On Monday the Princess Royal will officially
declare open a new feature of the British countryside: a sculpture
made of rock, and clad in clay, soil and grass, in the shape of an
enormous, recumbent, female form. Northumberlandia, the Lady of the
North, is a quarter of a mile long, 100ft high and weighs nearly
1.5 million tonnes. Designed by the artist Charles Jencks, she’s
the largest image of a woman anywhere in the world.
I am one of the people who sponsored, and bore some of the cost
of, this extraordinary work of art, made without a penny of public
money. It is on my land. Why did we do it? I find that most people
seem to think that we – the Blagdon estate and the coal mining
company, the Banks Group, which bore most of the cost and did all
the work – must have some cunning motive: to dispose of waste, say,
or to make money.
The truth is, we’ve done it for the benefit of the local
community, as a happy side-effect of mining coal. The sculpture
will be handed over to a charity, the Land Trust, to run, so
there’s no possibility of profit. The chief purpose of the project
is to provide a public park with four miles of paths, some steep,
some level, for people to explore for walks, picnics, runs,
kite-flying, impromptu theatricals or whatever takes their fancy.
It is art you can use. It has cost the public nothing, but it will
be freely available.
When the Banks Group approached my family to dig out coal from
under farmland we own, creating 150 local jobs, they also came with
an imaginative suggestion. Instead of waiting ten years to put the
rock back and restore the surface to woods and fields, which is the
normal practice, why not put some of the rock to one side to make a
new landscape feature that people can use long before the mine is
A friend suggested commissioning Jencks, whose landform art is
internationally famous, to design the landscape. Jencks’s
instruction was essentially to do with bulldozers what Michelangelo
did with a chisel. It was his idea to make a woman. The distant
Cheviot Hills, if you squint hard enough, look a bit like a
recumbent body – and a female form makes a better range of hills
than a male one. He set out to echo that view and make the
She was quickly called a “naked goddess”, though she’s neither
nude – she’s wearing grass – nor divine. Britain is so full of
nimbys that even new, free, public parks get criticised; the most
negative response came from a rare species hitherto not recorded
breeding in this bit of Northumberland: a Tory councillor.
So I had no ulterior motive – beyond having “he helped to build
the biggest woman in the world” carved on my tombstone.
Nonetheless, Northumberlandia does teach an important lesson: that
you cannot have prosperity without cheap energy. Imagine what
Capability Brown (a Northumbrian) would have done if he had had
bulldozers. In the 18th century thousands of poorly paid men with
spades rearranged the landscape for Brown’s clients. The rich
consumed the physical energy of the poor. Being rich meant having
the muscles of men and horses do things for you.
Today, being of average wealth means having machines driven by
electricity and petrol to do things for you. The average British
family consumes about as much energy in a day as if it had 500
Bradley Wigginses on stationary bicycles in the back room,
pedalling flat out for eight-hour shifts. The replacement of muscle
power, burning carbohydrates, with fossil power, burning
hydrocarbons, has been one of the great liberators of history.
[For those who are interested, here’s my calculation that led to
the 500 Bradley Wigginses number:
the average Briton used about 5,000 watts (joules per second) —
the average person on an exercise bicycle puts out about 50
Bradley Wiggins can probably do twice that = 100 watts
Let’s (implausibly) assume that he can do that for 8 hours
without a break
So the average Briton needs about 50 BWs. (5000/100)
But even a BW needs 16 hours of rest between shifts so he
actually needs 150 BWs
And there are 3-4 people in an average family so 3.5 x 150 = a
little over 500 BWs.
Of course, this assumes that the BWs in your back room need no
standard of life of their own, otherwise they would need BWs in
their back rooms and so ad infinitum. Such is the gigantic effect
of inorganic energy on our lives.]
Fossil fuels not only replaced drudgery, but liberated the land.
Instead of using the landscape to produce our energy – hay, timber,
water and bread for labourers – we now get it mostly from
underground rocks. As a result, today’s people live off about one
quarter as much land as before the industrial revolution. Fossil
fuels have done more than any other innovations to spare the
Fertiliser, made with natural gas, roughly doubles the global
average yield of farming, which roughly halves its acreage, which
spares millions of square kilometres for rainforest, golf courses
or parks in the shape of huge human bodies. The only reason we can
spare 50 acres for a park in the shape of a woman is that the land
is not needed by peasants to grow subsistence crops as it was in
the Middle Ages.
And that innovation began in the north-east of England. It was
Newcastle’s coal that first fuelled the industrial revolution. An
ancestor of mine, a buccaneering coal merchant named Richard
Ridley, was the first person to put a steam engine in a coal mine,
298 years ago, near the north bank of the Tyne. I am proud of that.
His main aim was to undercut the prevailing coal cartel called the
Grand Allies and supply cheaper energy to London than his
So I fervently hope that one thing Northumberlandia will do, as
well as giving people a chance to stretch their legs, is to remind
them that coal, oil and gas – routinely denigrated as evil in
school textbooks – helped not only to give us an average income per
head 12 times higher than that of our pre-industrial ancestors in
real terms, stamping out most starvation and disease along the way,
but helped to spare the wilderness too, so that we can afford to
make nice parks with paths spiralling up rounded hills.