Walking Dean Quarry

Branches closed round the car as Abigail moved it into first gear to grind up the steep road, which was smattered in stone and mud. It felt as if we were advancing further and further along the Cornish peninsular that seems to protrude so far out from the rest of the country. But we’d gone up and down, round and back so many times that it was impossible to tell. Any sense of direction was gone. Occasionally the tips of crops were visible through the trees, revealing where fields lay like blankets, pushing the woods down. Where the Helford estuary was, moving into and out of the Cornish Sea, and nearby to where we’d departed, became less and less clear. To our left, to our right, behind. In front?

“I normally ride a motorbike around these roads,” Abigail said, as we came over the crest of the hill and began to fall back down. It made sense: compared to the car that seemed to be struggling, and was constantly brushing the vertical grass banks on either side, a motorbike would make light work of these track like roads.

“I haven’t come here in a long time. We did all the filming a while back.”

We were heading to Dean Quarry, the site of Abigail’s film. We knew the quarry had been closed since the nineties and we knew it sat on the Sea’s edge. We also knew that Abigail had brought a box, given to her by someone who worked in quarry. But we didn’t know what it contained. It was a time capsule, and we were going to open it when we arrived. 

In the car she told us she’d forgotten it. She’d grabbed her bag, left her studio, and realised she’d forgotten the box just before she picked us up. Well that was part of our trip over.

Maybe it didn’t matter. Really why should we see what was inside, we all agreed, it isn’t our quarry, we didn’t work there. Better to open it later. Better to leave it for now.

Suddenly we were in a village, and Abigail told us we were nearly there.

We stopped in front of a high metal fence, where a man stood waiting. A yellow, reflective vest lay on the seat of his car. Abigail exchanged words with him, told us he was from the company who now managed the quarry, and was here to let us in. He would look over us as we walked around. We waited for the others to arrive.

When we were all assembled, the man ­opened the large gates.  We walked in and up onto a ledge that looked down the slopes of the quarry and into its heart.

We descended into the two vast gouges bitten out of the coast line, slipping and stomping down the gravelly incline. Eventually it levelled out to a flat open space, where we came to a disgruntled halt. Before us were dotted the remnants of the once working quarry; to the right, backed into a hill of gravel were seven colossal concrete walls, enclosures for the storage of the different sizes of gabbro, the hard stone found in this quarry. These containers may once have held the constituent parts of the road we drove here on, or a family's kitchen counter or the cool reflective cladding of an imposing office lobby. And at the other end of the scale, in the future, gigantic boulders may be harvested from the quarry to form sea defences on some other stretch of coastline.

The concrete enclosures seemed drab, feeble and weather beaten, empty and in one case destroyed. The end wall was completely torn apart, reinforced steel pokes out, animated and contorted in its destruction, energetic in contrast to the stagnation present in the rest of the quarry.

To the left there was a pool of water, where the chill wind caught the surface creating spiralling patterns, droplets picked up and scattered. From where we stood the pool reflected the grey of the sky, but the water was clear. Closer one could discern the light yellow tinge lending the liquid a toxic look. Whilst across the bottom of this shallow collection, a whitish dusty sediment appeared to have settled, secreted perhaps, by the stones.

Abigail pointed out an old spoil heap above us, now green with life, offering the inverse of the quarry’s depth, and only distinguishable from the other hills to an eye familiar with its shape. Beyond the quarry’s edge a jetty extended into the Sea, and we could hear the waves whipping the coast stirred by the wind that came from nowhere visible, and ran over the quarry’s paths, obsolete concrete outcrops, filling holes, dips, rippling puddles, whistling on the way and bringing with it the February rain that buffeted hard against us.

We were getting progressively drenched. But there is also something enlivening about being in rain, being subjected to this element. Inconsiderate to your needs as a human, it carries on regardless, but so do we.   

Being in it, is very much being of the earth. What fell upon us was only slightly heavier than mist, but it was steadily, defiantly falling. The droplets that coated my thick woollen scarf looked fuzzy, like spongy moss. I tried to wipe it off and it soaked my hand, the fibres of the wool congeal and darken, absorbing all the liquid that was previously resting on its surface.

