Dorset's Portland Stone

At Tout Quarry in Dorset you can try your hand at sculpting. Juliet Rix puts her amateur skills to the test

The landscape is full of natural and artistic surprises: we are in Tout Quarry on the "Island" of Portland, Dorset, the home of Portland stone. An attractive creamy-white, slow to weather and relatively easy to shape, this stone was Sir Christopher Wren's favourite building material, famously used for St Paul's Cathedral.

Portland is not really an island, being linked to the mainland by a natural wonder, the 29km shingle bank of Chesil Beach. It is a strange place, a mix of 1950s suburbia-on-sea and windswept nature reserve. But odder still are the scars of centuries - perhaps millennia - of quarrying. Wildlife loves it (more than 300 bird species have been identified and 800 types of moth) and so do a select band of artists and amateur carvers we have come to join - as complete beginners - in a stone-carving workshop.

We are shown around the quarry by Hannah Sofaer, who came here for a student sculpture project in 1983 and has never quite left. She leads us up a serpent constructed in steps (a 1983 artwork by Christine Fox) to a high point above the quarry. Tout is old English for lookout, she explains, and we certainly look out from here - way down to the sea and along the full length of Chesil Beach.

Coming down we arrive at a sort of side-chapel where people are tapping rhythmically at chunks of white stone. "What would you like to carve?" asks Hannah. I stare dumbly at the blocks. My 12-year-old son, Luke, thinks he might do a rabbit. We are quickly informed that this is a taboo word on Portland - we have to call them "abbitrs", "bunnies", "Wilfreds" or "underground mutton". My son thinks better of that and settles on a lizard. A large flattish piece of stone - nearly as big as his torso - is manoeuvred on to a low trolley, wheeled into the carving area and rolled up a plank on to a solid stone work block. I pick out a squarer chunk with a protuberance that is vaguely beak-like and decide to attempt an eagle's face.

The tools are explained to us: the chisel, the punch, the pitcher and the claw. But when I find myself standing with a full toolbox in front of my untouched stone it is far worse than a blank sheet of paper. I look around. All those who had carved before are already shaping their stones - several are doing heads, one a dog, another an abstract curve. Luke, suitably kitted out with protective goggles, is being helped to draw a wonderful swirl of lizard using the shape of the stone, and to rough out its outline with hammer and chisel.

I begin. Stone chips fly, which is satisfying. The stone is harder than I expected, but it does yield - sometimes even as I intend. By the end of the session I have something like a beak, with eyes roughed out on either side. Other members of the group -a barrister, a full-time dad, a furniture maker, a retiree and an art student - insist it is a ram's head with curling horns!

I am tired, white with dust and not convinced that this is for me. Luke feels the same, but he has become attached to his lizard and is admirably determined to come back tomorrow and get on with it. Day two dawns bright and sunny. Kate, a part-time sculptor (and full-time policy adviser for Oxfam), helps us mark our stones with a piece of graphite. I hammer with more confidence and rhythm, getting the angle of the chisel closer to what it should be. I discover that the claw makes wonderful feather-like textures and Kate lends me a file to smooth the beak. Suddenly both Luke and I are actually carving and our blocks are turning into something else. It is a little like magic.

Luke says he has gone from feeling the stone is so hard he cannot do anything with it, to seeing it as fragile. He hammers the claw down vertically to stipple the background and uses the sharp chisel to clean up the edges. I give my bird proper eyes and shorten its beak, and the ram disappears forever.

By day three it is all surprisingly natural and I am having ideas for other things I'd like to make. But it is time to go. We load our carvings into the car (the question of how to get them up the stairs at home can wait) and drive off with a huge sense of pleasure and satisfaction.

Juliet Rix attended a workshop with Portland Sculpture and Quarry Trust (01305 826736; learning stone.org). Courses from May to September and cost from £225 for five days, children pay a donation. Portland Stone Centre is open to the public free of charge

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