Rock of ages

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
Primary children in Dorset are working the same ground as their ancestors as they help to transform a near-exhausted quarry into an educational centre that takes visitors on a 140 million-year journey back in time.

Harvey McGavin investigates

Driving along the causeway that connects the Isle of Portland to the Dorset coast, you soon become aware of two things. First, Portland isn't technically an island at all. Four miles long and a mile-and-a-half wide, it's a rocky outcrop the shape of South America that hangs by a thread from the rest of the mainland. And second, just like an island, it has a character quite unlike anywhere else.

As the road rises through tightly packed cottages and emerges on to a plateau hundreds of feet above sea level, there's a majestic view back along the sweep of Chesil Beach and the countryside beyond. Thomas Hardy described it as being "carved by time out of a single stone". But man has played a significant part in shaping it too, leaving its landscape pockmarked with the workings of quarries that, over hundreds of years, have taken little pieces of the Isle of Portland and exported them all over the world.

Portland's dense, finely grained limestone can be seen everywhere from First World War cemeteries in France to the United Nations building in New York. In London alone, St Paul's Cathedral, the British Museum, Tower Bridge and the National Gallery stand as monuments to its beauty and durability.

For somewhere so defined by a single activity, Portland has never had a place devoted to celebrating its industrial heritage or ancient geology, or educating its young people about them. But as Independent Quarry - one of the few remaining working quarries on the island - nears the end of its life, it is about to begin a transformation into an educational resource devoted to the stone that has inspired so many architects, artists and geologists. And, like their forefathers, the children of Portland will have a hand in its creation.

Gathered in a former drill hall beside the quarry walls, the 72 pupils of Tophill junior school are watching old, black and white footage of a way of life now disappeared from the island. A gang of half a dozen quarrymen are kneeling in a row, mallets in hand. One of them begins a sing-song chant and they bring their mallets down in unison, gradually driving a row of metal spikes into the rock beneath them. It is hard, monotonous labour. But every time they strike the stone, something magical happens: a sound rings out that pierces the air, and hangs there like an echo - the "quarry bells".

The film is only 30 years old, but in the meantime the way stone is quarried here has changed beyond recognition. The great arena of Independent Quarry has sides as smooth as glass, thanks to the safe and environmentally friendly new technologies of diamond-edged drills and hydrobags - flat metal cushions that are placed into the cuts and inflated with water to break the slabs apart. But the stone still makes that sound when you hit it. As the children from Tophill don hard hats and take their mallets to the cleanly cut slabs that lie on pallets around the quarry edge, the quarry bells chime again.

April Banbury, headteacher of Tophill, says local people remember sitting by the quarry listening to the workmen. Generations of families on the island have earned a living in the quarries, which, a century ago, would have taken on about 70 apprentices a year. Today, only a handful can expect to find work in the three remaining quarries.

Tophill and the other schools on the island are helping to illustrate and explain the forces that made Portland in the first place, and produced its most famous export. Ms Banbury says: "It's living history, but it's looking into the future as well." The future for Independent Quarry begins this autumn, after its leaseholder, Albion Stone Quarries, has extracted its last stone.

Hannah Sofaer, education officer of the Portland Sculpture and Quarry Trust, has been running sculpture and education projects on the island for 20 years, but the project taking shape will dwarf them all. "Portland has never had a centre like this," she says. "Over the years, its stone has been taken away, geologists have come and gone, but now we want to establish a permanent centre of education and learning."

The winding track to the quarry floor will become an interpretative walk through time, using some of the many striking fossils found there, such as ammonites the size of lorry wheels and perfectly preserved tree bark. This will bring visitors to the 140 million-year-old rockface, itself a richly illustrative geological vertical timeline, including a "patch reef" studded with tiny fossils of marine life.

To one side, a huge alcove will become an amphitheatre, and above it, discarded stone will be used to create a labyrinthine maze. This, and many of the quarry's other artistic and educational features, will be based on designs drawn by the children. It's a huge project, made possible only with the collaboration of several universities, art colleges, the local council, the seven schools on the island and Albion Stone Quarries.

Albion Stone's manager, Mark Godden, leads the children down to the quarry face and talks them through the huge geological canvas spread before them.

"You have seen the film Jurassic Park, haven't you? Well, this was it - 140 million years ago when this stone was made, dinosaurs were walking the Earth." So long ago, he explains, that it was before the continents we know today had formed, and Portland would have been near the equator, "somewhere like the Bahamas", surrounded by shallow, warm seas filled with marine life: perfect conditions for the creation of limestone.

Mr Godden, who has three children at Tophill, is keen to help the project get started and will oversee the major earthworks before the quarry closes.

After that, a large part of the quarry will be set aside for a nature reserve. Bob Ford, a local ecologist who is running that side of the project, is hoping rare species of butterfly such as the silver studded blue, will return, with orchids and other plants. He holds up a photograph of a nearby quarry, its slopes swathed in a green and yellow carpet of horseshoe vetch. Nothing like the dusty landscape here now. "It will take 10 to 15 years," he says. "But if nature is allowed to regenerate, the results can be incredible."

As the pupils sit around in the shade of a tree by the quarry's edge, sketching their designs for the labyrinth and nature reserve, teacher Mike Coombs gives his outlook on the educational possibilities the quarry can offer. "It's great for cross-curricular themes of science, geology, and art and design. Generation after generation of their families have worked in the quarries and we want them to have a sense of pride in the industry of Portland."

Disused quarries have traditionally doubled up as playgrounds for the island's children, but Hannah Sofaer says this one will be a place of learning, reflection and inspiration. "We want not only to mark the enormous significance of quarrying traditions and skills on Portland, but also use culture as a regenerating force."

After centuries of making huge, but mostly unheralded contributions to the fabric of our towns and cities, the Isle of Portland is getting something back.

Portland Sculpture and Quarry Trust, tel: 01305 826736; Stone Quarries: www.albionstonequarries.comindex.htmGuide to the geology of Portland:



Portland Sculpture and Quarry Trust's partners include the departments of art, earth sciences, architecture and landscape architecture from the universities of Brighton, Leeds, West of England and Kingston respectively.

Albion Stone Quarries, Royal Manor Art College, Dorset County Council, the Landscape and Arts Network and local ecologist Bob Ford are also involved.

This autumn, sculptor Antony Gormley, who has worked in nearby Tout Quarry, is holding workshops.


The project - to develop cross-curricular resources for schools and colleges and to establish a model for quarry regeneration - is backed by pound;103,000 from the Mineral Industry Sustainable Technology (MIST) programme, run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, plus pound;124,000 in kind from the universities, companies and others.

The trust will unveil its final plans for the quarry at the Natural Stone Show at east London's Excel exhibition centre in March 2004.


Portland Sculpture and Quarry Trust, based at the Drill Hall on Easton Lane in Portland, also runs sculpture courses in Tout Quarry, where there is a large open- air gallery of works open to the public.


The MIST programme runs until March 2004, by which time the trust hopes to have completed the ground works for the quarry's educational features.

Other interested schools can join the programme.


The trust and University of Brighton are working with schools and colleges to develop cross-curricular resources for all ages.

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