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Who was William Smith?

Ben explores Tucking Mill’s connection with one of England’s most forethinking scientists, and an unexpected love affair with geology.

The great geologist William Smith is known as the ‘Father of English geology’ and is credited with having created the first ever national scale geological map, which was the most accurate of any during his time.

But did you know he used to reside right opposite our holiday cottages in the hamlet of Tucking Mill?

William Smith called Tucking Mill his home from 1798 to 1810, and there is a plaque on Tucking Mill Cottage, just a stone’s throw from Tucking Mill View, celebrating that it was once Smith’s home (although the man actually lived just up at Tucking Mill House, another stone’s throw away).

Author and journalist Simon Winchester wrote a book called The Map that Changed the World in 2001, and the unbelievably beautiful hardback STRATA: William Smith’s Geological Maps, published in 2020 by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, is a must-buy for any geology fan.

In Winchester’s book, he writes:

“In the summer of 1815 an extraordinary hand-painted map was published in London. Some eight feet tall and six feet wide, brightly coloured – in sea-blue, green, bright yellow, orange, umber – it presented England and Wales in a beguiling and unfamiliar mixture of lines and patches and stippled shapes. It was the product of one man’s obsession with rocks, a passion that sustained him whilst the rest of his life slid into ruin.”

William Smith’s famous 1815 map.

I fell into geology through wine, having set up Novel Wines back in 2016. The vine, and inevitably the wine itself, is literally rooted in geology and its varying hues. The way varieties and viticulture reacts and responds to soils and subsoils is, at first, beguiling and then enthralling.

So when I discovered STRATA on a visit to Hay-on-Wye during a recent holiday, I fell completely in love with it.

This stunning collection of maps is intertwined by a discussion of Smith and his career with essays from leading academics. It reflects on Smith’s rise from blacksmith’s son to surveyor to fossil collector and, eventually, geologist and cartographer. It is, in a way, a beautiful story that captures the world at a single moment in time – both visually and by the written word.

While Smith himself fell into financial ruin and was only celebrated for his work posthumously, his legacy was exceptional. Multiple maps and geological surveys used his work as a blueprint, and many geologists owe a debt to his work. Today, William Smith has a crater on Mars named after him. A William Smith facsimile was created at the Natural History Museum in 2005, where he sits alongside reputable figures like Carl Linnaeus, Mary Anning and Dorothea Bate. Smith’s work also provided an important foundation for the discoveries of Charles Darwin.

William Smith, the Father of English Geology.

So, while he may have not enjoyed the respect he deserved during his day, when you are next visiting the hamlet of Tucking Mill and strolling around the beautiful Midford Valley, do raise a glass when you kick-back and put your feet-up at the cottage and cheers the illustrious man, Mr William Smith.

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