NEW CELTIC CROSS
(KROWS KELTEK NOWYTH)
GATEWAY TO CORNWALL
At 20 Metres tall the “New Celtic Cross” is a public work of art with local and national significance. Located at the Cornish end of the Tamar Bridge and within sight of Brunel’s famous rail bridge, it welcomes visitors at the very gateway to the county.
The design’s slender “P type” Celtic profile and choice of materials pays homage to Cornwall’s idiosyncratic cultural history, whilst its overall contemporary nature aspires to project Cornwall’s image as a vibrant part of the modern world.
It is hoped that the New Celtic Cross will become an enduring icon for a forward looking and spirited Cornwall, proud of its past and ambitious for its future.
Although this Cross will have obvious and undeniable associations with the Christian tradition, it has been designed to speak the universal language of faith and optimism; open to all.
The underlying symbolism of the New Celtic Cross begins at its base and culminates at the head.
The shaft of the Cross issues forth from a “Cairn” of traditional rustic dry- stone walling capped with a grassy knoll. This base area represents a cross-section of the earth, and is also reminiscent of prehistoric earthworks or barrows; symbolising a link to prehistory, and the underworld.
The Shaft itself indicates a stretching and parting of block-work, suggesting the work of a force greater than that of gravity. This key feature of the design represents the dynamic and mysterious relationship between spirit and matter. As the shaft rises, this stretching and parting of block-work increases at an exponential rate until at the Cross head a state of equilibrium exists, balancing mass and space. In the very centre of the head only space exists, representing an epicentre of pure spirit.
The Neolithic “Sun wheel” is believed to be the most probable origin of the traditional head of a Celtic Cross, and it is with this in mind that the head design of the New Celtic Cross has been formed. Bursting from the head’s central void are silvery rays piercing space with a fanfare of light, and binding this explosion of vitality is a ring of gold; a unity wheel of one… and all.
Simon Thomas MA.RCA
During the project I was honoured to have been involved in another project with Philip Gross, one of our most illustrious contemporary poets. With Cornish roots he felt moved to write a rhyme dedicated to the Cross
for Simon Thomas
In the beginning, bedrock
is the launch pad: granite, cliff and carn,
dark strata fused and buckled round it. Then
speeds up to megalith and metal,
to this booster-rocket’s trunk of roiling
thrust, shedding flakes,
chunks, scales of matter, spoil
heaps of them, as it climbs itself, hand
over hand up its own crumbling, to the star-
of girders, bright copper
self-smelting itself from the ore,
a blue-gold iris, one blink of the al-
most believable, all-comprehending eye
whose centre is an opening
into sky, True West, which un-
like North is always further, where the sun
the weather comes from, nowhere
we can plant a flag, or get, or quite possess.
Back in 1999 my initial design evolved through a simultaneous interest in the philosophical and the practical.
Right from the start I intended to create an Iconic work which would celebrate the spiritual rather than just the religious. It might seem surprising in this context, but I have always been drawn to the poetic idea of how the Mongolian yurt fits into a world view...The universe is round, the earth has four corners, the yurt is circular, the hearth is square; and within all of these the fire is round. Where the smoke from the fire is illuminated by the light passing through the yurt’s roof hub/vent is traditionally seen as the meeting of heaven and earth.
So, as the Cross shaft rises skyward the transition from matter to spirit or mass to space is my take on that poetic Mongolian vision.
Early on I had no idea how to build the thing if indeed I was fortunate enough to win the competition. For a proposed sculpture in the region of 20 metres tall being made of many parts instinctively seemed like a good idea, I knew that dealing with a monolithic unit of that size would be bordering on the bounds of possibility. In the turbulence of my creative process breaking up the whole into block-work dovetailed nicely with the mass to space idea, which had by now become the central theme.
All those holes posed quite a problem, yes the blocks overlap but the transfer of forces along its length was still a major issue. Numerous ideas concerning the material and build technique came and went. The simple question remained “What would survive the wicked weather of the western approaches at this exposed maritime location...and also fit a tight budget”?
I started investigating Aircraft and boats and through a process of elimination found myself in the realm of the up-ended super yacht. Yachting also suggested a durable and appropriate surface.
Early ideas on how to turn a dream into reality
Mining and in particular copper mining is a major part of Cornwall’s cultural heritage, dating back as far as pre-biblical times; things were gradually falling into place.
Imbuing structural integrity into the Cross was a very engaging and difficult process of give and take. By 2011 the services of composite structural engineer David Kendal of “Optima Projects” had been commissioned. David forwarded detailed structural solutions whilst I endeavoured to maintain artistic integrity; and so with an air of mutual respect we fought our corners and delivered a highly optimised result.
