The Wicker Man

Danny Lim

A lone figure sits at the top of a bank gazing down forlornly at the River Wear and the surrounding fields. His head and shoulders sag forward slightly, his expression hard to read. But he is no ordinary man, for he is 15 foot tall and made of willow. He is none other than the "Wicker Man" as nicknamed by the Elvet Striders. Many of our club runs have gone by this handsome figure in Low Burnhall Wood, only 30 minutes walk from central Durham. We'd often pause beside him to pose for photos and use this as a chance to catch our breath. I would go as far as to say that he's been adopted as an unofficial mascot and even features on one of our annual club photos. Every time I pass the "Wicker Man", I ask myself, "What does he symbolise?". "And why this particular spot?". "If he were of flesh and blood what would he be thinking of?". I decided to do a little research ...

Striders keeping the Wicker Man company.

The Wicker Man's official name is the Willow Miner. He was comissioned by Paul Bunton of the Woodland Trust to commemorate the site's history. Low Burnhall was once the Croxdale Pit, a coal mine which first opened in 1845. The mined coal was moved by wagonway passing through Houghall before joining the Sunderland railway at Shincliffe. For economic reasons, the mine closed down after less than 30 years. Apparently the coal mined was of a poorer quality and fetched a lower price. However, remnants of the past can still be found at the site including the ruins of an engine house, brickworks and an old clay pit. The wagonway has been replaced by a public footpath; the very same path is part of the Elvet Strider's Summer handicap (by the fallen tree).

Low Burnhall then became pasture and farmland. More recently, it was acquired by the woodland trust. On site, there remains a small parcel of woodland that has remained untouched for at least four centuries. This 3.5 hectares is part of the remaining 2 percent of the UK's ancient woodland that survives. The plan was to rejuvenate the site and to extend the existing woodland. To date, over 60,000 trees were planted including Oak, Ash, Hazel, Rowan and Black Poplar. However, it will be many years before the woods mature and Paul decided to add interest to the site by commissioning a sculpture. Over 4 days, Ruth Thompson (of Sylvan Skills) and Anna Turnbull (of Biteabout Arts) built him on site, entirely out of willow, oak, holly and blackthorn. I had the pleasure of meeting these ladies by chance as I was running by the Wicker Man a few weeks ago. He was being given a new willow scarf and he looks a little more spruced up now!

The Willow Miner has been joined by his lovely wife, the Willow Woman. With her generous frame and flowing dress, she stands tall, surrounded by willow hens. But unlike her husband, her location isn't shown on any maps to encourage walkers to explore the site. So, if you ever want to find her, why not pay a visit to Low Burnhall Wood. Or, join the Elvet Striders on one of our Wednesday runs. There's a good chance we'll be running through the woods.

But, I haven't answered my orginal question. What is on the Wicker Man's mind as sits atop his perch at Low Burnhall? Perhaps he is resting after a hard day's work at the pit. Maybe he's reminiscing about the pit that has once was. Personally, I'd like to think that he's thinking fondly of his wife. Who knows? Maybe one day there might even be Willow children!

Sources:

With thanks to Paul Bunton of the Woodland Trust for providing reference material.

The Woodland Trust
Weardale Way: Croxdale Pit and Wagonway Info
Danny's Blog