The ‘Notes from a Precarious Landscape’ art exhibition took place from Thursday 17th May – Saturday 19th May in Plot 188 on the Story Homes Waterside Development, Cottam Way, on the outskirts of Preston. It was organised by artists Ian Nesbitt and Ruth Levene, supported by In Certain Places.
The location was chosen because the exhibition focused on ‘how the land around the city is changing, or has changed in the past’ and explored ‘the relationships between people and place, city and surrounding landscape, through the lens of the people who live and work in Preston.’
These changes are the result of the Preston and Lancashire City Deal. £434m has been invested in building 17,420 new homes, creating 20,000 jobs, and improving the transport infrastructure at ‘an unprecedented rate’, with the aim of boosting the local economy by ‘£1 billion over the next ten years’.
This is leading to the destruction of green spaces and an increase in urbanised areas, roads, and traffic, and will ultimately result in the individual towns and villages included into the deal becoming a single urban conglomerate with only parks and street names recalling the rural lands beneath.
The exhibition explored these issues. My display, ‘Lost Wells and Watercourses of Priest Town’, documented in photographs with historical information the sites of local wells and watercourses that dried up or were culverted during the industrial period as a consequence of the desacredisation of the landscape.
A piece close to my heart was a danger-red print with poetry depicting countryside in Higher Penwortham that is threatened by the plans for Penwortham By-Pass. This was by Caitlin Akers and Phil Howard. I opposed the plans at a Penwortham Town Council meeting and found out the council objected to them too. However, their objections were over-ruled by Lancashire County Council.
Another favourite was Caroline Finnegan’s sketches and notes on leaves and berries gathered from local trees to use for medicinal and protective purposes. Each was adorned by a piece of Longridge wool ‘cleaned, dyed, spun on a tradition wheel and crocheted’. She noted Network Rail had been cutting back trees and bushes from the railway edges and this would affect what she picks in autumn.
Peter Harley’s poem ‘I remember when all this were fields’ was based on a saying of his father who ran a ‘one-man milk delivery service’ from their home in Deepdale. The poem provided a journey from the days his father ‘planted a pint of bovine kindness / On a donkey-stoned doorstep / For the bluetits to peck’ through to the reaper departing with the ‘rural soul’.
In ‘Future Landscapes: Lea Viaduct’ Lesley Sutkins used a ‘Humphrey Repton style overlay technique’ to give an impression of how the viaduct will appear when it has been built. Joseph Gudgeon photographed tree saplings on the ‘new multi-million pound Broughton by-pass’, describing them as ‘reminiscent of headstones, each one potentially sounding the death knell for a variety of bird and mammal species.’
Other pieces included Pete Hartley’s story ‘The Curator, an interview with anti-fracking campaigner Nick Danby, a map of Preston’s expansion between 1850 and 2018 and the Central Lancashire New Town plan (the foundation for the City Deal) provided by Charles Quick, Ruth and Ian’s video of their walk around the boundary of Preston, and paintings by John Weld from the Harris.
The most novel aspect of the exhibition was its location in one of the brand new houses on newly developed land. On entering we had to either take our shoes off or put bright blue plastic shower caps over them. The displays were set out in the living rooms and bedrooms (I was slightly disappointed to see the opportunity to put something in the toilet or hide a surprise in a cupboard was overlooked). I had a distinct sense of the old and the new rubbing up against each other and an uneasy awareness that the exhibition was made possible by the developments the artists were critiquing.
The oddest of interactions was an installation in the garden. A speaker playing 92 bird songs recorded by John Weld, ‘an antiquary, naturalist and amateur watercolour artist’ who was a Preston resident and lived from 1813-1888, was placed on a bird table. Recordings of starlings, a greenfinch, a nightingale, sang over fenced lawns stripped of trees and bushes as habitat for birds, mingled with the cooing of a (real) woodpigeon. Next door’s washing fluttered alongside a trampoline and paddling pool.
Walking back along the canal, one of the developments that played a role in the destruction of Preston’s sacred landscape, I saw a mother duck with nine ducklings, a nesting swan, and a weeping willow.