My favourite drawing of David’s, beautifully illustrating the final rationale for the head
Apart from the original blue sky thinking of my initial design 10 years earlier this part of the project is where most of my creative energies were spent. The head and neck of the Cross had to be strengthened, by means of an increased joist depth, which meant the block-work became extruded. Visually this was something I found difficult to live with, but the joist geometry had to change...
Eventually a solution was found. By reducing the number of blocks in the upper body and halving the number of blocks in the head the proportion of block widths to depths was pretty much restored. In this we also improved the over busy visuals and vastly reduced the complexity, in turn making great savings on our fragile budget.
Economies were further boosted by giving the head a bi-lateral symmetry, which meant the same set of moulds could be used for the front and back of the head.
Independent Composites’s amazing Carbon “Planks”
Formed / cooked on a custom built heated table, under vacuum conditions
Three Carbon fibre “Planks” (created by Independent Composites of Bristol) run from the Cross base to its head. Vacuum-formed foam sandwiched “boxes” brace the carbon planks, and in combination with two structural rings carefully hidden in the head, the loadings are accommodated.
Another of David’s Drawings showing the underlying structural regime
Stig the “Real” pretending to workBUILDING
“Gateguards” a company based at Newquay airport and specializing in scale1:1 replica aircraft were successful in bidding for the tender to build the Cross.
Sweet dreams are made in this... The ex-Tornado hangar where it all came together
Although this level of structural expertise was beyond their normal operating requirements they were fortunate enough to engage seasoned yacht and boat builder Stig Macdonald, bought in to manage the building process. Together Gateguards and Stig (the real) were a perfect team; Gateguards with an eye for detail on the visual side of things and Stig “the real” unflappable at the helm of interpreting David Kendal’s drawings...of which there were many.
The two head rings and some panels, starting to look like something
For months the only visible sign of progress were piles of “vacuumed formed foam sandwich panels”, this sandwich technique is now increasingly used to build passenger aircraft such as in “Airbus” wing construction.
Once the carbon “Planks” arrived serious and steady visual progress swept away the dream replacing it with an evolving reality.
The three central carbon planks, with box braced minor glass planks on either side
Over a period of about one year laying flat on its back in a dark and cold hangar our monster slowly took shape. Not being qualified in this specialist building technique I largely kept at an arm’s length assuming a role of design overseer / trouble maker...that is until we reached the time when the surface was ready to be prepared.
With the head mouldings now attached, the copper loaded surface is partially applied.
Once the team at Gateguards had finished construction work and applied the copper loaded surface I spent some weeks sanding and filling, sanding and filling, then sanding and filling until I was happy with the sharpness of the visual impact; especially the head.
At this stage the lovely Michaela Simpson Macrae arrived on the scene to gild the head’s “Wheel”. Apart from keeping her happy with plenty of tea and coffee, I leafed the silvery “Rays”.
Michaela doing a “proper job” with the gilding.
Much discussion about the relative merits of paint and leaf proceeded this moment, leaf winning the day. Having a leaf surface is superior to paint, not only visually but also in its durability. Ultra-violet light is a powerful and largely unnoticed destroyer. The benefit of leaf is that sunlight hits a pure metal surface and not a polymer, the size which glues the foil is in the dark away from the harmful effects of U.V. light.
With the leaf work complete it was now time to patenate the grit blasted copper surface.
The verdigris starts to bloom.
March 2013 was one of the coldest on record for Britain and Cornwall was no exception. Temperatures remained miserably below zero for almost the whole time I spent grovelling around applying the chemicals to achieve a verdigris patena. Finally spring sprang and the stubborn process finally bloomed with the increase in temperature.
The first time I saw the Cross in ambient sunlight was the morning before its installation.
An extended low loader lorry arrived one bright April Morning and carefully extracted the Cross from its dark hangar.
This was a moment to behold, fourteen years after several dreamy late night design sessions ...and here it was on the back of a lorry.
I was lucky enough to follow the truck from the air piloted by Gateguard’s project manager Duncan Healy. The length and width of the load meant it had to travel all the way to Exeter on the A30 and then back down to Plymouth and across the Tamar Bridge on the A38.
The actual moment of installation was scheduled to take place between 11pm and 6am that night, in an effort to avoid travel disruption while the bridge was temporarily closed.
Moment of truth, the late night erection
Macsalvors, the haulage and crane-company took it all in their stride, sharing a “Thunderbirds” moment with an expectant late night crowd. Once the anchor bolts were tightened the crowd slowly melted away into the night and those involved in the project went home to bed...zzzzz.
The morning after the night before...
A massive thanks to all of those involved in making this dream a reality, it was truly a team effort of epic proportions. From the substantial efforts of the management team to the sweeping of the hangar floor, we all played our part.
With extra special thanks to Martin Tillett my assistant of many years who over the whole project, and often in the shadows, bought calm and madness in almost equal measure. Martin added the cherry on the cake by means of his fantastic lighting design.
SIMON THOMAS 2014