Gathering Place

Some pockets of the world are stranger than others, and more lessons learned from a temporary village green...

By: Phyllida Bluemel,   2 minutes

Some places wear their stories on the surface – plastered with street signs and statues – while others fold theirs into long-forgotten layers. Goonhilly Downs, a five-square-mile patch of heathland at the tail-end of the UK, is one of the secret ones.


Lizard Exit Plan: Goonhilly sector, Paul Chaney


Ancient prehistoric tumuli lie indistinguishable from war-era blips in the landscape. A menhir stands at the meeting point of five parishes. Ears to the sky, looming satellite antennae stand guard over a nature reserve, hiding the 18th century crofts and a 20th century military base within its scrub. Strange and rarely sighted birds rest their legs here and, on a warm May day, adders squirm in the grass.


An Archaeology walk around the Dry Tree standing stone

Somewhat bleak, deceptively alive – it’s an unlikely spot for a village fete. But where most people – whizzing down a B road on the way to the beach – see brown grass and ’60s infrastructure; artists Elizabeth Masterton and Sara Bowler saw a site ripe for gathering. “Goonhilly, for many reasons, has never been settled,” says Elizabeth, citing inhospitable soil and a past littered with highwaymen and government secrets, “but you’ve got all the villages around the periphery and a community of people dispersed over time who’ve been here.”

The Goonhilly Standard by Elizabeth Masterton

From the Earth Station, once full of BT employees at the cutting edge of satellite communication, to the WWII radar base that stood here before, to deep space programmes starting up now; Goonhilly is a site of communities come and gone, noticeably linked by that human desire to send messages, and listen back.

“We wanted to bring it all together to an apex at this one little location in the middle of the downs, a transient community of people with different interests,” says Elizabeth, of Goonhilly Village Green, the project’s title. Manifesting in fete-like days on the designated Green (a clearing close to the Earth station), talks, workshops and artist commissions; the project peaked this May, at ‘The Gathering’, bringing a crowd of 400 people off the B road and into the shadow of the satellite antennae – to eat, drink and take in art inspired by the downs.

Skirting around the defunct visitor centre and walking the paths through the heath, here are three things we took away from a day that felt both familiar and strange…

1. Parishes are made of people (not places)

The Lizard is scattered with small rural communities and the Gathering was a reminder these places are the sum of their people, not points on a map. The Green’s central bell tower, modelled by Liminal – a sound and architecture partnership – on the radar towers that once stood here, marked the day’s temporary parish. It was defined, as parishes historically were, not by fences but the sound of the bells – and those people within earshot.

Transient Parish by Liminal

2. Look again, look upside down, look under your feet

Whether a camera obscura inverting and animating the antennae in its sights; a parabolic mirror installation mimicking the curves of the Earth station and casting illusions; or a lost rock library placing overlooked stones in the spotlight – sometimes it takes a trick of the light, or a sign and a shelf, to focus attention on overlooked stories.

3. Don’t just look, listen

Voices whispered from radios in the grass, haunting choral refrains sent a welcome message to aliens and around the Dry Tree (Goonhilly’s standing stone) transmission noises and bird song mingled in a sound work. From the dishes to the phones in our hands, it was a reminder that we are transmitting all the time, and that the air around us is thick with invisible messages…

Welcome (Sent forever), Beth Emily Richards

Photos thanks to Artur Tixiliski and Goonhilly Village Green

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