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.
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.
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.
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.