Martin Orrom, former chairman
Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust
Beginner’s Way could not be repeated; the artist did not want to attempt a similar narrative trail and it was felt that the formula in other hands could easily fail. The plan which evolved, therefore, depended on selecting a varied forest of mixed ages and species in order that a group of artists could be offered a wide range of sites and environments from which to choose one to interpret. The forest needed to be within easy reach of the organisers in Bristol, so the choice of the Forest of Dean was almost automatic. This is an ancient Royal forest half of which is still growing the oak and beech which are native to the area. The remainder of the forest is an intimate mixture of relatively small blocks of conifers and mixtures of conifers and hardwoods. There is a strong industrial history connected with charcoal making, coal mining and iron smelting. Within the forest there are trees which date back to the reign of Charles II in the 17th century.
An early decision was taken to commission works so that they became the property of the landowner, the Forestry Commission. This meant that the Forestry Commission would have to put up part of the money for the project. This broke new ground for them but nevertheless it was agreed and the decision later paid handsome dividends. Once the prime mover, the landowner, had committed cash to the project other money was promised. The first came from the Elephant Trust to enable the planning teams, which now included Rupert Martin, Exhibitions Organiser at the Arnolfini, to engage a freelance curator to assemble a preliminary list of artists and to invite them to come down to the Forest of Dean.
The trail area was decided as forest within a radius of 30 minutes walk around Speech House hotel, the centre of the present forest. The artists included sculptors, photographers, painters, writers, performance artists and a dance choreographer. They were invited in three groups of six to visit overnight and be shown round by forest staff. After their visit they were asked to write and describe what they would do if commissioned. The commissioning brief was simple; the work must interpret the forest for the visiting public and encourage them to explore the forest on foot and to use their imagination about some aspect of its past or current activities.
Plans for the trail were discussed with foresters. Many thought it a good idea, others were prepared to give it a trial in a more non-committal way. However, progress was assured with the wholehearted backing of the Conservator, John Fletcher. Naturally, long term placements of sculpture could bring constraints to forest management. The forest is a crop and trees have and economic as well as a natural life span. To keep crops standing after this may cost money, so in selecting from the artists’ proposals, future forest management had to be borne in mind. The team were not planning an interpretation of an urban park but a living, producing forest - one which produces 60,000 tons of timber annually for sale and which should continue on this scale in perpetuity.
It had been decided that a new trail should be established around the Speech House linking the selected proposals like beads on a chain. In parts this required the construction of a new path. At first the team were in favour of low-key signposting and mapping of the trail so that a walk in the forest should become a voyage of discovery. How unpopular this notion proved! The public were to demand a strongly marked and signposted trail linking the works and became most indignant if through ambiguity or lack of signing they missed one!
The works were selected to provide six major stops using contrasting materials and techniques. They were also selected with consideration for how much support the Forestry Commission would have to provide in terms of manpower and materials. Each site was agreed after foresters had checked it for relatively long term stability and also for the avoidance of hazards such as blocking extraction routes for timber.
The area around the Speech House has much 150-year-old oak woodland native to the Dean. In addition there are some attractive mixed woods and also areas of conifer such as Scots pine, larch and Douglas fir. There are streams and lakes. The slopes within the area give the visitor the chance of some long views over other parts of the Forest. All in all it is a beautiful area with changes at every turn of the path. Yet until the advent of the sculpture trail it was little visited.
The artists quickly established a respect from foresters by their sheer commitment to long hours and hard work. They were ready listeners to the forestry point of view. They spoke about their work and explained it easily to the public as they erected it on site.
The public for their part-that is foresters, planners, local residents, tourists and the media-seem to come with open minds and to be willing to discover what the artist is saying. The usual negative response to modern art is avoided. The public penetrate deep into the forest on the trail in search of the sculpture, consider it, like some and not others, each having a different opinion. There is no universally favourite piece and what is most important, visitors certainly look at the forest, at its mystery, diversity, history and scale with a new eye. Children love it and respond to it with more art and writing too. The popularity of the trail is demonstrated by the deep ruts left by visitors’ feet and by the sales of the Trail guide.
The role of this sculpture trail has been described as one of interpretation of the Forest of Dean. It differs from sculpture parks such as Grizedale Forest or Portland in that every piece was commissioned as a response to its final location. In some parks the development of the artist often comes first and works are made during a residency. There is little or no selection. In others, famous works are moved into sites probably not even chosen by the artist.
The public appear to regard the trail as a hunt for treasure. There is an excitement and a willingness to talk and share experience which is not found on other trails in the woods.
The number of people who walk deep into the woods is much greater than ever before.