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The Eastern Quarry, looking north west from the Observatory

words William Wiles

This is a place that doesn’t exist. It’s not just a hole in the ground, it’s a hole in the imagination. There’s a local railway station, but you can’t travel there. There’s a local landmark, but it isn’t built yet. There’s a name for this place, but it was invented by developers, lifted from a disappeared river: Ebbsfleet.

Artist Richard Wentworth is thrilled: “It’s gorgeous! It’s well gorgeous, isn’t it?”

The place that will ultimately become the town of Ebbsfleet is a disused quarry in northern Kent, 22 miles from London and a stone’s throw from the Thames Estuary. This is London’s industrial hinterland, part of the desolate halo of infrastructure that services the hungry capital. It’s carved into pieces by roads and railways, including the new high-speed rail link from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel. Electricity pylons crowd the horizon. It’s an odd place to bring a renowned British artist like Wentworth, but he’s not the first artist to set foot here in the past month, he’s the sixth. The previous five – Rachel Whiteread, Richard Deacon, Mark Wallinger, Christopher Le Brun and Daniel Buren – were shortlisted to design a monumental piece of art for the site, and Wentworth was invited here by icon to pass comment on the area before it gets its defining monument.

At 50m high – the same height as Nelson’s Column – the enormous landmark will, come 2010, loom over the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the A2 and the new town. The press has already dubbed it the Angel of the South, after Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North at Gateshead. But the Ebbsfleet Landmark Project – insiders call it the ELP – will not only brand Ebbsfleet. This is, as signs at the international station promise, “England’s Gateway”. The whole of southern England is being branded.

Had Wentworth been invited to participate, it’s doubtful he would have agreed – he likes the area the way it is. “It’s one of the most interesting un-places I’ve been to,” he says. “The site is modern Britain. It’s what happens when you ruck the carpet. You push some dirt over here, and you push some dirt over there, and somebody engineers this and somebody else engineers that, and that throws up the unforeseen, which is always incredibly interesting.”

We’re at “The Observatory”, developer Land Securities’ forward base in what is presently known as the Eastern Quarry. Chalk was dug out of the ground here to make cement and plasterboard; what was the Western Quarry has been home to the mammoth Bluewater shopping centre since 1999. The Observatory sits on a promontory overlooking the 1,076 acre site. It’s an alien presence on this blasted, utterly bare landscape. In a small way, it’s a tribute to the genuine artistry of property development – the ability to drag a shining island of corporate cleanliness out of an ocean of featureless mud and rock. We were met at Greenhithe station by Claire Foster, project director of regeneration quango Futurecity, and Steve Atkins, development manager for Land Securities, and driven here. Rail services from Ebbsfleet International to St Pancras will not start until next year – at the moment, the only way to reach the station by train is to start your journey in France.

The plan is that we will be given exactly the same tour as the five shortlisted artists. It’s bitterly cold, with a smoke-grey sky that brings vicious icy blasts of wind and horizontal rain to the proceedings. This doesn’t dampen Wentworth’s enthusiasm. In 2002, he held an exhibition celebrating the aesthetic splendour of pre-regeneration King’s Cross St Pancras. That show was called “An Area of Outstanding Unnatural Beauty”, a title that could equally apply to the Eastern Quarry. Now, St Pancras has been reopened as St Pancras International – and aesthetically it has been a triumph of “petit-bourgeois feeling”, Wentworth says, particularly Paul Day’s statue of embracing lovers, The Meeting Place: “A bad bronze arse in a stupid skirt. Just infantile… shopping mall vulgarity.”

So the omens for the ELP aren’t great. This is a terrible time for public sculpture in Britain. A great deal is being produced, but it’s nearly all awful. Wentworth is particularly incensed by the present rash of war memorials thrown up by guilty officialdom. “Hyde Park Corner is just ridiculous now,” he says. “The Cenotaph, you have to accord great respect to that. [But] now there’s another one up the street, [saying] ‘sorry about the women’, and there’s a sort of clearing of the throat all the time… I get it, but you need to be quite careful before you completely vulgarise the space, and none of it has any meaning.”

Whatever the Eastern Quarry might be, it’s not vulgar. It’s an industrial blasted heath. The natural vegetation of the area is woodland, but the woods now stop abruptly at the top of a manmade chalk precipice. Artificial white cliffs: how’s that for English symbolism? Beyond this edge, the quarry’s “deep end”, the terrain rises steadily, the result of a titanic earth-moving operation required to make the gradients amenable to housebuilding. Land Securities’ Atkins speaks with fervour about the awesome landscaping effort, which involved more than 130 pieces of heavy machinery at its height, a “fabulous piece of choreography, really, beautiful to watch”. Atkins is, in his own words, “responsible for delivering the residential element of this project”, but that’s a modest description of his role. The residential element is 10,000 homes over a total of 1,500 acres, plus assorted offices and retail – a town the size of Chichester. Atkins is for the moment the Baron Haussmann of northern Kent, laying down avenues and circuses, wielding genuine power – enduring power, too: “Most UK housebuilding is traditionally ‘smash and grab’,” says Atkins. “We’re not going to be like that.” Instead, this project will take 25 years to build out, with Land Securities retaining a freehold on the town for that time and beyond.

