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November 14 2010

Great sculpture parks and trails

From life-sized elephants to figures hanging from the trees above you, England's sculpture parks and trails make for an enlightening winter walk. Here are 10 of the best

The vast number of sculpture parks and trails around England seems to be one of the nation's best-kept secrets. Scattered across the country, they offer a wide variety of artworks to be enjoyed outdoors and the general ambience and landscape of each is uniquely different. They are also a great way to encourage the enjoyment of art for children who might otherwise rebel at being taken to a gallery. Best of all, many are free. The ones selected here remain open all year so you can enjoy them with the end of the autumn colours, and even in the snow.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Is this the best sculpture park in England? Probably. The park has pieces by many internationally famous artists, including Elisabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth and Antony Gormley. A huge variety of work is permanently scattered throughout the grounds, while exhibitions in the galleries also spill out into the landscape (currently David Nash until the end of February). It gives a perfect overview of British sculpture in the 20th century and is set in lovely scenery with sweeping views towards the lake and sheep grazing around the plinths of huge Henry Moore sculptures. Seeing everything is exhausting (allow at least five hours), especially if you walk to the Longside Gallery, but be sure to spare time for Skyspace by James Turrell, a hidden chamber with an Egyptian feel. Details West Bretton, Wakefield, 01924 832 631; Opening times: grounds and centre, all year, 10am-6pm (Longside gallery 11am-4pm). Admission free (donations only), car parking £4. Facilities: toilets, cafe, shop, galleries.

New Art Centre, Wiltshire

An impressive list of artists have shown their work here over the past 17 years including William Turnbull, Antony Gormley, Richard Deacon and Anthony Caro. There are also always a few pieces by Barbara Hepworth on display, but most of her work is only here temporarily, usually for several months. The sculptures are shown in beautiful grounds (allow about an hour and a half to see everything). The map leads you through the carefully planted gardens, over a stile and down to the bottom of a big field (Barry Flanagan's Acrobats is permanent and worth the walk), and then back by a small wooded area. The house is sometimes shut, but maps are left on the shelf on the porch.

Details Roche Court, East Winterslow, Salisbury, Wiltshire, 01980 862 244; Open daily all year, 11am-4pm. Admission free (donations welcome).

Kielder Water and Forest Park, Northumberland

Some 22 sculptures are scattered along a 27-mile forest trail around a lake – and are best seen by those who love walking. Fortunately, the sculptures are often grouped together so, using your map, choose a few, drive to the nearest car park and walk from there. With kids, visit the Minotaur Maze, the Play Garden or the sculpture trail called the Kielder Keepsake. You can buy a Keepsake pack from one of the visitor centres (£4.99) and follow the trail to find 12 brass plates. Make a rubbing of each one to produce your own souvenir book. The trail is only two miles but can take hours to complete as you have to hunt for the plates. Other sculptures worth a hike for are Belvedere, Skyspace by James Turrell or, on a sunny day, Mirage (silver discs hanging from a tree) and Wave Chamber (a huge stone camera obscura).

Details Kielder, Northumberland, 01434 220 616; Leaplish visitor centre is open daily Feb-Dec, 01434 251 000. Kielder Castle visitor centre open Nov-Dec, Sat and Sun, 11am-4pm, then Apr-Nov, daily 10am-5pm. Tower Knowe visitor centre open Jan-Oct, daily 10am-4pm. Admission free; car parking £3, which covers any of the car parks.

Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, Cheshire

This crumbling monastery is a well-hidden retreat from the modern world. The sculpture does vary in quality, but the gardens are gorgeous, with little bridges over the stream, grassy areas by the river and part of the grounds are covered by woodland. The trail is an on-going project which has been some 20 years in the making, and is set in 38 acres. Allow about two hours plus to see all the sculptures, about four of which are in the walled garden. Be sure to see Kitty's Gate, inspired by a story about a maid who drowned herself in the pond. Most of the other sculptures are very colourful, such as Planthead by Diane Gorvin in the rhododendron bushes, her face framed by sculpted and natural leaves.

Details Tudor Road, Manor Park, Runcorn, Cheshire, 01928 569 895; Admission: adults £6.25, children £4.40, under-5s free. Family £15.25. Open daily in winter, 10am-4pm (walled garden shut), and summer, 10am-5pm. Shut: 24-26 Dec and the first two weeks of Jan. Facilities: toilets, cafe.

Burghley House and Gardens, Lincolnshire

The sculpture garden is separate from the Garden of Surprises, which is in a smaller courtyard and has lots of exciting water features. The sculpture garden is spread throughout the original gardens of the house. The sculptures are carefully sited to make the most of the beautiful lake, old open-air theatre and grounds. There are about 20 permanent pieces and the walk takes about an hour and a half. From April to October there is also a temporary exhibition. Be sure to see Balance by Sophie Dickens, three life-size figures balancing above you on the branch of a tree – easy to miss among the leaves in spring. Vertical Face is a giant rust-coloured face made from small pieces of steel that has great presence and drama.

