Maria Isakova Bennett is the the winner of the Poetry Society’s 2020 Peggy Poole Award and has been longlisted in the National Poetry Competitions in 2019 and 2020. In 2017, she received a Northern Writers’ Award for poetry and she was Poet and Artist in Residence at Poetry in Aldeburgh in November 2018. In 2017, she launched the handmade poetry journal Coast to Coast to Coast, publishing work by over 120 writers internationally. Maria is currently Poet in Residence for The Life Rooms, Mersey Care NHS Trust. Her pamphlets are Painting the Mersey in 17 Canvases (Hazel Press, 2022), … an ache in each welcoming kiss (Maytree, 2019), All of the Spaces (Eyewear, 2018) and Caveat (Poetry Bus, 2016). email@example.com
Yvonne Reddick is a poet, nature writer and environmental humanities researcher. Her publications include Burning Season(Bloodaxe, 2023), Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet (Palgrave, 2017) and Anthropocene Poetry (Palgrave, contracted). She is the recipient of awards from the Poetry Society, New Writing North and Creative Future. She is shortlisted for The laurel Prize and was placed in The Ginkgo Prize earlier this year. Yvonne's poetry appears in The Guardian Review, The Poetry Review and The New Statesman. Recent work includes the wildlife documentarySearching for Snow Hares, a collaboration with the filmmaker Aleksander Domanski.
Ron Davies has worked as a professional commercial and fine art photographer. He is well known for his photographs of Liverpool and the city’s environs, many of which have been published in annual reports, books, calendars and postcards. A major project since 2005 has been photographing Another Place, Antony Gormley’s installation of 100 Iron Men on Crosby Beach. He is inspired to portray the work of the artist in a way which captures the feel and spirit of the installation, and the atmosphere of the Sefton coastline.
His face was blistered with rust. Both eye sockets were eroding. Fresh patches of oxide showed orange where flakes had fallen from his chin. A streak of gull shit dribbled down his forehead.
The sky was the colour of
corrugated steel. Behind, the jetty; to the south, the Wirral misted with
drizzle. Each swell broke against the man’s shins, then his knees – the sand
shifted around his feet, silt slick between his toes. As the sun began to drift
towards the west, the waves crept to his waist. The water is still rising.
The first Iron Man I saw was standing in a well of sand ringed with tide-ripples. Razor clams crunched underfoot as I approached. Ahead, one of his brothers was thigh-deep in the swell. To my right, another faced the buffeting wind. Ranked rows of Iron Men, marching into the Irish Sea.
The Iron Men spread out for two
miles across the foreshore. Each was born in a foundry and weighs over half a
tonne. They were created by the sculptor Antony Gormley, and they make up his
installation Another Place. Every Iron Man is based on the artist’s own
body. On an information board by the coastal road, Gormley writes about human
life and planetary time. He wants to show a middle-aged man, ‘trying to remain
standing and trying to breathe.’
The coast between Formby and Crosby has fascinated me ever since I read about the ancient footprints at Formby Beach. There, low tide reveals the tracks of aurochs and wolves. There are also the trails of barefoot, prehistoric people, and although I keep going to hunt for them, I’ve never spotted them. The stumps of five-thousand-year-old trees rise from the silt. They remember a time of old-growth forests, of lower seas.
When the tide ebbs, the light strikes endless miles of channelled sand. The waves’ edge lies beyond the horizon. But as the breakers roll in, I feel as though I’m balancing on a shifting sand bank – even if I’m standing on the concrete sea-wall. Sand-grain by sand-grain, the sea is engulfing this coastline.
On a late summer day, my friend Maria took me to meet the Iron Men. They’re her neighbours. Maria is a poet, textile artist and runner. She edits a poetry magazine called Coast to Coast to Coast, with hand-stitched covers that show blue horizons and sea-green salt marshes. She’s the most stylish poet I’ve ever met – that day, she was wearing her pea-green coat and a black cloche hat.
Maria handed me her poetry pamphlet Caveat, and I turned to ‘The Forty-ninth Iron Man:’
his shoulder sheds metal scabs,
grates her skin as she strokes him
and tastes him; a tang of rust.
Over coffee at the café on Mariners Road, we chatted about how the Iron Men arrived in 2005.
‘We knew something unusual was happening. They were lined up on the promenade, lying there like bodies.’
Maria has lived near the coast for decades, and the sea has brought plenty of changes.
‘It was so quiet when we first moved here. You’d never go in the water, because it was so polluted. Martin and I don’t go in the sea, but it’s much cleaner.’
‘What about further in – the sand dunes? Have they changed at all?’
‘The dunes are always shifting. There used to be more, but a storm ten years ago washed some of them away. You’ll see them near here, and again up at Formby. In between, there’s a beach covered in bricks – they’re the remains of houses.’
‘Houses? Did they get washed into the sea?’
‘Must have. You always got told not to touch the bricks, because they’re polluted – everyone said they were radioactive.’
‘Those bits marked DANGER AREA on the map – is that because of the radioactivity or the mud?’
‘How bad does it get?’
‘Well, the problem is that people don’t realise that it’s an estuary, not a normal beach. There’s the mouth of the River Mersey, and up here, the River Alt joins it. There’s a lot of sinking sand. And one man walked out at low tide. He never came back. The wake of a ferry hit him, and went right over his head.’
Visitors should not try to walk out to the furthest statues as there are areas of very soft sand and mud, say the signs by the beach.
‘The forty-ninth iron man in your poem – is he your favourite?’ I asked.
‘Yes, but I nearly killed myself trying to go out to him. I sank up to my knees!’
Maria had to pop back home to drop off some books, so I headed up the coast by myself. We’d meet at Honest Coffee in an hour’s time. She promised to take me to meet Barnacle Bill.
The sand was dry and loose underfoot as I followed the shoreline north. The sea had thrown up the black, horned egg case of a skate. Next to it, a pink and blue ice cream wrapper. The sculptor has called the Iron Men ‘fossils of our species,’ and says they will be around in a thousand years’ time. So will the plastic wrapper.
Seeing the rows of Iron Men, I couldn’t help thinking of Ted Hughes’s children’s story The Iron Man. We had it on the bookshelves at school. ‘The Iron Man stood at the top of the cliff, on the very brink, in the darkness. The wind sang through his iron fingers...’ When I look at those metal bodies advancing into the Irish Sea, I sometimes imagine them as an army. D-Day on Sword Beach. But these men aren’t armed. They’re stripped naked to the elements, feet riveted to their foundation pillars as the tide inches up their faces. They remind me of generations of men who lived on these cold shores. Hard industry and hardiness. But the rust flakes off, exposing something more fragile. People see the Iron Men wading into the waves, and call the coast guard, thinking they’ll drown. A jeep lumbered past – it was the lifeboat crew patrolling the beach, acid green surf boards strapped to the roof of their vehicle.
A sand bar stretched out into the bay, with a channel of seawater behind it. Were the figures out there on the horizon people or sculptures? Some were moving. To reach the statues, you either had to follow the sand bar round, or cross a band of unstable clay. I prodded the clay with the toe of one of my wellies. It seemed firm enough. I shifted my weight onto my right foot – ‘Fuck!’ – in up to my knee. I hauled my leg out of the silt with a slurp, hopped back onto the sand, tried to wipe some of the sludge from my leggings, and thought what an idiot I’d have been if I’d got stuck. I imagined the headlines: MANCHESTER WOMAN PULLED FROM MERSEYSIDE MUD AFTER FIVE-HOUR RESCUE MISSION…
I walked to a channel to the north of the sand bar, to rinse my filthy wellies. Seawater seeped and lapped at the channel’s edge. The tide was turning. A chilly sense of the risk I’d just taken washed over me. How deep was the silt? Trying to remain standing and trying to breathe. A shock of sea in the lungs, the weight of water closing over my head.
To the right lay the village of Hightown and the marramy dunes. To the left, tideflats that stretched as far as the wind farm. Sunlight on damp silt. But a pointed steel marker on the beach showed where a pipeline transported methane from a small offshore rig.
