After the recent articles in The Observer, Guardian Online and Ilkley Gazette about the design for the Ilkley Fountain, we thought it might be helpful at this point for others and for ourselves if we write a note about how it is evolving. Our hope is that the design celebrates the affinity of sphagnum moss with moorland water, a relationship which has over time enabled a deep and precious connection between Ilkley Moor and the town to be forged.
The thought process we went through to arrive at sphagnum moss for the fountain:
Celebrating moorland water: Water comes into the town of Ilkley down Mill Ghyll directly from the moor, cleaned by the moss which acts as a purifying filter. This has been a key part of Ilkley’s unique history as a special spa town, famously attracting Charles Darwin who came here for the ‘water cure’. The water will tumble down into the gravity-fed fountain and link the centre of the town to the moorlands above.
Unique characteristics: All of sphagnum’s unique characteristics derive from its affinity with water. Sphagnum plants can hold up to twenty times their own weight in water, helping with natural flood management, and helping to create conditions for crucial nesting grounds for wading birds as well as important habitats for rare insects and plants.
Symbiosis of town and moor: We are unusually placed in Ilkley in that the moor and town are so closely connected. Ilkley is renowned because of the moor, and Bradford Council is investing large amounts of money to restore Ilkley’s peat bogs. Sphagnum’s carbon capturing properties through the formation of peat are well-known, and the moor has the potential to become even more precious and celebrated as an example of a ‘rainforest’ habitat.
Development of our practice: The proposed design is a development within our practice from a series of sculptures we made in February 2022 which responded to sphagnum moss. Those pieces explored the concept of sphagnum ‘holding’ water and carbon.
Which features of our fountain design* echo sphagnum moss?:
Leaf forms: There are many different species of sphagnum. Although neither figurative nor literally representative, our design references the following features of certain leaves on a range of scales:
- Microscopic: A cellular patterning suggested by the piercings or cut-out shapes: sphagnum mosses possess water retaining cells (hyaline cells) which soak up water and release it slowly. We decided to introduce a suggestion of these on the leaves to echo that structure. This would have the added benefit of disrupting the flow of water over the sculpture, to enable viewers to see through the work and to contribute to a sense of transparency.
- Individual leaves: The leaf form references the general pointed oval shape of the tiny leaves on the pendant branches.
- Multiple leaves as part of a carpet of moss: Collectively, the leaves appear to be tufty with serrated edges. This will make the flow of water more interesting, with drops gathering and falling from points and running down the toothed edges.
Weight and lightness: Even when heavy with water, sphagnum leaves appear translucent, weightless, and feathery. The sculpture needs to simultaneously convey weight and lightness. The cut-out shapes will contribute to this.
Strength in numbers: The design symbolises the sphagnum plants moving from individual to collective. One sphagnum plant on its own is not efficacious. As the mass of plants forms, a floating, spongy, densely woven carpet, or what can be considered a new ‘organism’ grows; a community able to affect and impact on its own environment.
Material: Sphagnum peat bogs grow slowly (1mm a year). Some peat bogs are as much as 10,000 years old. The powdery grey, galvanised steel which has been chosen as a material will have an ‘aged’ quality. It will be hammered and textured with natural markings to mask signs of wear and weathering and contribute to an organic feel. Like other mosses, sphagnum plants are typically only one cell thick. The material we are proposing has a deceptively delicate look (c20mm) but is extremely strong and durable.
Configuration: The configuration needs to hide a simple supporting inner structure and will not be finalised until tests have been carried out on a model with water to fully understand the flow of the water over the sculpture.
*All aspects of the design are resolved collaboratively with Improving Ilkley