Details Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire, 01780 752451; Open (gardens only) 11am-5pm daily. Admission free in winter. From 20 Mar-31 Oct, £6.70 adults, £3.40 children (includes Garden of Surprises). Facilities: toilets, garden cafe (11am-5pm in season).

Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail, Gloucestershire

This is one of the oldest trails in England which is befitting of an ancient royal forest. The trail is 3.5 miles long and begins at Beechenhurst Lodge. It follows a circular path that starts with the enormous and iconic Place, a giant chair. Do not be tempted to stray too far from the signposted path as the forest is huge. The trail takes up to three hours, with about 20 sculptures along the way. The map helps you find the larger sculptures which are hidden just off the path. These sculptures are all permanent and some are a little worn. Be sure not to miss Cathedral, a giant stained-glass window suspended in the trees, David Nash's Fire and Water Boats, and the tall and skinny House by Miles Davies.

Details Beechenhurst Lodge, Coleford, Gloucestershire, 01594 822 612; Open daily Nov-Mar, 10am-4pm, Easter-Oct, 10am-6pm. Shut Christmas Day. Admission free, car parking £3, map £1.25. Facilities: cafe, toilets, shop.

The Pride of the Valley Sculpture Park, Surrey

This park is opposite a very nice pub, also called the Pride of the Valley, which means you can easily include lunch in your visit. The park has an enormous number of sculptures (at the moment there are more than 180, including Rolling Horse by Lucy Kinsella, Speed Skaters by Michael Marriott and Adolph Hitler or Mother Theresa by Wilfred Pritchard) squeezed into a small area. It has a varied landscape, with a lake, woodland areas and intimate clearings. Start from the office which is inside the actual park. There are several routes, the longest being about a mile and a half which will take most people up to two hours to complete. Some areas of the gardens look a little unkempt, but there is an amazing and eclectic mix of sculptures to see at every turn, including some life-size circus elephants.

Details Jumps Road, Farnham, Surrey, 01428 605 453; Open daily apart from Christmas Day. Admission: adults £6, children £3, under-5s free.

Another Place, Crosby Beach, Merseyside

Another Place is an installation of life-size figures by Antony Gormley. About 100 cast-iron figures which gaze out to sea are scattered along a mile of beach. Are they watching the horizon for the arrival of something? Or quietly trying to leave? If you want to get up close you'll need wellies unless you get lucky with the tide (officially you are advised to stay back). Gradually the figures are changing – their varying encasement in barnacles and seaweed only adds to their beauty as they are gradually claimed by the sea.

Details Off the A565, follow signs to Crosby beach or Another Place. Nearest rail stations are Blundellsands or Hall Road, and then a 10-minute walk. Detailed directions can be found at Facilities: toilets and seasonal mobile catering.

Grizedale Forest Park, Cumbria

Grizedale boasts about 80 sculptures, spread out over 6,000 acres, making it impossible to see everything in one visit. Some of the work has softened with time (a few pieces have been here for 26 years) and almost disappeared into the forest – you often have to venture into the trees to find things. Some pieces have benefitted from the weathering process, such as Some Fern by Kerry Morrison, an enormous fern-like carving that has blended into the bracken around it. A map is essential and shows a variety of trails graded by length and difficulty – from the shortest with the most sculptures (one mile) to the longest of 9.5 miles.

Details Hawkshead, Ambleside, Cumbria, 01229 860 010; Open daily in winter, 10am-4pm (shut 23 Dec-2 Jan), and in summer 10am-5pm. Admission free, car parking £3, map £1.50 or catalogue £3.95. Facilities: toilets, cafe, shop.

Broomhill Art Hotel and Sculpture Garden, Devon

The sculpture garden is attached to the hotel so combine your visit with lunch, a cream tea, or an overnight stay. The gardens have 300 sculptures set in 10 acres of land. The hotel is at the top of a steep hill and the paths wind down through various levels of woodland to the peaceful river below. The sculpture is from a wide spectrum of artists – more than 60 sculptors in all – with many bronzes and figurative works. The top terrace is the most open and flat area, with many small sculptures dotted throughout. The lower levels feature the larger and more dramatic pieces.

Details Muddiford Road, Barnstaple, North Devon, 01271 850 262; Open daily, 11am-4pm, shut 20 Dec -15 Jan. Admission: adults £4.50, children £2.50, family £10. Facilities: toilets, restaurant, indoor gallery and hotel.

