High art in Lancashire

One man and his dog leave the city behind to take in a view of the Pennine's panopticons – four new hilltop landmarks that are enchanting a growing number of visitors. By Ian Herbert

Panopticon is a word which has never quite taken hold in the Lancashire lexicon. It just doesn't settle into the rich burr of the local dialect, somehow. But the name, first coined by the English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham in 1875 for a prison design which allowed inmates to be watched without knowing it – and since defined as a space or device providing a comprehensive or panoramic view – is suddenly enjoying more common usage than you might expect.

Lancashire has borrowed it for happier reasons than Bentham: the construction of four hilltop landmarks which have been dotted at points across its lofty lands. After some initial local head-scratching, the structures are attracting growing numbers of visitors around some of northern England's most under-appreciated and exquisite Pennine landscapes and the rich array of attractions which neighbour them.

The recommended starting point for a tour of the four, says Nick Hunt, director of the Mid Pennine Arts organisation behind the panopticon project, is Blackburn - where Colourfields, sits at the top of the town's Corporation Park, a wonderfully refurbished, 18-hectare site first created laid out on quarry land in the 1850s to provide a green lung and a means of recreation for a town worked to the bone by industrialisation. So it is to this place, a straight 10-minute drive down into Blackburn from junction 31 of the M6, that we (Mouse, your writer's dog is also on board for the panopticon experience) beat a path.

Colourfields, it transpires, is a viewing platform and the most functional of the four steel structures, sitting at the site of an old cannon battery at the park's highest point. The 10-minute saunter up wide walkways is part of the pleasure, taking in the lake, Victorian glasshouse and a statue of the spring season goddess Flora who was apparently a source of as much wonderment as the panopticon when she arrived in 1871. The view from Colourfields is a metaphor for how Blackburn's economics have changed since those industrial days. A B&Q superstore dominates the town in the foreground but, beyond it, are fine views out to Southport, Fleetwood and Lytham.

A rainstorm marks the start of the walk down to the car, but it clears before our drive through Blackburn town centre, back to the motorway network. This takes us along Barbara Castle Way (the most famous adoptive Blackburnian was MP here for 34 years from 1945) and past the Daniel Thwaites Brewery founded in 1807 within which the Brewer's Tap pub is a good place for refreshment. For those who care to linger, there is also the cathedral (Blackburn is the only town in Britain to have one) famous for its collection of religious art. For lunch, the Chill Lime Deli on central Fleming Square is worth seeking out.

Back out onto the M65 beyond Burnley and Colne lies the most remote of the panopticons, located above the historic village of Wycoller. En route, there are well marked signs to the Pendle Heritage Centre at Barrowford, starting point for the excellent 45-minute witches trail which recalls the women who were hanged in the 1600s at a time of religious persecution and superstition in the reign of James I.

We are persuaded, by the Wycoller Country Park signs, to part company with the A6068 Keighley road a mile too early and with signposts for some of the panopticons still a work in progress, wind up lost in the village of Trawden. The upside is the village's excellent Old Rock Café – Lancashire granary bread crusts for Mouse and Trawden's own piece of public art to examine while he devours it. The mighty cast-iron Hartleys jam-making pot circa 1901 (the company was founded by splendidly named grocer Sir William Pickles Hartley at Pendle in 1871) is positioned in the village amid plaques of memorable Lancashire verse from Nellie Pickles and Renee Blackburn, no less.

Wycoller village, thought by some to be the inspiration for Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre, is also a place of delights, with its crafts centre, willow sculptures and – best of all - no cars (the lane down to the village is accessible only on foot). And set above all this, amid the brooding moors which inspired the Brontë sisters, just off the road which runs up to Haworth where they were brought up, sits the Atom panopticon. Designed by Peter Meacock, Katarina Novometska and architects WCW the mighty bronze-coated egg is both viewpoint and shelter, offering views through its oval, panoptical apertures across the moors and to east Lancashire's most distinct piece of topography: Pendle Hill, where the witches roamed. Inside atom sits a large stainless steel sphere – representing the last remaining molecule in this particular atom.

It is hard to resist turning right from the Atom car park and following the signs over the top to Haworth and Brontë country. Technically, there is also a cross-country route to the next panopticon, south of Burnley, but Nick Hunt warns against it. "It's not an A to B route and you might find yourself in Yorkshire, at the other end of the world," he says. That's true Lancashire spirit for you.

