Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Work in Progress...

When I started out on my investigation of the building stones and construction history of the mediaeval churches in and around South Yorkshire last year – starting at St. Helen's church in Treeton – my intention was to reconnect with architects and archaeologists who specialise in the restoration and recording respectively of the fabric of these important cultural assets.

Living in an old pit village, which was once described by a prospective in-law as a “downtrodden backwater” on the edge of a once prosperous northern town that thrived on coal mining, steel production and the associated engineering industries, but which could easily be now described not as a 'joke town' but as a “national disgrace”, it's been an uphill struggle to apply my various skills and experience to good effect in this part of England.

When setting up Triton Building Restoration Ltd - apart from applying general surveying, contract management, organisational and administrative skills to good practical effect, to assist in the smooth running of the projects that were then undertaken as a specialist subcontractor - I quickly learned how to take good photographs and write accompanying text that was used to publicise a fledgling company, which has since grown to be one of London's leading restoration contractors.

Although I long since made the decision that the aggressive nature of this particular contracting business was not for me and I relinquished my financial interest, these creative skills – which were used for the company brochure, trade exhibitions and website – have continued to develop. As a photographer, my details of architectural sculpture have been highly regarded by the RCHME, which is now known as the Historic England Archive

Before the days of established building conservation courses at various universities, I just used basic skills and tools that I had learned as an undergraduate geologist – my eyes, hydrochloric acid, a hand lens, a steel knife and a grain size chart – to help me to satisfy an architect's specification “to match the existing”.

Inspired by the late Francis G. Dimes and realising the value of a reference collection of building stones, I started to make my own collection of building stones, which later formed the basis of the Triton Stone Library, and I haven't stopped visiting ancient monuments, quarries and natural rocky outcrops ever since.

I have never used a microscope to help with the identification or specification of a matching stone for repairs and, although I am well aware of the various laboratory tests that are used to assess a particular stone's durability, I have always been very sceptical about these. After all, when a typical block of stone in a wall contains so much variation in colour and texture - which reflects its mineral composition, internal structure, porosity and fossil content etc - I fail to understand how petrographic analysis or accelerated laboratory tests on 100mm cubes can provide any satisfactory conclusions.

At the Palace of Westminster, after an extended investigation of 105 or more stones from all over the British Islands, the use of dolomitic limestone may well have reflected the resistance of the mineral dolomite to acid attack, but a close examination of this stone in natural outcrops, quarry faces and historic buildings shows that this stone is full of natural defects – vents, shakes and vughs – which was recognised in R.J. Schaffer's The Weathering of Natural Building Stones – published by the Building Research Establishment back in 1932.

The quarrymen and stonemasons of old and of today have relied on years of experience at the quarry face or working particular stones. During my own limited 3 month experience of sawing, cropping and hand dressing White Mansfield, Ancaster Hard White, Weatherbed and the occasional Freestone, as well as Chilmark stone – which often fell to bits on the saw table and when being transported by crane – I can empathise with this point of view.

To help with my academic knowledge of this subject, I acquired a variety of publications that are relevant to the stone restoration and conservation industries today: A Natural Stone Directory and a subscription to Natural Stone Specialist, as well as BRE publications for sandstone, limestone and Magnesian Limestone in the British Isles. Along the way, I also acquired a directory of limestones from the Wallonia region of Belgium too, which covers potential replacements for polished Tournai and Ashford Black marble - amongst others.

Subsequently living in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, where the restoration industry is insignificant compared to London and the other big cities – in which the largest restoration companies such as Szerelmey and Stonewest once had a significant presence – I turned my attention to geological conservation in these regions.

As well as a good number of working quarries, I surveyed numerous redundant quarries all over the Peak District National Park and South Yorkshire – in addition to the historic buildings in the places where they were found - and I have have acquired a collection of photographs that must now amount to well over 40,000 images, which record their points of interest.

The qualifications that I have to my name are a BSc. 2:II Honours degree in Geology, with subsidiary chemistry and zoology and OCN (Open College Network Credits) at levels 2 & 3 from the Sheffield College - when I decided that my efforts to continue with the development of skills that are of value to architects, surveyors, specialist restoration and contractors etc. simply seemed to be a waste of my time

Even though my work as a “consultant” appeared to come to a dead end, my passion for stone still continued as a writer and photographer - and my work regularly appeared in stone trade journals and associated professional publications in the UK, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Russia, the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

The “recession” that cut deeply and sharply into the budgets of various national stone trade journals brought this outlet of my work to an end but, continuing with my Language of Stone Blog, which now runs to more than 250 posts and effectively constitutes a comprehensive illustrated CV, I now just let my words and pictures do my talking – in the Social Media.

Very slowly, this is being noticed by various PCCs and the architects that have been appointed to look after some of the mediaeval churches that I have surveyed and highlighted; however, none of them yet want to pay for my services - even though I know that my advice will be much better for them all in the long run...