• Sculpture Parks and Trails of England by Alison Stace is published by A&C Black, price £15.99. Buy it from the Guardian Bookshop © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 01 2010

High design, low price: UK holiday homes

Alain de Botton's set of cutting-edge, affordable holiday homes is bringing modernism to the masses

The experience of spending a night in an architect-designed space is limited usually to those lucky enough to own one, or to afford a top-end boutique hotel. The philosopher Alain de Botton and a group of top architects are hoping to change this with his latest project, a series of contemporary and, he says, affordable holiday homes in the UK, designed by renowned architects. The aim is to persuade the less elevated among us to spend the weekend and return home more enthusiastic about modernism.

"We want people to discover what it's like to live, eat and sleep in an architect-designed house," says de Botton, who got the idea while writing The Architecture of Happiness. "Most modern buildings are in private hands, or tend to be places one passes through – airports, offices." I don't know; I've slept in a few airports in my time.

The not-for-profit enterprise, called Living Architecture, is a self-styled "educational body". As such, it is hoping that its prices will attract ordinary, non design-savvy people to its high-design houses. On a mid-week night during low season (November or February, say) you can stay for £20 a night per person, but prices rise to £65 a night per person for peak periods. Both costs are on the proviso you can fill every one of eight beds, so not suited to a weekend getaway for a couple.

First I head to Suffolk to see the Balancing Barn, which will be the first house to open, at the end of this month. It's extraordinary. From the front it looks like a small bungalow, but from the side, you can see it's a long silver barn – covered in reflective steel tiles – that hangs dramatically off the edge of a slope like the bus in The Italian Job. It even sways a little if you jump up and down in the living room. Mark Robinson, the director of Living Architecture, gives us a demonstration. "It used to be even livelier!"

The setting is exceptionally peaceful. The house, designed by Dutch firm MVRDV, is a few miles inland from Walberswick. It is surrounded by pine trees and wild plum trees. A disguised trap door fit for a Bond villain opens on to a cobbled terrace directly underneath the cantilevered living room. A swing hangs off the end.

Inside it's clad in timber. An expensive-looking open-plan kitchen – "it's actually only Miele", says Mark (they're keen not to be branded too high-end) – has floor-to-ceiling windows and designer crockery. It leads on to a long, light-filled hallway with wooden joists that slice diagonally across the windows. All four double bedrooms sit in a row off the hall. They are filled with tricksy digital art that references Constable and Gainsborough, bespoke beds, bespoke carpets and more geometric woodwork. All have en suite showers, and two have baths by the foot of the bed.

But it's the large living space that opens out at the end of corridor – the bit that hangs off the edge – that provides the wow-factor I'd been waiting for. A huge floor-to-ceiling picture window overlooks woods, meadows and a pond. And taking up most of the floor, like a large rug, is a glass window with a big drop below.

The room is spare. A TV is hidden away, shelves are empty except for one groaning with de Botton's entire works. It reminds me of a lobby of an advertising agency.

"We want people to take away ideas when they come and stay," says Mark. But I wonder whether spending a week here would instil in me a love of modern architecture. For all its showmanship, the Balancing Barn is a cold space, and a little isolated. Once inside and enjoying your break, it would be easy to forget its extrenal appearance.

How will they ensure that a wide range of people stay in their houses? In short, they're not sure. "There is a risk that only the demographic already interested in modern architecture will be drawn to them," Mark says. "But I think the interest is there. We're not trying to shock people – we've received lots of encouraging comments from locals and passers-by."

A few miles away on the coast is the Dune House, an altogether more inviting prospect. The location is sublime. It sits on a shingle beach a five-minute stroll from Thorpeness, with views of empty dunes, the beach, the North Sea and a vast sky.

The ground floor walls are almost entirely made of glass, the dunes rising up to the window ledges on the sides, giving the impression you are nestled within them. The first floor is clad in black timber, and the roof has four asymmetrical peaks clad in a rust-coloured steel. But it doesn't look out of place: the pointy roof and the steel are designed to mimic the terracotta tiles and gables on neighbouring roofs.

Inside, like the Balancing Barn, it's minimalist, but here it feels cosy and simple, softer somehow. Mark shows us round, saying architecty things such as "cupboards would have destroyed the space". Personally, I quite like cupboards. But instead, the four upstairs bedrooms each contain just a double bed, a freestanding bath located at just the right height for sea-gazing, and lots of pegs on the timber-lined walls to hang stuff. Downstairs, it's largely open plan, with a dining table, and a sofa huddled round a dramatic sunken pit. You can walk outside straight on to the beach.

The house, which opens in December, is designed by Norwegian architects Jarmund/Vigsnaes, apparently known for their "creative responses to the highly seasonal Nordic landscape". I think this means their houses are good in cold weather, and the Dune House is furnished with under-floor heating and a cosy log-burning stove to stave off those chilly easterly winds. It's a house to hunker down in, to get out the Scrabble and whisky, light the stove and settle in for the night with a gale blowing outside.

