The mining legacy of the North East has followed an unlikely, and surprisingly glamorous, trajectory in recent years. The story of Billy Elliot has gone from its humble Easington origins to the glitz of the West End stage, whilst the Pitmen Painters and their Ashington accents met with rave reviews on Broadway. And now, the restoration of the Shotton Surface Coal Mine near Cramlington has resulted in a new, voluptuous addition to our landscape and the region’s latest tourist attraction: Northumberlandia, otherwise known as the Lady of the North.
Set amid 46 acres of land donated by the Blagdon estate, Northumberlandia is constructed from 1.5 million tonnes of clay, rock and soil unearthed from the mine that lies behind it. From the Blagdon Lane car park we walked through a woodland plantation and then emerged into the park itself. The contrast between the shady copse and the boldness and brightness of the park makes for a spectacular unveiling. Blue sky, green mounds, glassy lakes and striking spiral pathways combine to make a minature version of the rolling Cheviot landscape that inspired the architect Charles Jencks.
At times, the fact that you are walking on the body of an especially curvaceous woman is made absurdly explicit. Signs implore visitors to “Keep off the face”, whilst it cannot be ignored that at one point the path takes you directly through the crevasse of her cleavage. But at other times, the bodily features seem to melt away, and instead the park becomes a succession of smooth cambers and peculiar curves, each bend and coil in the path offering new and exciting angles and perspectives reminiscent of the best of Gaudi’s outlandish architectural contours.
The paths are smooth, and although steep at times, fairly pushchair friendly. The hike to the top of the face, the park’s highest point, is definitely worthwhile. It is only from here that the mine which gave rise to the park’s existence can be seen. The apex of the park offers panoramic views of a mesmerizing industrial landscape. From here, ant sized diggers, dumper trucks, and excavators trundle about on the mine below, wind turbines rotate serenely out towards Blyth and the sea beyond, and planes of all sizes glide their way down across the scene to the airport to the south west. This is not a typically beautiful or picturesque vista, but accompanied as we were by a twenty month old boy, it proved to be an endless source of fascination.
Mining, and the art and literature inspired by it, have long proven interesting from a gender politics point of view, so it is fitting perhaps, that that other sculptural testament to our region’s industrial past, the very masculine Angel of the North, now has a female counterpart less than twenty miles away. With a cafe and visitor centre due to open in Spring 2013, I predict that the Lady of the North will soon become just as treasured a North East landmark as the Angel is now.