Goddess of the North and the Angel of the North and Blanchland

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The chances are that you will have heard of one of these sculptures but not the other. The Goddess of the North or The Lady of the North or Northumberlandia is a huge land sculpture in the shape of a reclining female figure, started in 2010 and completed in 2012, near Cramlington in Northumberland. She is made of 1.5 million tonnes of earth from the neighbouring Shotton Surface Mine, is 34 metres high and 400 metres long. The sculpture is set in 47 acres of public park and there are a number of trails in and around her contours. Northumberlandia was designed by world-renowned architect and artist Charles Jencks, who took inspiration from the distant Cheviot Hills, which are pulled into the foreground by the curves and shapes of the female form.

The car park is close to the road and you walk through the trees to the site. There is a station for electric cars to use in the car park. I am unsure whether the electricity was generated by coal or wind-power. I say this because from the head of Northumberlandia in one direction you can see around sixteen wind turbines turning gracefully in the icy north-easterly breeze – the long-term future – and in another direction you can’t help but notice the scar of the surface mine – the past and very short-term future – with the lorries seemingly like ants scurrying around performing various carrying roles. If anyone ever complains to me about wind turbines being an eyesore I will tell them to come here and see whether that’s still their opinion after looking at the vast mine and comparing it with the turbines in the sea.  

Whereas Northumberlandia is rather hidden away, the Angel of the North is not. You would have to be concentrating really hard on your driving not to see this amazing piece of work by the architect Antony Gormley soaring above the A1 at Low Eighton, Gateshead. The Angel is 66 feet tall, with the wings measuring 177 feet across. The wings are angled 3.5 degrees forward to create “a sense of embrace” and as with Gormley’s other work, the Angel is based on a cast of his own body.

Work began on the project in 1994 and cost £800,000 with most of the project funding coming from the National Lottery. The Angel was installed on 15 February 1998. Due to its exposed location, the sculpture was built to withstand winds of over 100 mph with the foundations containing 600 tonnes of concrete that anchor the sculpture to rock 70 feet below.

According to Antony Gormley, the significance of using an angel was threefold: first, to signify that beneath the site of its construction, coal miners worked for two centuries; second, to grasp the transition from an industrial to an information age, and third, to serve as a focus for our evolving hopes and fears.

To get a closer view of the Angel, follow the signs from the A1 and park in the lay-by around 100 yards from the statue. The statue is brown at the base though this is not rust as the statue is made from COR-TEN weather-resistant steel like the Roman centurion at Segedunum. The body weighs 100 tonnes and the two wings weigh 25 tonnes each.

Blanchland is situated in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a conservation village built of stone from the remains of a former Abbey and lies in the Upper Derwent Valley. This is a dark place at night and the rooms at the Lord Crewe Arms Hotel have telescopes so you can investigate the stars. The village flourished during the 19th century lead mining boom. I visited after seeing all the sights along Hadrian’s Wall. I had wanted to come to this place since reading The Pie At Night: In Search of the North at Play by Stuart Maconie, which mentioned another book I’d read called From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L Weston, which suggested there might be a connection between Blanchland and the Arthurian legends. Weston postulated that Camelot could have been situated around modern-day Carlisle and the Holy Grail might have been associated with a chapel in Blanchland. The church in the village is the Blanchland Abbey Church. The original abbey was built in 1165. The buildings and houses all look strong and sturdy as though designed to withstand the cold winters that must surely come their way.     

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