Barry Island’s typographic climbing wall

Artist Gordon Young has transformed a neglected stretch of seafront on Barry Island with a 40-foot long typographic traversing wall made out of thousands of recycled plastic shapes.

Artist Gordon Young has transformed a neglected stretch of seafront on Barry Island with a 40-foot long typographic traversing wall made out of thousands of recycled plastic shapes.

The wall was commissioned as part of Barry Island’s Eastern Promenade regeneration project and features the name of the island in both English and Welsh. Letters are made up of around 4000 shapes and 1000 novelty climbing holds in the shape of letters, fossils, fruit and dinosaurs.

Words can be read from the beach and promenade, as well as from planes landing at Cardiff Airport, and climbs have been configured for all ages and abilities: children can scale individual letters, while advanced climbers can traverse the entire length.

The project is one of several large-scale public artworks by Young: in 2011, he collaborated with Why Not Associates on the Comedy Carpet, a 2200 square metre artwork featuring 1000 jokes in granite letters embedded in concrete, paying homage to comedians who performed at Blackpool Tower (read our feature on it here):

And in 2006, he worked with Why Not and climber Ian Vickers to create two 20-metre high climbing towers in Blackpool using concrete and locally sourced stone:

The Barry Island wall was created with designer Josh Young at Part-Two Creative, local climber Rob Larney and the Barry Island History Group, and its design is inspired by the area’s heritage: hidden in each letter is a word or phrase with local significance, from The Strollers, the name of a local dance band, to Tafelberg, an oil tanker which beached on Barry Island but was later repaired and used as a military ship during World War Two.

Young also held workshops with local school children to determine some of the shapes that could be used for climbing holds (some relate to the area, others have a seaside or sporting theme) and says the colourful design is in part inspired by a toy shop, the Toy Factory, that once stood on the site. “I wanted it to look almost as if the Toy Factory had exploded and its contents had blown away,” he adds.

While many of Young’s previous projects make use of natural materials such as wood and granite, the Barry Island installation is made out of sheets of recycled plastic, cut using the same machine he used for the Comedy Carpet. “I had been looking at ways to use recycled plastics for a while and it worked well for this – it’s affordable, colourful and resilient against salt water,” he explains. “It’s a material we have so much of, but often don’t really know what to do with, and I think it could be used a lot more,” he adds.

After deciding on a typographic design, Young worked with Josh and Larney to refine letters and plan a series of colour coded routes for both novices and advanced climbers. “[Josh and I] drew up some letters that fitted the bill, then they had to be doctored to make them suitable for climbing on,” Young says.

“It was an interesting project to work on as you had to balance climbing practicalities with aesthetics: letters had to be as chunky as possible, with a large surface area for young climbers, and the smallest possible gaps between shapes and letters. We also needed to place fittings in between letters for climbers traversing the whole wall, which are the same colour as the concrete,” he explains.

“The letters look quite strange at first, but they’re really specific to the task. It’s also very unusual to see these novelty fittings for children in a serious bouldering wall – it’s a challenging route for advanced climbers, and they can really push themselves on it, while kids and beginners can have a go without fear of hurting themselves [there’s a rubberised floor to prevent injury],” he adds.

The wall opens to the public next week and should help draw crowds to a previously unloved stretch of one of Britain’s most popular beaches. It’s great to see the local community involved so closely in a public arts project, too – particularly one that makes clever use of recycled waste.

Climbers will have access to the site 24 hours a day and Young says he hopes it will be popular with people of all ages in the area. “It was a tight budget, but we’re really pleased with the results – it’s had a great response so far from the builders who helped install it and passers by on the beach, and I can’t wait to see people on it,” he adds.

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