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Geology & Architecture in Rowsley

A geological map of the area around Rowsley

With my objective to see some large slabs of Mandale limestone at the yard of Natural Stone Sales Ltd in Rowsley achieved – where I was able to get a much better idea of its variation in colour and texture – I made the most of a fine sunny afternoon to briefly explore the village, before catching a bus back to Bakewell.

Details of Rowsley Bridge

The village is set on the A6 at the confluence of the River Derwent and its tributary - the River Wye - which has followed the outcrop of the Bowland Shale down from Bakewell. To the east, the Carboniferous limestone forms scenery typical of the Derbyshire Dales and to the west, the Ashover Grit and Chatsworth Grit form high moorlands.

General views of architecture in Rowsley

To the south of Rowsley, near Stanton in the Peak and Darley Dale, there is a concentration of quarries that works buff coloured medium grained gritstone from the Ashover Grit and the stone for St. Katherine's church, built in 1854, and the various vernacular buildings have most likely been sourced from here.

The old railway station in Rowsley by Joseph Paxton

The village prospered from mills that were located on both of the rivers and from a large railway marshalling yard that grew up on the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midland Junction Railway. The old railway station, designed by Joseph Paxton – gardener to the Duke of Devonshire at nearby Chatsworth House and designer of the Crystal Palace – now forms the centrepiece of the modern Peak Village shopping centre.

General views of the Peacock Hotel

The most interesting historic building by far is the Grade II* Listed Peacock Hotel, built in 1652 for the Manners family – the owners of nearby Haddon Hall. Constructed in gritstone ashlar, with simple mullions and transoms windows and with a stone slate roof, it is adorned by a fine inscription above the doorway and a finely carved peacock – the Manners family crest.

An old lamp standard in Rowsley

Natural Stone Sales Ltd.

Natural Stone Sales Ltd in Rowsley

As a geologist with experience of the building restoration industry in London, where I developed specialist interests and skills in identifying a wide variety of stones – to satisfy an architect's specification to “match the existing” - I don't need much encouragement to go and take a look at a quarry or a stone yard should the opportunity arise.

A general view of the stone yard in Rowsley

Mandale limestone from the 'once-a-week' quarry in Sheldon, near Bakewell in the Peak District National Park, is a very attractive decorative stone and having received a new sample of this in the post from Natural Stone Sales Ltd, I followed this up by visiting their works in Rowsley to have a look at slabs of this highly fossiliferous limestone.

A Mandale limestone tower and castellation in Millstone Grit

Back in 2002, when I was cataloguing the excellent mineral collection at Clifton Park Museum, various slabs of Mandale limestone that have been used for flooring in this Grade II* Listed building had started to disintegrate and various attempts to repair the floor with epoxy resin had been unsatisfactory.

Mandale limestone in Clifton Park Museum

Unlike both the old and new samples that I have of Mandale limestone, which are uniformly grey in colour, the floor of the museum contains distinctly brown and grey/brown mottled varieties and, for aesthetic reasons at least, it is likely that whole slabs would need to be replaced.

Slabs of Mandale limestone wetted to best show colour and texture

At the time of my temporary contract, a bid for Heritage Lottery Funding to help with a complete refurbishment of the museum, amounting to £3 million, was approved; however, no attempt has apparently been made to address the deterioration of the floor and – 15 years later – it could easily be considered as a Health & Safety hazard, especially to the wearers of high heels who attend the weddings and various other private functions that take place here.

A slab full of crinoids as seen when wet and dry

That said, I am now just generally a neutral observer - as a photographer and writer - with no affiliations to contractors or any particular client; however, should the opportunity arise I still offer my stone identification and matching skills but I still think that it is often extremely difficult to get blood out of a stone - due to the politics or the cost cutting that can sometimes be involved.

A close up of a slab with crinoids and red/purple colour variation

Hopefully, there are still very many people out there who recognise that business can still be combined with pleasure and that an independent and objective opinion is still valued, with the Language of Stone forming a common denominator.

A slab from a bed with large brachiopod shells

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Mandale Limestone

A sample of Mandale limestone

During my 9 month long exploration of the mediaeval churches in and around South Yorkshire, finishing at the church of St. Nicholas in High Bradfield, I had achieved my principal objective of refining and further developing my geological skills that I consider to be of practical value to archaeologists and architects.

A general view of Clifton Park Museum

As every geologist whose house and garden is full of rocks, fossils and minerals will know, I encountered various places where I felt compelled to collect a piece of rock – from a natural outcrop or a dry stone wall and very occasionally from an historic building – without recourse to using a geological hammer.

