A while ago I went on a Jurassic Coast Ambassador’s day visiting sites in Purbeck including the caves and quarries at Winspit. Sam Scriven, the JCT’s brilliantly engaging geologist, spoke about the history of quarrying, and how Portland stone in particular has shaped many of our important landmarks.
This all came flooding back yesterday when I found myself faced with a beautiful, smooth block of Portland stone, and a selection of chisels!
I think it’s an age thing, but nowadays for birthdays and Christmas instead of (OK, not instead of) presents, I love to get things to do – surfing lessons was a highlight. This Christmas I got a voucher for Craft Courses, and chose a day’s stone carving as I love trying anything new.
It was at Sculpture by the Lakes, an unexpectedly tranquil and beautiful setting. Set in 26 acres of Dorset countryside, Sculpture by the Lakes was created by renowned sculptor Simon Gudgeon and his wife, Monique. Between them they have created a landscape of water and intriguing gardens, with that peaceful background noise of ducks and geese and wind in the willows that you only find by water.
The course itself was run by John Davey, a stone carver who lived and worked for many years in the south of France, carving for gothic cathedrals, medieval villages and St Tropez swimming pools!
We each got a blank canvas of a block of Portland stone, and after a quick introduction to the chisels, we were off. It really is quite a simple process – the art is in knowing how hard or soft you need to go. I was surprised how little effort was needed to make marks (stone is hard, surely?) but you could easily make an impression. The devil is in the detail, as always, and that’s not the bit I’m best at! I will never be a master craftsman at anything, as I like to just crack on and have a go; I’ve done a few craft courses now, and my work always looks great by lunchtime, but overtaken by teatime, as the more careful, methodical tortoises have caught up with the rather gung-ho hare!
Everyone else came with designs to make, but for lack of time, and not knowing what was realistic, I didn’t, so I just used one of John’s templates of a simple Celtic knot. We had an interesting mix, with knot work, a lovely 3D sun, a wonderfully flowing duck, some oak leaves and even Fred Flintstone in his car!
The process is incredibly satisfying, as it’s very immediate, and the stone itself is so beautiful that anything you do will at least be made of beautiful stone!
Lunch in The Gallery cafe on site was included, and it was exceptionally good. I had baked cod, which was delicious, and everyone else’s food looked amazing. The food is well worth a visit on its own, and is not far from Dorchester or Weymouth, so not unrealistic for a lunch visit.
Everyone thoroughly enjoyed their day, and we all have something that will last for years as a reminder. I’m looking forward to seeing mine weather a bit, and may try the yoghurt trick to speed up the process.
I didn’t get the chance to have a good look at Sculpture by the Lakes, but other people on the course were saying how wonderful it is, and I would love to go back in a different season to see it again. They have a lot of events, including a rare plant fair and Dorset Arts Festival in July. This is a three-day festival with over 50 artists and makers, showing their process as well as their work, and should be an exciting event for anyone creative.
Entrance to the Lakes is £10, but access to the Gallery and the Gallery Cafe is free. (Note that because of the water, no dogs or children under 14 are allowed on site.)
I would thoroughly recommend a course here, and if you get the chance, a stone carving course. It’s very satisfying, there’s really no right or wrong (or no wrong that can’t be remedied!), and you’ll have a piece of work that will outlive you!