A Wing and a Prayer is an ambitious art project at Minsmere
PUBLISHED: 16:13 13 February 2020 | UPDATED: 16:27 13 February 2020
A crumbling chapel at Minsmere is the inspiration for an extraordinary project by glass artist Arabella Marshall as Lucy Etherington discovers
I interview a lot of creative people, but never thought to combine this with joining them on walks that inspire them. . . until I met Arabella Marshall.
During an open day at her romantically shabby studios deep in Suffolk countryside, Arabella spoke about her extraordinary plan - to place a large window of sculpted glass in the ruins of an old chapel in a remote section of RSPB Minsmere, set in the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB. I was intrigued to visit this place that had inspired her and find out how the project, A Wing and a Prayer, was going.
We meet in the carpark of the Eel's Foot Inn in Eastbridge on a blustery, late summer day and set off from the pub along the road before turning off onto an unassuming footpath.
Arabella moved to Suffolk, where she grew up, from Devon seven years ago with her composer husband Julian and two children. After a career in family services, she discovered glass and, through it, a return to her love of painting, which she had studied at art school.
Ordinarily, she makes vibrant doors and windows for people's homes, hand-building them in her studio and firing them in her kiln. What she loves about working with glass, she says, is that it is like painting, but changes with the light. "It doesn't come into its own until it is in the location, interacting with the environment and the light."
As I will soon see, the environment for this work is key. We head along a brambly, overgrown track, through an arch of hedgerow that opens on to wild grassland and meadow spreading all the way to the horizon. Cows graze peacefully beyond a hedgerow, in the distance, the tip of the Sizewell dome rises like a virtual moon above far away trees.
"What I love about this place is that it is full of paradoxes - wildnerness and the power station, WW2 defences and ancient ruins. It's powerful and thriving but also so vulnerable."
Pushing through a metal gate, we enter a stunning meadow dotted with blue, white and yellow flowers. It's very open and wild. We are windswept beneath a vast and brilliant blue sky. As we walk on, suddenly we see a strange shape on the horizon.
"When I first came here, I thought what on earth is that?" says Arabella. "Surely it can't be a chapel, you don't get those on the coast in Suffolk - maybe in Cornwall. Then the closer I got the more I realised it was."
In fact, it was the original site for Leiston Abbey, which at some point was moved, stone by stone, two miles inland, leaving the little chapel behind. Why it was left and whether it was still used for worship remains a mystery.
The idea for the sculpture popped into her head on the way home. Once it was there, it refused to budge. Now, at least three years later - after getting permission from Historic England, Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB and the RSPB, raising funds through crowdfunding, local authorities and businesses, Arts Council England and ordinary people who want to support her, plus planning with architects, structural engineers and glass experts, she is finally about to realise her vision.
"I've never done anything like this before," she admits. "I've spent months at my computer instead of in my studio. But I've learned such a lot, and the further I've gone, the more people have become involved and invested in it." We reach the derelict ruin on its mound. There are crumbling walls but no roof. In the middle is a pill box built during the Second World War. All is overgrown with nettles. It is surrounded by a low electric fence, presumably for the grazing cattle, but it's easy to step over it.
"It's not exactly an enchanting ruin," Arabella grins. "But like the landscape, it's a reminder of impermanence of things, and that's become a central theme - that this piece of art will become a catalyst for people to come and connect with the environment, to talk about it and to care.
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"I feel it's no accident that this project is happening now when these issues are so important." Indeed, 'a wing and a prayer' is an apt summation of how many feel about the current political and environmental situation.
The remains of the pebble stone walls describe one arched window which frames the distant hides and trees of the main RSPB site. Another larger window space is broken off at the top, a dip in the pebble stone walls. This is where Arabella will place three large floating panels of glass.
As she describes it, I imagine the effect it will have. Inspired by the stained glass of churches, and also the landscape, it will be fragmented, rising from the stones like the migrating birds that populate the surrounding area. It will be quite a thing to come upon on a walk and will revitalise the forgotten chapel.
Building work to strengthen the chapel walls was undertaken in September 2019 and after much technical consultation Arabella has begun working on the piece itself. She will create the sculpture, each section hand built and fired in her kiln - a total of 33 days firing alone. The glass needs to be very thick to withstand the strong winds and it won't be until after winter that the bulk of the installation work can take place. By summer this year, she says, it should be fully installed.
"Every time I come here now, I can't quite believe it's going to happen," she says, touching the wall with its empty space where her sculpture will be.
As we walk back, Arabella tells me what will happen after the installation. It will remain for two and a half years, maybe longer if they can get an extension. People will come and have a private experience, but there will also be events - music, dance, art workshops and walks, all of which she will oversee. Already plans include collaboration with Snape Maltings, Rural Coffee Caravan and local artists. If you have an idea she would love you to get in touch.
"Who knows what will arise from this," she says as we walk back through the meadow to the Inn. "But I hope the story will continue and I am proud to be a part of it."
For information and to find out how to support the project go to www.awingandaprayer.org.uk
Suffolk's pirate priests?
In 1182 Premonstratensian priests founded their first and only abbey at what we now know as RSPB Minsmere. The priests endured 180 years of floods, mosquitoes and accusations of piracy. By 1363 they had had enough. They dismantled their abbey and moved it stone-by-stone to a new site five miles away, leaving only a small chapel, which they continued to use until the Dissolution in 1593. During WW2, it was turned into a coastal lookout.
The site has attracted the attention of archaeology group Dig Ventures, who are keen to investigate a 100m long rectangular feature which the abbey's historical documents suggest might have been a navigable docking facility, or the yet-to-be-located 'Harbour of Minsmere', possibly used by the priests to illegally generate revenue after they moved to their new location.
Find out more at www.digventures.com/leiston-abbey/background/the-old-abbey