Outdoor Art in the North

Polly Checkland Harding

Often free and publicly accessible, outdoor art has a special relationship to community, cultural heritage and the landscape it’s situated in. Take Dream by Jaume Plensa at St Helens: created in collaboration with former miners from the town, the installation’s enormous plinth was modelled on a miner’s tally, while the 20m tall sculpture of a young girl’s dreaming visage above it represented the hopes of future generations. Antony Gormley’s initially contentious Angel of the North was hung with a giant football shirt as a badge of acceptance, while the radical Bankside Gallery Hull converted the enthusiastic reception of a new Banksy into a wider celebration of the existing street art and graffiti artists in the city.

This guide to the best Outdoor Art in the North is filled with similar stories – each enriching the installations’ own resonance and revealing something particular about the place they’re located. The Great Promenade in Blackpool captures the spirit of the seaside resort, while Morecambe’s Horizon Line Chamber venerates the beauty of the bay; Voyage in Hull commemorates the longstanding trading relationship between the port city and Iceland across the water. Each demonstrates that the lives we live are in relationship with the landscape, not separate from it – perhaps best illustrated by Another Place on Crosby Beach, in which 100 stationary figures are overtaken by the oncoming tide.

There’s a real range in how you might encounter the outdoor installations in this guide: some, like the works in the Artists Garden at York Art Gallery, are just outside a gallery’s buildings. Others can be either sought out or stumbled upon, like the Mythic Coast Artwork Trail, where a mysterious story begins to emerge the more installations you discover – or anywhere along the 33 miles of the Irwell Sculpture Trail, the longest route in the UK. Others still become landmarks in their own right, like Burnley’s Singing Ringing Tree, a musical gift at the top of a hill. The most recent inclusion, Laura Daly’s The Storm Cone, even hints at a digital future for outdoor art – but all illustrate how meaningful encounters with public art can be.

Our top picks

Irwell Sculpture Trail

Irwell Sculpture Trail, Pier 8, Salford Quays, Salford, Greater Manchester, M50 3AZ - Visit now

The longest sculpture route in the UK, the Irwell Sculpture Trail stretches 33 miles from Bacup to Salford Quays – but can easily be explored by heading for one of the clusters identified in the official guide to the trail. These group the more than 70 artworks by local, national and international artists under umbrella areas, highlighting the trail’s usefulness as a gateway to exploring locations along the way. Rawtenstall, say, where there’s Britain’s last temperance bar; Ramsbottom, with its independent shops and popular market; or Bury, home to Bury Art Museum. There are prestigious outdoor sculptures to be discovered, too, such as Tilted Vase by internationally renowned artist Edward Allington, In the Picture by Richard Caink – a 6m wide picture frame capturing the Irwell Valley views – and Casuals, created with former Salford dock workers, which represents their union cards. Explore on foot or by bike, take striking photographs of the installations, and enjoy the longest series of artworks situated in the landscape in the country.

Nailing Home - The Shrieking Violet

Burnley’s Singing Ringing Tree

Burnley’s Singing Ringing Tree, Crown Point, Burnley, Lancashire, BB11 3RT - Visit now

One of four ‘Panopticons’ installed on high-points around Lancashire, each acting as 21st century landmarks, Burnley’s Singing Ringing Tree won a RIBA Award for ‘design excellence and meaningful social impact’. Voted into a list of Great British landmarks: 21 structures that define our landscape alongside the Angel of the North and Grizedale Sculpture Trail among others, the Singing Ringing Tree has held a special significance since its installation. Designed by Mike Tonkin and Anna Lui in 2007, the sculpture is constructed from a collection of galvanised steel tubes, bent to suggest the shape of a tree, and uses the wind to generate a low, mournful song. Tonkin and Lui’s architectural practice has gone on to win a total of 17 RIBA Awards as well as the prestigious Stephen Lawrence Prize for ‘new, experimental architectural talent’. With a commanding position overlooking Pendle Hill and the Bowland Fells, this is an atmospheric spot from which to enjoy some spectacular views, particularly at sunrise and sunset.

