The Group's aim is to identify, survey, protect and promote geological and geomorphological sites in the former County of Avon - the modern unitary authorities of Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. RIGS are selected for their educational, research, historical and aesthetic value.

Friday, 24 August 2012

The William Smith Stone Column

The William Smith Stone Column near Wellow

Photo credit Andrew Mathieson

In 2006 the transport charity Sustrans commissioned the sculptor Jerry Ortmans to design and construct an art installation to celebrate the work of William Smith, the “Father of English Geology”. This Stone Column was to be in natural stone and to be installed near the village of Wellow, a few miles south of Bath, and along Route 24 of the National Cycle Network. The section of the Route from Bath to Frome has been called the Colliers Way and it provides new access to both the disused Somerset and Dorset railway line and the original route of the southern branch of the Somersetshire Coal Canal, which Smith worked on between 1793 and 1799.

        The siting was intended to link Smith's understanding of the local geology with his work on the survey and construction of the canal, which gave him so much evidence for his ground breaking understanding of stratigraphy and the use of fossils to identify beds of rock. In fact, although most of this southern branch of the canal was excavated, the company ran out of funds to build a flight of locks and it was never connected to the rest of the canal by water. Instead coal was carried along the original towpath on a horse-drawn railway and transferred to boats on the main canal near Midford.

        The design of the sculpture was based on Smith's account of the sequence of local rocks which he drew up in his famous Table of Strata in 1799, shortly after his dismissal from the Coal Canal Company. Seven large blocks of local rock were chosen and these were arranged into a vertical structure in their order of succession. Ortmans worked with local geologist Simon Carpenter to select suitable stone from a number of working quarries in the West of England, and they range from Carboniferous Pennant Sandstone up to Cretaceous Chalk.

        Sustrans also commissioned two information panels to be installed along the Colliers Way to help visitors better understand Smith's work in terms of the local geology and his work on the construction of the Coal Canal. One was placed beside the Stone Column and it concentrates on the local geology and Smith's work and the history of the Canal. It features a little-seen engraving of Smith in 1807, when he was aged 38, and emphasizes that the canal was one of the most prosperous in the south of England. Unfortunately there is little evidence of the canal nearby since its route was mostly destroyed by the construction of the railway.

        The second information panel is just south of the Midford railway viaduct, and this mainly deals with the various forms of transport which once existed nearby. There is a photograph of a train on both the Somerset and Dorset and the Limpley Stoke – Camerton lines in 1958, when the latter railway was being scrapped. The illustration for the Coal Canal is a photograph of Midford Weigh House which was taken in about 1890. An extract from a geological map of Smith's is also included. This was published in 1820, several years after his famous geological map of England and Wales, and Smith included all the existing canals and railways of the time.

        Although these installations are a distance from the sites most people associate with William Smith (Tucking Mill, Rugborne House, etc.), they add new ways of commemorating his pioneering contribution to geology and in addition are set in an area of attractive Inferior Oolite and Fullers Earth countryside which Smith would have known well.

Andrew Mathieson

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