I picked up a stone and examined it in my palm. It was dark grey with lighter crystalline specks. As I turned it I saw glints of a once hidden lattice of greens and reds, now visible from where my hand had wet it. Rough but not jagged, the sides are taught planes, hewn from a process of splitting, not smashing. The stone sat snugly in my hand.

To my right along one edge of the pool, was a vast swathe of reeds, dry and resolute they rustled and clattered in the wind. clumped closely together, they’re the only lively resistance amid the concrete and stone. I want to go over and investigate, but Abigail has headed off, leading us to the other side of the quarry, so that we could peer down into the deeper excavation, where a dark pool had manifested at the bottom. I threw the stone over my shoulder and keep walking to keep up with the group.

Meek and bedraggled, our coats barely doing their jobs, we began to walk up the quarry’s opposite side. No longer immersed in the pit’s depth I could see where we stood listening to Abigail, and imagined seeing it from the perspective of a bird, that would float above, looking down at us, before moving beyond the quarry’s bite into the green of the fields, or out to the ocean, or over the grey blue of the deep pit that had now come into view, below the other side of the ridge we were climbing. We stood and looked down, before finally turning away to trudge back out whilst the man without his yellow vest, closed the gates behind us.

Deep extraction will be the future of this quarry. The company that will reopen Dean quarry ­– if indeed they do ­– will have to go deeper into the earth to extract the rock that will move out from Cornwall. Is it important to remember the myth of Pyrrha and Deucalion? Is it important that industry returns?  Is it important that the gabbro here will leave to defend somewhere else? Is it important the rock stays?

Daphne du Maurier wrote of the importance of stones in Cornwall. Large slabs of granite, leant and laid upon one another formed the burial places of priests. These stones, still standing now, resting, taking home in small fields, fuel the imagination, and keep something from becoming lost. In her book Vanishing Cornwall, she says:

“The stones, like the natural granite cast up from nature, defy the centuries. . .. To stand beside them. . . is to become an astronaut in time. The present vanishes, centuries dissolve, the mocking course of history with all its triumphs and defeats is blotted out.”

For du Maurier Cornwall was the home of tinners, copper-seekers, farmers, clay-workers and quarriers. And although the ancient sea bed, the fossil-less Gabbro rock into which Dean Quarry buries, that rose 400 million years ago and formed the Lizard peninsula, has not disappeared, the quarriers have. We only hear them, faintly in the reeds, faintly reverberating, coming from the stone.

Or at least, for now.


This text was written by Stan Portus and Maia Gaffney-Hyde (students on the RCA’s Critical Writing in Art & Design programme) after they visited Dean Quarry in February 2016. 


Geology (as told by an artist)

I am no geologist, though the specific quality of the stone in the film is important. The gabbro stone in Dean Quarry is the remnant of a lost sea-bed. 400 million years ago the Rheic sea was subducted, though a fragment of its bed was thrust to the surface on the Lizard. Gabbro is quite an uncommon stone - it’s very dense and contains no fossils, as 400 million years ago there was not enough oxygen in the atmosphere to sustain life.

There are many ways to identify the mineral composition of stone, among them heft, lustre, colour and streak, taste, hardness, fracture, and form or habit. However, the exploration of the Dean Quarry gabbro in The Mother’s Bones is on a micro scale. To analyse stone samples, geologists make thin sections to examine through specialized microscopes with polarized light. Crystallographers then employ a knowledge of the seven crystal systems to identify the various minerals which make up the stone. 

The image of the microscope slide in the film was shot in the lab at Camborne School of Mines. It shows 2mm of a gabbro sample from the quarry, polished down to the thickness of a hair. The general shapes are individual crystals. When a polarising filter slides across the viewer the axes of symmetry in the tiny crystals that make up the stone can be determined by colour. 
There are 32 crystal classes, divided into 7 crystal systems. The glass teaching models shown in the film demonstrate these seven systems, as understood by crystallographers. The coloured strands in the models relate to their axes.

For more, there’s a site http://www.crystalage.com/crystal_information/seven_crystal_systems/ which describes them quite simply, though this isn’t a geology site. It sells charms, healing stones and so on. And here’s an introduction to crystallography http://slideplayer.com/slide/7005224/