Country diary: an old quarry is now a mine of natural treasure

Here is a local landmark few would want: above a beautiful stone village, a cement works, visible for miles. Like a turret, but with pipes and chimneys climbing the walls, this compact but discordant punctuation in otherwise lovely countryside calls to mind a castle. That we might describe as cherishable, but because this is modern, we don’t.

To make cement you need a quarry, and here is a big one – most of it working. But through a snicket at the end of truck-rumbled roads is a pocket wood: a place where there are hills where there shouldn’t be, with life – and death – in abundance.

It’s storm weather, the air heavy and the light flat, but I wander in for a walk. I’ve never been here before, sure that nothing naturally diverting could lie in such a clanking shadow, but am apparently mistaken.

Time has enabled this patch of the old quarry to regreen into a place of hills with ballistic slopes and outcrops of rock, and all of it under an unruly thatch of birch-growth. It could be a Lakeland valley or a Gloucestershire gorge were you to focus on your immediate senses. Ever noticed how among tall trees in summer leaf birdsong echoes ever so slightly? It’s a subtlety that immediately refines an atmosphere and gives it a wider sonic stage.

The view of Ketton Quarries from afar

While never far from concrete in every state, the wood is curiously teeming with nature. I’d heard about butterflies and glow worms, read about adders and nightingales and a weird, ghostly perennial called yellow bird’s-nest. I see or hear none of these. But life is everywhere – rich, green, thick, in the air and trees, underfoot. Ketton Quarries is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), with interest defined as “geological and biological“. Consider its rock, breaking out of the slopes here and there, it’s actually both at once.

Limestone is an astonishing material. It offers that depthless perspective: that the bits of shells, skeletons, coccoliths dissolve and layer into mountains, white cliffs and – in human hands – the stones of cities.

It’s an odd mingling of times. What they are digging out here is an old tropical seabed, beneath a fort of industry. Life, settling into rock. Rock, extracted into shelter. Life refills the holes the rock leaves. A circle of sorts. And in some lights, a virtuous one.


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