IT’S ONE of the hottest days of the year and Bournemouth beach is buried under an ant’s nest of sunburnt tourists. The A31 is tailed back for miles and everyone is heading for the sea.
Well, almost everyone. Just a few miles away down a Dorset country lane is a perfect oasis of tranquillity, and one of the county’s most unexpected and delightful tourist attractions.
Here, at a seat overlooking a beautiful stream or shimmering lake, you can enjoy a picnic with friends in glorious countryside and enjoy an extraordinary exhibition of modern sculpture set against the most spectacular of backdrops.
True, if you fancy snapping up one of the sculptures on display for your own backyard it could set you back anything from £15,000 to a quarter of a million pounds or more – but if you’re content just to chill out by the lake and enjoy the show, this is the perfect place.
Swans, cranes, pelicans and even a stray polar bear spring out of the water, though it can sometimes be hard to spot which ones are real and which are man-made.
But then the 26 acres that provide the setting for Sculpture by the Lakes have allowed sculptor Simon Gudgeon and wife Monique to create an environment for enthusiasts that blends nature’s beauty with inspiring works of art, free from the space constraints of a traditional gallery.
Carefully landscaped and curated with the aim of enhancing the aesthetic qualities of each sculpture, the park has deep running water, which means children under 14 and dogs are not allowed on site: a disappointment for some families, no doubt, but for other couples it contributes to the overall tranquillity of the place.
Paths meander round the lakes, each turn revealing a different vista and new work of art, many by Simon and some by guest exhibitors.
Born in Yorkshire in 1958, Simon “lived deep in the countryside on the family farm, learning the essential arts of observation, evaluation and interpretation of how animals and birds behave, both with each other and man”.
He studied law at Reading University and practised as a solicitor, starting painting only in his thirties and first exhibiting at London’s Battersea Exhibition Centre in 1992. An impulse purchase of artist’s clay at the age of 40 led into his new career as a sculptor, responding to what lay closest to his heart: the natural world.
He went on to gain global recognition for his sculpture, with exhibitions around the world and his works featuring in numerous important private collections and art museums abroad and in the UK.
The park at Pallington opened in 2011 and is home to some of his monumental finished pieces, as well as housing studio workshops. He sculpts primarily in bronze, and occasionally in marble, granite, glass or stainless steel.
He is particularly known for his sculptures of birds in flight, often with ingeniously engineered bases that seem to launch them into the air rather than anchor them to the ground.
His pared-down approach allows the smallest of details, such as the arching of a neck, to suggest rather than depict a bird or mammal.
The work of a dozen or more guest sculptors adds to the variety, with materials ranging from marble and limestone to forged metal, and subjects from wildfowl and wildlife to abstracts, kinetic wind sculptures or figurative works inspired by the masks of the Venice Carnival.
The park provides an array of benches, tables and other suitable spots to relax and take in the view, with visitors being actively encouraged to bring a picnic and spend the day. As Simon says: “We like to give our guests the space and time to fully absorb and appreciate the sculpture park.”
Scattered around are a number of more exclusive private spots too, which can be hired for £50 – £100 a day and accommodate families or small groups who really want to chill out in style.
There’s even a larger double-storey timber retreat with a roof terrace offering spectacular views over the entire park and situated in its own exclusive area, with room for 60 for lunch or 100 for a drinks, wedding or anniversary reception.
Three gallery spaces exhibit sculptures, paintings and prints by a collection of talented artists, while the cafe offers coffee and cakes, not to mention picnic ingredients sourced from the nearby kitchen garden.
“These are gardens designed to be savoured,” says Simon – and a glance at some of the enthusiastic feedback online suggests there are plenty of visitors who find the tranquil setting a refreshing alternative to those hectic beaches a little further along the Dorset coast.
Day ticket prices cost £12.50 a head and the park is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm. See the website for details, upcoming exhibitions and other news.