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Needed holes

Nield_resized.jpgOne of the wittiest responses to an author, hoping to impress with his latest volume, was: “Thank you for your latest book. It fills a much-needed void”. Well, I have spent much of the last year or two trying to fill a book of my own on the subject of voids – holes in the ground, once so common a feature of the British landscape, but now vanishing at an alarming rate.

As geologists, we love these windows on history, laying bare the bones of the landscape. But as mineral extraction is exported far over the horizon, or becomes so skilfully designed as to vanish from sight, those opportunities for research, teaching and amateur fossicking are vanishing too. We are losing our connection with our past, and the source of all the things we cannot grow.

I have been revisiting many quarries that I knew in years gone by, and discovered many different fates. Some are now filled and built over. Others are flooded, or eroded beyond use, or invaded by nature and transformed from quarries - into mere places. I encountered one quarry, no longer in use, but protected by every form of legislation known to man, which now lies behind spiked steel palisades and locked gates; its bedding planes concealed under canopies - all to protect it from the very public for whom it is ultimately being preserved in the name of science.

But there are glimmers of hope. Europe’s deepest pit, Rubislaw Granite Quarry, Aberdeen, into whose abyss I first peered – indeed almost fell – about 30 years ago, has been bought. Its new owners plan to give it back to their native city as a conference and outdoor activity centre, with historical exhibits telling the story of Aberdeen’s proud quarrying heritage.

Even more exciting perhaps is a plan, taking an idea first mooted in this column in April 2011, to redevelop derelict quarries in Portland as a visitor centre for the Jurassic Coast. Mike Hanlon, geologist and former science correspondent of the Mail on Sunday, is attempting to create Jurassica. The quarry has been promised. Shard architect Renzo Piano has provided concept drawings of a signature building. Business plans are being prepared, and Dorset County Council and many other interested bodies are being signed up in preparation for a bid for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

This magazine will keep readers abreast of developments here – the Jurassic Coast desperately needs a major, weather-proof visitor centre that can act as its window on the world. And our subject must do what it can to preserve our landscape’s remaining, and much-needed voids.

Ted Nield