If you go down to Ham Woods today you're sure of a big surprise – particularly if you haven't ventured there for a few years.
Gone are the broken bottles, fly-tips, muddy paths, burnt-out vehicles and impenetrable undergrowth of yesteryear. Instead you'll find all-weather walkways, idyllic clearings, unspoilt meadows and an abundance of birdsong... just a stone's throw from busy roads and housing estates. From this weekend you will also be able to view the latest creation by a Devon artist regarded as one of the world's greatest sculptors.
Ham Woods, for those who don't know it – and that includes most people who have lived in Plymouth all their lives – is a hidden green gem in the heart of the city. Comprising some 42 hectares of mixed woodland, it nestles between major roads, industrial units and the sprawling residential area of North Prospect – or Swilly as it is more affectionately known.
Rather than being regarded as a free natural resource for residents of the Swilly estate, in recent years most have seen the woods as something a no-go area, a place where clandestine groups met to get up to no good. Whether based on truth or the result of overactive imaginations, the result was that Ham Woods became neglected and unloved.
Walking through the area today it is clear there has been a significant sea-change in attitudes locally, thanks in part to a series of initiatives led by the city council. Recreational walkers, dog-walkers, disabled buggies, families, birdwatchers and school groups are now taking advantage of this rural haven.
On Saturday this rehabilitation of Ham Woods – by and for the community – will be celebrated with a special event centring on the unveiling of Peter Randall-Page's In Praise Of Trees sculpture. Best known in the South West for his giant Seed at The Eden Project, the Dartmoor artist's work is held in public and private collections from Australia to America, Japan to Korea... and now Swilly. Made from Dartmoor granite and Tavistock slate, In Praise Of Trees occupies the space left by an ancient oak that came down in a storm last year. It is easily accessible, being on the old and winding Ham Lane, its position offering a good spot to relax and admire the woodland view.
Funded largely from the Big Lottery's Access to Nature programme and Arts Council England, the commission came about as part of a wider scheme designed to encourage local people to engage with the natural environment. Under the auspices of Plymouth City Council's Stepping Stones To Nature and the Take A Part project, a number of artists were approached with a view to creating a sculpture specifically for Ham Woods. The Friends of Ham Woods led the selection process, visiting studios and inviting artists to see the woodland. They also held community consultation meetings.
The group eventually chose Peter Randall-Page because they felt he understood the woodland's uniqueness and would create a piece that enhanced its natural features.
Stepping Stones To Nature coordinator Zoe Goss said: "Peter came to the woods and fell in love with them – and the Friends were very impressed by his response. He spent a long time there, chatting to everyone, listening to their views and taking on board their ideas."
Plymouth-born Zoe, who is passionate about the regeneration of her city, added: "The fact that someone like Peter Randall-Page came here to Ham Woods and recognised that this is an amazing place says an awful lot. For me, the project is about raising the ambition and the profile of this area of Plymouth and of Plymouth as a whole. It's about the people here saying 'we deserve better, we deserve to have an internationally acclaimed artist working in Swilly'."
For an artist more used to designing prestige sculptures for galleries, country houses, multi-national companies and universities, the Ham Woods commission offered an opportunity to create work for an entire community.
"I chose to work in Ham because of the place and the people," said Peter. "The place itself is special, being a rural haven within a built-up area, and the people are special because they care about the place with such passion. Also, they seemed to want to work with me.
"Having spent some time exploring the place and wandering the paths I kept revisiting the site of the sculpture which I feel is a natural focal point in the centre of the park. I hope it will become a meeting place and something local people will have affection for. It is meant to be a celebration of trees and woods in general, a place to sit and contemplate the beauty of Ham Woods."
Zoe Goss and her colleagues are hoping residents and others will be queuing up to "sit and contemplate" at this Saturday's opening event, which will include a chance for children to build an "insect hotel" with the Conservation Volunteers, a food forage with Take A Part's "shed on wheels", bushcraft demonstrations, plus plenty of tea and cakes.
The event runs from 11am to 3pm on Saturday September 29. Admission is free and all are welcome.
There will be more chances to see the work of Peter Randall-Page from next April when Plymouth City Art Gallery and Peninsula Art Gallery will be staging an exhibition of his sculptures, maquettes and drawings. For more details, visit: www.peterrandall-page.com