Eden Benchmarks are a series of ten contemporary stone sculptures located at intervals along the length of the river Eden between its source above the Mallerstang valley and Rockliffe, north of Carlisle, where it runs into the Solway Firth.
“Each sculptor worked in residence for six weeks and this enabled them to formulate their ideas by familiarising themselves with the locations and talking with local people, including schools, who were encouraged to visit their workshops to see the sculptures taking shape. The artists’ brief allowed as much creative freedom as possible to produce site-specific sculpture, which harmonises with the landscape and captures the essence of each unique locality.
Collectively the sculptures give visual expression to our awareness of the river’s ecology and the need to look after it; individually they foster a profound sense of place, their capacity as seats accommodating an interactive focus for quiet reflection.”
These sculptures were funded and commissioned by the East Cumbria Countryside Project group in 1996. It disbanded in 2008 when funding dried up, but the sculptures are still there even if not officially cared for.
I have already discovered the first two in the last couple of days, ‘WATER CUT’ in Mallerstang and ‘PASSAGE’ in Stenkrith Park, Kirkby Stephen. Today I intended to visit as many of the remaining eight before I ran out of daylight. It would mean more driving than walking, I had plotted a route down the Eden between all the village sites. The satnav on my new phone proved invaluable.
I’d enjoyed my two nights at the Black Bull in Nateby and they sent me off with a hearty breakfast, I didn’t eat again until I was back home in the evening. I stopped briefly in Kirby Stephen to take that photo of Lady Anne Clifford’s statue which I used yesterday. I noticed this seat with its friendly notice, I didn’t have time for chatting but what a good idea. As the benchmarks have all been sculptured to provide a seat to sit and contemplate this was a good start to the day.
A mad dash up the scary A66 and I was taking the road into Appleby. A little side lane, Bongate, lead down to an old ford over the Eden by a derelict mill and a small carpark. At the edge of the carpark was a rough looking boulder – could this be the benchmark? It was only when I walked around the other side of it that I could see fully the carved flower. I brushed the leaves aside and sat in it for awhile watching the river flow by. Stunning.
‘THE PRIMROSE STONE’ by Joss Smith at Bongate near Appleby.
“Shaped from a nine ton block of St Bees Sandstone, the Primrose Stone magnifies the ‘inscape’ of the much loved first rose of spring. As you approach the sculpture from behind it looks like a rough erratic boulder and the carved petals of the flower at the front come as a surprise. It envelops the sitter in a bowl shape that is positively seductive and, like a primeval satellite dish, amplifies the sights, sounds and smells of the river”.
Joss Smith lives in London. His work is mainly studio based and traditionally figurative but has recently been making accessible sculptures for public places.
I needed more time to explore Appleby but I was soon on the way farther north. I found a bit of roadside parking by the cricket pitch on the outskirts of Temple Sowerby and strode across muddy fields towards the river. You can see the state of the ground after all the heavy rain. The sculpture came as a surprise with the spheres scattered over the surface ripples. There was a distinct feeling of motion as the spheres ran into the river. I loved the ripple effects she had created around each grain.
‘Red River’ by Victoria Brailsford at Temple Sowerby.
“The stepped slabs of Lazonby Sandstone in this sculpture represent the contours of the landscape and its light, shade, pattern, shape and form. The spheres, reminiscent of gigantic pebbles in a fast moving stream, are a powerful evocation of the river and its energy but also, like hugely enlarged grains of sand, recall the origins of sandstone in the shifting sand dunes of Triassic Cumbria”
Victoria Brailsford’s work relates to ecological issues and ranges from charcoal drawings to wood carving and large stone sculptures.