You might expect the landscape around Ebbsfleet, the floodplain of the Thames estuary, to be flat. Between the quarry and the river are marshes, the same terrible landscape that is described in the opening chapters of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations – Dickens spent his honeymoon near here, just east of Gravesend, in the appropriately named village of Chalk. In the imagination, it’s a horizontal place, even a concave place, dug out. But, in fact, the skyline is surprisingly cluttered, or as Atkins puts it: “You have a landscape with a lot of vertical intrusion in it.” To the west, even on a dreadful grey day, the towers of Canary Wharf are visible, and to the north are the Queen Elizabeth II bridge at Dartford, an absurdly flimsy-looking ribbon suspended in the sky with a line of juggernauts parked on it, and the huge blue cranes of the container docks at Tilbury, on the other side of the estuary. Nearer at hand are a church spire by Giles Gilbert Scott, half a dozen soon to be demolished power station chimneys and scores of electricity pylons, including the tallest pair in the country. “In a way, it’s like being in a sort of mad tin forest,” says Wentworth. For him they advertise the industrial status of our civilisation, as windmills once did.

The landmark will overlook this place from the east. Southern England’s answer to New York’s Statue of Liberty (34m) or Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer (40m) must be 50m high to rise above the pylons that already occupy its site, something Gormley’s 20m Angel didn’t have to contend with. We drive to the site via Swanscombe, the neighbourhood that borders the Ebbsfleet site. It’s not a very attractive place, a depressed suburb of Gravesend. The most prosperous-looking shop on its main commercial street is a tattoo parlour. “Merry Christ” says a sign outside a greasy spoon in a truck stop.

The site is a bluff overlooking a bend in the A2, a howling motorway now soaked by freezing rain. “This is the world’s largest sound sculpture, really,” says Wentworth of the road the Romans called Watling Street. He loves this roadside, this hard shoulder: “All that traffic minding its own business… The incredible feeling of being in a gigantic economic plumbing system, stuff swirling around the S-bend with ‘dosh’ written all over it.”

“I think driving is very, very interesting – as an extension of your body it’s amazing,” he continues. “The space you drive on is probably the premier sculpture of the 20th century – the freeway, the autobahn, the autostrada, they’re just astonishing.” What would he do if he was on the shortlist and asked to contribute a design? “I’d just put up the world’s biggest stop sign.” But that would not do: the Highways Agency has decreed that the landmark must not be a distraction to motorists.

Wentworth approves of the shortlist: “It’s not risky, [but] there’s vitality in it, there’s potential monumentality in it, there’s also the possibility of a real light touch. The thing is, as soon as you’re set one of these tasks, the expectation in the new culture is that you’re ‘going off to do your research’. And then you present your research, and that makes you a good person.” He feels that this expectation, this approach, may mean that the brief is impossible to fulfil without resorting to cliche in order to conceal the fact that the landmark marks the site of nothing and means nothing. The site is rich in Roman remains – why not a giant centurion? Or a giant oast house? A giant stick of chalk?

“We could do it as a parlour game, each of us could name something that has very emblematic qualities that would have to be crossed off your list: we’re not doing that, we’re not doing that… We’re not doing ‘very sorry Kentish apples aren’t grown any more, have a big apple tree’, what I call French roundabout art, some lunatic folkloric reference writ large.”

For Wentworth, the imagery, the monumentality, is already here, in the unconscious tangle of roads and rails our civilisation trails behind us. It’s in the strafe of headlamps as they round a corner, in the bedraggled bunches of garage-forecourt flowers that mark the site of fatal traffic accidents. “Our shrine culture comes from the Israeli flower industry; it equals garages, equals sorry-darling-I’m-late or I-was-with-somebody-else or whatever, equals Diana.” Those roadside memento mori are in what he calls “the affectionate space”. Things in this space are liked – they mean something to people, they attract a degree of folk sentiment. Gormley’s Angel is firmly in the affectionate space. So is the Hollywood sign, a naked bit of branding erected by property developers – a triumph of literalism over symbolism.

“How do you find that mark, that collective belief system?” Wentworth wonders. “Culture’s very weird about what it adopts or doesn’t adopt, cares about or doesn’t care about.” He suggests that maybe the best inspiration for the space is Claes Oldenburg’s proposed Monument for the Intersection of Canal Street and Broadway, a vast concrete cube that would have completely filled the streets: “A cenotaph beyond cenotaph. You couldn’t use the roads any more.” Of course, the A2 can’t be flooded with concrete, the traffic can’t be stopped. Oldenburg’s monument was never more than a drawing and it only works as such. Maybe the Ebbsfleet landmark will only work in its present state, in the minds of the artists – a proposal, something focusing the imagination on this strange, evocative north Kent landscape, a gesture. “Some of the most monumental things in the world are gestures,” Wentworth says. “An anonymous Chinese guy standing in the middle of the road with a tank coming towards him, something half the world knows about. Difficult to arrange on a motorway.”

images Polly Braden

top image The Eastern Quarry, looking north west from the Observatory

The quarry workings, which finally closed at the end of March
The quarry workings, which finally closed at the end of March

A conveyor rising from the quarry floor. On the horizon are the UK’s tallest pylons
A conveyor rising from the quarry floor. On the horizon are the UK’s tallest pylons

The chalk cliffs at the southern edge of the quarry. The pits at the bottom will be flooded to create lakes
The chalk cliffs at the southern edge of the quarry. The pits at the bottom will be flooded to create lakes

The site of the monument is marked by the green fence; the cutting in the foreground carries the Channel Tunnel rail link
The site of the monument is marked by the green fence; the cutting in the foreground carries the Channel Tunnel rail link

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