Until the last few decades the town of Branxton, North Northumberland, was famous for only one thing: it was the site of the Battle of Flodden. A few short yards to the south, the largest battle ever fought between England and Scotland was played out across a couple of nondescript fields in 1513. Branxton’s church, in fact, acted as a temporary mortuary to many of the thousands of dead that the encounter threw up.
Of late, though – and including through to the present – visitors to the village may well be calling in in pursuit of a very different tourist attraction: The Cement Menagerie. First conceived of in the early 1960s it quickly grew to unfeasibly large proportions and, as a crowd-pleaser, it is surely unique here in the UK, and quite possibly globally.
It’s on display in the garden of The Fountain House: around 300 ‘art brut’ statues crammed into less than an acre of space – and all open to the public, too, for free. It was created by a couple of pensioners, primarily for the entertainment of their disabled son, whom they insisted on looking after themselves at home rather than having him institutionalised. The names of the two eccentrics were John and Mary Fairnington, and that of their only child (who was born late to them), Edwin. Incredibly, the project wasn’t started until after John, who was a joiner, had retired in 1961, aged 80… and they just carried on rolling out the statues for around a decade until Edwin’s death in 1971. A former work colleague of John’s, James Beveridge, lent a considerable hand, too.
The figures were made from wire netting, stuffed with newspapers, then cemented over and painted. The garden has slowly developed around them – the ‘them’ in question being animals, in the main, but also including some local village characters and famous folk such as Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. There is also a shrine to Robert Burns, as well as many little poems and ditties of his (and others) scattered here and there.
Old John died in 1981, aged 98, and the garden, by a circuitous route, eventually ended up back in the family’s possession – and it is now cared for by his present-day relatives.
A lovely piece of modern-day history…