A geological survey without resort to the use of a geological hammer

20 years ago, while living in Bakewell and undertaking a survey of the RIGS within the Peak District National Park, I made an effort to find the Once-a-week quarry in Sheldon and to acquire a sample of polished Mandale limestone - which I added to my very large collection of building stones that later formed the basis of the Triton Stone Library in London.

The Triton Stone Library

Having explored very many of the dales that are deeply cut into the Carboniferous limestone within this region, I had seen a wide variety of corals, crinoids and brachiopods exposed in their weathered rock faces – as well as in countless dry stone walls and vernacular buildings; however, when polished, this particular stone becomes even more spectacular.

A  sample of Mandale limestone used as a stepping stone

My sample of Mandale limestone was never included in the Triton Stone Library and now forms one of two stepping stones that can be found in my herb garden and, although its polished surface has long since weathered away and algae have penetrated any open pores, it is has stood the test of time extremely well compared to a similar sized sample of Ancaster limestone - of the same age - that has just crumbled away.

Mandale limestone and Ancaster limestone

When working for Clifton Park Museum in Rotherham, where Mandale limestone is used for some of the floors and fireplaces in this 18th century building, I noticed that its floors were severely deteriorating and, on more than one occasion, I was asked by the person responsible for its maintenance to advise on the best method of repair – as the previous attempts with epoxy resin had clearly failed.

A defect in the Mandale limestone in the floor of Clifton Park Museum

Whilst taking another look at the floor, while visiting the Rotherham Show, I saw that a sample of Mandale limestone had actually been displayed in the museum several years ago and so I decided to arrange a visit to Rowsley, where Natural Stones Sales Ltd. are now marketing this unique stone product.

An example of Mandale limestone in Rotherham

Monday, 24 April 2017

St. Nicholas Bradfield - The Interior

A view along the nave at the church of St. Nicholas in High Bradfield

Having quickly surveyed the exterior of St. Nicholas' church in High Bradfield, where the styles of its architectural elements now appeared very familiar, I had limited time available to explore its interior before I had to make my way down to Low Bradfield to briefly look at the vernacular architecture in this village – from which I planned to catch the hourly bus back to Sheffield.

The Norman font

Without artificial lighting, the interior of St. Nicholas' church was quite dark and, although there were intermittent periods of sunshine that enabled me to clearly see some of the architectural details, on this occasion I had to be content with taking a few general record photographs of the principal structural elements.

A general view of the chancel

According to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the various piers – which are alternately circular and octagonal in the north arcade and octagonal in the south arcade – are recycled from an earlier structure of c.1200, as seen at Ecclesfield church where the bases have also been raised.

Carved capitals with floral decoration and castellated upper details

The western respond of the arcades, adjacent to the 14th century tower, have very unusual capitals – being flat faced with floral decoration and a castellated upper section; however, the capitals to the rest of the piers in the arcades have been hacked off completely and reprofiled.

A general view of the reformed piers and the arches to the arcades

Above these reformed piers, the arches that spring from them and the rest of the masonry that rises to form the clerestory appears to be very uniform – as does the general masonry to the walls of the aisles and this coincides with the general rebuilding that is considered to have taken place in the Perpendicular Gothic style during the1480's.

A general view of the south chapel and nave from the chancel

Taking a quick look around the chancel and the adjoining south chapel, the piers and capitals are all octagonal and the profiles of the various arches are similar to those of the arcades. At high level, there are also a series of crudely carved corbels, which support the posts to the roof, which was renewed in 1901.

A memorial to victims of the Great Sheffield Flood

There are various Victorian white marble monuments scattered around the various walls, along with a Welsh slate memorial to the victims of the Great Sheffield Flood, and there is also a very plain Norman font and an old Saxon cross, which was originally in Low Bradfield but subsequently relocated to St. Nicholas' church.

The Saxon cross

At the end of a year spent exploring various mediaeval churches in and around South Yorkshire – as well as the local geology and historic buildings of the places that I have visited - I now had a much better appreciation of the building stones and architectural styles that help the standing buildings archaeologist to unravel their construction history and architects to select a suitable stone for repairs.

Colour variation in the sandstone used for flooring

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

St. Nicholas Bradfield - The Exterior

A general view of the south elevation of the church of St. Nicholas

I first saw St. Nicholas' church in High Bradfield when I went to explore the geology around the nearby Rocher End Brook with the newly established South Yorkshire RIGS Group, but I only have recollections of its magnificent setting high above the upper Loxley valley.

A general view of the east end

Having seen it again for the first time in over 20 years, at the end of a full year spent exploring the mediaeval churches in and around South Yorkshire, I immediately recognised its Perpendicular Gothic style architectural elements – the castellated parapets, pinnacles and the window tracery.

