Autumn 2002

A Flock of Words (text in full)

Typography meets sculpture on a windy English seafront

Strange though it may seem, a town renowned for its bird-watching is encouraging visitors to cast their eyes to the ground. Morecambe Bay, a seaside resort on the Lancashire coast, is an important site for migratory birds and a bird-watcher’s paradise. Now a 300m long path formed from poems, sayings, nursery rhymes and lyrics – all with a bird theme – will lead visitors from the new station, alongside two car parks to the Midland Hotel on the seafront.

Flock of Words is the result of a six-year collaboration between graphic designer Andy Altman of Why Not Associates and sculptors Gordon Young and Russell Coleman. The project is a product of ‘Tern’, Lancaster City Council’s arts-led initiative aimed at reversing the fortunes of this down-at-heel town. Under Young’s guidance, ‘Tern’ has given rise to a whole series of ornithological public artworks – stone eggs on jetties, sculptures of birds on roundabouts and a statue of Eric Morecambe. The path, which is costing the best part of half a million pounds, includes words from Chaucer (whose authentic spellings – turtel, pecok – caused proofreading headaches) to Spike Milligan, as well as texts by local writers. The words are formed from cut steel, four types of carved granite, four types of concrete, bronze, brass and a small amount of cut glass.

This is not the first time Altman and Young have worked together. The pair share a passion for text and collaborated on Carlisle’s Cursing Stone, a 7.5 tonne granite boulder into which they carved one of the world’s longest curses. Another project was the Tam O’Shanter pub stairs in Ayrshire, which bear the words of Robbie Burns. Flock of Words is their most ambitious work to date. It took Altman a month to prepare the artwork for the quarry, glass-cutters and steel-cutters. Engineers spent months repeatedly freezing and thawing the concrete to check its durability. Different sands and gravels were brought to the site from Spain, Scotland and Devon to colour the concrete. A sculptor and stonemason, Coleman oversees the production as well as carrying out some of the trickier technical work.

All the letter work for the path is in typefaces designed by Eric Gill. There’s another connection here: Gill’s carvings adorn the interior of Oliver Hill’s Art Deco Midland Hotel. The words vary in height and flow in all directions so visitors can join the path at any point. Hill’s Grade II listed masterpiece now stands boarded up while its future is decided.

More accustomed to designing on a smaller scale, Altman kept a 15m scale drawing spread along his studio floor with a tiny figure of footballer George Best on it to remind himself of the scale. A box containing granite and concrete blocks was also close to hand: ‘I needed to get a sense of the materials.’

The project is a true collaboration: ‘We’re involved in redefining where design stops and art starts,’ says Young. ‘It’s shifting perceptions of what an artist can do and what a designer can do.’ Altman compares the path to a vast print-out being pumped out of a printer. Locals often reacted in a less poetic manner. The most frequent question on the lips of passers-by is: ‘How much is all this costing?’