In the 1990s, the local council in Burton upon Trent set up a sculpture trail at the town’s Washlands, an area surrounding the River Trent which, when it isn’t flooded, provides an ideal place for walks, picnics, fishing and other leisure activities. The council, in partnership with Burton College, Burton Civic Society, West Midlands Arts and the Burton and District Arts Council, commissioned several works of art from various artists and installed them around the Washlands in 1994-95. Unfortunately, some of the pieces have been damaged and even disappeared over the years, but let’s have a look at what’s left.
The trail begins at Burton Library, a public library with a coffee shop (called Bookuccinos) near the High Street. Outside the back of the library is an open area which leads to the Washlands footpaths and the children’s play area. The first sculpture is the newest, installed in 2010, a Portland stone sculpture depicting a jar of one of Burton’s most famous exports, Marmite.
The sculpture, called “Monumite” (a portmanteau of “monument” and “Marmite”) was part of a publicity stunt by Unilever, the makers of the divisive yeast-based spread, first made in Burton in 1902 from a by-product of the brewing industry. In 2010, a General Election year, the company launched a spoof election campaign by the “Love Party” and “Hate Party”, each of them making pledges including deporting Marmite eaters to Guernsey [Hate Party] and anger management classes for people who hate Marmite [Love Party]. I personally have never tried Marmite, so I have no opinion either way.
In an online poll, the Love Party won, and the sculpture was commissioned and unveiled in October 2010, as a “shrine for [Marmite] lovers across the world to congregate and worship”. Unfortunately for the makers of Marmite, the crowds don’t gather around it in their thousands. Last time I saw it, it was covered in bird mess.
Watching the Washlands by Hattie Coppard
Moving on from Monumite, across the Andressey footbridge and down a small flight of steps is the first sculpture to be installed on the trail, Watching the Washlands by Hattie Coppard. This was unveiled in June 1993 and consists of two parts, located either side of the pathway. The “eyes” on the sculpture are inspired by the story of Burton’s patron Saint Modwen, who healed afflicted eyes with water from the Trent Washlands. The sculptures are designed to resemble Indian wayside icons, colourful figures which traditionally guard the boundaries of villages from evil. They are made from concrete, ceramic tile and mirror mosaics, and still appear to be in good condition after all these years.
Heron Bench by Nigel Hobbins
We now head left up the footpath towards one of the sculptures which is sadly no longer there. When I walked up there on Saturday 11th July, I didn’t know it had gone. In fact, I wasn’t 100% sure there was ever anything there, but I had a hunch that there might be something of interest there, so I walked down a wet grassy path in my trainers in the hope I would find something of interest. After a few minutes of squelching around the path, I found the plaque, but no sculpture.
The plaque reads:
THE HERON BENCH’ BY NIGEL HOBBINS
THIS SCULPTURE WAS UNVEILED BY THE MAYOR OF EAST STAFFORDSHIRE
COUNCILLOR PETER HAYES
ON 25 SEPTEMBER 1995
COMMISSIONED BY THE BOROUGH OF EAST STAFFORDSHIRE. SUPPORTED BY BURTON CIVIC SOCIETY, BURTON & DISTRICT ARTS COUNCIL AND BURTON UPON TRENT TECHNICAL COLLEGE WITH SPECIAL THANKS TO BITHAM SCHOOL AND WATERSIDE DAY CENTRE
Heron Bench, the Washlands, Burton-upon-TrentView Full Resource on Staffordshire Past Track
As you can see by the picture above, it was a circular bench, divided into three sections and backed by carvings of heron, birds which are frequent visitors to the Washlands. It was unveiled in September 1995, and has disappeared in the last three or four years. I haven’t been able to find out what exactly happened to it. It could have been removed for safety reasons, or torn down by vandals, or floated away in a flood. Oddly enough, the sculptor, Nigel Hobbins, posted a picture of it on his Instagram in May this year, so he probably doesn’t know it’s gone.
Land and Water by Rosemary Terry
Land and Water by Rosemary Terry is the next sculpture on the trail, located across a pathway next to the River Trent. It was unveiled in February 1994 and originally consisted of two wooden carvings resembling the bow and stern of a Viking longboat. Natural stones are placed between the bow and stern, marking out the shape of the longboat. The stern’s design resembles a bundle of hops, while the bow has a carving of a jug pouring out ale, both representing Burton’s beer brewing heritage.
Photos I have seen online show the wooden carving at the stern end of the longboat, but when I took the photos, it wasn’t there any more.
Saint Modwen by John Fortnum
Moving clockwise around the trail, the next sculpture is that of Saint Modwen, who is the patron saint of Burton upon Trent. She was an abbess in Co. Armagh, Ireland, who set up a convent and built a chapel in Burton close to where her sculpture now stands. She reputedly used the waters of the River Trent to heal people with afflicted eyes. The statue is made of steel strips and is designed to make a “singing” noise as the wind blows through her. Her facial features are made from steel wire. The statue was unveiled in August 1995. It was made by the artist John Fortnum.
Bathtime 2 by 2 by Stuart Bastick
One of the quirkiest and cleverest sculptures on the trail is, unfortunately, one of the most badly damaged. As you can see by the photo above, the main part represents a slice of toast cut into four “soldiers”. When it was first unveiled in May 1995, there was a black wooden duck perched on top, with a bath plug and a yellow wooden duck in front of it. The idea was that when the Washlands flooded, then the plug and yellow duck would float up and move closer to the black duck. The plug and yellow duck disappeared long ago, and the black duck was damaged and since removed in the last four years. There is no dedication plaque either, as far as I could see.
The text on the sculpture is related to water, floods and Christian themes of baptism and fallen angels. To save you the trouble of deciphering it from the picture, here’s the text in full:
the drink eat life, fragile weapon.37vb
ebb and flow, 22n tears rise +
fall 19vb. bathe weep bleed
56vb stream, ooze, trickle
rain, pour. 29n wash. Your
hands fallen angels.128n
water + dreams, golden one
borne up, immersed, make-
your head swim 44n. Hopes
soap bread + water. Flooded
food: baptized gift 16n.
And that brings an end to this little tour of the Washlands sculpture trail. There are plans, at the time of writing, for a regeneration of the Washlands area, although the sculptures aren’t mentioned in the plans. It would be good if they could be spruced up, maybe even repaired if possible. And maybe the Heron Bench could be put back, if anyone can find out where it is.
There are many other works of public art and statues in the town, such as the giant Malt Shovel and the Terracotta Heads, but that’s something for a future post. Thanks very much for reading.