Dream Works: Big Art, St Helens and the M62

Date: 12/02/2011

Any regular journey has some sort of landmark that indicates you’re nearing home. For a youthful SevenStreets it was the ICI complex on Teesside, but for those who grew up on Merseyside it could have been Fiddlers Ferry, Rocksavage or even Clock Face colliery.

These landmarks needn’t necessarily be industrial in nature. There’s the Omega Opportunity – a gigantic site by the M62, formerly Burtonwood airbase – that seems destined to remain, forever, an ‘opportunity’. There’s that bizarre ‘The future is Knowsley’ sign (have you ever met anyone who thinks the future is Knowsley?) or the futuristic Mersey Wave on Speke Boulevard. Everyone has their own.

There’s a more recent addition that never fails to catch the eye when heading to or from Liverpool on the M62 though: a white head peaking above the trees at Sutton Manor, where once a pithead lift might once have been glimpsed, angled almost as if to catch the dying sunlight at the end of the day and gazing forever towards the steaming towers at the coal-fired Fiddler’s Ferry power station.

This is The Dream, a 20-metre dolomite sculpture of a slightly distorted white head by Spaniard Jaume Plensa, erected in 2009 as part of Channel 4’s Big Art Project.

And the connection with the nearby coal-fired power station is more than geography. Dream sits atop a huge spoil-heap, gouged out of the ground by brick workers and generations of Lancashire miners who worked the Sutton coal seam to feed power stations that energised Britain throughout the 20th century.

Dream was designed to commemorate the history of mining in the area and a number of residents and former miners were instrumental in choosing Plensa’s effort as the winning design for the site.

Dream by Jaume Plensa Sutton, St Helens, M62

The approach to the site, and much of it generally – it must be said – are not a site for sore eyes. Admittedly our visit was in deep midwinter following a severe cold snap, but the long straggly grass and bare blackthorn that surround the site speak of ripped plastic bags fluttering on thorns and dumped white goods.

It seems unlikely that the ground – full of goodness knows what from nearby brickworks, sewage works and quarries – is the ideal place for much flora or fauna, but the site may be a haven for hardy wildflowers in the summer. In the winter it’s a pretty depressing place: covered in litter and with the constant hummadruz of the nearby M62.

Worse is the lack of amenities, and we’re not talking toilets and a gift shop here. There are no bins or dog waste receptacles, and the latter is a serious error. On the way to the mount where Dream stands there are several signs describing the history of the site. We didn’t get that close, however, as they’re surrounded by small plastic bags, like small offerings left at the altar at harvest festival. Except that they’re full of dog shit.

The people who bagged their dog waste, however, turn out to be the angels among the dog walkers at Sutton Manor, for the entire site is covered in faeces. The paths offer the only respite. As Brian Glover’s character says in American Werewolf in London: “Stay on the road; keep clear of the moors.”

All of which is assuming you get to Sutton Manor at all. Because, although the sculpture is visible from the M62, there are no signs on the M62 to guide you to the car-park. Ah, the car-park.

Hidden away behind what can only be described as a very rough pub is a patch of muddy, filthy waste ground. A sign, apparently written in felt tip on an out-house, points the way to the car-park for ‘The Dream’. Once you’re there you have to take a punt on exactly how you get to the site. Follow the graffiti’d sub station and you guess correct. The car-park and entrance to Dream is a genuine nightmare.

The tone of this article thus far may lead you to believe that we though the whole enterprise a disaster. But, actually, Dream is rather good. It’s brave and it’s different and it’s rather striking. It’s no high art and it’s probably wrong to read much into it. Dream is no Angel of the North, but it certainly attracts the attention.

The St Helens coat of arms reads Ex Terra Lucem: From the ground, light. From the darkness, the sleck, the spoil and the grime is something that rises above Sutton Manor like a beacon.

While we were there a variety of ages and demographics came to have their photos taken, and simply to stare, to enjoy a moment’s meditation while taking in the dreaming girl. And the way the light catches the white dolomite at certain times of the day is a sight for sore eyes.

People say Dream looks like a giant knob, that it’s a waste of money and that it doesn’t represent the area’s history. All of which may be valid to some extent, but we’d rather it was there on balance – it’s worth remembering that the two million quid spend on the site was ring-fenced for arts organisations and would simply have spent on another arts project somewhere else, if not this one.

From the top of Sutton Manor it’s possible to see St. Elphin’s parish church – one of the tallest spires in the country, along with several other nearby landmarks. Daresbury Tower, Snowdonia, Old Trafford and Thelwall Viaduct can be glimpsed on a good day.

So too can kestrels, owls and rabbits. If you’re really lucky, like us, you might see a buzzard too. It’s not just Dream up there, which is why we wish a bit more money had been spent on the rest of the site. Given time the surroundings should flourish too, given a tad more maintenance on an ongoing basis – and a more responsible approach from dog-walkers.

It’s important that there’s something here, to remind people of what once was and to inspire others to ask the question. The St Helens coat of arms reads Ex Terra Lucem: From the ground, light. From the darkness, the sleck, the spoil and the grime is something that rises above Sutton Manor like a beacon.

And, before long, Dream will be another part of the scenery – another sign that a weary traveller is nearing their destination; a homing beacon.

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