Back across the boggy fields and reset the satnav for Edenhall, a tiny red sandstone hamlet across the river from Langwathby. I park in a small pull off and ask the couple on the adjoining garden if I’m OK there. They don’t see many strangers in the village and I explain my mission. They are proud of their nearby Benchmark and regale me with their favourites, they haven’t made it to the Water Cut in Mallerstang as yet. I leave them to their pond maintenance and walk down the lane towards the squat red sandstone C12th church. I turn off at the wheel headed cross, the base looks ancient but the shaft as is often the case much more modern, There used to be a manor house down here which explains the churches isolated position surrounded by parkland. It also explains the name of the river bank walk I was about to set of along – The Ladies Walk. Built for the manor house occupants, a level path above the river with old iron railings and stone seats at intervals, fit for a lady. Not sure how far along I would have to go, met a bloke walking the other way but he knew nothing of Benchmarks. Up some steps and there is the sculpture. Two curved pieces of red sandstone in juxtaposition. They have graceful curving lines and wonderfully detailed surface rippling. The low lying one is being gradually covered by green moss and for a moment I think of cleaning it to reveal the detail, but I stop myself in time. These sculptures were specifically envisaged to reflect the landscape and now I feel they are slowly becoming part of it. That is probably hidden praise for the sculptor’s skill in the first place. I was warned that the ongoing path was flooded so I turned tail and followed the ladies alongside the ever enlarging river.
‘South Rising’ by Vivien Mousdell on Ladies Walk at Edenhall.
“Made from Lazonby Sandstone, ‘South Rising’ pays tribute to a vigorous ecosystem, representing the river’s perpetual journey and the annually recurring movements of migrating fish and birds. The horizontal stone alludes to the river itself, flowing north, and the tall vertical stone, with perhaps a passing resemblance to Long Meg, inclines south toward the rivers distant source. Chiselled with a surface texture reminiscent of water reflected sunlight, both stones have been carved in sweeping curves like the surrounding landscape, creating a rhythmic energy passing from one to the other”
Vivien Mousdell trained in ceramics but switched to wood and stone carving and letter cutting. A skilled and versatile artist she has specialised in public commissions such as the stone boundary markers on the Cleveland Way and a variety of wood carvings on the Whitehaven to Ennerdale cycle path. She is also a puppet maker and performer and video artist. Some people are just so talented.
Straight up little lanes in picturesque scenery, through Great Salkeld, I need to visit Long Meg and her Daughters on the other side of the river some day. Down there by the river are Lacy’s caves, chambers carved into the soft sandstone, which I distinctly remember from my Eden Way walk all those years ago. There was also an excellent climbing crag which is unfortunately now banned. Public footpaths and access are at a premium along this stretch which is a disgrace. The Settle-Carlisle line comes through the middle of Lazonby, I duck under it and head for the riverside picnic area. The Eden is in full flow. In rather drab surroundings the next benchmark lies low in the grass, can you spot it?
This one really is becoming organic. Moss is taking over and obscuring most of the stones’ cyphers. I see the sun or is it moon at one end and that’s about it. I do like the view up to the graceful bridge though.
‘Cypher Piece’ by Frances Pelly at Lazonby.
“The sculptor presents us with a series of puzzles to be decoded. The combined stones mimic the river landscape and contain various references to human history. A sun and moon have been carved at one end of the sculpture representing the winter solstice and a variety of images are portrayed elsewhere, including a fish, a Roman 1996, a Celtic horses head’ a rams horn and decorations taken from a Norse tomb”
Frances Pelly lives in Orkney. As well as carving stone she also works in bronze.
Where next? A short drive along the valley to another delightful village, Armathwaite. This a spot I know well having climbed on the riverside crags many happy times. I parked at the bridge and walked through the grounds of the Fox and Pheasant and up into Coombe Woods on a carpet of leaves until quite high above the river and the crags. The path leveled out and there was the carved block in a ring of smaller stones. I could easily pick out the intricate carvings of discarded clothing from the bloke who has gone for a swim. What an imagination, the sculptor’s not mine. I found a lower way back closer to the roaring river. A magic stretch of water.
‘Vista’ by Graeme Mitcheson in Coombs Wood near Armathwaite.
“A solitary walker reaches a plateau in Coombs Wood where beneath him, between the trees, he can see the winding river Eden. Nine stones form an ellipse in clearing. It is a hot day and he removes his clothes and goes for a swim. This sculpture is about walking in the countryside and being at one with nature. The largest of the stones is carved with representations of various items of clothing and a map, which also functions as a sundial. A tiny face depicted on the cap is reference to a series of faces carved on the cliffs below in 1885 by William Mounsey who famously walked the length of the Eden”
Graeme Mitcheson lives in Derbyshire. His work is based in traditional stone masonry and he turns his hand to everything from commissions for bird baths and garden ornaments to architectural restoration and memorials.
