Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) is one of the landscape gems of Britain. Mowing forms only a fraction of the maintenance strategy and Greg Rhodes reports.
Jaume Plensa, Wilsis, 2016. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy: Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Created within landscape designer Richard Woods' 1764 concept, fashioned around 18th century Bretton Hall, it features world-renowned works by the likes of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Antony Gormley.
In 1977, Woods' Grade II listed park and gardens took on fresh purpose when YSP opened. Today, six indoor galleries and 100 sculptures are scattered across the valley destination near Wakefield, adding drama and iconic settings to a rolling landscape whose north and south sides slope down to two ornamental lakes.
Open daily, except 24 and 25 December, the Park is a constant though satisfying challenge for Head Groundsman Will Grinder and his seven-strong team who must maintain a site of presentational excellence for the half a million visitors who throng the site annually.
Diverse demand across the Park stretches from amenity grass and close-mown turf to formal garden, arb work, water management and even a living roof on the Underground Galley, notes Mark Chesman, Head of Estates and Projects, who started life at YSP as a landscape co-ordinator. "Exhibitions and events run year-round," he says, "and visitors expect everything to look clean, tidy and well-maintained to set the sculptures off in their best light."
Left: Barbara Hepworth The Family of Man, 1970, lent by the Hepworth Estate. Courtesy, Bowness, Hepworth Estate, Photo: © Jo Gornall, Speedmediaone Right: Lakes photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy: Yorkshire Sculpture Park
The team runs a predominantly John Deere fleet, maintained annually in autumn by local dealer Balmers, with the cost spread over twelve months to help cashflow, Will explains, "We replace old machinery with new Deere units, such as our wide area and front deck mowers, which are covered by JD Powergard."
Four diesel Gator TH 6x4s do the hard miles moving equipment, tools, material and green waste around the Park. "The six tyres help lower ground impact in more sensitive areas," he says. "One of the units is fitted with a snowplough to clear paths, roadways and car parks in wintry weather."
The latest utility vehicle, a Gator TE, falls within the vision to switch to electric machinery and tools under an environmental policy and action plan designed to reduce the use of fossil fuel and minimise impact on the climate. "It delivers zero emissions, has less vibration and is cheaper to run because it is a far simpler vehicle. We charge it up overnight using a three-pin plug and it runs all day."
A JD 1600 turbo mower, with front and two side decks, and a 1580 ride-on collector mower tackle the 30 hectares of grassed open space around the hall to ensure a professional presentation ready for the start of the season, exhibitions, and clearing leaves in autumn.
Barbara Hepworth, The Family of Man, 1970. Lent by the Hepworth Estate. © Bowness, Hepworth Estate. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy: Yorkshire Sculpture Park
The team has to keep strict distance from sculptures when close mowing around them and other exhibition spaces in summer - even using the John Deere 997 zero-turn ride-on mower - completing cutting with hand shears to safeguard the artworks.
Installing and replacing sculptures is usually a heavylift engineering exercise that involves the technical department and architects, which add specialist know-how and equipment to the process. The grounds team handle excavation filling in and re-turfing but it all takes time, Will says. "Sculptures have to be anchored securely and positioned as the artists intend. Even smaller structures, such as Barbara Hepworth's The Family of Man, are mounted on foundations 450mm deep. The utility vehicles ease the issue of transporting hardscaping such as precast concrete, spoil, sand, topsoil and rolls of turf to site."
In off-peak moments, it's time to cut the living turf flat roof of the Underground Gallery. "We use a man-safe lifting system to hoist the walk-behind mower up to height," Will explains.
The Park manages four stands of historic woodland of high conservation value that a number of native species such as oak, ash, beech and hornbeam, with some veteran specimens estimated to be more than 300 years old. All trees on the estate, including the 2,000 parkland specimens, are surveyed regularly. Arborists Earnshaws manage the large mature trees, while all the team are qualified to complete ground level work on branches up to 380mm diameter. "Warming climate presents a big challenge to trees, grass and flowers," Will states. "In planting new species, we have to be mindful of how weather will affect them."
Left: Head groundsman Will Grinder Right: Antony Gormley, One and Other, 2000. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy: Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Working within YSP's ten-year historic landscape management plan, the team knows the continuing need to develop the estate and plant more trees - ones more resilient to climate-induced diseases for example. "Ash dieback is still affecting stock and we have to remain vigilant, but we've found that older specimens withstand it more than younger ones. We are very keen to keep our oldest veteran, thought to be 400 years old."
As a protective measure, young trees are clustered closer together in groves and groups in the woodland areas until they reach 30 to 35 years, when they are thinned out. In the main park, pollarding and other tree works helps maintain a healthy stock and keep visitors safe in windy or poor weather conditions, Will adds.
Even when felled, a tree can still hold a close bond with the sculptures. Antony Gormley's One and Other work stands on a 7m tall tree monolith, startling against the sky amid dappled shade and cushioned by living greenery.
Daniel Arsham Unearthed Bronze Eroded Melpomene 2021, courtesy Perrotin Gallery and Arsham Studio. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy: Yorkshire Sculpture Park
With no site irrigation per se, water retention is critical, especially given the hot, dry weather experienced of late. Mulching laid around vulnerable specimens helps seal in moisture while avoiding impact on roots from mowers and footfall, while contractor Terrain Aeration sink a 1m probe to alleviate ground compaction across the site, hastened by the barrage of walking boots.