I headed inland, towards the nearest Iron Man, and texted Maria – ‘I’m at Number 17.’ I soon spotted her waving from the sea-wall.
‘I’ve always been drawn to living near the edge,’ Maria told me. ‘My father was in the navy, so I’ve always respected the sea, and found it beautiful. But Dad’s brother was called up, and died at sea. Frank was only eighteen. So we’ve always respected it too.’
Maria’s favourite, Forty-Nine, was one of those figures at the fringe of the sea. The sculptures were reset in 2019, but Forty-nine had gone missing. He had to be tracked down with a metal detector – he’d sunk down under metres of black mud.
Weather – and local people – have given each Iron Man his own character. One was wearing a garish Stoke City football shirt, pulled awkwardly over his arms, the sleeves flapping loose at his shoulders. His face was draped with dried seaweed. Someone had given Sixty-Two anklets of crimson thread – or was it old fishing line? Thirty-Eight was warted with rust, lumps of it raised on his skin as if limpets had taken up residence all over his body. A helmet of rust-plates obscured the left side of Thirty-Six’s face.
‘There’s Barnacle Bill!’ Furred with green seaweed, Twenty-Seven’s tag was barely visible under the growths on his right arm. The barnacles gloved his hand like a shelly mitten.
The villages around these parts have silty, salty names: Brighton le Sands, Blundellsands, Southport. Hightown is higher than some, but it doesn’t reach the ten-metre contour. There, Maria showed me the rubble of demolished houses, bricks eroded to smooth lozenges by the tide. Some say they were dumped there to slow down coastal erosion. Further up, where the River Alt meets the coast, its banks bristled with signs marked WARNING: Dangerous coastline. Please stay on path. Between the dunes and the river, we saw the grey tree stumps with their roots in water, ringed by yellow-green seaweed. Neolithic people once crossed the sinking sand here. They wove a lattice of oak and alder to navigate the saltmarsh. The waves advanced; the wolves and beavers they hunted are gone.
DANGER AREA. Far away, rainwater seeps through a ceiling, and an iceberg
drips into the ocean. One day, the North Sea will follow Yorkshire’s rivers
inland. Areas of East Anglia once reclaimed from the sea, will be claimed again
by the waves. Formby will stand on a long, thin island. One man walked out
at low tide. Some of the Iron Men will have their heads below water. Fossils
of our species. But who will be around to find them? Where will we go, when
our sea-walls are overwhelmed? Inland, to the uplands – the only places that
will be left above sea level. Harrock Hill, High Moor, Dangerous Corner, Boar’s
Den with its hilltop burial-mound.
I thought of the ending of Maria’s poem ‘The Forty-Ninth Iron Man:’
but is fastened to him –
at high tide they will drown –
only to resurrect.
I turned back to face the shore. A boy was heaping up a mountain of sand with a plastic spade. ‘Come on, Mason!’ his father yelled. Mason didn’t seem to hear – he was muttering to himself, ‘The energy to build an enormous pyramid…’
At The Coastguard, Burbo Bank, Crosby - Maria Isakova Bennett
People stand on the rocks
phone cameras busy
toward the dying sun
that every day
gives the impression
nothing is wrong
Day in day out
as evening arrives –
to capture to store
The Submerged Forest, Hightown
I see you in lines, details pared
back to hints: Welsh mountains,
sombre; Anglesey, a charcoal shadow;
this silver sea, its hungry coastline –
geese, oystercatchers, gulls,
ducks propelled on the current,
the Alt behind them. On the beach
a boy kicks at tree-tops jutting
from the sand – alder yew and birch.
A man scuffs at peat and porphyra.
The boy in him moves on. Ferries
leave for Ireland and the Isle of Man.
Channels and rivulets gutter the seabed.
I’d like to be something that lasts –
The Alt, Hightown
Low tide: the river slinks back,
the current folding on itself,
The coastguard station
chaperones the estuary.
Close to, the sea-grass reassures,
shhh, shhh, until a storm of bullets
snatches away peace. Its hail
startles lapwings, diverts geese in flight,