An easy drive and I was parked on the village green at Wetheral near the church. It was just after one o’clock and for the first time I thought I might make the Solway today. A steep little lane took me down to the river and there was the next sculpture on a flat piece of land. This was a large affair, a bench with angels’ wings, cushions and arched panels reflecting the nearby bridge.
‘Flight of Fancy’ by Tim Shutter at Wetheral.
“The steep scale of the wooded bank across the river and the soaring viaduct combine to give the feeling of an outdoor cathedral. ‘Flight of Fancy’ plays with this ecclesiastical sense of lifting the spirit with angel’s wings, church style masonry and very convincingly carved prayer cushions”
Tim Shutter is a master stone mason in the classical tradition. He is based in London.
Back on the village green I became distracted by some tiny yellow fungi hidden in the grass -possibly Golden Waxcaps? There’s beauty in the minutiae too.
I was apprehensive of my detour into the centre of Carlisle for my penultimate benchmark. I new there was some parking near the castle so I asked my phone to take me there. It was clever enough to warn me that “the castle may be close today” Despite the heavy traffic delays I eventually arrived in the car park but couldn’t understand how to operate the pay machine. Two ladies took pity on me and as they had just finished their shopping spree gave me there still in time ticket. I felt the day was slipping away with these delays.
I walked towards the river only to find another car park without charges, the dog walkers used this one. Somehow rivers either bring a city to life or become subjugated into the background. The river Eden in Carlisle is of the latter character – lost between rail, roads and industrial sites or maybe it was the dullness of the afternoon that prejudiced me. The four stones were set in a line in the parkland alongside the river. Strange angular carvings which didn’t relate easily to me, erosion usually produces smoother features. OK they are smooth on one side but I find the other angles jarring.
‘Toward the Sea’ by Hideo Furuta in Bitts Park at Carlisle.
“The four components of this sculpture are manifestations of the sculptor’s intense and mathematical explorations of the stone itself and, almost incidentally, describe a sequence of water eroded stone running parallel with the flow of the river nearby”
Hideo Furuta sadly died in 2007 aged 57. He was an artist of international standing and was based at a granite quarry in Dumfries and Galloway.
Maybe I was a bit harsh about Carlisle as I know from my trip on the Hadrian Wall path that the Eden is in magnificent form either side of the city. Anyhow I was pleased to find an easy way out of the city to my last destination, the village of Rockcliffe on the Eden before it slips into the Solway.
The clock had turned three and the light was fading and I couldn’t find anywhere to park. I eventually used the carpark of a nearby pub and walked on down past the church to a little red cliffed bay area next to the river. Flood debris showed that it is often underwater. At the end I could see my final benchmark and thankfully it was a thing of beauty reminding me bizarrely of the amoebae I used to study under the microscope. How does the sculptor achieve such smoothness and shapes out of a block of sandstone? My only thought is that it could have been positioned closer to the Solway estuary itself but there may have been practical reasons against that. Here I saw the river slipping around the corner into that unseen estuary. I found a place to sit inside it and watched the sun fading in the greyness over the flat marshlands.
‘Global Warming’ by Anthony Turner at Rockcliffe.
“The title of this sculpture is indicative of its global perspective. Situated where the river Eden flows out to sea there is an expanding awareness of the wider world. It could simply be a huge sea creature washed onto the shore but it conveys the sense of an even bigger scale. There is a mysterious pregnant silence about it and it resembles a planet earth held carefully in a hand. The term global warming is now ominously synonymous with the world overheating yet we would like it to mean a nurturing, life enhancing glow”
Anthony Turner was born in Kenya. A self taught painter and sculptor. Recalling his childhood in Africa his sculptures are organic, exotic and sensual.
What a journey. I didn’t expect to reach all the Benchmarks today but time just seemed to flow for me. You must admit these sculptures are so impressive and yet so diverse. At each one I felt a strong connection with the artist, the stone and the setting. It is too late for me to rewalk the Eden Way but wouldn’t that be a finer way to appreciate the river and take in these works of art.
I’m back home after an easy motorway journey from Carlisle and preparing to visit my cousin and her husband down in Derbyshire. In the past I have shared walks with him but now he has advanced dementia and is bed bound. Maybe I’ll show him some pictures of the River Eden.