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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Northumberlandia

A new work of art that is also public open space

The godess-like Northumberlandia landscape sculpture will be open to the public from September

 

The Times has published my article on Northumberlandia today.

 

On Monday the Princess Royal will officially declare open a new feature of the British countryside: a sculpture made of rock, and clad in clay, soil and grass, in the shape of an enormous, recumbent, female form. Northumberlandia, the Lady of the North, is a quarter of a mile long, 100ft high and weighs nearly 1.5 million tonnes. Designed by the artist Charles Jencks, she's the largest image of a woman anywhere in the world.

I am one of the people who sponsored, and bore some of the cost of, this extraordinary work of art, made without a penny of public money. It is on my land. Why did we do it? I find that most people seem to think that we - the Blagdon estate and the coal mining company, the Banks Group, which bore most of the cost and did all the work - must have some cunning motive: to dispose of waste, say, or to make money.

The truth is, we've done it for the benefit of the local community, as a happy side-effect of mining coal. The sculpture will be handed over to a charity, the Land Trust, to run, so there's no possibility of profit. The chief purpose of the project is to provide a public park with four miles of paths, some steep, some level, for people to explore for walks, picnics, runs, kite-flying, impromptu theatricals or whatever takes their fancy. It is art you can use. It has cost the public nothing, but it will be freely available.

When the Banks Group approached my family to dig out coal from under farmland we own, creating 150 local jobs, they also came with an imaginative suggestion. Instead of waiting ten years to put the rock back and restore the surface to woods and fields, which is the normal practice, why not put some of the rock to one side to make a new landscape feature that people can use long before the mine is restored?

A friend suggested commissioning Jencks, whose landform art is internationally famous, to design the landscape. Jencks's instruction was essentially to do with bulldozers what Michelangelo did with a chisel. It was his idea to make a woman. The distant Cheviot Hills, if you squint hard enough, look a bit like a recumbent body - and a female form makes a better range of hills than a male one. He set out to echo that view and make the resemblance explicit.

She was quickly called a "naked goddess", though she's neither nude - she's wearing grass - nor divine. Britain is so full of nimbys that even new, free, public parks get criticised; the most negative response came from a rare species hitherto not recorded breeding in this bit of Northumberland: a Tory councillor.

So I had no ulterior motive - beyond having "he helped to build the biggest woman in the world" carved on my tombstone. Nonetheless, Northumberlandia does teach an important lesson: that you cannot have prosperity without cheap energy. Imagine what Capability Brown (a Northumbrian) would have done if he had had bulldozers. In the 18th century thousands of poorly paid men with spades rearranged the landscape for Brown's clients. The rich consumed the physical energy of the poor. Being rich meant having the muscles of men and horses do things for you.

Today, being of average wealth means having machines driven by electricity and petrol to do things for you. The average British family consumes about as much energy in a day as if it had 500 Bradley Wigginses on stationary bicycles in the back room, pedalling flat out for eight-hour shifts. The replacement of muscle power, burning carbohydrates, with fossil power, burning hydrocarbons, has been one of the great liberators of history.

[For those who are interested, here's my calculation that led to the 500 Bradley Wigginses number:

the average Briton used about 5,000 watts (joules per second) -- see here

the average person on an exercise bicycle puts out about 50 watts

Bradley Wiggins can probably do twice that = 100 watts

Let's (implausibly) assume that he can do that for 8 hours without a break

So the average Briton needs about 50 BWs. (5000/100)

But even a BW needs 16 hours of rest between shifts so he actually needs 150 BWs

And there are 3-4 people in an average family so 3.5 x 150 = a little over 500 BWs.

Of course, this assumes that the BWs in your back room need no standard of life of their own, otherwise they would need BWs in their back rooms and so ad infinitum. Such is the gigantic effect of inorganic energy on our lives.]

Fossil fuels not only replaced drudgery, but liberated the land. Instead of using the landscape to produce our energy - hay, timber, water and bread for labourers - we now get it mostly from underground rocks. As a result, today's people live off about one quarter as much land as before the industrial revolution. Fossil fuels have done more than any other innovations to spare the rainforest.

Fertiliser, made with natural gas, roughly doubles the global average yield of farming, which roughly halves its acreage, which spares millions of square kilometres for rainforest, golf courses or parks in the shape of huge human bodies. The only reason we can spare 50 acres for a park in the shape of a woman is that the land is not needed by peasants to grow subsistence crops as it was in the Middle Ages.

And that innovation began in the north-east of England. It was Newcastle's coal that first fuelled the industrial revolution. An ancestor of mine, a buccaneering coal merchant named Richard Ridley, was the first person to put a steam engine in a coal mine, 298 years ago, near the north bank of the Tyne. I am proud of that. His main aim was to undercut the prevailing coal cartel called the Grand Allies and supply cheaper energy to London than his rivals.

So I fervently hope that one thing Northumberlandia will do, as well as giving people a chance to stretch their legs, is to remind them that coal, oil and gas - routinely denigrated as evil in school textbooks - helped not only to give us an average income per head 12 times higher than that of our pre-industrial ancestors in real terms, stamping out most starvation and disease along the way, but helped to spare the wilderness too, so that we can afford to make nice parks with paths spiralling up rounded hills.