Words from Poet Laureate Bring Derelict Barnsley Alleyway Back to Life
10th February 2022
Words by the Poet Laureate have been immortalised in neon lights in a project to restore part of the centre of Barnsley.
The Sunset Neon artwork features a line from a specially written poem by Simon Armitage. But, instead of being in a gallery, it is displayed on a wall in an alley off Eldon Street.
The alley connects Eldon Street and the new Glassworks Square, with Mandela Gardens and the Civic Art Centre, but until recently it has been a bit of a no-go area.
The installation, created by Barnsley artist Patrick Murphy, has transformed the space, as part of a High Street Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) project funded by Historic England and Barnsley Council.
Simon Armitage is poet in residence for the HSHAZ, which aims to transform the Eldon Street area of Barnsley through creative intervention, community engagement and heritage repairs
The Poet Laureate has dubbed his involvement ‘Barnsley an unnatural history’ and is planning a series of works culminating in a weekend of performance in the town in September.
He said: “The first time I visited Eldon Street and walked up and down a couple of times I realised it was like walking through a book of poems. You’d point at a shop window and there’d be a whole narrative open up, a whole universe. Or it was like walking down an aisle in a museum; with different exhibits.”
Simon, who lives in West Yorkshire, was given access to Barnsley archives to research the history of Eldon Street and became fascinated when he found out there used to be a natural history museum with exhibits of both common and rare animals. The finding led to the name ‘an unnatural history’.
He also discovered that Eldon Street had been the location of various carnivals, fairs and performances, and that led Simon to propose a three-day event in September featuring his band LYR as part of the project.
The words that light up the alleyway ‘Sunset totters down Eldon Street trailing its wedding dress’ are taken from a poem by Simon that considers the street as a party street, after the fun starts to fade.
The words are also influenced by Eldon Street’s history, from Harral’s Ring Shop where generations of Barnsley couples bought their engagement and wedding rings, to the ‘Bunny Run’ – which often started on Eldon Street, next to the station – when crowds of revellers went out after work on a Friday night, moving from pub to pub around the town centre.
“The location seems perfect to me. You have to seek it out a little bit. I think we are opening up a connecting space between the square on one side and Eldon Street on the other, and bringing some imaginative life to a place that has become a bit derelict and a bit sad,” said Simon.
The Eldon Street High Street Heritage Action Zone, which runs until 2024, is one of 68 similar schemes across the country. It is part of a government-funded initiative led by Historic England which aims to breathe new life into local high streets from regenerating historic buildings to engaging local communities through art and cultural projects.
Dr Tegwen Roberts, Barnsley Council’s heritage action zone officer, said: “Artwork can be completely transformative to a place. You can turn an anti-social place, where people used to be afraid to go, into somewhere vibrant and inviting.
“Since we have transformed the alleyway, we have seen all sorts of people, including mums with pushchairs, using it as a short cut.
“And this artwork is just the start of what we are trying to do in the area. We want people to get involved and help us breathe new life into Eldon Street, which has always been an important street in the town centre, into something that gives a nod to the past, but is fit for the future.”
The artist Patrick Murphy has previously worked on commissions at locations ranging from Coventry and Northumberland to Belgium and France.
Simon said: “I think the best way of collaborating is for artists to do their own thing and then bring the work together to make something out of those components.
“I also think there should be an element of surprise in collaboration for the artists. So, I provided the words. There was some discussion about the site, some discussion about the colour, but then I was just happy for the rest of it to take place and to come along and be wowed by it – and I was.”
Nicky Brown, from Historic England, said: “This wonderful installation captures the essence of Eldon Street and helps illuminate its heritage in an intriguing way. It’s a great example of the innovative way that the High Street Heritage Action Zones are helping to revitalise town centres, celebrating their rich history and making it more attractive to residents, businesses, tourists and investors.”
The Sunset Neon artwork will be in place until Thursday, 31 March.
For more information about the Eldon Street High Street Heritage Action Zone please go to barnsleymuseums.art.blog/2020/11/16/eldon-street-heritage-action-zone/