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A Landscape Architect's review of Charles Jencks' ''Northumberlandia''
25 Aug 2016 10:31     A+ | a-

A short drop off the A1, to the north of Newcastle, is the landmark earthworks of "Northumberlandia". Worth a diversion for an hour or so - whether you are a landscape architect or not!

Image: Interpretation board showing plan of
Image: Interpretation board showing plan of "Northumberlandia"

A carefully staged reveal

Hidden behind a screening bund is a good sized car park.  The adjacent beech woodland has an understory of beautiful ferns and rings with the sounds of birds. On passing through the pedestrian entrance, visitors are encouraged to make a contribution to the Wildlife Trust to help with the upkeep of the site. There is an opportunity to visit the little visitor centre/cafe (we can recommend the gluten-free chocolate brownie), or move straight on through the woodland towards the opening ahead.

Emerging from the trees, the trained Landscape Architect realises that they have undergone a carefully designed spatial experience - in the transition from intimate enclosure to wide open space.  Everyone else just goes 'Wow!'

Image: Emerging from woodland, the first reveal of
Image: Emerging from woodland, the first reveal of "Northumberlandia"

Image: Looking back towards the entrance of
Image: Looking back towards the entrance of "Northumberlandia"


The main event

Ahead is the sight of the intriguing mounds that form the upper body of "Northumberlandia". The creation of "The Lady", inspired by shapes of The Cheviot Hills, has resulted in the largest land sculpture of the human form in the UK. The range of paths (four miles of them!) draw the visitor in and encourage exploration - wander up and round the entrance mounds, or continue further on, over various parts of her anatomy.


Something for everyone 

It was fascinating to observe how many people were visiting (despite the day being overcast and slightly chilly). People of all ages appeared to be enjoying walking up and down, round and round - exploring everywhere. Not everything is apparent from the lower levels.  There are some delightful hidden spots where people can sit and enjoy the view, or even have a picnic! There are exposed hill tops and sheltered little corners, which afford some relief from the cold breeze.

The paths around the base are level and suitable for all abilities, including wheelchair access. Other paths offer a range of challenges from gentle gradients to steeper options.

Image: Many paths provide options for exploring
Image: Many paths provide options for exploring

Interconnected wider landscapes

There is plenty of opportunity to enjoy distant views towards other landmarks, such as The Angel of the North  (not visible on the day we visited but perhaps more obvious on a clearer day). There are also surprising views over the adjacent opencast coal mine, which has provided both the materials and means for the creation of Northumberlandia.

Image: The adjacent active open cast coal mine - the source material for "Northumberlandia"


Materials and Planting

As with many elegant design solutions, the construction materials are simple - rocks, earth, water, wildflower meadows and standard oak trees.

In spring, the breeze brings the scent of hawthorn and gorse, in full flower, to the top of the mounds. The landform and the large bank of hawthorn provide welcome shelter at the lower levels.

Some oak trees, planted into a vigorous wildflower and grass meadow, are showing signs of die-back and are struggling to become properly established. They would have benefited from some assistance (clearance around their bases) for a few years to help them establish, before allowing the meadow to close around them. It is likely that, in an attempt to make a more immediate impression, they were planted as heavy standards. The result has been that the trees are having to work very hard to get a proper foothold and it will be some time before they start to make any real impact. 

Eventually, they might create welcome shade in the meadows around the outskirts of "The Lady". The danger is, however, that too large trees, planted into poor soil conditions, with excessive competition from the meadow in their early years, will continue to struggle and not achieve the original intentions.


A landmark attraction

Unlike us nerdy Landscape Architects, many visitors will be there for nothing more than a walk in an interesting place with the opportunity to explore, enjoy good distance views, or observe a variety of flora and fauna. The success of the place is that it appeals to all ages and all backgrounds. 

Northumberland Wildlife Trust, who manage the site, are to be commended for the standard of their work and their welcome.

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