Seeking shelter

Another weekend, another day to catch up on some of the time lost from the initial impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery have been operating on a much-reduced closed-site basis with pre-arranged and socially distanced activities being undertaken by the regular volunteers.

The weather had been touch and go in the week proceeding Saturday 29th August 2020, but the forecast suggested hopes of at least a decent morning’s worth of work without rain, leading us into a very different kind of August Bank Holiday weekend.

Compared to 2020, 2019 looked quite different, with no pandemic, and Open Days bringing visitors and volunteers through the gates at Hemingfield.

And yet.

On reflection, many things are familiar: progress is still being made. A year ago, the Friends kickstarted what seemed an impossible task: repairing the rear retaining wall.

August 2019: Wall repairs underway (Photo credit: John Irwin)

Thanks to the Tesco Bags of Help scheme and the support of local people shopping and voting for the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery, the group were able to obtain a small generator and cement mixer, a professional set of ladders, and the materials to take on this task.

Just the job: key equipment in use August 2020

In 2019 scorching heat made the task more than a little challenging, in 2020, after a year of experience, and the last few weeks of catch-up closed door sessions, the main body of the wall was looking so much better, with only a small gap to fill on the main face of repairs.

29th August 2020 – almost there, with acro props holding the small remaining gap.

A new sack of building grit sand had been delivered early doors and volunteers got to work after 9am for a solid.morningcs work. With lime mortar flowing and sandstone blocks being sized and prepared for the next course of wall.

Sand and deliver! Another load of grit sand delivered by local building merchants Allendale, to allow lime mortar mixing to continue.

Of course the calm could not last. By early afternoon a growing tide of drizzle and spitting rain started to gently soak the group. Determined to crack on, a temporary rain cover was set up and the day’s work was rounded off with another course of stone.

Dampening spirits. Seeking shelter under a sheet when repairing the rear wall.

All in all an impressive amount of stone was added back into the wall before it was time to pack up and seek a warm bath.

Wicked restlessness

However, along with the pandemic, other negatives linger on. The front boundary wall continues to suffer regular criminal damage. The Friends continue to work to repair and restore the site, but such mindless actions do frustrate their efforts.

Saturday 29th August 2020, view of front wall of site, with further bricks removed and criminal damage

Further security on site brings additional cost considerations, as well as repair expenses, and diverts volunteers and fundraising activities away from restoration into conservation and what should be unnecessary repairs.

But is it Art?

This week a further emblem of unwelcome damage appeared with a graffiti tag on the front wall, just out of sight of the houses on Pit Row.

Graffiti tag on boundary Wall August 2020

The Safer Barnsley Partnership categorises graffiti as an environmental crime – along with fly-tipping, arson, littering, noise complaints and dog fouling. Barnsley Council’s “Love Where You Live” campaign seeks to increase pride in the borough and its communities and encourages citizens to report incidents of graffiti.

Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council’s Love where you live campaign.

Graffiti is controversial, no doubt. It has a very long and very human history, tying people to the landscape and built environment. From ancient scratchings and scrapings, to engraving hieroglyphic or simplified hieratic messages of literate workers in Nubian mines and quarries four thousand years ago, in Middle Kingdom Egypt, through to the twentieth century’s explosion of spray paint – the instrument par excellence of private and political protest.

Often read as an emblem of decline, it can also be a potential source of some truly amazing public street art. In the 2000s spray paint and stencils came to prominence with the artist Banksy making playful, and often controversial social and political statements through large and small scale public stencil artworks, in London, Bristol and beyond.

Fine lines

Graffiti emerged into the modern popular consciousness from the 1960s in America. By the late 1980s, a typology of spray paint graffiti had begun to emerge, the simplest, and most widespread being the humble tag. A tag is a quick autograph, a signature, usually in a single paint colour, and made rapidly and widesprea- an often anonymised calling card, denoting both identity for an individual or group, but also potentially acting as a provocation or warning to others. Police maintain tag databases to monitor and gather evidence of connected examples, to trace prolific taggers, although most tags are transient, worn away over time or washed off and painted over.

Beyond tags, the next most common manifestation is the throw up – a larger, more complex tag form, usually with two or more colours: a line colour and a fill colour, often using bubble lettering.

Lesser spotted, the Piece, owes its origin to the word ‘masterpiece’, an elaborate artwork which may take much longer to create than tags or throw ups, and potentially be intended to survive for much longer, even being commissioned or facilitated by the property owner concerned. Variations on these basic types usually relate to the relative size of the piece, or to the difficulty of access (high on bridges, walls or on secured property). Without permission it remains criminal damage.

Graffiti tag on Pump House Cottage gate, April 2020

We are all for consensual artistic expression, and welcome interest in the site when it is put to good use for the benefit of all. Indeed the Friends have worked with several artists and creators since the very beginning of the group’s activities, and many events curated under the Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar project have used creativity to engage local audiences of all ages, working closely with fantastic artists (and more to come!).

But, there is a line when what the unilateral graffiti on private property degrades and destroys; demeaning and damaging the very heritage we hope to save, with no concern for, or engagement with the stewards of an historic site. We hope to work to improve on the current situation.

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