Burnley's Singing Ringing Tree
Courtesy of Visit Lancashire

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, Wakefield, Yorkshire, WF4 4LG - Visit now

The North of England’s premier destination for outdoor art, Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a grand experiment in situating installations within the landscape. Occupying 500 acres of the former Bretton Hall estate, this leading international centre for modern and contemporary sculpture was conceived as an opportunity to allow artists to explore questions of form and function in the open air. Today, there are around 80 pieces by pre-eminent names on display across the estate’s stunning parkland, which includes woodland areas, rolling slopes and a lake. It’s a rare thing to be able to see works by Ai Weiwei, Elisabeth Frink and Alfredo Jaar in a single visit: here, there are pieces by these artists and many, many more, each an individual intervention within the park’s stunning natural surroundings. Discover a tree hanging half way down a stone shaft, a giant white orchid, and a sign that reads, ‘NO BORDERS, JUST HORIZONS, ONLY FREEDOM’.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Grizedale Forest

Grizedale Forest, Grizedale, Hawkshead, Cumbria, LA22 0QJ - Visit now

Many of the installations at Grizedale Forest have been replaced and changed over the decades since the UK’s first sculpture forest was established in 1977; it is a constantly evolving collection set in over 4,000 hectares of woodland, but one that has featured installations by some of the world’s leading contemporary artists. They include Andy Goldsworthy, Sally Matthews and David Nash; today, Forestry England continues to work with the next generation of artists to explore possibilities for new sculptures on site. Maps of the artworks currently in place can be collected from the visitor information point, but many are best stumbled upon while walking or cycling through the forest; usually constructed from natural materials and often part camouflaged by their surroundings, they are a beautiful surprise when identified.

SHIP at Half Moon Bay

SHIP at Half Moon Bay, DECO PUBLIQUE, 3 Northumberland Street, Morecambe, Lancashire, LA4 4AU - Visit now

This Corten steel sculpture on the shoreline at Half Moon Bay in Morecambe is another example of outdoor art used as a form of placemaking: SHIP was commissioned from artist Anna Gillespie as part of The Headlands to Headspace Landscape Art Commissioning Programme, a project that concentrated on creating connections between visitors and Morecambe Bay’s stunning 90 mile coastline. Configured so that two figures conduct a vigil from either end of a ship sunk in the ground, the sculpture includes a central sandstone block from which visitors can join them and quietly contemplate the setting sun on the horizon, as well as the area’s maritime heritage. Since the earliest Roman settlers, Heysham has long been a point of arrival and departure; the art of waiting for trade, innovation and the safe return of companions a key feature of the community. SHIP captures this act, and is a beautiful intrusion into the beauty of the bay.

Image courtesy of Keith Stanley/ Anna Gillespie.

The Hepworth Wakefield

The Hepworth Wakefield, Gallery Walk, Wakefield, Yorkshire, WF1 5AW - Visit now

This award-winning art museum is not simply confined to the £35m, David Chipperfield-designed building that was specially built to house its 5,000-strong collection: several of the works at The Hepworth are also situated outdoors, in one of the UK’s largest free public gardens. Surrounding the gallery, the landscaped space was designed by internationally renowned garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith, and is home to Ascending Form by Barbara Hepworth, an 11ft yellow pitchfork by Sir Michael Craig-Martin and a sculpture inspired by the swagger and malice of the Teddy Boys in the 1950s – created by the youngest ever winner of the International Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale, Lynn Chadwick. Joining these is The Three by Rebecca Warren, who personally chose this installation for the space, saying that, ‘It feels like a rare opportunity to have sculptures in this setting’. These are significant pieces by landmark artists, situated within a landscape designed to echo both The Hepworth’s striking angles, and the naturalism that Barbara Hepworth herself so cherished.

The Hepworth Wakefield

Angel of the North

Angel of the North, Durham Road, Low Eighton, Gateshead, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE9 7TY - Visit now

An outdoor sculpture of truly epic proportions, the Angel of the North in Gateshead stands taller than four double decker buses, its wingspan bigger than a Boeing 757 airplane. Believed to be the biggest sculpture of an angel in the world, it was designed by acclaimed artist Antony Gormley OBE, winner of the Turner Prize and the man behind another of the picks in this guide: Another Place on Crosby Beach. Where Another Place quietly inhabits the coastal landscape, the Angel of the North dominates the horizon, the iconic custodian of Gateshead and Newcastle that’s seen by 33 million people each year. Constructed of weathering steel, the sculpture has concrete piles to match its height sunk into the earth beneath it, which act as an anchor to the solid rock below. These both allow the structure to withstand wind speeds over 100mph, and are an excavation that pay homage to the colliery that once operated nearby.

Creative Tourist

Dream at St Helens

Dream at St Helens, Sutton Manor Colliery Site, Sutton Woodland, Jubits Lane, St.Helens, Merseyside, WA9 4BB - Visit now

Dream, a 20m high sculpture of a nine year-old girl’s head, was born from a unique collaboration: the award-winning Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, with a group of ex-miners from St Helens, where the installation stands. Constructed on the former site of the Sutton Manor Colliery, Dream was designed to reflect the aspirations of the community following the pit closures; to inspire future generations, whilst reflecting the centuries-old mining industry in the area. Plensa had the idea that ‘the face was created to offer to others, because you cannot see it yourself’: eyes closed, this monumental little girl appears to be dreaming, the plinth on which her head is set a giant replica of a miner’s tally. The English concrete and Spanish dolomite marble aggregate from which Dream is made not only reflects the international collaboration that saw the sculpture into being, but is a bright, almost luminous contrast to the coal below. A bright, almost luminous future.

