Trying to improve on nature is a dicey proposition at the best of times, but when one of your unsuccessful plans includes a giant “Hollywood” style Accrington sign on the local coppice then fans of all things green and pleasant have the right to get the all over shudders.
Billed as “a unique series of 21st century landmarks, designed to attract visitors into the countryside to enjoy the stunning landscapes”, the project’s critics were quick to point out that tens of thousands of people enjoyed the spectacular views each year without the need for an “oversized pebble”, or a “pile of metal tubes.”
It is safe to say that the proposed Panopticon project met with some opposition along the way, accounting for hundreds of feistily contested newspaper column inches. The fact that so many diverse groups came together to support it is something of a miracle in itself. A casual look at the back of a Panopticon leaflet shows 16 different logos of groups who were involved with the project conceived and managed by Mid Pennine Arts.
Why would so many people spend so much time and money making so many people angry when they could have just left well alone? Now that the furore has died down, we made our intrepid editor some corned beef butties, gave him his bus fare and sent him out to see what all the fuss was about.
Panopticons are, quite simply, structures which afford a comprehensive, panoramic view, but make no mistake about it, at its heart, this project was about the very real goal of creating 21st century landmarks which would rival the likes of Peel Tower, Darwen Tower and Rivington Pike in years to come.
That’s quite a tall order given that thousands of projects have come and gone over the years and the overwhelming majority of them failed to last the test of time. Why would a flying saucer, a pile of steel tubes and a candy striped cannon turret succeed where projects like the ultra expensive Morecambe tower had failed miserably?
The main reason to be optimistic was that the Panopticon project was part of the East Lancashire Regional Park, which sought to link countryside towns, communities and businesses in the area. In its promotional literature it explains that “Over 500 hectares of woodland have been planted, 85kms of new footpaths, cycleways and bridleways have been developed.” These linked together the urban areas with the green and pleasant countryside, giving easy access to areas of natural beauty.
This is a noble cause. Trying to get little Joey off his Playstation, on a bike and up a hill isn’t that easy, so additional bridleways, footpaths and cycleways are very welcome and the panopticons provide a focus for the project. Giving people a new destination at the end of these footpaths does have a certain logic to it and the ability to go through a town on a bike or a horse without encountering the rough end of a car bumper does appeal!
It isn’t until you see a map of the new regional park, along with its new and improved access routes that things finally make sense and you can see how the new routes allow the different sections of the community to interact with each other. Businesses and works of art which were previously “out in the sticks” are now only a cycle or a stroll away. This isn’t about councillors frittering away public funds. This is actually the kind of noble endeavour which the Victorian’s undertook on a daily basis, but which the modern world has all but given up on.
It’s not possible to point to a graph or a flow chart and explain the project to a banker. It probably doesn’t make financial sense and those involved knew they’d meet massive resistance. The Panopticon’s weren’t a sure bet by any stretch of the imagination. They were a leap of faith in the best spirit of the phrase.
Because Wycoller is one of our all-time top-ten beauty spots in Lancashire we has already mentally written our angry letter to the Times by the time we’d walked down to Wycoller Hall from the car park.
From the Wycoller valley, however, the Atom doesn’t seem that intrusive at all. It’s little more than a blip on the landscape and it would be an extreme purist with 20-20 vision who complained that the vistas were spoiled because of it.
As you approach it really does look like a giant, hollowed out pebble and, once inside, its portholes frame the surrounding vistas, forcing you to focus on them and really appreciate them in a way you may not have previously. This Panopticon has one specific purpose and that’s to make you think about the view and given that it’s one of England’s finest, it’s not a bad aim!
The Singing Ringing Tree
Of all the Panopticons, this was the one we were most interested in. A sculpture which captures the wind and turns it into music seems like the kind of day out with your dad that you’d remember 20 years afterwards, but as luck would have it, we turned up on a day when not a breath of a breeze could be found.
On its own, the structure is OK. It’s not big enough to damage the landscape from a distance and it’s interesting up close, but once again, it’s the views which capture your imagination. The whole of Burnley stretches out before you. This is the clever trick with the Panopticons, and it is a trick... You’re lured to look at the sculpture and then before you know it you’re staring out at a view and remembering why you love Lancashire so much.
It has to be said that the Halo is singularly unimpressive during the day. It’s big and its grey and its drab and if you visit it before the sun goes down then you’ll almost certainly miss the point of it. Built on the site of a former land fill on Top o’ Slate the area has been landscaped, but in the cold light of day you could be forgiven for thinking “Why did they bother?”
Once it lights up, it really is something special, seeming to hover above the ground, seeming ly the ideal mix... Something which attracts visitors during the day, but doesn’t gum up the sky line and at night, an ethereal glow standing out for miles around.
When we recently posted a “Where was this photo taken” competition on twitter 7 people replied “The cannon turrets in Blackburn” and no one said “Colourfields.” Given that I still call Snickers Marathons I’m fine with that.
Corporation Park is beautiful and Colourfields is the cherry on the cake. When we squinted we thought we might be able to see Lytham (Although it could be Fleetwood). Either way, it was incidental. We were out in the fresh air, having fun and enjoying scenery so beautiful it brought a lump to your throat.
Colourfields Singing Ringing Tree Halo (photo by Nigel Hillier)
WHERE ARE THE PANOPTICONS?
As we've been asked so many times - here's where you can find them - Inside Lancashire ...
Name: Halo - Panopticon
Address: Cribden End Lane, Top o' Slate,(Hills above Haslingden,) Rossendale, BB4 8UB (nearest code)
Construction: 18m-diameter steel lattice structure supported on a tripod five metres above the ground.
Design by: John Kennedy, LandLab
Name: ATOM - Panopticon
Address: Laneshawbridge, Colne, BB8 7HX (hillside above Wycoller village,Wycoller Country Park)
Construction: Ferro-cement with a surface coating of metal-based paint.
Design by: Peter Meacock with Katarina Novomestska and Architecture Central Workshop
Name: Colourfields - Panopticon
Address: Corporation Park, Blackburn, BB1 8AT
Construction: Former Russian cannon batteries,raised view points & pastel-coloured tiles.
Design by Jo Rippon Architecture with artist Sophie Smallhorn.
Name: Singing-Ringing Tree
Address: Crown Point, Burnley, BB11 3RT
Construction: A unique musical sculpture from pipes
Designed by architects Tonkin-Liu