Stone in Wales

by Thom Evans

Something I often hear is that Wales is a country full of hidden gems; I was born and raised in Cardigan Bay, and still live and work there as a stonemason, and cannot argue with this description. I can honestly say that rarely do a few months pass without me stumbling upon a little-known historic building full of delightfully untouched charm. However during my Fellowship year I am coming to realise it may not just be the buildings themselves whose fantastic value is underappreciated but also the people who serve them.
I began the third block of the Fellowship (a time of study away from the other Fellows to pursue our individual interests) by meeting with Dr Tim Palmer a retired senior lecturer at Aberystwyth University whose current charges include being a consultant in Architectural Geology, ex-secretary of the Welsh Stone Forum and enthusiast/font of knowledge on all things stone. The extent of the knowledge Tim was able to impart is far too large to do justice in this blog but I would like to concentrate on one revelation that has caused me to re-evaluate my thinking.

Strata Florida

Strata Florida

Many surviving medieval buildings, whether fortified or ecclesiastical, along the south and west coast of Wales (as well as the east coast of Ireland) appear to contain a certain amount of Jurassic limestone that to the untrained eye could be described as Bath stone. I have encountered this stone, often used for carved detailing, and it had left me somewhat perplexed. Whilst I was often able to discount it as being Bath stone, I had regularly considered it to be Doulting- a hardier more crystalline limestone from Somerset still used today. I often questioned whether this out of place limestone was contemporary to the original medieval fabric, as it appeared not to have weathered as much as one might expect after the ravages of time in excess of 600 years. I suppose, also, I associated the widespread use of the Jurassic limestone in Wales with the Georgian and Victorian era and wondered whether these apparent anachronisms were interventions at this stage. The work of Tim and the Welsh Stone Forum has however been able to settle this little riddle for me.
They have identified this esoteric stone as being Dundry. A non-oolitic Jurassic limestone quarried from Dundry-Hill, just south of Bristol. Whilst it shares many similarities with Doulting such as its age and non-oolitic formation it appears to be significantly more durable. The geological reason for this is explained in detail by Dr Palmer in various papers, but in simple terms the sea lilies whose decaying matter make up the sediment of this stone are Echinoderms and define the dense granular quality of the stone.

Strata Florida

Strata Florida

It is believed that quarrying for Dundry had reached natural conclusion around 1540 when the supply of the best quality beds was exhausted, although a brief revival between 1850-1910 yielded some inferior quality stone. As well as being used extensively for external masonry it was used for numerous fonts, which were often carved in a generic style and shipped across the south west.
So it is easy to understand why this durable freestone which was close to the river Avon, and therefore the Channel, coastline and trade routes achieved ubiquity in its heyday and can still be found now at sites such as Llandaff Cathedral, Chepstow and Newport castles, round to the Bishops Palace in St David’s and as far north as Strata Florida and Aberystwyth Castle. The extensive research and investigation that Dr Palmer and his colleagues at the Welsh Stone Forum have undertaken to highlight the importance of Dundry to medieval masonry should be lauded.

Strata Florida

Strata Florida

The Fellowship has really made me realise that conservation is a collaborative effort. Whether it’s the communities that campaign for funding to protect their beloved landmark, the volunteers that brave the elements to maintain their churches, or the enthusiasts who help us better understand the materials we use.  Many people work away at their own personal interest or profession and rarely get the recognition they deserve. Without them the work we practitioners carry out on site lacks cohesion, and we should be thankful.

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Scholars and Fellows: Where are they now?

We recently caught up with 2012 Fellow and stonemason, Samantha Peacock. She talks about the survival of traditional craft techniques and their important place in conservation.

I currently work as a conservation stonemason in the south west. Having worked and trained as a banker mason (mostly workshop-based), I increasingly found the philosophies and complexities of the issues surrounding the conservation of historic buildings more challenging and appealing than the new-build industry. I was encouraged to apply for the Fellowship by my then employer, Simon Armstrong of Wells Cathedral Stonemasons, and was awarded the William Morris Craft Fellowship in 2012.

The Fellowship was fantastic. As a group of 6, three Fellows and three Scholars, we travelled the country, learning about the many building materials involved in historic building conservation –from dry stone walling in the Lake District to wood carving in Stirling, Scotland; we visited forges, threw bricks, split roofing slates, cut mortise and tenons at a timber framers and even thatched a cottage. We visited many historic buildings where we could discuss their conservation and repair with the architect or engineer.

Samantha helping to conserve the 14th-century statue of St Peter at York Minster

Samantha helping to conserve the 14th-century statue of St Peter at York Minster

My favourite part of the Fellowship was spending a summer evening in the Welsh countryside burning limestone to make lime with the architect Stafford Holmes. Not only was it great fun, but I got to really understand a material that I use frequently in my work.

After the Fellowship I worked at York Minster, experiencing the issues of historic building conservation first hand. I was part of the team of masons repairing the Great East Window and conserving the original 14th century statue of Saint Peter.

Conservation is not just the physical act of repairing the historical fabric of a building but it’s also about preserving our built heritage for future generations. The issues of conservation can also be found in a form of intangible heritage, such as in the arguments of authenticity and significance, and how these are interwoven into the tradition, continuation and re-enactment of traditional craft skills. These skills can only be passed on if building material is replaced and opportunities are created for craftsmen to practice their trade. Balancing both these concerns often creates a conflict of interest between the replacement and retention of the fabric of a building. Wanting to explore these arguments further I undertook a master’s degree in the Archaeology of buildings at the University of York.

I am now self-employed and I have worked with a small conservation company, Minerva Stone, on a number of churches such as St Peter and Paul in Kilmersdon and St Mary the Virgin at Yarlington, combining both conservation and replacement of stonework. Over the summer of 2015 I have been back working with Wells Cathedral Stonemasons on the 18th century coade stone panels of the Radcliffe observatory in Oxford. The work I do is often varied from banker work, letter cutting and conservation, to setting out and carving pinnacles, but it will be difficult to beat working at York Minster.

The Fellowship has shaped my career immeasurably. It directly influenced the direction that my career has taken and given me the confidence to be assertive and confident in my craft.