Building stone

Have you ever wondered why towns and villages look different  from each other? Why the older parts of the village have the same coloured  houses?

Start with the church. It is a good bet that it is one of the oldest buildings in the village. This means that it is almost certainly built with local stone because, in the time when the main transport of goods was by horse and cart, the cost of transporting stone was greater than the original cost of the stone itself. This is why many records of church and manor building records will show the amount of stone used is measured in cart loads. There will be two prices in the accounts, the costs of the stone and the cost of the cart transport – the latter is almost invariably greater than the former. The difference increases with the distance of the church from the quarry.

The favoured method in olden times, in areas favoured with an underlying of, for example, limestone, was to dig a quarry, using the lime to burn in one of the local lime kilns to produce lime to be spread on the land to reduce the acidity and to make lime mortar for building. The best stone was extracted from the quarry and laid to one side ready to be used for building the church. When the quarry had been worked out or the demand had moved away, a church was built on the site of the quarry using the stored stone. This means that, as a common rule, the church is the best place to see the local stone – no transport cost was involved. It also made sense to use the space created by the quarrying to build a crypt or undercroft. If there is a dearth of good quality stone, what is available was used for the front of the church and the quoins. The rest of the walls were often rag built using any local stone around or the local quarry discards. If quality stone was plentifully available then it would be dressed into blocks and laid in courses – an ashlar wall. The steeple and other shaped or carved areas were, of course, built from a superior stone that may have to be transported in from some distance away at a high cost.

Some villages and areas of cities have buildings made from such distinctive  stone that the area, of the city or village may well be named after the stone. For example, in Bristol there is Redfield, Redland, Redcliffe, Redcliffe Hill and Parade. This is because the area between Bedminster and Winterbourne is build on Redcliffe Sandstone which gives an intensely red colour to the soil and  buildings. This sandstone can be seen in the tannery walls along the New Cut and Redcliffe where there is an entrance to the manmade caves in this rock. It can also be seen in the banks of the New Cut of the River Avon as it flows through Bedminster. It is a soft rock and so not really suitable for building – the walls of the tannery have suffered from aeolian erosion over the years, the stones are hollowed out leaving the harder mortar standing out from the surface. To overcome this, some buildings were built from other stones mixed in with the Redcliffe Sandstone to add strength.

As an aside, it is well worth visiting the Redcliffe Caves. They are owned by Bristol Council so are open during the ‘Doors Open’ season and also on request by The Axbridge Caving Group who will lead groups of up to 25 on a 2 hour tour of the ‘Caves.’ The contact information is all on-line.

Because the building stones used in a particular area can define the character of the area, most councils keep a record of the building stones that have been used in their area over the years and, where possible identify where repair supplies can be sourced from. This is increasingly difficult because every area used to have a ‘Town Quarry’ but most of there have long been closed and lost to stone extraction. There are great planning difficulties in opening new quarries to obtain the stone necessary for conservation work on old buildings. No one wants to live next to a quarry. This is so much so that any new quarries needed for conservation supplies are now called ‘Delves’ to avoid waking the Nimby  monster. Most quarries in the UK are now huge but that’s another story.

A search on Google for ‘The Building Stones of ****’ will soon find a record of this for most counties.  As an example, a search for ‘The building stones of Avon’ will soon find a ‘Strategic Stone Study of 2011’ called ‘A Building Stone Atlas of Avon’  Avon no longer exists of course but this study cover the CUBA councils ( Counties that Used to Be Avon ). This publication gives a very interesting overview of the buildings in the four counties and the geological age of the stone employed which gives the area its individual character.

This information has resulted in a whole new geological interest – sometimes called Urban Geology. It is now possible to do study tours around towns and cities to look at and identify the building stones used in the city, town or village where you live. Two examples are given here, but given a bit of searching , a publication can be found for most places in the UK.

The building stones of Clifton, Bristol. Prepared by the Avon RIGS Group.

Siddall, R, 2015, A world of geology on the Isle of Dogs: Building Stones at Canary Wharf., Urban Geology in London No. 31.

Ruth Siddall’s website is well worth a look, not least for the beautiful pics and the list of guides:
You will have noticed that both of these sites were created by Ruth Siddall and her colleagues at UCL.

It is now possible to go fossilising in the middle of a city – Belemnites in the limestone paving of platform 3 at Temple Meads station in Bristol and some lovely ammonites in the flooring stone of Liverpool Airport. London is ‘covered’ in Portland Roach stone which is full of the trace fossils of the ‘Portland Screw’, even the BBC. See Ruth’s other web site at:

Siddall, R, 2015, An Urban Geologist’s Guide to the Fossils of the Portland Stone., Urban Geology in London No. 30.

I hope this short essay will have aroused your interest in ‘Urban Geology” and you will look differently at the stone used in buildings in your area. Please bear in mind that any recent building will probably have used stone from overseas  – probably either India, Brazil or, famously, Norway – because they are cheaper – how things have changed from the days of church building.

Can you find out the name of the stone famously specified for the facias of Barclay’s Bank branches or that specified by Brunel for Temple Meads station? Where did they both come from?

I would be interested in seeing your answers  – please use the ‘Comment’ facility on this blog post if you wish.


© Richard Kefford                                                                                                                   Eorðdraca


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