolio. I then spoke to the director of Mid Pennine Arts who thought it was worth taking my ideas further. He suggested I spoke to Nelson Council and the Tourist Office to see if they’d be interested in having these sculptures developed. On subsequent meetings, they enthused about the possibility of not just one, but a few of the sculptures! It was then that they started looking into possible funding and locations. They got into contact with United Utilities and they kindly offered the possible use of the three woods in this area. Two of the woods are near Ogden Reservoir, and the third at Aitken Wood. We visited each of them but as soon as I walked through Aitken, I knew this was the best location. The other ones are quite primeval and access to them would have been an issue.

Nelson Town Council then decided they would try to obtain a grant. They approached the Arts Council but to no avail. Eventually they secured a grant from DEFRA. Then it got interesting, because one of the stipulations of actually giving money towards the project was that it couldn’t be just one artist, it had to be more than just me. Also my role as lead artist had to be created. We received funding, then we advertised for other artists and I was part of the selection panel.

Which other artists have participated in the scheme?

Sarah McDade made the plaques and the totem pole in Hebden Bridge. Martin Bednarczuk’s studio is near Salmesbury, where he made the Witchfinder General. Steve Blaylock, from the Harrogate area, did the stainless-steel animals: bats, an owl and a spider.

I had different criteria to Nelson Council if I’m honest. I wanted to create quite a unique sculpture trail, which was intrinsically linked with nature. Everything I wanted in the wood had to be inspired by the location using local materials. Nelson Council on the other hand were more keen to promote the local heritage, like the witches’ story. So we had two different agendas but in the end we reached a satisfactory compromise.

© Jayne Ashe
© Jayne Ashe

How did you reach this compromise?

One way we achieved this was through creating ten plaques which each denote the story of the locals who were accused of witchcraft. The ram’s skull plaque is my favourite with its great 3D effect. Another tree stump was lower down the hill so we had to saw it and place it here! This is by Sarah McDade. On some she’s incorporated herbs and plants used for herbal potions. The decorated plaques are a nice mix of the symbols linked with one of the accused taken to Lancaster and the impressions made from local plants and herbs.

It’s also now become a treasure hunt of sorts because the plaques are all so spread out throughout the trail. If you pick up the leaflet in the Cabin at Barley car park there’s a competition. You have to find all the plaques and which of the accused it denotes. There’s a prize to be had. Like a ‘which witch’ competition!![Laughs]

Are there lots of events involving the trail?

There are a lot of school groups which I was initially involved in, and then Whitehough, which was the perfect venue for the location. Then you could also gain access by the bottom which has now unfortunately been closed off because the landowner got fed up with individuals giving him grief and not keeping to the path.

Has damage by the public been a big problem?

There is access into the woodland along the concessionary paths for walkers, however camping has been a bit of a problem as you aren’t allowed to camp in the wood. The problems are caused by people not taking their litter home with them or taking pieces of wood from the sculptures, but we don’t really have issues with walkers. Originally you could also gain access via the bottom of the wood which has now unfortunately been closed because of issues with the public not keeping to the path. I try to engage with people who I encounter, to talk with them, so hopefully they’ll be respectful of the trail.

…This is the very first example of Steve’s work, a pair of bats [pictured below]. It’s the only example of his work that hasn’t been moved subsequently, because the trail leads in that direction. He put several options in his bid, he specialised in birds of prey, he chose creatures you’d find here in the wood.

Is that an owl whose eyes are…

Scissors! He uses a lot of domestic cutlery in his work…why not? If you look at the bats’ feet, they’re forks.

© Jayne Ashe
© Jayne Ashe
© Jayne Ashe

How long did the trail take to install?

Six months from starting the first piece which is over by that wall. I installed the other artists’ work. They produced their art in the studios after which I put them in the wood.

I started my work in January 2012 which was pretty cold so the first one that I focused on was a tree that had been blown over. All of its intricate tap root system was without soil and I realised that the first piece could actually a bit of natural theatre with the wind-blown tree. I cleaned off all the rest of the soil and found this spider’s web on a huge scale.

The main pieces are dictated by a large area where there was more than half a dozen trees felled illegally in one night. It was a mess. I chose to do the first major site-specific pieces there, utilising the felled trees which were chopped up. Then I came up with the idea of reconnecting the felled trees with the stumps on the ground. I tried to get the illusion of trees falling and being connected onto the tree stumps.

There’s a very good view of Pendle Hill through the trees. In that same year I actually also put the commemoratory number of 1612 on Pendle Hill.

The 1612 installation was only up on Pendle Hill for 4 days. Had that always been the intention for it?

