Whilst out on a walk recently I ended up in Stanstead Abbotts. It’s a small village in Hertfordshire and whilst those who live there might disagree, at first glance, whilst there is a river and some old buildings, the narrowness of the main street and the amount of traffic passing through mean it is not conventionally ‘pretty’.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you can always find interesting things about anywhere. So, for Stanstead Abbotts there’s the fact that whilst you won’t find a railway station with the same name, the village is actually on the line out to Hertford East from Liverpool Street, but the station is called St Margaret’s. Why? Because there are actually two villages – Stanstead Abbotts and Stanstead St Margarets – ‘separated’ by the River Lea. A bit like Newcastle and Gateshead being separated by River Tyne, only on a smaller scale. Anyway, Stanstead St Margarets is always known as St Margarets – hence the railway station name.
Then there’s the mystery of the obelisks – four of them – into which have been chiselled some seemingly unrelated words “Earth, Motor, Air, Turbine, Fire, Jet, Wheel, Water”, surrounded by a path into which has been inscribed the following “Rooted Below The Fire And Cross – We Remember”. Actually, it could be that “We Remember” comes first – you can’t tell as it’s in a circle. I looked around for an explanatory notice or plaque to tell me what this was all about, but there was nothing to be found. What’s the point of something like this – public artwork – if nobody knows why it’s there?
So, onto the internet to see what I could find. It turns out that Stanstead Abbotts sits astride the Greenwich Meridian and this little space and artwork was erected in 1984 to celebrate the centenary of the adoption of the Meridian Line. At least, that’s what I think various online sources were saying (as ever, most of the sources just lift material from other sites, so any problems with the original just get repeated and it’s often impossible to know which is the source document). The best source of information was Stanstead Abbotts Online, although even here the story was unclear. So, faced with material that was ambiguous about dates and purposes, but armed with the name of a sculptor, Alec Peever, I set off on another line of enquiry.
Alec Peever’s website does not mention his Stanstead Abbotts art, but a direct enquiry to him elicited the following response:-
“I was asked to introduce a work that reflected the history of the site, so scattered around are short sayings, relating to the Victorian maltings warehouse that formerly existed there beside the river; the sounds and smells associated with it, etc.
I also wanted to create a striking feature that spoke about the place. It was common in medieval times to erect a cross at a cross-roads, not as any kind of Christian symbol, but to denote a meeting place. This site is at a location crossed by road, river, rail and overhead, aeroplanes! The circular text alludes to this and the cross is formed by slicing the block of stone into four, making the cross in negative on the ground. The words carved into the upright faces of the stones make reference to their propulsion.
Finally, my love of poetry drew me to include the quotation from William Blake in the seating area, along the towpath.
My wish was to provide plenty of material to discover, ponder and enjoy.”
This set me off again, since on my trip I had not seen any artwork in the form of a William Blake poem. A visit back to the site revealed that it does exist – about 50 metres from the main site, apparently randomly placed in the middle of the towpath towards London:-
“He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sun rise.”
Again, nothing to tell anyone passing by what it’s all about, which is a great shame.
I suppose that Alec Peever’s desire to do something to make people ponder and discover has been achieved in the sense that I saw them and wanted to find out more. But I can’t help thinking it would be more useful for there to be a plaque or explanatory board of some sort to tell people something of the artwork, when it was placed there and why, with enough information that those curious enough can then do their own further research. I feel sure that I’m not the only one who would ponder on what it all means once they are given some clues. But I may be the only one who would spend time researching without at least some help. Without this, how many will just see the obelisks, or perhaps the words and do nothing more?
Anyway, now I know and so do you after reading this, but at the moment we are a small, select group of people. I have contacted the Parish Council to suggest that an explanatory sign might be a good idea and written to the best of the online sites to let them have this material, so our secret may not remain that way for long. I hope not, anyway.