"It's a continuing process," says Will. "We complete work on four or five trees a year to help improve soil, while ceramic spheres absorb and retain moisture. Apart from that, we rely on the elements to water the Park, but irrigate new plantings by hand to ensure they take. Impact on the ground is significant."
The Park grows ever more popular as the exhibits constantly change, attracting both existing visitors and new ones. As the new 2030 plan kicks in, Will clarifies that they have a free hand on putting it into practice. "It's up to us how we interpret the recommendations. I share an office with Mark and we have daily dynamic discussions on what to action and when, building them into our routine work."
:Left: Vanessa da Silva - Muamba Grove 3 and Muamba Grove 4 2019.Courtesy the artist. Photo © Linda Nylind Right: Sean Scully, Crate of Air, 2018. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy: Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Abundant flora and fauna
Fauna and flora proliferate on the estate. Will says. "The pond in our formal garden is an important breeding site for great crested newts, a protected species throughout Europe. In the areas around the pond, we have created various hibernacula from logs, breeze blocks and other materials to help them overwinter before re-emerging in the breeding season."
Pipistrelle bats meanwhile roost in old buildings and sheds, with Daubenton's bats preferring the lakes. Bat boxes provide three different types of roost including hibernation and breeding phases.
The serenity and diverse landscape of YSP attracts a welter of wildlife, including kestrels, sparrowhawks, several species of owl, and on the lakes, kingfishers, little egrets, heron, hooper swans, great crested grebe and Canada geese.
Although vast in scale when viewed aerially, the Park is segmented into discrete areas - the hall's formal garden, lakes in the valley, visitor centre and six galleries, with new vistas opening up to reveal works of art screened in part by long stretches of yew, holly and rhododendron and azalea, which in themselves create valuable biodiversity habitats.
Left: Will at work on the John Deere TE electric Gator
The site is resplendent with native wildflowers - early purple orchid, celandine, umbelliferous varieties and yellow rattle to name only a few - but Will is planting ones too. "YSP offers amenity as well as an artistic value and we attract plenty of botanically aware visitors. This year, we took off an area of turf to cultivate the soil with annual wildflowers. They prefer to grow in nutrient poor conditions, so we don't add anything."
Former barrister's clerk, Will, switched career path after realising the law was not his vocation. He took a BSc in Countryside Management instead, while working at Askham Bryan, York, moving on to a two-year spell at Malham Tarn Estate then Hardcastle Crags, Hebden Bridge. Working as an amenity and sportsturf casual on school football, rugby and cricket grounds, he then moved to re-landscaping golf courses in the North Leeds and Wakefield area. "I was, and am, very interested in conservation and living locally, so applied to YSP for the position."
After five years in Chesterfield Council's parks and countryside department, Gabriel Mason-Dixon, was drawn to YSP. "He impressed me at interview with his motivation to work in a world-renowned place," Will recalls. "Gabriel is highly conscientious and has invested a lot of time and knowledge here."
Lakes photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy: Yorkshire Sculpture Park
p>Starting life in YSP's facilities department, Nick Hill has brought to the estate team a wealth of practical experience and expertise with a passion for conservation - he is really enthusiastic and learning all the time."
Simon Parker comes to YSP after completing his horticultural traineeship at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. "His background working for English Heritage at the Park is an important part of how we manage the estate," Will says, "particularly his role in keeping to the original layout and plantings of Bretton Hall gardens, which we have studied from old photographs."
Short staffing during the Covid pandemic, when team members left for pastures new or moved away, has been solved recently with recruitment of Richard Stringer, who has experience with managing Spanish olive groves. "We're putting him through his chainsaw and brushcutting qualifications now," Will confirms. With the appointment of Philip-Hocart Boswell, formerly a volunteer at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's fenland remnant, Potteric Carr.
Claire Midwood has worked here 14 years. "She's highly knowledgeable on flora, fauna and foraging," Will explains, "with a specialism in mycology. You'll spot her eyeing fungi on rotting logs or investigating fairy rings."
Left: Pipistrelle bat box Right: Great crested newt
Like many large public access estates, YSP relies on volunteers to supplement the work of the grounds team. "We have eight here," Will notes, "who spend much of their time helping remove the huge quantity of leaves. They rake off the meadows and keep margins weed free."
Given the number of YSP visitors, training the team in interpersonal skills is vital. "Every member is versed in public facing and can administer emergency First Aid. We also have two defibrillators on site."
Ensuring YSP delivers an Access All Areas strategy means plenty of team time keeping public footways safe. "The length of paths and roadways we are responsible for maintaining is 15 to 20 linear miles," Will estimates. "The Breedon gravel paths allow mobility scooters to run on them safely. Path edges need to be kept trim and we take access into account when replacIng gates for example."
Pop into one of YSP's two shops and you'll spy jars of honey for sale. "A member of the public looks after five beehives on the borders of the estate," Will reveals. "You can't get more local than that."
In such a glorious and invigorating setting, Mark sums up the team sentiment when he states: "This is a wonderful place to work where staff tend to stay a long time. I've been here seventeen years and relish the daily challenges of this complex, beautiful place."
Key wildflower species encouraged on site:
Snakes head fritillaries
The trees the team is replanting that are expected to take well in the Park environment and be resilient to climate change are: