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Conference Report – Symposium on the Old Red Sandstone, Brecon, October 2014

Confluence of the Yukon and Koyukuk Rivers, Alaska, United States, 1941

Braided rivers, flowing across a broad floodplain – a good modern analogue for the Old Red Sandstone environment (Confluence of the Yukon and Koyukuk Rivers, Alaska, 1941, Public Domain)

At the start of October Elliot and Kate presented at the inaugural Symposium on the Old Red Sandstone in Brecon. The Old Red Sandstone is the name given to the rocks formed between about 420 and 360 million years ago when Britain was at the margins of an arid desert. Its predominantly red rocks – the result of the same intense weathering, of iron rich minerals such as mica, which forms laterite soils in hot arid regions today – underlie the bulk of Herefordshire, giving rise to its distinctive fertile red soils.

That fact means that understanding and charting its variation is crucial to us understanding the variation that exists in local building materials across much of our project area. A barrier to this is a high degree of local geological variation that belies the rock’s “Red Sandstone” moniker – or, as the conference organisers put it; it’s not all red and most of it isn’t sandstone. The group includes lithologies from mudstone to cobble conglomerates and varies in colour from olive green to deep red, purple or rusty brown, often within the space of a few centimetres.

Many distinctive units will have been laid down only in the beds of meandering braided rivers and so may be geographically restricted to a few metres of rock. Equally it is becoming clear that both huge floods and long term cessation of sedimentation could be basin-wide phenomena resulting in sandstone/conglomerates and calcretes respectively that can be traced for hundreds of kilometres. Understanding the interplay between these two opposing trends in deposition is as crucial to understanding the distinctiveness of local stones as it is to addressing broader questions regarding the wider environment and mechanics of their formation 400 odd million years ago.

As to what we’ve managed to contribute thus far to advance the issue the answer is, as yet not much. Our talk consisted mostly of a series of open questions tempered with hints and possibilities of answers as yet unforthcoming. For instance how far can distinctive stone from a given town be traced into the surrounding countryside? Is there a reason that green stones seem to be preferred for high status buildings and might this relate to apparent differences in weathering performance? How can the inherent sampling bias that affects stone selected from a quarry be mitigated against? Other interesting ideas came out of discussions with other delegates between talks. One such is that buildings in Bromyard may have utilised stone sourced by digging out the cellars (and if these cases can be reliably identified could this be used as a mapping tool?). Another was the idea of microwaving sandstones till they fall apart to search for microscopic fish fossils that could act as a “fingerprint”. However we are making progress and in working towards submitting a paper to the proceedings we will be clarifying many of these issues.

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The project is over and all that’s left to say is a big Thank You to all those involved. We have been overwhelmed by the all hard work and effort of the Building Stones volunteers over the past few years, but alas the project has come to end. Thanks for all your contributions we have exceeded our ambitions for the project!

The database will continue to be freely available for anybody wishing to learn more about stone buildings and quarries in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, but there will be no new additions to the database (as of June 2017).

A Thousand Years of Building with Stone was a 4½ year long project run by Herefordshire & Worcestershire Earth Heritage Trust and funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund. We have recorded, catalogued and untangled the history of stone use in heritage buildings across Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Helping us to do this are a wonderful and ever expanding group of dedicated volunteers.

Explore the Database

The Building Stones Database records over 4500 stone buildings and quarries across Herefordshire and Worcestershire, connecting buildings with their quarry sources. Explore how local stone lends towns and villages their particular charm, discover the lost history of quarrying and more.

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Get Involved

The bulk of the project work is being undertaken by a fantastic and growing group of volunteers and we are always looking for new people to get involved. From out at a single event to delving into archives, there are opportunities to suit a wide range of interests and levels of commitment.

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New Trail Guides are coming soon…

We are working on creating 4 new Trail Guides, which will be published by the end of the project. They will be self-guided walking trails around various towns exploring the stone heritage along the way.

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A (Very) Short History of the Bromsgrove Sandstone

Here at Building Stones HQ we are busily putting together an exhibition to coincide with our upcoming roadshow at Avoncroft Museum 26th-28th August. Here’s sneak peak of some of the research going into that, much of which draws upon the Reverend Alan White’s excellent historical paper on the Bromsgrove quarrying and brickmaking industry.

St Johns Church, Bromsgrove

St John’s Church, Bromsgrove, C12th-C15th, built from local Bromsgrove Sandstone

The Bromsgrove Sandstone was formed in a desert on the supercontinent Pangaea, during the Triassic, roughly 250 million years old. However in the interests of making this a very short history we are going to ignore the first 249,999,750 years of its history and start our story just 250 years ago.

Bromsgrove is possibly best known for the nail making industry that flourished there in the late 18th century, employing over 900 nailers by 1778 (Victoria County History, 1913, para 15), however it also had a long and illustrious although now largely forgotten industry of quarrying for building stone.

