So there you are, trundling down (or up) the A1 by Newcastle/Gateshead and this gigantic, rust-coloured, figure flashes past your peripheral vision. “Oh”, you think to yourself, in a wondering kind of way, “That can’t possibly be a very old aeroplane; it must be the Angel of the North.” And you’d be one of about only 90,000 people to have seen him that day; it’s true, the Angel knows who looks at him as they whizz by, and keeps a tally.
Antony Gormley’s enormous steel erection, controversial when it was unveiled in 1998, has become one of the iconic images of the North East, alongside the Tyne Bridge, Durham Cathedral and Newcastle United scoring a goal, the kind of thing that makes locals go all misty-eyed. But, is the Angel of the North a cherished landmark, or ‘bad art’? Some refer to it as ‘the Gateshead Flasher’; others aren’t that polite. It cost nearly £800,000 at the time, stands 66 feet (20 metres) high, has a wingspan of 178 feet (54 metres) – larger than a Boeing 757 – and weighs 200 tonnes. It has massive piles (inevitably), buried 20 metres deep to keep it anchored and able to withstand high winds of up to 100 mph. It is also built to last more than 100 years. So I’m thinking, with claims like that, it must come with some kind of warranty. There’s enough steel in it, they say, to build 16 double-decker buses, or 4 Chieftain tanks. Presumably, the authorities decided that the North East had no immediate need for 16 more double-decker buses or an extra 4 Chieftain tanks, so it was decided to build a whopping great steel angel instead.
Who dreams up these statistics?
The Angel of the North is certainly big. Standing on a mound, towering overhead like a futuristic colossus, it is built on the site of the pithead baths of the former Lower Tyne Colliery. It is intended to be a reminder of the miners that worked far below ground, in the dark, for 200 years. I can get that. Antony Gormley said that it is a “Focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the north east, abandoned in the gap between the industrial and the information ages.” I can get that too, at least the sincere intention, although whether the good folk of Tyne & Wear feel abandoned is another matter; it sounds a little patronising to me.
I can see that some people are drawn to the Angel of the North. There is something embracing and protective about those bloody great wings, stretching out far above you. Undoubtedly, many love it – and, according to Gateshead Council, it receives more than 150,000 visitors every year. I find it fascinating – and of course it is impressive. But I’m not sure that it moves me – unlike Mr Gormley’s figures on the beach at Crosby.
You decide. If you’re passing by, take a look – but best park up before you do. Take the northbound A167 toward Gateshead from the A1; there’s parking on the left about a quarter of a mile further on.
Lastly, you really do need to be aware that a species of daffodil has been named after the Angel of the North, apparently due to the flower’s rusty orange hue and unusual height. Keep your eyes open for them in the garden centre. Personally, I find the thought of a 20-metre high daffodil slightly daunting; anyway, my dibber isn’t big enough.