Going Back to the Source

The great shingle causeway of Chesil Beach leading up to the Isle of Portland

For as long as I can remember, I have felt the urge to carve stone. If I had been born in the Middle Ages, I would have been either a monk or a mason, either way contributing to the building of the great cathedrals. When my friend Tom told me that it is possible learn the craft on the Isle of Portland, it was a call to begin. 

The special ecology of Tout Quarry SSSI.

Portland is the birthplace of St Paul's Cathedral, built from the creamy, sparkly oolithic limestone that bears the island’s name. I imagined a St Paul's shaped hole in the ground, upside down, with the famous dome as a great bowl. To think Sir Wren and his team of master masons would have been here, picking out the finest quality stone. 

Many of the quarries have closed down now. Our destination, Tout Quarry was used as a tip until 1983 when it was established as a sculpture park and Nature reserve, educating the craft and the unique ecology of the island.

"Still Falling" carved by the young, as yet unknown Anthony Gormley

And indeed it is unique. We approached along Chesil Beach, an eighteen mile long naturally formed shingle mega structure that connects the Isle to the mainland. Ahead, the cliffs raised up from the sea like fortress walls. I fantasised we'd be carving right up on top. My wish was granted.

For somewhere so close to holiday town Weymouth, Portland is frozen in the 1950’s. There are no generic luxury holiday homes or fancy eateries, just a nice slow pace and few people to be seen. But where we were going was even further back in time, much, much further.

As we descended into the quarry, we left the human world above. Walled by sheer rock faces and giant boulders, we entered a mythological space. Time stood still in the presence of one hundred and fifty million year old rock.

Chamfers always come before fillets which come before hollows, humps and rounds. Is this based on practicality or tradition? Both he said.

My desk was a two ton boulder of capstone, the tough stuff that lies above the bed of silky Portland stone. On it, a steel box of tools and resting on a strip of dusty old carpet, a small, gleaming white cube of stone.

“A punch, a claw, a boaster, a selection of hammers and this is what they do”. Paul instructed us slowly and simply with a Yorkshire accent. With each similarly paced blow, he made decisive cuts. Only when I had a go, did I realise the decades of experience that went into each tap. I let go of the intricate Romanesque column capital that I had set myself to make. Perhaps a simple cushion capital would do?

A group of Dutch artists who have been coming every year for 16 years. They preferred machine tools and the rougher Capstone to work with.

I was still committed to my brief; something geometric that could allow for free flowing detail if I advanced quickly enough. It turned out making a simple cylinder was far trickier than any detailing, but luckily Paul had many years working as an architectural mason for the British Museum and showed me some secrets. 

The sound of tapping was deeply meditative. Occasionally visitors would come by to chat, but throughout the day the atmosphere was of engrossed concentration. As time went on, my enthusiastic tapping slowed to making each blow count, partly due to the growing ache in my arm, but also in coming to know the feel of the stone, where it naturally wants to give way. 

I thought back to the men working in the quarry, long before powered machines and dynamite, using only the simplest of tools to split, lift and transport for hundreds of miles, the gigantic building blocks of cathedrals.

The first piece of my cathedral!

My short experience gave me a visceral taste of what it takes to build a cathedral. A lifetime’s knowledge of geology and intuitive feel of stone. But I also felt first hand, the sparkling, pure beauty of the material that made it so eternally desirable, befitting for a house of God. As Hannah, co-tutor and artist said; “when carving stone, you are actually sculpting with light”.



For more information about the stone carving course, go to www.learningstone.org