Notes about the parish written for a Society for Antiquities questionairre in 1774 state “We have…an excellent kind of sandstone in diverse parts of the parish…it is easily got out by manual labour…and it is easily worked, but being exposed to the air it becomes hard and durable as witness the church and tower at Bromsgrove thought to have been built about the beginning of the Reign of Edward the Third and yet there is not one stone that appears in the lesat to be perished”.

Due to the occurence of such high quality beds of building stone there, Bromsgrove has given its name not just to those particular beds of Triassic sandstone – wherever they occur nationally – but also to an extinct dinosaur relative found in the Bromsgrove Sandstone Formation in Warwickshire.

For a town so blessed with natural building resources Bromsgrove is not conspicuous for its use of stone. Nonetheless there are numerous examples, many of them ancient, of the stone’s use in and around the town. These include the aforementioned St John’s Parish Church, Grafton Manor, the churches of Upton Warren, Stoke Prior and Tardebigge. More recently – from 1858 to 1907 – All Saints, North Bromsgrove, St Godwalds, Finstall, Dodford Church and St Peters RC Chuch utilised the stone, in the lattermost case reportedly from a working in what is now the graveyard. According to White, census records show an explosion in the numbers of quarry workers from 1870 onwards, likely driven by the demands of church building and compounded by the fashion for imposing stone boundary walls around the Victorian villas built around this time.

The early ordnance survey maps of Bromsgrove’s Hill Top and Rock Hill areas give us a fascinating insight into a changing landscape at the turn of the century.

1885

1885 Ordnance Survey map scanned and georeferenced with quarry boundaries and tracks highlighted.

In 1885-6 when the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey “County Series” were being produced the maps reveal an active area of quarrying for the Bromsgrove Sandstone. Some quarries like Millfield (north of Fox Lane) had already lapsed and, although details of the face and trackways can still be seen, over the 40 years to the 2nd revision of the maps in 1927 we can see they are steadily filled in and built over with houses (later to be the victims of severe subsidence). Similarly the large wooded rectangular quarry south of Hill Top appears to have been partially filled and levelled to give a terrace for the building of the Isolation Hospital. Meanwhile many new delves are opening nearby. Several nascent workings from Hill Top to east of the hospital of  Fox Lane, and one at Rock Hill can be seen on the 1885 map and we can chart their expansion over the succeeding 40 years.

1903

1903 Ordnance Survey map showing the expansion and contraction of quarries since 1885.

While for the most part all traces of this once flourishing industry have dissapeared they have left a lasting, if largely hidden, legacy in the streets garden of the area. Many of the old access trackways have had their courses preserved as modern streets and passageways. These include Quarry Lane, Forelands Grove, the road and footpath from Fox Lane to Carnoustie Close and the alleyway between Rock Hill and Enfield Close.

1927

1927 Ordnance Survey showing nearly the maximum extent reached by most of the quarries.

Remains of the quarries themselves are sparser but there are large hollows still in the overgrown area and gardens south of Hill Top. The original worked sandstone face can still be seen along the north edge of Forelands Grove and indeed the entire block of houses along the street follows precisely the boundaries of the old quarry.

In this way the industry that once worked the earth here has left its hidden mark on the neighbourhoods that have succeeded it.

We will be running rock and fossil activities for all ages at Avoncroft Museum 10:30-17:00, Tuesday 26th-Thursday28th August.

For admission charges and museum opening times please visit http://www.avoncroft.org.uk/visit-us/.

Project Update – Summer 2014

Sandstone in thin section - batik wax resist paintingWe are now at the end of a wonderful summer, which I hope that you have been able to get out and enjoy. The building stones team have been out and about in the sunshine, promoting the project at different events including the Herefordshire Show, Beckford Open Gardens and Tiddesley Wood Open Day.

All of these events were supported by our enthusiastic volunteers and they helped to pass on information about the project and encourage new people to come forward with information about stone buildings and quarries. These events are an important part of this project and we want to say a big thank you to everyone who was involved. If you know of an event that we might be able to attend in your area then please do let us know.

After a successful exhibition about the Building Stones Project at Leominster Museum during spring we now have an exhibition at Avoncroft Museum of Buildings on display throughout September. We also ran our popular Building Stones Roadshow to help launch the exhibition at the end of August and visitors helped to produce two beautiful batik banners, seen on the left, which we hope to take to events soon.

Elliot has been working very hard on bringing together the data sent in by everyone. Our current total of buildings listed on the database is over 2000 and we are sure that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The new website is currently being created and should be ready for testing soon. We will have lots of training and information about this, so lookout for news from Elliot.

This project and the research being done by volunteers always brings up some unexpected surprises. John Gerner, a volunteer researching the quarries in Bromsgrove brought to our attention a fossil reptile whose remains were found in Building Stone quarries near Bromsgrove. Further information has now come to light and the appropriately named Bromsgroveia walkeri was a distant relative of modern crocodiles and alligators would have lived around 240 million years ago during the Triassic period. To celebrate this discovery, we will be doing lots of Bromsgroveia themed activities to help promote this forgotten fossil. We now look forward to seeing what other discoveries are made as people research into building histories.

