The best places to see outdoor art in the UK Winning tip
Conversation Piece South Shields
Conversation Piece – 22 bronze statues on Littlehaven beach in South Shields – is by Juan Muñoz and peers out over the sand dunes towards Herd Groyne lighthouse, the point where the River Tyne spills into the North Sea. The statues are known locally as weeds. These lifesize figures laugh, whisper, chatter, point or just stare out to sea. Some huddle in groups; others are alone. Yet, despite their quarter-tonne roly-poly bodies, they are all frozen in time and space. Cyclists or walkers on the coastal path stop when they see them, hug them for a selfie, skip round them, wonder about them. What are they talking about?
Fingermaze, Hove Park, East Sussex
What I like most about Chris Drury’s Fingermaze, in Hove Park, is to wind my way slowly along its grassy pathway to the centre. It’s a work of art and a labyrinth, all in one. (Note: it’s the turf and not the weathered York stone you need to follow.) The design, set into a slight incline, resembles a giant human fingerprint. Dogs and children often run across it, oblivious of any deeper meaning – and that’s fine, too. Created in 2006, it’s open access, free of charge and an unobtrusive but integral part of the park landscape.
The Scallop, Aldeburgh beach
I love the sculpture called the Scallop on Aldeburgh beach. It was created by local artist Maggi Hambling as a homage to the late composer and Aldeburgh resident Benjamin Britten. He loved to stroll on the same beach. The wording on it reads, “I hear those voices that will not be drowned” [from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes], and when you stand close it accentuates the sound of the sea, which is rather magical. It looks stunning at the end of the day when the sun reflects on the surface and eventually leaves it in shadow on the horizon.
The Kelpies, The Helix, Falkirk
Nothing has mesmerised me more than Andy Scott’s The Kelpies: the world’s largest equine sculptures, which are modelled on draught horses. More than 30 metres high, they are marvels with tubular steel skeletons (each weighing 300 tonnes). Tours are possible, when restrictions allow.
Neon signs, Edinburgh
I’m fortunate to live right by the Edinburgh galleries known as Modern One and Modern Two, the twin buildings of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Both have neon artworks in their (free to enter) grounds, which have kept me company on my daily walks this past year. One, by Martin Creed, reads: “Everything is going to be alright” – a sentiment that gave me great comfort during the darkest days of lockdown. The other, by Nathan Coley, is pitched against the Edinburgh skyline and reads: “There will be no miracles here.” The juxtaposition of the words and their backdrop brings me delight and hope, especially when the sun sets over the city in a miraculous, pastel, almost-Technicolor display.
The Messenger, Plymouth
The Messenger outside the Theatre Royal in Plymouth is a large bronze statue of a woman in a powerful straddled pose. I love the fact it is meant to signify female empowerment and also the power of theatre to change the world. The arts have suffered greatly during the pandemic and much store is put on maths and English in preference to arts subjects in primary and secondary schools. I hope one day that the powers that be will recognise the importance of the arts for human creativity, mental wellbeing and their ability to challenge ideas in society.
Irwell valley sculpture trail
This trail runs 33 miles from Bacup in Rossendale and finishes at Media City, Salford. It claims to be the largest public art scheme in England and is dotted with more than 70 artworks from local and international artists. I spent a lot of lockdown running the length of the trail in small chunks: it is easily navigable, makes for an entertaining day out and exposes lots of local heritage. The sculptures come in all shapes, sizes and styles, my personal favourite is Tilted Vase in Ramsbottom.
Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan, Llandovery, Carmarthenshire
Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan’s empty helmet gives this impressive steel statue a Ringwraith-like atmosphere that is only partly offset by its shininess. Llywelyn was publicly executed here in 1401, in front of Henry IV of England, for his support of Owain Glyndŵr’s war of independence. He was little remembered, even locally, until a campaign in the 1990s to commemorate his courage led to the commissioning of this statue at Llandovery Castle, funded by the local community and the Arts Council of Wales.
Kielder forest art and architecture trail, Northumberland
This trail makes hiking or cycling around the reservoir or surrounding hills a journey of discovery. Tucked away around corners or by the lakeside is an amazing variety of shelters, viewpoints, columns, chairs and other unexpected delights. Each one fits its location and its scale has somehow been selected to enhance the experience of being part of nature enhanced by human vision. Silvas Capitalis is a large wooden head with a gaping mouth, aping the expression on my face when I first glimpsed it among the pine trees. It is somehow both frightening and inviting. Like all the other sculptures this enhances an already excellent day out.
The Line sculpture walk, London
I discovered The Line in east London with my housemate on a cold January day. It links the Olympic Park and the O2 and follows the Thames and other waterways and the line of the Greenwich meridian. It doesn’t seem to be well known, so you may have it to yourself. Some of the sculptures are strange and striking, like a tower of shopping trolleys or an upside-down electricity pylon. There’s also the surprisingly fun experience, midway through the walk, of getting the Emirates cable car across the Thames, with great views over the O2 and the river.