Skip to main content

Trails of the unexpected

If you go down to the woods today, watch out for the pirouetting wooden stag and the dancing green girl. Jane Norrie marvels at the sculpture trails that have sprung up as a result of an innovative collaboration between artists and the Forestry Commission.

There is something enduringly magical about forests. Through the ages they have occupied a special place in our imaginations as sites of mystery, myth and legend, from Shakespeare's Forest of Arden to Tolkien's Mirkwood. You never know what you are going to find behind the trunk of the next tree: a tapering glass column glittering in the sunlight perhaps, a swing that sends music through the air, a green girl hiding . . .

Strange but true, if you pick the right woods. The three enigmatic examples above can all be found on sculpture trails, which are the result of an imaginative collaboration between artists and the Forestry Commission. Sculpture trails are an excellent way to see modern art in a living, rather than man-made, environment. They can also provide an exciting stimulus for all manner of cross-curricular work.

The sculpture trails listed below are to be found in three very different geographical and historical areas, but they share certain valuable characteristics. Most notably, all the sculptures are site-specific. This means they have been produced by resident artists, often using indigenous materials, and relate directly to their woodland settings. The sculptures are easy to find and enhance visitors' experience of the forest - its beauty, wildlife, history, legends or industry.

The Grizedale Sculpture Trail near Hawkshead in the Lake District is the oldest and largest of the three trails, boasting a visitor centre with a theatre, gallery, shop, children's playground and picnic area. Close at hand is the Ridding Trail. This was designed with disabled visitors in mind and, with no fewer than 19 sculptures on a flat, easy walk, would make an ideal visit for children aged between 7 and 11. The sculptures include pieces that make music, such as Melissa's Swing, carved wooden seats (one has stags pirouetting on its roof) and a mosaic.

A more elaborate trail is the Silurian Way, a healthy nine-and-a-half-mile walk with 45 sculptures. Unless you have a weekend to spare, it is advisable to tackle only a small section at a time.

With its great panorama of wood, generous vistas and running streams, Grizedale has an air of splendour that is reflected in many of its monumental works. Alannah Robins, for instance, has placed two immense carved figures in water, while Andy Goldsworthy has literally taken a great stone wall for a walk. This piece in particular could be used as a basis for topics on measuring, comparison of materials, farming (what were the walls originally used for?) and conservation.

These trails have been used successfully by primary teachers for the study of art, wildlife, nature and creative writing. Some lucky schools, such as Coniston Primary, have also organised sculptors' residencies through the Grizedale Society.

Joanna Walton, head of art at the John Ruskin Secondary School in Coniston, says the sculptures have inspired her students in a variety of follow-up activities, from paintings and ceramics to knitting; some have even woven with twigs and moss, and made their own paper. To extend the scope of the trail still further, the school has engaged writers-in-residence and used the sound of the forest (the musical sculptures, rippling water, birdsong, children's chatter) as a stimulus for poetry and music. During its annual activities week, the school even uses the trail for orienteering. It is, says Joanna Walton, "a major and phenomenal resource".

Two illustrated books, The Grizedale Experience (Pounds 9.95) and Natural Order (Pounds 10.95), record the history of the project from its beginning. With Animals (Pounds 9.95), by sculptor Sally Matthews, features her work at Grizedale including a piece that incorporates two wolves. (Add Pounds 1. 90 pp to all orders.) Also available is the invaluable Sculpture Guide Map (Pounds 1.20 plus 25p for pp. Ten maps or more Pounds 1 pp only). For further information and to obtain any of the above titles, telephone the Grizedale Society on 01229 860291.

The Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail, set in the heart of this great forest, has a trail that is softer and prettier than Grizedale but not so grand. It is about four miles long with 12 sculptures en route. Access is from Beechenhurst Lodge near Lydney, which has a restaurant, gift shop, play area and picnic tables.

Its reserves of coal, iron and stone have given the Forest of Dean a long industrial history, and its sculptures open an evocative window on the past. The most dramatic in this respect is Keir Smith's Iron Road. Made of 20 carved railway sleepers, it invokes the lives of the woodmen, charcoal burners, quarriers and miners who worked in the woods. Two memorial plaques highlight the number of forests that have been destroyed to make war materials, from Henry VIII's navy onwards, while a pair of giant stone-carved seeds acts as a reminder about the need for proper forest management.

There are no sculptures of animals, but they make an appearance on a magnificent stained glass hanging, which suggests that the forest is the "cathedral of nature". However, there are plenty of real sheep, donkeys, rabbits and squirrels, which makes the trail an ideal place for a wildlife project.

Julian Davies, an educational consultant, has made a study of the forest as a resource and concludes that "with some lateral thinking every single aspect of the curriculum, including electricity and magnetism, can be covered". For younger children in particular he recommends collecting, sorting, classifying and counting activities; observation work with colours, patterns and shapes which can be recorded in sketchbooks; and looking for evidence of life and living processes as an introduction to aspects of science.

A free leaflet, Out and About in the Forest of Dean, gives useful information about the forest. A leaflet specifically about the trail costs 50p. Both are available from the Tourist Information Centre at Coleford on 01594 812388. The beautifully written The Sculpted Forest, by Rupert Martin, gives the history of the sculptures (Pounds 7.95 from the Forest Bookshop, Coleford, 01594 833334). An education pack by Julian Davies has been commissioned and is scheduled for mid-1997 from the Forest Enterprise at Coleford on 01594 833057.

The Chiltern Sculpture Trail, Cowleaze Wood, Christmas Common, Bucks, is home to a fairly recent trail, which has an information point and picnic seats but, amazingly, no toilets. Though small - the trail can be completed in about two hours - it embraces 22 sculptures, some of them excitingly different. The emphasis is on man-made materials, exploring the relationship between town and country.

Jokey, thought-provoking works such as Paul Amey's Fish Tree question man's interference with nature, while Anya Gallaccio has covered the forest floor with a synthetic floral carpet - at once a brilliant stage and a reminder that forestry is an industry, and country life not always an idyll. There are plenty of potent visual metaphors for teachers interested in the environment. More traditional pieces include a giant wooden picnic table, an "enchanted" metal tower and the mysterious green girl - all calculated to stir the imagination.

Leaflets are available from the Chiltern Sculpture Trust (01865 723684). Educational notes are available, and an education pack will be ready in April.

The Kielder Water and Forest Park Sculpture Trail is a very different type of trail being developed at Kielder, Northumberland. A car will be needed to travel between the sites. Six works have already been installed and more are scheduled for later this year. For information phone the Kielder Partnership on 01434 220643.


Where possible, teachers are advised to reconnoitre the trails themselves first. A successful visit need not take in all the sculptures but might concentrate on a few, with planned themes in mind.

Students should wear sensible shoes as it may be wet.

They might find it useful to take a polybag, both for collecting nature samples and for sitting on while viewing the sculptures.

Sketchbooks, a camera and tape recorder are valuable aids for follow-up activities in school.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you