Don’t forget to keep sending in your timesheets to us, every hour that you spend volunteering is worth £5.39 toward our project. To date total volunteer time on the project is worth a staggering £38,081 towards our target of £94,600 so please keep up the good work.

After a series of successful spring volunteer training sessions we have now finalised the details of our autumn training. This time there is a more practical feel to the events so if you have ever fancied building a wall or carving stone then this could be your opportunity or take this chance to visit Hadley Quarry and find out more about this fabulous site that provided stone for Worcester Cathedral.

 

This article originally appeared in the A Thousand Years of Building with Stone volunteer newsletter, Summer 2014.

Walks, Talks and Workshops

For those who want to learn new things, explore their local area or just get out and try something new, we run a wide variety of walks, talks and workshops. To see forthcoming events click here.

Family Activities

We run a range of family friendly events including roadshows, and stalls at county fairs throughout the year. To see upcoming events with children’s activities, click here.

Earth Caches vs. Floods

Our very first Earth Cache on building stones around Bewdley went up online for the first time earlier this month and we are (justifiably) excited.Bewdley bridge and church

For the uninitiated among you, an Earth Cache is a high tech hybrid of a treasure hunt and a game of I-spy in which basically, you must go to a specified location and search for something interesting. On your return home you must answer a series of questions to show that you have found the features and “log” your visit.

Our geocache guru Dave has been amazing, researching and drafting the information and questions to be accepted by the governing body – the Geological Society of America .  Not one to rest on his laurels, he’s now busily working on two new sites in the Malverns.

Despite going live at a time at which Bewdley was, to all intents and purposes, a town besieged by the Severn, since going online the cache webpage has had 70 visitors, from as far afield as the US, and 3 hardy souls have already logged visits, braving floods, pumps and swans where swans ought not to be.

Meanwhile many of us have been having interesting commutes involving wellies, shuttle buses, convoy systems and mile-long tail backs. However breaking, and as yet unconfirmed, reports are reaching us of a lack of icy wind and rain and of the sun feeling slightly warm in Worcester today, so perhaps brighter skies are ahead.

UPDATE: The Bewdley Earth Cache has now been completed by 5 intrepid people and the page visited by just under 90.

The Latest from Santa’s Data Grotto

Santa MacWe are currently reaching the exciting-but-nerve-wracking latter stages of planning the database which will house the wealth of information you are all so busy collecting. We have identified the fields we think we should be collecting. However, these are very much a working model and we would like to know more about how they work in action. That’s where you come in. If you can find it in your hearts, and schedules, to type any information you already have into the spreadsheet I will be very grateful. What we really want to know is whether the fields work, do they accommodate the information properly or are they nonsense? The aforementioned database is going to accessible online and furthermore will allow all our volunteers to sign in and input information directly via the internet. This means that while you are researching or adding data you will be able to see what, if anything, has already been filled in for a given building or quarry, saving your time and effort and providing a great visual feedback for everyone involved on all the hard work going into the project and the new information we are accumulating. We are also in the process of putting together a small leaflet to homeowners to explain what the project is about and why we are asking people to stand outside their houses staring and taking notes. If you would like some of these to be able to give out to curious locals on your travels do get in touch.

In other news, we have recently set up an email list for discussion of building stones, stone conservation quarrying and the history thereof. We’re hoping that in time this will grow to become a lively forum for discussion of issues around and beyond the project. We’d like to invite all our volunteers to join if they wish to. To do so visit www.jiscmail.ac.uk/ BUILDING-STONES, click “subscribe or unsubscribe” and enter your name and email address. You can then send a message to all other members of the list by addressing it to [email protected]

And lastly of course we’d all like to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

 

EDIT: This article originally appeared in our volunteer newsletter, Winter 2013. The database is now up and running on this very website. Click here to browse the data.

Tales from the Archives

You never know what stories you are going to find while researching into the history of quarrying as this tale found by volunteer Charles Clark shows.

A letter, found in the Bromyard & District Local History Society archives, dated 1873 from G. Barkley & S. Trickett to one William Finney Esq., contains detailed descriptions, brimming with optimisim, of the stone on Bromyard Downs Estates : “the quality of stone is abundant, practically inexhaustible […] you will therefore have no difficulty in finding a market for the whole of the stone that you can produce”. They go on to detail, at length, cities with a market for the stone, including Birmingham, Oxford and London.

The true prospects of this venture may have been exaggerated though, and in 1874 when the Worcester, Bromyard & Leominster Railway – to which Finney had been a guarantor – went bankrupt, he became bankrupt too. He was obviously a shrewd businessman though, because by 1877 he was present at the banquet for the opening of the railway to Bromyard. In 1878 he was operating a sandstone quarry – though on a much smaller scale than that rapturously predicted by Berkley & Trinkett – and, the following year, opened a brick and tileworks.

More details on the activities of Mr. Finney can be found in Charles’ fascinating article “A coal merchant, a quarry, a railway, tileworks and two actresses”, published in the Bromyard & District Local History Society Journal, 2013. See www.bromyardhistorysociety.org.uk for more details.