It was only up for 4 days in August because it got sabotaged. I went up on Saturday under the cover of darkness because there was some opposition to it – which I don’t understand, because it was temporary. It took a few months to mark it out, as each time I went up a marker had disappeared. But I was only able to plan the design because of the vantage point, this is the only location for miles around which is almost square to the hill. So I just used the naked eye to pick out visible landmarks to find the horizontal and vertical to draw it out with long pieces of string. Ideally the maximum time for the installation to be left on the hill was a month so I ended up using fleece. Marking out with grass paint and using the material did the job There were a lot of sheep on the hill and without having the area penned off it wouldn’t have lasted very long.. It was only through working here on this trail that I was aware of this vantage point. But 1612 was another story.

© Jayne Ashe

Did you need any additional support to construct the pieces on the trail? Some of them are very large…

For this large double arch I had a fantastic helper who managed to get his Land Rover down here, and between us we managed to carry these two frames and bolt them down onto the tree stumps. This framework I was able to lift here on my own and it was doable for one person over a week. I managed to link four tree stumps. Somehow my rough measurements that I had designed did fit, which was a huge relief. I then spent at least five days having to put the other pieces on. This tree here was pristine with all the branches on it but people do like to touch and climb on it and you can’t do anything about that. Though it is meant to be partly exposed, withering, unfinished…being natural wood, it is breaking up slowly. Ultimately you’ll end up with a metal spine. These rings, they’ll be an echo of what was going on. It will end up as an interesting sculptural shape just with less material on it. I guess in terms of visual impact the trees seem to have caught the imagination, and be the most photographed.

© Jayne Ashe

Did you encounter many challenges throughout the process?

The wheel in the wall was one sculpture that I remember well because I was working on it here for a fortnight in May. We were eaten alive by midges, it was a nightmare! The weather was nice – it seemed like the perfect time to be out in the wood, but the reality wasn’t pleasant. I had a master dry stone waller help me on the first week to lay down the foundation as I learnt on the job.

The idea was that there’s a wall here that runs down to towards Whitehough, which has fallen down over the years. All this stone here was lost underneath the soil which had to be dug out. I call it the gateway as you can see the more open side of the wood if you view it from the other side.

There’s an additional complication of trying to house this large piece of wood as well. You had to build that as you were doing it. I was in at the deep end. I was a lot slower because I tried to use each stone that has the green moss on it. I’d spend a long time picking up stones that look as if they had always been there.

We’ve all stopped in our tracks because we’ve come across the broom wood – the most recent donation, donated by Creil in France, the twin to Nelson.

There was a cultural exchange and I chose to make a sculpture that incorporated an old granite gate post, where they’d put a log or branch through, creating a candle flame through the holes at the top, with stainless metal. It’s now in the town centre in Creil. In turn, they suggested this gathering of broomsticks. It wasn’t quite what I’d agreed to. Sadly these are machined broom stems and the heads aren’t as large as on the visual. But they have actually been good in terms of exciting younger visitors who make links to Harry Potter.

© Jayne Ashe
© Jayne Ashe

Why do you think this trail is important to Pendle?

It’s proved to be a really popular family destination, especially for young kids, and it’s pleasant to walk around. I’m surprised so many make the trek because it’s quite a walk from the car park. You have to be determined to spend a few hours out, you can’t just jump over a fence. But it’s really nice that they come here time and time again. Every time the weather’s fine you can come here which is why it’s important that it stays as it is.

Has there been a human impact of the trail?

Even though the camping can get out of hand, I do like the idea that people are attempting to make their own natural sculptures…people arranging pinecones on top of tree stumps, inspired to give it a go, which is what it’s all about. School kids that come can’t all draw or work with clay, but everybody can arrange natural things into a pattern. We can all get involved. Schools who have the luxury of a bit of wild area in their grounds have tried to make their own sculpture trails on the school premises afterwards. I’m assuming that’s after being inspired by the trail.

Families with young kids can do a decent walk, exciting the kids with what they’ll see on the trail. With the prospect of finding something exciting, they’re more than happy to walk.

© Jayne Ashe

Can you tell us about new developments for the trail?

With the backing of the UU, the idea is for it to be an ongoing project and it’ll always be a trail. Nelson Council have just secured additional funding through DEFRA for a phase 2 so an invitation has been sent out to attract further artists!

I enjoyed the months I was here. If I can offer anything new and exciting I’d like to. It’s also been nice to be part of a project which has ended up being quite a popular destination at the weekend. The Cabin that has the leaflets always runs out of them. They’re amazed at how many people go in there specifically for them. I always ask people how they heard about it. They’re from Preston or Garstang or even Birmingham!

…Whilst I’m here I could do with making a note of some things that need tidying actually!

The Pendle Sculpture Trail is approximately 3 miles, and although includes a steep section, is a great walk for families. It is also an easy access trail, as there are no stiles along the route.  The Sculpture Trail leaflet can be found at The Cabin, at Barley Car Park We always recommend taking an OS map with you along the route (OL41 Forest of Bowland and Ribblesdale).

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