Written in the rocks

Clive Fewins took the Spencer family to Wirksworth in Derbyshire, for a day of gem panning and fossil casting
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The Independent Travel
At the National Stone Centre in the Derbyshire Dales, you start to see the world in a completely new light. The gallery at the Story of Stone exhibition overlooks a stunning panorama of six quarries. It provides a graphic view of what the stone centre sets out to do, showing the part played by stone in the day-to-day life of us all.

A series of walks around the 50-acre site, on a hillside above the old mining town of Wirksworth, reinforces this. Explanatory boards point out that although the area covered by the centre was once a series of stone quarries, 330 million years before that - long before the dinosaurs roamed around here - it was the floor of a giant tropical lagoon.

Once you realise that you are walking on a former sea bed, your eyes are alerted to the abundant fossils - teeth of the sharks that once swam there, sea lilies (crinoids) that lived in the shelter of the reefs, molluscs, brachiopods (shelled creatures), and corals. The larger fossils are on the faces of the carboniferous limestone. Smaller ones are found on many of the pieces of stone lying on the ground. Visitors can pick these up and take them home.

Inside the Centre you can see the myriad of uses stone is put to - including toothpaste, thermoplastics, food processing and fine china. Children can have a go at casting fossils in dental plaster, panning for gemstones, and fossil-rubbing using tracing paper and large casts of the fossils.

The visitors

Amanda Spencer took her children Jake, three, and Gemma, 10, and their cousin Lucy, four.

Amanda: This place appealed to all of us. The little ones were entranced by all the colours, textures and shapes of the rocks on show.

The smaller children love gem-panning. For 65p you buy a scoop of sand mixed with tiny gems. Then you go to the special pool, where you are given a pan which you use to wash away the sand very carefuly until all the gems appear. And you can name them with the help of identification boards, or a little book on sale in the shop.

We've been here several times - the children never get bored here. When the weather is too bad to go round the trail or to go fossil-hunting outside, there is always something new to see in the Story of Stone exhibition. It's one of the best preserved carboniferous fossil reefs in the country; we call it Derbyshire-on-Sea.

Jake: I like gem-panning. There are all sorts of little precious stones buried in sand. You sometimes get wet, but it's worth it. You can take the gems home and make patterns with them. I also like the sound of the explosions in the surrounding quarries.

Lucy: I like all the slopes, and the fossils in the rocks; also the views over the hills and old quarries. I managed to find some fossils in the big rocks and also brought home some smaller rocks with fossils in them that I found on the ground. They show tiny creatures, which are really ancient.

I also like the shop. There are all sorts of rocks on sale. They are all different colours and shapes and sizes and I like feeling them. They also come from countries all over the world, which is interesting. The exhibition is great fun. It shows all the things that can be made from stone.

Gemma: There is masses to see on the walks around the old quarries. You can go round several times and still see different things. I find it fascinating that sharks once swam here. You can see the evidence. I collect different rocks, so the shop was especially interesting.

The Story of Stone exhibition is quite large and detailed, but very clear. Some of the sections were a bit difficult for me, but I liked the display of the famous buildings, such as cathedrals, universities and airports, that have been built using stone.

It was also interesting seeing how much we depend on stone. I still can't believe that each of us uses at least five tonnes of stone a year, and that there is rock in the clothes we wear, as well as in things like steel, rubber and medicines. I also liked the quiz, which had all sorts of fun questions.

The deal

The National Stone Centre, Wirksworth, Derbyshire DE4 4FY (01629 824833), is reached from Derby via the A6 and the B5023 from Duffield. From Matlock take the A6 south to Cromford, and the B5023 to Wirksworth. There is a sign to the centre on that road. Wirksworth is also on the bus route between Derby and Bakewell, and can be reached by train to Cromford, two miles away.

Opening times: daily, 10am-5pm

Admission: Adult pounds 1.80, concessions pounds l.20, child pounds 90. Family ticket pounds 3.60

Access: there is wheelchair and buggy access to the Story of Stone exhibition, and also to most sections of the trail.

Pit stop

If you're in search of reviving places that positively welcome children, head for the Crown Yard Kitchen Restaurant at Wirksworth (01629 822020).

At Wirksworth, look for the Heritage Museum sign, walk through the arch and up the winding slope and you will find this bright, airy restaurant. Home baking includes biscuits and tea cakes: there are rolls and sandwiches (from 80p), jacket potatoes (pounds 1.30-pounds 2) , all-day breakfasts, salads, lasagne, steak and kidney pie and cod mornay, plus daily vegetarian specials. A children's menu offers a waffle and three fish fingers served with baked beans, a fruit drink and ice-cream: children's portions are always available. Two high-chairs and a toy box with books are provided. Seating on a terrace in summer. Open 9am-5pm (Sunday 10am-8pm).

From Egon Ronay's Guide ...and Children Come Too (Bookman, pounds 9.99)

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