National Stone Centre

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10am - 4pm Every day
Published 19/05/2022

Stories of Stone: Ian Thomas's introduction to Geology

The origins and purpose of the National Stone Centre (NSC) are to tell the story of stone. Where it comes from, how it is used and the importance of the materials to support our everyday life. This blog will provide a behind the scenes insight into how the NSC came into being, the people that operate it and the features that make it so special and unique.

In this first piece, we are introducing Ian Thomas, one of the original founders of the National Stone Centre. Ian explains his background and how he came into geology at a young age.

The eldest of six children, I began working in the family printing business in Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire. Before I was 10, I was typesetting, operating a hand fed platen and using petrol to dilute ink to produce giant show posters and exhibition stands. The health and safety inspectors would have had a field day – but this was the early ‘50s!

We had plenty of paper but no money. So we entered many national art competitions, and were regular winners of prizes of Fry’s Chocolate hampers or Corgi Toys etc. There was one particularly memorable competition in 1963, when a poster design of mine meant that I was lucky enough to win a place on a European Youth Conference in Amsterdam where the main speaker was Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1991, to mark my father’s 80th birthday, we held an exhibition involving 19 family members – all of whom were currently, or had been in the past, connected with art and design. The participants then have continued to develop their passions and now include a couturier in Paris, an automotive engineering designer commissioned by all except one of European leading car makers, a founder of four London media/PR companies (one specialising in giant murals), greeting card designers and others.

My two sons* were also involved. One has a degree in Chinese and is an assistant professor and deputy departmental head at Leeds, specialising in multilingual graphical communication [using images in place of words] and information design. The other is currently Head of Quality Standards for Qatar Media Corp, having worked for TV in every continent except Australasia.

So, with such a rich creative heritage, where does geology and quarrying come into the frame?

One branch of the family, the Ashley’s, were builders in the village of Warsop, Nottinghamshire (as apparently were Viv Russell’s, MD Longcliffe and IQ Chair) and in nearby Mansfield Woodhouse. Around 1900, John Ashley ran Parliament Quarry located there, so-called because about 50 years previously, it supplied the resilient slabby limestone for the lower courses of that building.

Meanwhile, the Thomas side of the family in Aberystwyth, included Master Mariner John. His steam ship was the Countess of Lisburne 2. I discovered only last week that the previous sailing vessel carrying the same name, foundered on rocks in 1862, carrying a cargoes of limestone for burning as lime - Cardiganshire being the only county in Wales and England without a single limestone outcrop.

After a generation’s gap, the Thomas’s returned to Aberystwyth in 1957. As a 12-year-old on a soggy December walk in the Pumlumon Mountains, I was intrigued to see scattered piles of white rock. These turned out to be quartz gangue in lead mine waste tips. I decided to read more and had an academic paper published prior to leaving school.

I and one other student had to persuade a geography teacher to let us take our ‘O’ Level in the subject. As the teacher moved elsewhere, I ended up studying for my geology ‘A’ Level alone. I took three other ‘A’ Level subjects, my best being Art. Combining the two ‘opposites’, I achieved the highest mark in Wales for geology practical, in part on account of my model of Cadair Idris and Talyllyn [see below].

So my passion for geology was set in stone. I went on to become a chartered geologist and have had a fascinating career investigating and documenting the landscape, and industry and its heritage in the UK. My interest in design also continued and I have brought these together in the publication of several books, the latest being “Delving Along the Derwent”. This tells the stories of about 200 quarries and the people who worked them around Derby, Cromford, Matlock, Wirksworth and Brassington. It received an award as the UK’s best Local Studies book in 2019.

Of course the National Stone Centre is located just outside of Wirksworth in the heart of this fascinating area. But at the time the idea was first conceived in the late 1970’s, it was one of many places that were originally considered. More on this in the next blog!

 *Sadly after drafting this blog, one of Ian’s sons, Martin, died from an aneurysm in early February but Ian still wanted the piece to go ahead.