Going Beneath the Grains of Sand

As an accompaniment to our recent video teaser of William Blake's new stone finally in place at his grave in Bunhill Fields, we bring the story 'full circle' with this post and video from James Murray-White on his visit to the birthplace of that stone monument: Portland Head in Dorset. Here, beneath the 'grains of sand', is a place resonant with Blakean names: the Jordans Mine of Albion Stone.

One of the real highlights of my process of starting in on a project is the research time I always undertake, and then the physical journeys I get involved in to explore and create and find stories within the story. It is all about uncovering and hearing stories: following my nose and my gut into the underworld, or the meta-narrative, of the bigger story.

This has been true of many of my projects: a year spent while in my final year at Hull University on the trail of Eric Gill (which leads nicely back into this Blake Project); my undergraduate dissertation of the Dekalog films of Krzysztof Kieślowski; my five years living with and experiencing the life of the Bedouin tribes of the Negev Desert; my two films and research for a bigger project on the life and work of poet John Clare in North Cambridgeshire (my homeplace) and Epping Forest; and now, this wonderfully rich and curious journey into the life, work, and legacy of William Blake.

To Albion Stone

This has now literally taken me down into the bowels of the earth, under the “grains of sand”, down to the seam layer of Portland stone thousands of feet underground, to see the place where the new stone marking Blake’s burial place was cut from, in preparation for the careful work of Lida Kindersley to cut the letters.

Going in
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

Hallam Kindersley — Lida’s son — and I set off on an eight hour round trip to Portland Head, to visit the mine where Portland stone is hewn from. Last year I made contact with Albion Stone in preparation, to think about the process of stone being cut, right through to it being carved and created, through to the setting ceremony on August 12th.

For various reasons, I wasn’t able to go before Christmas, and the piece of stone that is being used had already been cut and was sitting in a stoneyard in Cambridge, from where Lida chose it (see the short film showing this, under February in our The Story Continues timeline). So I’m being open that here I’m ‘cheating’ the natural timeline and filming after the event — although forget you’ve read this when it comes to the film, as I’ll play around with the sequence of events and ‘pretend’ that we’re going to choose the piece of stone direct from the quarry…

Down in Jordans Mine

We met Mark Godden, Mine Manager, in Albion Stone’s HQ on Portland Head, and after a quick cup of tea and introductions to our project and to the work of the company, we set off the mile or two to the mine. I knew we were in interesting company when Mark straightaway referred to the Blakean “grains of sand”, and shared that he’s loved Blake’s work for many a year.

Jordans Mine is under-whelming from the outside: a curving white track, a couple of shipping containers at the top, and just two large holes framed by steel — and that’s it. Not sure what I expected, but this was it, and in we went.

It’s bizarre walking into a mine — I thought we were driving in, or even going in by some lift contraption, but no, Mark parked up and in we went. There was an instant differentness to the air and the atmosphere: a chalky clarity and a subterranean ambience, maybe. During some of the time there, around the mining, there was a sulphurous smell, like a bilious release, but it didn’t linger. I smelt it again at Lida’s workshop, as she cut the thicker letters of the name — and we both recoiled at the sudden stink: all those tiny critters released, after so much time encased and crushed down as sedimentary rock.

Mark led us deep in: it’s a very spacious place, as still as you would expect, interrupted every 10-15 minutes or so by the lights and then the sound of a hulking great vehicle taking stone out, or coming back in to collect more. I hope in the footage I’ve captured the slightly sinister sense of these coming towards you and roaring past, like beasts in a dark night. They illuminate and charge past, then the dark enfolds around again, and we walk on.

The cutting blade
Photograph; James Murray-White © 2018

My preoccupation was (and always is!) getting decent footage and sound, and this space threw up lots of challenges, and alongside that, I was watching my reaction to the space, feeling for creeping claustrophobia or indeed panic! Thankfully this didn’t rise up and force me to flee. Mark steered us gently between seams, between active work going on, measuring and assessing, and a close-up look of the huge saws and bits of kit used to cut and extract the stone. This mine quarries stone, not mines it or explodes it out: it’s a complicated process of cutting, then a metal bag is forced inside the cut; this contains water, which slowly expands and then the stone cracks off, and is hoiked out by machinery. The pressure is intense as this metal bag expands, and the sense that a huge boulder would be freed — I looked up at the structural roof supports, and wondered…

The way out
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

And so, here is our film of that strange and intriguing day spent underground, in search of Blake’s stone.

Mine Visit V2 from James Murray-White on Vimeo.

 

Notes

You can find out more about Albion Stone at their website and you can download an article by Mark Godden on the history, quarrying and geology of Portland stone:

2 thoughts on “Going Beneath the Grains of Sand”

  1. Strange and eerie place – it’s amazing the whole area hasn’t been quarried out. Mark Godden’s article is very interesting, too (admittedly skimmed some of the geology) but the techniques – plug and feather – all so different from these giant machines…

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