Monday, 8 June 2009

The Willow Man: M5 Mascot

Motorway designers are pragmatic people. They want us to get from A to B quickly and safely, and other considerations - such as whether travelling is fun - tend to be put to one side. It’s unlikely that the engineers who steamrolled the M5 across the Somerset Levels ever imagined that one day a giant Willow Man would thrill millions of travellers and become an unofficial symbol of the West Country. But he does.

In fact those civil engineers of the 1960s and 1970s saw the motorway itself as an art form, a dream of speed brought to life in concrete and tarmacadam, but most art-lovers are more likely to lament the destruction of the landscape than to extol the aesthetic virtues of junctions. This being said, it’s difficult to approach either of the Severn bridges from the Bristol side without a feeling of awe. Whether you’re looking at the simple lines of the first suspension bridge or the swooping, snaking curves of the Second Severn Crossing, it’s hard not to admire the mixture of lightness and strength embodied in these splendid structures.

During the summer of 2000, travellers crossing the Somerset Levels had something new to look at: surrounded by scaffolding a giant figure was taking shape as artist Serena de la Hey wove bundle after bundle of black willow around a steel frame. Willow Man was commissioned by South West Arts (now part of the Arts Council) to celebrate Year of the Artist, no doubt with an eye on Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North.

“One aim of Year of the Artist,” Serena de la Hey remembers, “Was to introduce the arts to a wider public. So various people suggested I look for a site close to the motorway. Now thousands of people see the piece every day, whether they like it or not!”

A local resident with a decade’s experience in working with willow, de la Hey battled with the elements to get the sculpture finished.

"Usually on a Friday it was raining very hard and the wind was blowing from a north-westerly direction,” she said at the time. “It was pretty grim. But because we had set the deadline, it makes you work through those extremities."

Planned as a temporary work that would be in place for three years the 40’ figure survived less than one. As the funeral pyres of the Foot and Mouth epidemic burned across the region the following summer, arsonists destroyed the Willow Man. And because of the restrictions in place the artist was unable to get back on site until September of that year.

When she did, she immediately rebuilt the wicker giant, assisted by donations from local businesses and ordinary people who had been horrified by the mindless act of vandalism. The new version was protected by a moat, and has so far escaped human interference. A pair of buzzards made their home on its head, however, necessitating an expensive refurbishment two years ago. As things stand, the Willow Man is due to be decommissioned in 2011, but it has become such an iconic Somerset figure that it seems unlikely that this will happen.

“I do hear from quite a lot of people who say they enjoy driving past,” says de la Hey. “You don’t get feedback normally when you do a piece of public art – you just let it go and it becomes a different thing to different people – but I regularly get emails about the Willow Man.

“People drive past it so often that it becomes woven into their lives. There was a woman who used to go by when she visited her daughter at university in Exeter, and someone else who passed it on the way to visit her mother when she was in hospital. I suppose it’s become a little piece of different people’s stories.”

Other artworks now adorn this stretch of motorway, including Peter Freeman’s sculpture Travelling Light, a 50’ column covered in LED lights that change colour with the seasons and to mark particular events. Welcoming drivers to Weston-super-Mare, Travelling Light offers a more hi-tech vision of the South West, one that is more like the Severn bridges – amazing but not personal.

To the people who trundle daily up and down the M5, the Willow Man has become a familiar presence and not one that they necessarily revere as art.

“The truck drivers love him,” Serena de la Hey says. “They call him Alan, after Alan Whicker.”

Riding the Severn Bore

Before the wave there’s a stillness that even the traffic behind us on the A48 can’t disturb. Three figures in the water, two very cold surfers and a canoeist, are suddenly alert. Safe on the bank beside the Severn Bore pub, we perk up. There’s a chap from Australia who’s been dragged along on this freezing February morning to see a very English marvel of nature, and a small team from Radio 4 who are apparently trying to record the bore. Intrepid Folio photographer Paul Groom is peering into the murk.

Suddenly an inflatable comes roaring upstream, laden with surfboards: Steve King, a legend among riders of the bore, racing to his favourite stretch of river. Right behind him comes a wave that would not be out of place in a Cornish bay, a beautiful curling roller about three feet high that swoops round the bend and scoops up the surfers (but not, alas, the canoeist). They’re up! Our photographer leaps into action. The radiomen brandish their furry microphone. The wave rolls on, breaking and reforming as the river’s depth varies, up towards Gloucester.

Surfer Mike Clement emerges from the now churning, rising river, having enjoyed a run of a few hundred yards. He is cold and unhappy about having the wrong board, but he bravely smiles for the camera. An experienced surfer from South Africa, Clements recently moved to the Gloucestershire village of Quedgely and discovered the joys of bore surfing last year. He is not alone.

In recent years the Severn bore, a wave that forms when big high tides funnel huge volumes of water up the estuary, has attracted surfers from all over the world. A local bore riders’ club was formed ten years ago and a new DVD, ‘Longwave’, by club founder Donny Wright, shows the exploits of its members and friends here and around the world.
The beauty of this kind of surfing is that, with experience, you can ride the same wave for a mile or more. And if you miss it, there is always the option of climbing in the car and racing the tide to a convenient jumping-off point up-river. This March we’ll see some big tides and what the pros call ‘four star’ waves, and the surfers will be out in their hundreds.

So too will the tourists. Jason Clarke, landlord of the Minsterworth pub that bears the wave’s name, estimates that six hundred people will turn up to watch the biggest waves. That’s a lot of bodies on a hundred yards of muddy riverbank. Nine years ago the pub, which used to be called The Bird in the Hand, was flooded during the Spring tides, but the banks have been raised since. The only kind of flood Clarke expects is of cold wave-watchers needing breakfast.

“People come from all over now,” he says. “America. Australia. Everyone wants to see something new.”

After all bore surfing started here, fifty or so years ago, and until recently the world record for distance surfing was set and beaten over and over again between the river’s banks. Last summer, however, a Brazilian rode the Pororoca, the Amazon’s bore, for more than six miles and stole the Severn riders’ crown. It’s potentially feasible for a surfer to ride the Severn bore for ten. Steve King and his fellow bore riders have some serious work to do.