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In art of the woods at Norton Priory

PUBLISHED: 15:15 09 September 2011 | UPDATED: 19:58 20 February 2013

In art of the woods at Norton Priory

In art of the woods at Norton Priory

Runcorn's ancient Big Wood now has art at its heart, as Debra Williams reports

Smoke rises high into the summer sky over Runcorn from one of the chemical plants which distinguish this corner of Cheshire as the countys industrial heartland. The town is often thought of as a grey smudge beside the Mersey but it is also home to a green oasis which feels far removed from the grime of industry.

Big Wood, which stands beside the stunning and tranquil Norton Priory, runs along the Bridgewater Canal, with an historic sandstone ha-ha along the eastern border and is host to species of trees including turkey oak, sycamore, silver birch and willow.

Species such as the sugar maple and turkey oak indicate that Big Wood was art lifepart of the Brooke familys estate and they obviously took great pride in it. When the canal was originally planned to go through their land, the family began a 15-year dispute with the Duke of Bridgewater, which was settled by Parliament in 1757, in the Dukes favour although he did have to pay the family 2,000 compensation.
A walk through Big Wood today gives views of the canal, which is still in use, although for pleasure not industrial purposes.

Big Wood, which is managed by the Woodland Trust, was featured as one of the Guardians 100 Great British Woods and Forests. The Trust has made a number of physical improvements to the wood, including coppicing work, better drainage and the installation of carved benches and dry-stone way-markers.

With funding from chemical company Ineos Chlor, the Trust commissioned artist Jo Jo Gleave to add her designs to the wood. Jo Jo used the priory as her inspiration, finding mythological images from the site, including the 13th-15th century decorations in the church, which she used to create tiles which are displayed on one of the woods bridges; while mediaeval animals are incorporated into designs on another bridge.

And for Jo Jo, from Halton, the commission was a timely one. Until a few months ago I had the impression that the Runcorn area was all bleak, grey and industrial, she said.

All that changed when she met the chairman of the Friends of Runcorn Woods, Pete Baker. He showed me that we have all these different woods around here which are great places to visit and it always makes it more interesting to visit these places when there are pieces of art to see.

The Woodland Trust commission was for a dozen tiles and Jo Jo, who has worked on projects all over the North West, added: It was nice to do a piece so close to home. I have tried to use images which emphasise the link between the wood and the priory. The six animal tiles are in a mediaeval style and the other six show mythical creatures whose images can also be found around the priory.

And with Norton Priory and Big Wood being in such close physical proximity, and with such long-standing historical links, it is only natural that their respective staff have developed and maintained a strong working relationship, which has been running now for more than 10 years.

One benefitw of this is a three-way partnership with the Halton Conservation Project which provides environmental work for adults with special needs. Opportunities were made available in the priorys orchards and gardens, including growing produce in the spectacular walled garden for use on the cafs menu and the removal of non-native rhododendron around Big Wood. As well as the conservation work, the Halton Conservation Project makes charcoal with the wood cleared from Big Wood which is then bagged up and sold on site.

The priory was founded in 1134 by the Baron of Halton but religious life there ended when it was one of the first to suffer under Henry VIIIs dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. A decade later it was bought by Sir Richard Brooke, who had the medieval buildings demolished and a Tudor mansion built in their place. Thus began an almost 500 year relationship between the priory and the Brookes, which ended when the family left in 1921.

In the early 1970s, with the discovery of the medieval buildings, the Norton Priory Trust was formed and the grounds were carefully excavated. In 1980, restoration work began on the Walled Garden, which was built around the 1750s and, in 1985, the priory opened to the public.

Norton Priory holds a series of events throughout the year; things to do in September include:

Heritage Open Day 1-4pm 11th September

Grow and Show Horticultural Show daytime 18th September

Other woods close to Norton Priory include Windmill Hill Wood and Fountains Wood.

The print version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Cheshire Life

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