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Michael Welland

Michael Welland remembers how a book Stamped him for life…

Geoscientist 18.8 August 2008

The beginnings I refer to in my headline are not those of our planet, or its life, but of ourselves – as geologists. What was the origin of our enthusiasm, what inspired our curiosity – what “turned us on”? I recently had reason to reflect on my childhood inspiration, and I think the answers, while personal, perhaps have a broader value.

Again, in all probability like many of us, my early interest was aroused through family holidays – Cheddar Gorge, the beach at Charmouth, recently devastated Lynmouth and the thrill of the venerable but valiant family car attempting the gradient of Porlock Hill (as my father declared that “it’s better to travel hopefully than arrive”).

Such adventures offered treasured opportunities for satisfying a child’s love of finding things and (assuming indulgent parents) collecting them. Then, perhaps in the hope of imposing some focus and coherence on my collecting activities, I acquired some geology books. My recent reflections revealed to me the importance of these and one in particular. My copy, “slightly foxed” through my devoted attentions, has now regained its place on my bookshelves. L Dudley Stamp (Sir Laurence as he was to become) strode the fertile lands between geography and geology for much of the 20th Century. He commandeered schoolchildren and vicars across the country to compile the first comprehensive land-use survey, which allowed crucial agricultural and urban planning during the Second World War that otherwise would not have been possible.

Stamp book Probably the best-known of his books is Britain’s Structure and Scenery, but for me the true treasure, the book which I now appreciate fired my fascination with geology, was The Earth’s Crust—A New Approach to Physical Geography and Geology. Published in 1951, it was called “a new approach” because Stamp commissioned huge, detailed models of different landscapes—and what lies beneath them—to be made in exquisite detail by Tom Bayley, a lecturer in sculpture, and photographed in colour for the book.

For me, this was magic. I was captivated by the illustrations. I scrutinised the models in detail and even tried, messily, to make some myself. They opened my eyes to how landscapes and their foundations worked, I could look around me on those summer holidays with a different understanding—I could visualise things. And, best of all, some of the models depicted change: for example, the appearance of a glaciated valley when it was still filled with ice and after it had melted (good for Welsh or Scottish holidays! – picture). My curiosity about the world around me was aroused. I was alerted to geology.

The book is, sadly, long out of print and difficult to find; but for me, to open it up today is a deeply evocative and sentimental experience. However, my point here is not simply of sentimental interest: if we examined collectively our beginnings, the things that lured us into geology, could this inform efforts to fire up the imaginations and interest of today’s younger generation? Could we possibly identify comparable ways of “turning on” today’s kids, if not to geology, then science in general?