Sunderland Council recently launched a £1 million redevelopment project to landscape and create a permanent outdoor footprint at St. Peter’s Church in Wearmouth. The church was built in 674AD and was the home and study place of the Venerable Bede; therefore it was important that the project adequately reflected the cultural and historical significance of the site.
The Council consequently commissioned local artist Simon Watkinson to do justice to this revered site and its new creation, who found inspiration for the project in two key areas:
- While conducting in-depth research into the history and archaeology of St. Peter’s, Simon discovered that that the founder of St. Peter’s, Benedict Biscop, travelled to Rome six times over the course of his life, which seemed an extraordinary journey for someone living in the late 7th This gave Simon the inspiration to design a timeline that would allow people to “walk the life” of Biscop and his influence on the building.
- The second major design influence on the project was an installation that Simon had seen while visiting an Emperor’s Garden, Sento Gosho, in Kyoto, Japan. This seemingly unremarkable project was a floor installation that featured a cobbled beach. What made the project so interesting was that the cobbles had actually been cast with real stones collected from the foot of Mount Fuji.
The idea of a communal art project was born, which would not only commemorate this landmark site, but also involve local communities and Sunderland assets in its creation.
Simon’s idea was to create a “path” of key points in history relating to St. Peter’s and its famous residents. Visitors would be able to walk around the gardens and read all about how this historic site had been built and used throughout the years. Each moment in history would be framed by local cobbles from Roker beach, which would be collected by children from local schools.
Key to the success of this project was to ensure that the material from which the path was made was durable, workable and attractive. Simon needed a reliable supplier, who would be able to provide his paving slabs from such a material.
Specialist Castings were subsequently contacted and asked if they could help. Immediately they could offer the perfect solution in their production and experience of working with cast aluminium. Hard-wearing, long-lasting with excellent weathering characteristics, aluminium was the perfect choice. Specialist Castings 75 years’ experience in casting with aluminium meant that they could offer guidance and expertise to the artist in how best this material could be used.
The local casting company worked alongside the artist to create the full series of slabs to be used within the installation, working in intricate detail to ensure the artistic vision was fully realised. The text on each panel highlights the significant moments of Biscop’s life and travels and Simon said, “I saw this as a reflection of the simple life of monks on their journeys across Europe, collecting relics for the church.”
The casting process involved creating the required elements for the slab, which in this instance consisted of text/images of key points in the site’s history, along with the cobbles collected by local pupils. Each design was made up of the different elements, before being transformed into a mould for the aluminium. The UK-based foundry then used a specified mix of aluminium alloy from which to create the end castings.
The result was a perfect collaboration between designer and manufacturer, with the installation now fully installed and enjoyed by the countless visitors who come to St. Peter’s every year.
Siobhan Carton, deputy head teacher from St. Mary’s RC Primary School said “The children really enjoyed collecting and decorating the pebbles.”. Simon said, “This gave them both a strong sense of ownership of the works and a history lesson to boot!”