Dream at St Helen's

Mythic Coast Artwork Trail

Mythic Coast Artwork Trail, Mythic Coast Artwork Trail, Cleveleys, Lancashire, FY5 1LB - Visit now

Head to the Cleveleys seafront, and you’ll find an enchanting trail of outdoor sculptures, all inspired by a tale of sunken villages, a mysterious ogre, and the stories of the local people. Designed by North West artist Stephen Broadbent, the Mythic Coast Art Trail is based on children’s book The Sea Swallow by Gareth Thompson, illustrated by Hannah McGee: there’s Mary’s Shell, a 8m long, corkscrew-shaped metal sculpture on the beach itself, engraved with lines from the story. Just beyond is the Stone Ogre, a white stone sculpture that’s slowly being hidden by seaweed amongst a rocky outcrop in the sand, further still the Giant Ogre’s Paddle, made of tropical hardwood and carved with scenes from the book. The Shipwreck Memorial remembers sunken vessels run aground on the Fylde coast, while the Sea Swallow sculpture takes the name of the children’s book itself, and stands tall and white, right on the promenade.

The Mythic Coast Artwork Trail

York Art Gallery

York Art Gallery, Exhibition Square, York, Yorkshire, YO1 7EH - Visit now

In August 2015, York Art Gallery reopened after undergoing an £8m redevelopment that saw the addition of a new Centre of Ceramic Art, an Edible Wood – and an Artists Garden. Never before accessible by the public, two acres of land within the old abbey walls at the back of York Art Gallery were used for the first time to display contemporary art outdoors, for free. The Artists Garden now links the older York Museum gardens with Exhibition Square via a snickelway, the city’s word for a ginnel or alleyway. The stage for temporary exhibitions, artists who’ve previously exhibited here include Charles Holland of Ordinary Architecture and British sculptor Michael Lyons, who was instrumental in the founding of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Check ahead on York Art Gallery’s website to discover current and upcoming exhibitions in the Artists Garden – or drop by on a whim to be surprised by installations in the space.

York Art Gallery
Image courtesy of York Art Gallery

Bankside Gallery Hull

Bankside Gallery Hull, 9 N Church Side, Hull, Yorkshire, HU1 1RP - Visit now

A collection of walls, doors and underpasses to the north of Hull’s city centre have become a legal, outdoor gallery for the city’s incredible street artists – as well as those who travel internationally to contribute work. Developed in the wake of the overnight arrival of a Banksy on a permanently raised bridge in the area, the Bankside Gallery Hull was a way of capitalising on the media interest and change in public perception towards graffiti that followed – of celebrating a subculture that had long operated in the city, but previously with a mixed reception. Now, the locations on the Bankside Gallery map draw walking tours, school trips and aspiring street artists of all ages: it’s a constantly evolving exhibition, with new work layered upon the old, occasionally within a few days. Businesses have volunteered their walls for special commissions, with the interest from visitors helping to drive regeneration; not only does this outdoor gallery have a fascinating backstory, it’s also an active part of Hull’s future.

Bankside Gallery Hull

The Great Promenade Show

The Great Promenade Show, New South Promenade, Blackpool, Lancashire, FY4 1RW - Visit now

The Great Promenade Show in Blackpool was, in some ways, born from necessity: in 1996, essential work started to raise the town’s South Shore Promenade by 2m, in order to defend the shorefront buildings from flooding. Blackpool Council’s Arts Team saw this as an opportunity; they approached over 50 international artists to request proposals for a series of artworks along the promenade, each reflecting the town’s unique identity, as well as working with the light, wind, sand and sea that were the location’s natural backdrop. A public vote narrowed things down to ten installations, further developed by the artists before being permanently installed between 2001 and 2005. The final series of outdoor works includes one of the biggest disco balls in the world by artist Michael Trainor, which features 47,000 mirrors, as well as a High Tide Organ by John Gooding, which makes music from the swell of the advancing tide.

Creative Tourist

Another Place by Anthony Gormley at Crosby Beach

Another Place by Anthony Gormley at Crosby Beach, Mariners Road, Crosby Beach, Merseyside, Liverpool, L23 6SX - Visit now

The second installation by Turner Prize winning artist Antony Gormley in this guide, Another Place on Crosby Beach is entirely different to the Angel of the North in scale: here, it’s not the enormous height that’s striking, but the haunting colonisation of the Sefton shoreline by 100 life-sized, cast iron figures. Spreading three kilometres along the sand and one kilometre out to sea, each stands motionless, looking out towards the horizon – even as the tide draws in and drowns them. Brought to Crosby Beach by Liverpool Biennial in collaboration with South Sefton Partnership in 2005, the figures have since become beautifully encrusted with barnacles, the boundary between man and natural surroundings blurring over the years. They remain a poignant reminder of humanity’s relationship with our environment – seeming helpless in the face of natural forces as they stare out to the container ships on the horizon.

