Sometimes I feel I just don’t see things; other people must see these things and I just don’t see it. Madoc’s Column typifies this for me.
From 2010 to 2012, I drove past the Plas Madoc estate between Ruabon and Acrefair en route to excavations at the Pillar of Eliseg and I have past it many times before (from 2008) and since. I feel angry at myself for never bothering to stop and look at the monument situated by the junction between the village and the A539 from Ruabon to Llangollen: Madoc’s Column.
Today I was taking one of my kids to a party at Plas Madoc Leisure Centre and it gave me a brief opportunity to pause and photograph the monument. What I found was a distinctive version of the common strategy of creating a visual historical montage that has become popular in the last two decades in public art. Some distance away is an elaborate sign explaining in Welsh and English the significance of the monument:
Madoc’s Column was designed and carved by sculptor Ed Williams using ideas from the community of Plas Madoc. The sculpture relates to the passing of time and to historical events, both political and social, that have occurred in the locality. At the base, the influence is that of the pre-Christian era with imagery of Celtic and Welsh mythology through the ‘Dark Ages’ to the time of Prince Madoc and the Christian Valle Crucis Abbey. The panels further up the column depict the industrial revolution including the coal mine, the iron foundry and the Pontcysilte Aqueduct. The farm that Plas Madoc was built on is also depicted. At the top of the column images from the present day are represented.
The Sculpture was commissioned by Plas Madoc Community Association. An ‘Arts for All’ lottery grant was received from the Arts Council of Wales, along with the grant from Wrexham County Borough Council.
The project is part of a wider scheme to improve this main gateway to Plas Madoc. It was funded by the Welsh Development Agency and Wrexham County Borough Council, and was completed in the year 2000. The design for the scheme came out of a community planning exercise undertaken in Plas Madoc in 1998.
The Sculpture was unveiled by members of the community on Tuesday 7th August 2001.
Plas Madoc is an impoverished estate, far from the most salubrious of districts in Wrexham borough. It seems that few have deemed the community and this sculpture worthy of public comment on the Internet. Notably, Plas Madoc lacks even a Wikipedia entry. Yet this fairly new estate (and this column) was named after the 12th-century prince of Powys – Madoc ap Gruffydd – who founded Valle Crucis Abbey. The desire was to root this new area in relation to the medieval past.
Yet the absence of discussion of the column or the estate in which it sits, reveals the implicit snobbery on the priorities and subjects deemed worthy of commentary by heritage professionals and academics, as well as the digital community more broadly. While I have discussed post-industrial heritage numerous times, including the roles of sculpture taking place upon post-industrial landscapes, I include myself in this criticism.
I am particularly critical of myself in this regard since I didn’t regard it as important enough to stop before now. When thinking of composing a discussion of the present-day reception of the Pillar of Eliseg, I didn’t think for a moment to look to Plas Madoc and to consider this column. Today proved me wrong.
Now I’ve looked at it, I can see that – whether by design or accident – it is a modern-day version of the Pillar of Eliseg (perhaps taking ideas also from the famous Anglian column at Masham, North Yorkshire). Its images recall all manner of imagined and historical pasts and events, from the Early Middle Ages to the present.
Despite to claim of the text that the narrative is linear and upwards, the images on the monument take complex interleaving dimension as they move from the distant past at the bottom to the recent past at the top. These images are both enhanced/defined and connected together by the arcades created by trees and then the aqueduct’s pillars and arches above. From bottom to top, the scenes can be described as follows;
- At the bottom of the pillar are snakes and spirals;
- between the arcade created by gnarly oaks, are four images:
- a dragon;
- a water wheel linked to abstract spirals (alluding to the River Dee?);
- a castle with warriors (alluding to Castell Dinas Bran?);
- a monkish figure within a religious building (alluding to Valle Crucis Abbey?);
- in the trees are four humanoid en face representations: two bearded man, a helmeted man and an empty helmet of early medieval type;
- separated by an arcade of the pillars of the Poncysyllte aqueduct are four further scenes:
- a colliery
- an iron foundry (representing Ruabon’s industrial heritage)
- a farming scene (depicting the farm upon which the modern estate was built)
- a Civil War scene (depicting the impact of the English Civil War on this border region)
- Along the top of the aqueduct is a frieze of present-day figures of all ages seemingly enjoying family life and leisure activities.
So Madoc’s Column takes us from the deep mythological and legendary past rather than prehistory (which is absent it seems despite many prehistoric cairns and hillforts close by), upwards through the Middle Ages and Modern era to the present day. Its abrupt top might in itself imply futures to be imagined.
The landscape situation might seem very different from the Pillar. Rather than situated on an ancient burial mound, Madoc’s Column is situated in a stark traffic island. Yet this location has parallels with the Pillar of Eliseg too because it is positioned beside a prominent routeway. It is there to be engaged with and encountered incidentally during quotidian routines. It is also not far from Offa’s Dyke (which runs along the hedgeline that can be seen in the distance behind the Column in the first image) and therefore its position links it to Britain’s largest early medieval monument. Also like the Pillar, I wonder how many people today do stop and gaze at it, reflect upon it, and recognise the historical allusions it contains.
There are differences too beyond the formal. Unlike what we envisage for the Pillar, it is unclear whether Madoc’s Column has or ever will provide a focus for communal gatherings, let alone ceremony since its unveiling. While Madoc’s Column was paid for by democratic government with community participation, I wonder if it has fostered, or will foster, the same veneration and respect as the Pillar.
Still, despite differences in precise form and location and the stark contrast in historical contexts, Madoc’s Column does directly allude to the the Pillar of Eliseg: the only column of historical import in the locality. Also like the Pillar of Eliseg, Madoc’s Column projects both imagined and valorised pasts of conflict and labour, and a positive aspired future for the community free from woes and struggles.
I wonder what the fate will be of Madoc’s Pillar and whether it will last as long as the Eliseg’s? Is the care-free future it imagines as futile as the hopes of a powerful military Powys envisioned by Conmarch and Cyngen when raising the cross which was to become known as the Pillar of Eliseg?