Monday, September 10, 2012

The Naked Lady of Northumberland Revealed

She’s certainly a big lass, with deep lines rippling round her voluptuous curves. Her two breasts are more Titian than Playboy. 

“Is that a boobie?” asked Granny, squinting up at the prone giant silhouetted against the sunlight. 

“That’s the face, Mum – look, there’s her forehead and her nose.” 

Izzy giggled: “Daddy’s got boobies”. 

“Nonsense,” I snorted. 

“You really must go on a diet, dear”, said my Mum.

Northumberlandia under construction - copyright Andrew Curtis
Despite two years of construction, Northumberlandia looks as though she’s been completed in a bit of a rush. There were no road signs to point the way – even the organisers of temporary events get the AA to put up a few ubiquitous yellow notices. On this opening weekend, visitors were left to find their own way. 

From the packed overflow car park, a brief amble through a cool wood led us to one of those big maps you get at English Heritage sites, except the map hadn’t arrived, so there was just a newly painted metal frame. Behind it loomed the sleeping profile of the world’s largest human landform sculpture. 

The paths are newly laid, as if the workmen are hiding round the corner, and recently sewn grass sprouts through the soil like Wayne Rooney’s hair transplant. It reminded me of the closing scene of every Challenge Anneka episode, where we’d be frantically rolling out turf, throwing paint on walls, and wiring up the “open for business” sign just as the guest of honour’s limousine was pulling up. Sometime we’d realise with horror we’d forgotten to buy a red ribbon for the opening ceremony and have to use someone’s tie. 

I assume the pomp was more organised for Princess Anne’s visit earlier in the week. I also hope that in due course they’ll be installing mundane practical things like picnic tables, seating in the viewing mounds, and some rubbish bins. 

Despite the lack of facilities, the thousands of people who came this weekend were content and dropped not a single toffee paper. Whole families were there, from babes in arms to nonagenarians like Mum. Everyone was excited and, rightly, proud of our region’s latest icon. 

Truffle and Mabel weren’t impressed, though. Like scores of other dogs straining on the leash, they were desperate to run around Northumberlandia’s curves, or cool off in her lakes. I do hope they eventually relax their “leads only” rule, once the grass has grown in, because Northumberlandia would be a great place for a Sunday walk. 

Meanwhile, every arriving family was debating the same question: “Head or boobies first?” Actually, the distances are short and the gradient gradual so it only takes a few minutes to take in both. And even on Saturday it wasn’t too overcrowded: the multiple rings of wide paths easily absorbed the numbers. Izzy insisted on going straight to the top. The final stretch feels steep with a 3-year-old on your shoulders, but the view is worth it. 

It’s neither breathtaking nor beautiful: the landscape is mostly coalmine, quarry, wind turbines and electricity pylons. What makes it special is the fringing sea and, in the distance, the recumbent form of Cheviot, which makes the whole design comprehensible. Northumberlandia is Cheviot’s little daughter, built by machines, but carefully molded into similar reclining, flowing lines. It’s the industrial north east’s tribute to the natural landscape it was carved from, like an ancient ritualistic landform carved by JCBs. 

At the summit there is neither seat nor map. The centre of the head does contain what appears to be a 360° panoramic display, but, as if to remind us this is serious art, the carving only informs us that we are 93 million miles away from the sun. That fact might be useful on an overcast day, but on a clear Saturday, with the whole county spread before us, it might have been more helpful to have a little information about the view. 

Northumberlandia is certainly ambitious and deserves to become an essential stopping off point for tourists heading for the castles and crags further north. First, though, they have to find it: let’s hope the road signs arrive soon.

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