Another Place by Anthony Gormley

Horizon Line Chamber

Horizon Line Chamber, Horizon Line Chamber, Sunderland Point, Morecambe, Lancashire, LA3 3JF - Visit now

Artist Chris Drury’s Horizon Line Chamber is the perfect marriage of a site-specific outdoor installation, and extraordinary craftsmanship. This handmade stone oratory stands on the shoreline of Sunderland Point, Morecambe Bay; built to echo the shape of an upturned ship, the chamber doubles as a camera obscura, with a lens in the sea facing wall projecting an inverted image of the coastline onto the whitewashed wall inside. In this way, the artist found the Sunderland Point site ‘almost perfect’ for the installation, ‘due to the changing nature of Morecambe Bay’; Drury also worked with master craftsman and local dry stone waller Andrew Mason to build the structure, using reclaimed stone from a former port settlement nearby. Other chambers in this series include the Sky Mountain Chamber in the Dolomites and a Star Chamber in Nashville, Tennessee.

Horizon Line Chamber

The University of Leeds Public Art Trail

The University of Leeds Public Art Trail, University of Leeds Campus, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS2 9JT - Visit now

Featuring 17 different installations across the University of Leeds campus, this outdoor art trail is significant both for its inclusion of work by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and other notable artists, and for representing a progressive philosophy regarding the importance of public art. Since 1923, sculpture has been treated as an important feature of the university site, with Council members leading on acquisitions and even replacing works damaged beyond repair by students, such as William Chattaway’s Giacometti-inspired Walking Figure. The institution commissioned a monumental piece from Simon Fujiwara to mark the entrance to campus, used an installation by Mitzi Cunliffe, designer of the awards for BAFTA, to reflect technological advances in man-made fabrics, and collaborated with Virginia Woolf’s nephew to create The Dreamer, a feat of engineering that sees a woman levitating above a plinth. All of which amounts to a trail both impressive and fascinating.

Image courtesy of The University of Leeds.

The Storm Cone, Peel Park

The Storm Cone, Peel Park, Peel Park, Salford, Greater Manchester, M5 4NJ - Visit now

An outdoor outwork – but with a digital, rather than physical, presence – The Storm Cone is experienced through a free app using headphones, combining the ghostly ‘skeleton’ of a traditional bandstand with the 360 degree sound of a brass band performing. Created by award-winning artist Laura Daly and the much garlanded composer Lucy Pankhurst, The Storm Cone reveals a lost bandstand in Peel Park, and allows its audience to move between the absent musicians, hearing each instrument up close. It’s a reflection on the decline of brass bands in the interwar years, and on the rise of populism, extremism, racism and anti-semitism that accompanied economic downturn at the time – with concerning resonances in our current climate. Emulating the cyclical nature of history, the installation acts as both a warning, and a celebration of the transformative power of art.

Laura Daly: The Storm Cone at Peel Park, Salford
The Storm Cone Laura Daly - Bandstand 3D image by Catherine Chapman

Voyage, Hull

Voyage, Hull, Nelson Street, Hull, Yorkshire, HU1 1XE

Standing quietly above Victoria Pier in Hull, opposite gargantuan aquarium The Deep, Voyage by Icelandic artist Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir is a piece of outdoor art that might easily be overlooked. This life-sized figure on top of a tall plinth bears real cultural significance, however, and is testimony to a significant strand of Hull’s history: Voyage faces in the direction where thousands of Hull’s trawlers once departed for Iceland’s fishing waters, a sister sculpture on the south coast of Iceland facing back towards the city in commemoration of the shared seafaring heritage between the two places. Originally gifted by Iceland and restored at Hull’s expense when the statue was stolen in 2011, this is an installation of which the artist said: ‘Of all the art projects I have been involved with, this has been by far the most special’.

Image by Steven Gillis hd9 imaging / Alam/Alamy
Pillock at Contact
Spotlight on

Fringe Theatre in Manchester and the North

Check out our top picks of shows previewing in the North West before heading to Edinburgh Fringe Festival later in the summer.

Take me there

Culture Guides

Rebecca Watson author photo
Literature Events in Manchester and the North

In between working out, then working through, your holiday reading pile this summer, find inspiration for your next bookish acquisitions from our selection of live events and exhibitions.