Fun is just a stone's throw away


The Pebble Spotter’s Guide is published by National Trust Books, an imprint of Pavilion Books. £9.99 Illustrations by Ella Sienna.

21st July 2021

By Kirstie Newton

They say that pebble-hunting is what geologists do on holiday, and Clive Mitchell’s first experience of geology was over 50 years ago, picking up pebbles on the beaches of Cornwall and Devon on family holidays. He had no idea what they were, but enjoyed the tactile pleasure of holding a perfectly smooth pebble that fitted neatly into the palm of his hand.

Today, Clive is an industrial minerals geologist at the British Geological Survey, and has travelled around the world, working on mineral resources. His love of the humble pebble has not diminished, however, and has resulted in The Pebble Spotter’s Guide - the perfect introduction to everything you didn’t know there was to know about the mindful pleasure of pebble spotting.

A large part of the appeal is the emotional pull of discovering a rock you really like. “The best pebbles are always the ones that you find yourself, that appeal to your own preferences for colour, texture and shape, and slip into your hand as if they were designed just for you,” says Clive.

“I’ve been a geologist for 30+ years, but I started collecting pebbles when I was five - my hands were much smaller then. It’s a hobby that has turned into something a little more in depth, but it’s still fun. Going to the beach is like a busman’s holiday for me – I just can’t help slipping a pebble into my pocket. I have a pile at the bottom of the garden, and my wife despairs when I come home with more.”

Clive offers practical advice on how to identify 40 pebbles, from the humble flint to feldspar veins, spotted slates, serpentinite, granite ovoids and - the holy grail of pebble hunting - the rare rhomb porphyry, which hails from Scandinavia and features distinctive diamond-shaped crystals nestled in dark-brown rock. He also tells you where to find them, making a trip to the beach or riverbank all the more interesting; and provides a space to note and ruminate on your own discoveries.

Hidden in plain sight along every shoreline is the beauty of a smooth pebble. They are usually, but not always, formed from a naturally occurring rock that has been worn smooth by the action of water on beaches, or in lakes and rivers. Sit on a beach or next to a stream for 10 minutes, and you can’t fail to find amazing treasures at your feet.

Top of the pebble pops in Cornwall is serpentinite, specific to the Lizard peninsula in the UK (but also found in Oman and California), and much beloved of gift shops in our most southerly village. “These are remnants of the oceanic crust which have been forced up onto the land,” says Clive. “It’s often used a decorative stone because it’s easy to carve and polish.”

Some pebbles are formed from artificial materials such as brick, glass and concrete, which dates back to Roman times. These are often the result of buildings and roads that have fallen victim to the power of the sea. While these are not rocks, they often make interesting pebbles that are sometimes hard to distinguish from rocks. This book explains the difference between Whitby Jet and a lump of coal, without looking down upon the latter.

“They are part and parcel of our planet, and they all come from rocks and minerals in the first place,” says Clive, who grew up in the village of Congresbury, on the northern edge of the Mendips in North Somerset, and now lives in Nottingham. “When I visit anywhere, I’m curious to know about the buildings, as they were often built from local stone – they would transport it from as close by as they could get away with. It didn’t travel far, and the same is often true of pebbles.”

The guide is richly illustrated throughout by Ella Sienna, who drew from originals packaged up for her by Clive. They elevate this pocket guide to coffee-table status. “I had thought it would be a case of taking photos, which would be more representative; but now I see that’s not the point,” says Clive. “The drawings give it another dimension and make it more attractive – my words are only part of it.”

While he has plenty of “hefty reference books” on his shelves, Clive describes this one as “a handy guide for someone who isn’t a geologist - something you can slip into a bag and taking it down to the beach”. Should you be inspired to delve further into the subject, he offers further reading recommendations, including the recently republished 1954 classic The Pebbles On The Beach by Clarence Ellis.

Clive is an enthusiastic geoscience communicator and can often be found online; last year, he conducted a Facebook Live event for British Science Week, and he can regularly be found on Twitter (@CliveBGS) helping keen amateur geologists to identify rocks. “People will often tweet photographs, asking ‘What is this?’” he says. “If I don’t know, there are usually other geologists out there willing to have a stab – it's like detective work.”

The Pebble Spotter’s Guide is published by National Trust Books, an imprint of Pavilion Books. £9.99 Illustrations by Ella Sienna.