A few days later, I'm off to Kent. The Shingle House is a modern take on a wooden fisherman's cottage on other-worldly Dungeness beach in Kent, and opens next month. Actual fishermen live next door, fourth generation. It's practically my dream house: simple lime-washed timber walls, vintage furniture, four cosy bedrooms that sleep eight, sunken bath, wood-burning stove and a snug mezzanine with a huge window that overlooks the eerie landscape out to sea and, on a clear day, France.

The house is designed by young and hip NORD Architecture in Glasgow. It is the least architecturally demanding of the three, yet I took more delight in its clever details. The internal courtyard with slatted screens that pivot so you can angle them against the ever-present wind; and the fact that each room is designed around the time of day it catches the sun.

The existing cottage, complete with smoke house, was demolished. The Shingle House has been built on the same footprint to keep the planners happy, who wanted to retain the appearance of three separate buildings.

It's understandable: there are no holiday homes on Dungeness to speak of, and residents are fiercely protective of their beautiful, hostile landscape. It's a desolate expanse, dotted with boats and huts and a couple of lighthouses, overlooked by Dungeness power station. Tourists come to stare at Derek Jarman's garden, a stone's throw away.

Two more holiday homes open next year: the first, a medieval hall-type structure with a vast timber roof in Cockthorpe, Norfolk, designed by Michael and Patty Hopkins; the second, a monastic retreat in concrete near Salcombe, south Devon, by Peter Zumthor. After that, they plan to open one a year.

Guests staying in these extraordinary new houses may well be designers, architects and creative types from London. Or Living Architecture may succeed in its laudable aim of finding a wider audience. But either way, they are a welcome addition to the UK holiday home scene.

• Living Architecture ( Prices for a four-night mid-week break start from £725 (the Balancing Barn), £625 (the Shingle House) and £760 (the Dune House) © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 24 2010

Britons rediscover age of austerity

Museums, galleries and heritage sites report surge in visitor numbers as recession bites hard on family days out

Belt-tightening Britons have remembered the best things in life are often free, meaning that business is still booming for museums, galleries and heritage sites, research published today reveals.

Visitor numbers rose by more than 10% as the recession-induced 'staycationing' and more tourists from the eurozone lifted spirits in one bright corner of the UK's depressed economy.

Increasing numbers are joining organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage, attracted by the single annual outlay on membership that provides multiple day trips at fast-reducing cost.

The figures were published by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Alva), whose 42 members cover 1,600 tourist sites visited by about 100m people, although they exclude some big names such as the London Eye, Madame Tussauds and Alton Towers.

Attractions are optimistic about their immediate future, with four in five expecting to maintain or increase numbers in 2010 and more than half believing revenues, including shop and restaurant sales, will also rise.

The median rise in visitor numbers during 2009 was nearly 11%, although organisers advised caution given that the figures include repeat visits.

Also the popularity or otherwise of temporary exhibitions at museums and galleries, anniversaries such as that of Darwin's birth and new developments such as the Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth Castle, can cause bigger than normal fluctuations.

The most popular UK attraction, the British Museum, saw a 6% fall in attendances to 5.57m, but three incredibly successful exhibitions, the First Emperor [of China], Hadrian, and American prints and drawings, drew large numbers in 2008.

In Liverpool, attractions such as Tate and the Walker art gallery inevitably saw big falls on 2008, its European city of culture year, although other contemporaneous but separate developments such as its conference, entertainment and shopping improvements, have meant other indicators such as hotel bookings have fallen by far less.

Ministers will be hoping the contest for UK city of culture in 2013, the inaugural winner of which will be named this summer, will bring similar long-lasting benefits.

The National Trust, which has 3.8 million members, said it had recorded 16.7m visits to its properties in the 10 months between April 2009 and last month – a 17% rise on last year.

English Heritage said 2009 visits were up from 4.8m to 5.4m – another 17% rise.

However, Alva warned there should more incentives for tourists to visit and stay in Britain, including reductions in VAT on admission tickets and accommodation.

VAT on hotel prices was more than twice the 8% common to most of Europe, while the government grant to the tourist agency VisitBritain would have fallen in real terms by 50% between 1997 and 2011, said director Robin Broke.

"As the political parties prepare for the general election, they can consider how best to help the industry maximise the revenue it can generate and the additional jobs it can create."

Going up

Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley 964,212 - up 18%

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire 537,120 - up 44%

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire, (NT), 239, 748 - up 92%

Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire (EH) 142,723 - up 58%

Down House, Charles Darwin's home, Kent (EH) 81,863 - up 198%

Going down

Tate Britain, London 1,501,837 - down 7%

Eden Project, Cornwall, 1,028,264 - down 6%

National Media Museum, Bradford, 613,923 - down 18%

Tate Liverpool 539,577 - down 50%

Kensington Palace, London 226,293 - down 16% © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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