Jan Morris

Seeking His Quarry

Underlands: A Journey through Britain’s Lost Landscape

By

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I am not an obvious reviewer for this book. It is a profoundly geological work concerning the very matter of the Earth, and all my adult life I have found geology, not economics, to be the most dismal science. Nor am I an addict of the sort of discursive, polymathic prose celebrated in the work of W G Sebald and favoured by Granta, the publisher of Underlands. However I have been entirely won over by Ted Nield’s manipu-lation of the subject and the genre. It is a most appealing thing that he has fashioned here, shaming me of my prejudices and granting me (I hope) pleasurable absolution.

This is not to say that I much enjoyed the geological bits, which are long and learned, but when I saw a Jurassic or an Inferior Oolite approaching me up the page, I generally managed to circumvent it. Luckily the joy of Nield’s technique is that he embeds all the technical stuff, in which he is passionately interested, in non-technical reminiscence and speculation of great charm and humour. His own family background provides a thread for his narrative – among the handful of photographs in the book, three show the author, at different ages, beside a particular rock at Llandudno, and four are concerned, in one way or another, with the tomb of his great-grandfather William Bowen at Aberfan in Glamorgan.

Aberfan! It’s the very same Welsh village where, 44 years after Bowen’s funeral, a terrible geological calamity – the collapse of a mine tip – killed 116 of Nield’s own contemporaries. In countless such ways this book illustrates the unimaginable majesty of the Earth’s substance by the jumbled goings-on, tragic or amusing, grand or ironical, of its human inhabitants down the ages.

Consider, for example, Forest of Dean stone, a colourful variety of sandstone quarried for centuries around the town of St Briavels (pronounced Brevels) in Gloucestershire. Nield tells us that the differing colours of the stone depend upon the oxidation state of the iron in the minerals which coat and cement the sand grains together. But he also lets us know, in passing, that under the Dean Forest (Mines) Act of 1838, any male person born within the Hundred of St Briavels who has worked there in a mine for a year and a day is legally a ‘Free Miner’ and can start a quarry of his own by applying to the Office of Gaveller.

I planned to skip the pages about the Basalt Controversy, a debate about whether rocks were produced by precipitation from primordial oceans or were portions of the Earth’s crust lifted by internal fires. However, I was captured by the life story of one of its resolvers. Rudolph Raspe, who died in 1794, was an eminent German geologist who, after being caught fiddling the books, fled to England and became the very sort of Enlightenment wanderer, Nield suggests, that Goethe and Schubert lyrically immortalised. Not only, it seems, did Raspe prophetically recognise the effects of the coming Industrial Revolution, but he also managed to channel his scholarly gifts into elaborating and inventing the adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Here are a few more curios that I extracted from this book in my dilettante way. During his own early geological expeditions, Nield carried his packed lunches in a Belgian Army surplus gas mask. Europe’s deepest man-made hole is a disused granite quarry at Aberdeen, while the continent’s oldest partially wooden church is at Greensted-juxta-Ongar in Essex. The granite of Shap Fell in Cumbria is the colour of smoked salmon. In Manchester Cathedral (mostly built of Collyhurst sandstone, by the way), a misericord depicts a hunter and his dog being cooked by a hare. The fame of the great geologist Arthur Trueman was based upon his research into ‘the evolution of certain clams’.

Enough. This book is no mere cabinet of curiosities, and the more I rambled through it the more I found myself genuinely moved by its messages. Nield is himself clearly moved by his beloved speciality, interwoven as it is for him with his pride in his origins: when he needed an engagement ring, he commissioned one in which an aquamarine from Sri Lanka was set in a band of ancestral gold made from his grandparents’ melted-down wedding rings.

Geology is poetry to him, and Romance with a capital R. It was an ancient sort of romanticism, fired by notions of the occult, that harnessed geology to religion at Delphi – the divine vapours inhaled by the oracle, Nield tells us, were rich in ethylene (C2H4), released through seismic action by hydrocarbon-rich sedimentary rocks. Poetry itself might be released from the rocks by these gases, and so the science of geology is infused with ethereal inspiration.

Such are the muddled responses that Underlands has left me with. I distrust the vaguely Tolkienian suggestions of its title because, while reading it has not made a geological buff of me, it has certainly reminded me that my dismal science is a far cry from the fantasies of hobbits. In the minds of its practitioners, geology is a noble instrument of inquiry and conviction. It can be oracular still, fiercely warning us against the degradation of our planet, and in the hands of Ted Nield it edges its way towards art. 

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