Could a giant white horse put a post-industrial part of north Kent on the map? It's certainly the front-runner to win the 'Angel of the South' competition
It was clearly the first time that Britain’s arts community had gathered en masse in the Thames Gateway. They were in Ebbsfleet to see the unveiling of the shortlist for the largest ever art commission in the UK and despite only being 15 minutes from London by Eurostar some had clearly lost their bearings.
“It could almost be Tuscany,” said one, as she gazed out across large swathes of undeveloped brownfield. “Yes,” a colleague replied, “but only one of those ugly bits of Tuscany where they mine marble.”
North Kent may be a little too post-industrial for London art critics but over the next 25 years tens of thousands of people will be moving to new homes in Ebbsfleet Valley and from where I was standing it didn’t look a bad proposition.
For a start there’s the international rail station, which from as early as next May will ferry commuters to Kings Cross in around 15 magic minutes. The last of the area’s cement factories are also beginning to close, which should help soften views to the Thames. And then there’s the Ebbsfleet Landmark, a momentous piece of sculpture that will be twice as high as the Angel of the North.
The area may never look as bucolic as the backdrop chosen by artist Mark Wallinger for his 50m-high proposal for a white horse but Land Sec’s development plans for the Ebbsfleet Valley could make an attractive option to housebuyers struggling to afford new homes in the South-east.
Despite the current housing slump Adam Cunningham, Land Sec’s development director for Ebbsfleet, says the majority of the homes available at the Springhead site have been snapped up.
Cunningham and the other partners including LCR and Eurostar will be hoping its patronage of the Ebbsfleet Landmark will help put the area on estate agents’ maps. The scale of the sculpture will ensure plenty of love it/loathe it coverage and the display of the shortlisted proposals at Bluewater really will bring art to the masses.
The height of the artwork is in part defined by the 58m height of the pylons either side of the site – an unusual framing device and Wallinger’s horse looks in danger of being garrotted by a powerline.
The 50m height was also at the Highways Agency's insistence – it said it was safer for drivers to see large objects from a distance rather than being surprised by them from close up. I’d argue that a 16-storey horse would be surprising from any distance.
Incidentally, if the horse is selected (it’s an early favourite) Mark Wallinger says motorists will view it side on from the A2 - there could be a diplomatic incident if visitors coming from France were greeted by a horse’s derriere.
Because of the scale of the proposals engineers have had quite an input into the design process. As LCR’s managing director of stations and property, Steve Jordan made clear: “We don’t want another B of the Bang with spikes falling out.”
WSP were bought in to survey the site and artists have had to give detailed descriptions as to how the sculpture would be built. Christopher Brun, the designer of the Wing and Disc contacted Expedition’s Chris Wise for advice on lifting his 3,000 tonne concrete creation into position (an engineering feat worth a feature in its own right).
My one concern is that the rise of Kent’s Milton Keynes will see my team Gillingham FC eclipsed by the club bearing the Ebbsfleet name.
The team is sponsored by Eurostar and in a canny move the train company changed the club’s name from Gravesend & Northfleet to Ebbsfleet United to boost the area’s profile.
It proved a canny move as Ebbsfleet have had a storming season, featuring prominently on Setanta’s TV coverage of non-league football, and making the final of the FA Trophy being held at Wembley this Saturday.
And if Mark Wallinger’s horse does win, Ebbsfleet United is in danger of nicking our white horse emblem too. There may be room for two teams in Kent, but I’m not sure there will be room for two teams with a white horse for a mascot.