As a child, the Nottinghamshire novelist D.H. Lawrence used to watch his father walking slowly back home up the dew-strewn pastures between his mining village and the pits after a night shift and later wrote, ‘that is the landscape of my heart’. Those words came to mind as I left the car and paused at the edge of a valley to stand beside a Henry Moore sculpture and survey the landscape. Sheep were grazing the hillside down to the lake in the valley. On hills beyond lay wheat fields and hanging woods. The whole concept of looking at a wide sweep of nature and responding to it as visual sustenance, some say, was a result of the first industrial revolution started in the 1740s not far from here. Cast iron, far stronger than wrought iron, was invented, an iron bridge built and, together with the furnaces blasting out flames, was a sight sought by travellers and famous throughout the western world.
So, on a hot summer day, avoiding the long line of traffic heading east towards the coast, we travelled west to explore the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It lies close to towns at the heart of the 18th-century industrial revolution – Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, the birthplace of the sculptors who inspired it – Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in nearby Castleford. It is also a literary landscape known to the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, who is buried at Heptonstall in the Calder valley. Further north on the edge of the Yorkshire moors at Haworth, the Bronte sisters were born and lived for most of their lives writing poetry and the novels Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights.
One swings off a roundabout through a gated entrance. To park one must register one’s car licence plate at the park buildings and tell the machine how long you plan to stay in this robot-and-sheep-managed environment. Park attendants are now redundant. Children are wandering around licking ice-cream cones – what changes? The open entrance gate to the pastures normally has a cattle grid that pram wheels bump over. No more. Now there are twelve parallel iron-grey lines on asphalt – a painted grid. Does this deter the sheep who seem intrigued by the dark asphalt expanse of the road outside their green pasture? A small flock is gathered by the gate gazing at the road as if the route to richer pastures.
There is speculation over how effective the white stripes are and whether the sheep have actually stepped over the stripes to the busy roundabout, choosing it in preference to the wide pastures behind them. Never known for their intelligence, some sheep have, we are told, experimented by lying down on the stripes as a prelude to enticing forays into the urban landscape. Unfortunately, none indulged during our visit though I was waiting to photograph them. They were clearly bored with the wide-open landscape that lured us down to the lake and into the winding woodland paths.
We started off past Henry Moore’s reclining figure discombobulated into three parts to contemplate the landscape, and then searched for Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man, said to be on a nearby knoll. We must have been looking in the wrong place; the map only located but did not name the sculptures. We descended towards a large rectangular, rust-coloured metal construction and speculated that it might be by Anthony Caro. The only notice was ‘DO NOT CLIMB’. Three shiny and gaudy sculptures were claimed in a prominent freestanding notice to be by Damien Hirst. The huge woman, nearly three times human size, was very pregnant and, if you circled the sculpture, on the far side her stomach was open to reveal the unborn child. Instructive, I suppose, or frightening for young children? As we followed the path to distant refreshments in the building that we hoped was a café, we passed a larger-than-adult Christopher Robin-type boy in shorts with a shining blond shock of hair. He was holding a collecting box for a child charity far out of anyone’s reach. Obviously, it was not a serious request. Conspicuous near the welcome café was the unicorn, painted with splashes of colour on one side but plain white on the other. Perhaps one was not supposed to see that side. Someone had removed the notice ‘Please do not climb’ and leaned it instead against a tree.
The café interior had a freshly crafted beige wood interior and the outside wall of glass ushered in limitless sunlight. To fuel our return drive, a distracted young waiter, impatient to start his after-hours existence, served us the last two slices of walnut and orange cake and cappuccinos. We took a different route back to the car, along the path by the lake and up through the woods to discover more unattributed statues and carefully mown lawns in the woodland glades, with more ‘do not climb’ notices transferred from statues to trees. Voices and music, clinks of glasses and laughter wafted towards us round the rhododendron bushes. We peeped over the temporary barrier into the walled garden to contemplate the wedding party. For a moment, it felt as if all was well with the world…