So it's left back towards Burnley, following signposts for Rawtenstall from junction 10 of the M65 and, at the Bull pub which is Burnley's southerly town limit, a left turn towards Crown Point and the signposted Singing, Ringing Tree. This is the panopticon which Lancashire has taken to heart most and which received a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) National Award for architectural excellence last year. It is easy to see why.

The piece, designed in the shape of a wind-blown tree by the architects Tonkin Liu, is formed from a swirl of steel pipes which produce a haunting and melodious hum as the wind drifts through them from across the moor. The noise is melodic enough not to disturb the surrounding wildlife – and certainly not Mouse. He's far more interested is standing by the pipes, eyes closed, than surveying the exquisite panorama taking in Burnley, with its celebrated Turf Moor football ground to the fore, the distinctive and seemingly ever-present Pendle Hill and the Cliviger wind turbines on the Yorkshire border.

It's not easy to leave but a fourth panopticon awaits over the hill and, with no brown signs in place yet, we're warned by Nick Hunt that we "might get lost." Back at the Bull pub on the main road, it's a left turn past the yachts which bob on the Crowbridge Reservoir and a drive along the Rossendale Valley into Rawtenstall. Taking a right turn up towards the Rossendale dry ski slope and – as instructed – keeping eyes peeled for a very narrow right turn on to High Street on the outskirts of Haslingden, another steep ascent suggests good progress.

The winding lane arrives at the memorably named Top o' Slate, a site which earned its name in quarrying days, and has been reclaimed into a newly landscaped public space. At its centre is Halo, John Kennedy's 18m diameter steel lattice structure supported by a mighty tripod. If your map-reading fails and you arrive at dusk then so much the better. Halo is lit using the latest LED technology and by night glows a sky blue colour, giving the effect of hovering above the town. It's most spectacular viewed by night from the A56 gateway into to Lancashire. But who needs illumination? In the late afternoon sunshine, with the a breeze whipping through the lattice and views across to the Jodrell Bank observatory in Cheshire 32 miles away, it is pretty special too - and as far removed from Bentham's type of panopticon as you'll get.

www.panopticons.uk.net; www.visitlancashire.com

Out and about: North-west installations

Antony Gormley was the artist whose Angel of the North first revealed something about the power of public art installations and the North-west has discovered the same effect at Crosby, a few miles north of Liverpool, where his Another Place work – made up of 100 cast iron figures facing out to see over a two-mile stretch of beach – is to be found

A short drive into Liverpool yields up Richard Wilson's Turning the Place Over, for which he has cut out an egg-shaped section of the front of a derelict building at Moorfields station and placed it on a giant pivot to rotate.

The city of Liverpool is something of a public art specialist, with the SuperLambBanana, 15ft tall, very yellow and the work of Manhattan-based Japanese artist Taro Chiezo, now one of the North-west's best know pieces, having started life to mark Tate Liverpool's reopening and travelled greatly since.

In Cumbria, Andy Goldsworthy has created 46 stone sculptures from derelict sheep pens in his Sheepfolds project, while Workington has also caught the bug with Simon Hitchens' Coast Line, featuring 12 large sculptural seats carved and sawn from boulders of red granite locally quarried at nearby Shap.

On the seafront at Morecambe the Tern Project comprises another collection of public artworks situated on and around the promenade: the Rock Islands (pictured), Stone Jelly and Bird Bollards are among the favourites.

Simon Watkincon's The Braid illuminates Blackburn town centre while Serena de la Hey's Land Giant, a sculpture in willow and steel, overlooks the M65 near Pendle

Another eye-catching piece is Thomas Heatherwick's B of the Bang, located near the City of Manchester Stadium in the east of the city. It has considerably fewer than the 180 spikes it started life with but is iconic nonetheless. Not to be outdone, Bolton has delivered Spirit of Sport, a giant monument etched with the faces of 900 individuals, from legends such as footballer Nat Lofthouse and boxer Amir Khan to sheer enthusiasts whose hard work has helped to keep sport alive in the community.

And the appetite for public art is not abating yet. This autumn, St Helens will unveil Dream – a 20m high sculpture by Jaume Plensa, to be placed on top of the former Sutton Manor Colliery, overlooking the M62. It takes the form of the head of a girl with eyes closed, seemingly in a dream-like state, representing a community looking to a brighter future.