Hidden Heritage – The Tennyson Installation

The Tennyson Installation at Barter Books, Alnwick. Picture by Daniel Gurney.
The Tennyson Installation at Barter Books, Alnwick. Picture by Daniel Gurney.
Share this article

If you visit Barter Books today, it is likely that you’ll take home with you the smell of old books, the sounds of the miniature railway and the warmth of its waiting room fires.

The sight that would probably stay with you is the beloved Famous Writers mural by artist Peter Dodd.

What you may have missed, however, is The Tennyson Installation. I had, despite having spent a fair amount of time in the bookshop since my school days in Alnwick.

Now a teacher, I was fortunate enough to accompany a group of students on an afternoon trip to the shop. It was during our guided talk that we were told about the commissioned installation by Newcastle-born artist Colin Rose.

The piece, located high on the back wall near the cafe, was added in 2006 and is made from fluorescent lights and fixtures.

Inspired by Miami-based artist Mark Handforth’s Western Sun in 2004, it depicts a glowing sunset and evening star, albeit the latter being very hard to spot without the help of a staff member.

The purpose of The Tennyson Installation is to draw together the worlds of literature and railways.

Described by owner Mary Manley as the “culmination of the lines of poetry throughout the shop”, the symbol of the setting sun sits above the opening stanza of Tennyson’s poem, Crossing the Bar.

It reads: “Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea.”

Although written in 1889, three years before Tennyson’s death, the poet asked that it be the final poem in all collections of his work.

The metaphor of a sand bar describes the barrier between life and death, and Tennyson’s acknowledgement that he must “put out to sea” reflects his acceptance of death.

And so there lies the literary connection, but the locomotive one makes the installation even more satisfying.

When Alnwick Railway Station closed in January 1968 as a result of the notorious Beeching cuts, the last steam train to grace its tracks was the Evening Star.

The link to Tennyson’s words, and the theme of accepting endings, becomes clear.

Fifteen years after its opening in 1991, Barter Books chose to commemorate the history of Alnwick Station, its building and its original purpose and to marry this with its new identity – literature.

As impressive as visitors will find the best known mural at the book shop, The Tennyson Installation is hard to beat for its aptness and its subtlety.