Devon Crystals. Three extraordinary finds. Plus one.
Devon is special to me. Not just the voluptuous curves of its verdant countryside but also its underlying geology, which has been quarried and mined for millennia. It may not be Brazil, or Madagascar, where the world’s most beautiful mineral and crystal specimens are sourced but over a thirty-year period it has blessed me with some fascinating mementos.
My first experience of the place was the final summer of the seventies, working on a farm on the southern edge of Dartmoor. Like belated Laurie Lees my girlfriend and I rode atop hay wagons pulled by an ancient tractor through lanes clouded with wildflowers, helped out with the cows and fencing and were given a one-up one-down stone row cottage overlooking South Brent church to live in.
My eyes were attuned to flowers then, a Kentish boy enraptured by the Devon hedgerows with their profusion of campions and foxgloves, violets and vetches. Yet an enduring memory is being taken by the farms friendly cowman to see the Brunel viaduct over the Glazebrook,. A cathedral of granite, it is actually two constructions, Brunel’s first attempt remaining only as mighty, ivy-clad, towers beside the soaring arches of his second, which still carries the mainline to the South West.
1988 Three finds.
The sight of those huge blocks of granite with their thumb-length interlocking crystals of feldspar and quartz, must have evoked in me a passion prior to that one for wildflowers (I had studied geology at school in Kent). Because nine years later when I arrived in Devon to live in a rented house a few yards from the viaduct, it was with eyes to the ground for rocks and crystals that I took to the fields and woods up the stream and onto the moor. The first of three extraordinary finds took place there in a piece of abandoned woodland, sealed off from the surrounding fields and lane by brambles and blackthorn, dense with scratchy underbrush. Plunging in over the rusted barbed wire at some likely spot, I stumbled right onto a pair of fox cubs curled up in a patch of long grass. They felt like a blessing.
Further in on boggy ground beneath fallen branches, was this. Sadly this blurry analog photo is all I have to show of my find now for, unlike the second and third, it didn’t survive the ensuing thirty years of world travel. A ten-kilo lump of yellowish, milky quartz, its largest crystal structures echoing Machu Picchu or Kailash, the interstices a jumble of smaller facets. Of course I went back a couple of times that summer in hope of more but after a wet autumn I didn’t find a way to penetrate much further in. (This little corner does however feature again in the story below of a fourth find made after those thirty years).
The second of the three took place on Brent Hill. This is one of the trio of ‘Brents’ in the South West on intrusive metamorphic rock, associated with prehistoric earthworks, St Michael and ley lines. Brent Tor, on the Western edge of Dartmoor and Brent Knoll, up in Somerset can boast the real thing: churches dedicated to St Michael, established positions on major ley lines. This Brent – the Hill – is topped with but a lowly corner of masonry that is more likely to be the remains of a primitive sheepfold. It is however partly ringed by low prehistoric banks, probably Iron Age defensive earthworks.
Inspired by a guidebook to fossicking in England that mentioned that garnets can occasionally turn up on the hilltop paddocks, I was scouring the ground one bright morning. As I made my way through a scrape in the earthwork made by passing cattle my eye was caught by a flash of light on a brown stone embedded in brown soil. It was the perfectly formed facet of a quartz crystal. Prizing the stone out and dusting it off revealed an ‘Elestial’ (a quartz crystal studded with tiny protuberances, each a crystal in itself). Earthy and phallic, it felt to me as if it had somehow just grown there like a mushroom, especially for me to find.
Here it is, with several others and a much-eroded blue crystal from the same spot. I wondered about the prehistoric people who had mounded them up into their diggings. Had they simply not noticed or valued them, or had they perhaps offered them to some deity?
This third find feels almost like a dream to me now; how could someone else not have discovered these before me? I was just one of many who had spent time fossicking around Devon and Cornwall in abandoned quarries and mine spoil heaps over the past century. I hadn’t had much success either until, following a lead from my geological map showing an outlier of limestone in the village of N, I crossed a field to find a tiny quarry, long disused and overgrown, it’s floor a mess of decaying leaves, dead branches and broken rock. At the far end I found I could scramble up onto the old working face along a crumbling slope.
And there they were! Suspended at eye level, little bunches of clear quartz crystals, each less than an inch long but as perfect as their Brazilian cousins. I came back with a spoon, a brush and water to prize them out of their iron-rich matrix, still in disbelief that they could have been ignored by the old quarrymen and then waited through a century of so for me to arrive.
2019 The find of finds.
I arrived back in Devon excited to pick up from where I had left off, the intervening years having been spent on crystal-free volcanic and sedimentary rocks in India, New Zealand and Hawai’i. So I soon took myself off to the abandoned woodland above the Glazebrook, happily still as neglected as ever. Over a couple of visits I found all sorts of crazily contorted lumps of quartz lying in the bogs, none of them as elegant as that lost mountain range piece (although some of them found their way to my garden pond).
Many were only partly revealed and had to be unearthed by hand from the mud, so one time I came back with a trowel to attack a promising-looking moss covered mound. Just below the surface a twinkle caught my eye. Wrapped in a cloth and humped out through the brambles, this treasure revealed itself fully once well showered with a hose.