Portland sculptures, a set on Flickr.
Back in 2007 I achieved one of my personal ambitions. I spent a week at the stone-carving workshop on the Island of Portland. Portland is a rock outcrop that stands out from the Dorset coast into the English Channel, linked to the mainland only by the great sweep of Chesil Bank. Portland was shaped by quarrymen. For centuries these men have carved the landscape and given it distinct contours. They also formed the local culture and even the superstition, for instance the word “Rabbit” is not used on the Island as running Rabbits were associated with falling Rocks and bad accidents. The course was at the Tout Quarry. I walked through a landscape part shaped by man part by nature. A series of gullies and wild plants and stacked up rocks. These plants were blown by the wind here and without any intervention had turned the landscape to a Garden of Eden. Some of these rocks are carved. One is a giant dinosaur head, and the other is an upside down figure of man carved on the rock face, it is “The falling Man” by the famous British sculptor Antony Gormley. The stonemasons practicing their trade have left beautiful archways, and pathways that lead up to the top of the hill that gives you a panoramic view of the Island. The landscape is full of surprises. There are certain things that you can’t learn in books, stone carving is one of them. They don’t tell you that as you carve the stone, it releases fossilized gases that were trapped there for millions of years and all of a sudden the Petrol like smell takes you to your beloved city of Abadan in your dreams! As it happens unlike the gases of other rocks these gases are not poisonous. You learn one or two things about carving stone that also help you through life. You see you have to hold the hammer and the chisel so lightly as if they are about to fall out of your hands, and only then you can pound effective blows against the rock. If you hold on too tightly you chip away small fragments and you end up with an arm ache that would keep you awake for a week. You also learn that you have to work with the rock rather than against it i.e. the old Michelangelo saying that the shape is already in the rock and you just help to bring it out is not cliché. Whilst out there I met a group of Dutch sculptors, one of whom was a blind man who carved by the sense of touch, he was carving his remarkably intelligent and affectionate Labrador guide dog. Carving was like Zen for those who had been doing it for years; it was like a pilgrimage for those who bond with the beauty of nature. The Island was also a magnet for those hiking, and those who liked bird, and moth watching. An old lighthouse was turned to a bird watch centre, filled with personal objects that people had left for others over the years, including some portraits. The philosophy of the sculpture park at the Quarry is remarkable as it is filled with beautiful sculptures that people have deliberately left there so that others can enjoy them. It is the philosophy of giving back what nature has given us, a give, give rather than take, take attitude towards the space we live in. My give back (as well as the course fees) was to help around the quarry. We found a petrified tree; fossilized Millions of years ago, and this tree still had the scars of the forest fire that had partially burnt it. We took it back to the Quarry museum. My teacher said look at these rocks these are all living things condensed in time and space. It made me feel so small, in the grand scale of nature, the entire time of humanity is like a flash of a firefly and the grand scale of nature’s calendar is beyond our imagination. I know a lot of the buildings in London places such as St Paul’s Cathedral or the recently refurbished British Museum have used the beautiful Portland stone and walking around London takes me back to that magical Island.