Friday 4 April 2008

Memories & Iron Men

Last week I returned to the flat Lancashire coast where I was brought up for a family gathering. Here on the vast beaches and amongst the sand dunes and pinewoods – without a mountain in sight – my love of nature and wild places developed. On this visit I discovered an old journal, perhaps my first, kept in the 1960s and headed “Outings” and recording outdoor trips, mostly local. Many of the entries are lists of birds and plants – I had a hankering to be a field naturalist – and there is little to suggest what I was feeling. That I kept going back is all there is to show how important these walks were. A touch of excitement and pleasure does show in an account of a school trip to the Lake District, where we climbed Scafell Pike, which must have been one of my first ascents, in late March. I record that from Angle Tarn “we were walking on snow that covered the whole ground and it was very, very hot …. so hot that we had taken to eating snow and rubbing it over our hands and faces”. I thought the view from the summit “magnificent” and regretted that we couldn’t stay longer but did write that “happy and weary, we set off down the mountain”. My joy in climbing hills began early and has not abated in the slightest over the years.

On this return visit my brother John drove me and my partner Denise past the still familiar pinewoods and sand dunes to Crosby beach, where the wide expanse of sand stretching out to the distant sea under a gigantic spreading sky also felt familiar, as if I had been there just yesterday. We had come here to see Anthony Gormley’s Another Place installation, which consists of 100 life size iron figures cast from the artist’s body spread across two miles of beach and all facing out to sea. Initially I couldn’t distinguish these figures from the dog walkers, joggers, families and other people scattered on the sand. Then I noticed that some of the people were strangely rigid and still. Approaching the Iron Men – as they are popularly known – showed them to be strange indeed, and becoming stranger with every tide. The tidal range is huge here with the sea almost disappearing into the horizon at low tide. The Iron Men are scattered between the high and low tide marks. Each one is covered by the sea for different lengths of time and this has had a marked effect on how they have changed in the three years they have stood facing the ocean. All of them are slowly becoming part of nature and less like statues. Barnacles and seaweed are colonising these new rocks. Creeping around the lower legs of those close to the high tide mark, shrouding the heads of those out at low tide. Some are slowly sinking, their feet vanished, as if in quicksand. Faces are fading and smoothing on others, the features dissolving into rust. They reminded me strongly of the dead sailors on the Flying Dutchman in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, human figures that are merging with the creatures of the sea, a curious connection between Anthony Gormley’s artworks and a Hollywood blockbuster. The presence of the Iron Men on the beach creates an air on unreality and strangeness. What are these silent figures looking for, endlessly staring out to sea?

The photo of the Iron Man was taken on a Ricoh GR-D, f8@1/320, ISO 64, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Photoshop Elements 5.

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