A general view of the north aisle and clerestory

A quick walk around its exterior, however, shows that the windows to the tower have Y-tracery, which is in the Decorated Gothic style and attributed to the 14th century, and the windows to the clerestory and to the north aisle are all flat headed; however, although I didn't study the masonry in any detail, all of the gritstone ashlar appears to be generally similar in style and colour and there are no obvious variations that indicate different phases of building.

A gargoyle

Various gargoyles drain the roofs to the aisles, with that to the south depicted with its mouth being pulled wide open, as is very often seen in mediaeval churches of the same age. Also, a couple of fine grotesques flank the east end of the chancel and, although weathered, the forms of a dragon and a dog can still be easily recognised.


In the churchyard, the majority of the graves are simple inscribed slabs or chest tombs as can be seen around the majority of the churches that I have visited, and date from the Victorian period, but there are also a few 17th century inscribed slabs set into the path that leads to the porch.

17th century grave slabs

Vernacular Architecture in Bradfield

The Watch House

In both High Bradfield and Low Bradfield, apart from the church of St. Nicholas, there are only a dozen listed buildings – including a K6 telephone box – and most of these are cottages, farmhouses and other associated buildings; however, although I didn't see any old quarries where I could examine a large section through the Rivelin Grit, the local gritty sandstone has been fully exploited as a building stone and good examples can be seen everywhere.

The Old Post Office

Fine ashlar can be seen in the Old Post Office and the Old Horns Inn too but the Watch House - which was built in 1831 to address problems with grave robbers –  has fine window dressings and a castellated parapet for ornamentation but, like many of the other historic buildings, its walls are built of well squared and coursed blocks to which a tooled finish has been applied.

Paving, kerbs and setts on Jane Street

Looking down the various lanes that intersect High Bradfield, the setts, kerbs and riven paving demonstrate the versatility of the sandstones from the Millstone Grit Group, with both the massive and flaggy beds being applied to good use. At an altitude of 260 metres and fully exposed to the often very harsh winters of the Peak District, its durability as a building material is well proven.
At roof level, although Welsh slate has been used for Victorian buildings such as the Old Church Hall – and the Old Post Office - there are very many good examples of traditional stone slate in those built at an earlier date.

The Old Church Hall

Other uses of the local stone can also be seen in the village stocks, various carved gateposts, stiles and steps and a horse trough - which captures the flow of a small brook that springs from the hillside above the village.

A horse trough fed by a spring and a stile in the dry stone wall

Walking down Woodfall Lane to Low Bradfield, there are various old agricultural buildings that have been converted to residential use, several terraced cottages and a few other larger houses but none of these are of particular architectural merit.

Cottages on Woodfall Lane

The most interesting buildings that I saw in Low Bradfield are two Wesleyan chapels. The oldest, built in 1817 is now used as the parish council offices and on the opposite side of the road is a late Victorian building dated 1899. Comparing the masonry to every other building that I had previously seen on my walk, the latter is quite unusual in that although the walling is a typical buff/brown gritstone, a distinctly pink/red variety of sandstone is used for the dressings. 

The Victorian Wesleyan chapel

Monday, 17 April 2017

Geology & Archaeology in Bradfield

A general view of High Bradfield

When I visited St. Mary's church in Ecclesfield in the middle of October, I had by now surveyed more than 30 mediaeval churches in South Yorkshire and the surrounding counties over a period of 9 months - as well as investigating the local geology and various historic buildings. Autumn was now starting to close in and I knew that there wouldn't be many more days out before the year ended; however, taking advantage of a sunny day on the following weekend, I set off on the bus again to explore Bradfield in the Peak District National Park.

A simplified map of the geology around Sheffield

High Bradfield and its sister village, Low Bradfield, are set on the Huddersfield White Rock (formerly named the Rivelin Grit or Chatsworth Grit in this region) 10 km north-west of Sheffield city centre, but they are separated by a steep slope that is formed by one of the well defined faults that run through the district. 

A detailed geological map of the area around Bradfield

The geology here is very similar to that seen at Carl Wark, Higger Tor and Burbage Rocks  - and it also forms the rugged topography that dominates the Rivelin valley. It comprises massive coarse grained sandstones with well developed large scale cross-bedding and frequent beds of small pebbles, which gives the sandstones within the Millstone Grit Group a very distinctive character.

A view from High Bradfield towards Low Bradfield

The Rivelin Grit has produced much building stone of a massive nature and can be frequently seen in bridges, embankments and other civil engineering works around Sheffield, as well as in a variety of historic buildings and for kerbs and setts. In places, it was also widely exploited for grindstones, many of which can still be seen lying about the old quarries where they were worked.

Rivelin Grit taken from a dry stone wall on Woodfall Lane

There is no mention of either village in the Domesday Book but, 500 metres to the south-east of High Bradfield, an outcrop of the younger Rough Rock rises above the village to form Castle Hill, where various archaeological remains have been interpreted as either a Saxon encampment or a Norman motte and bailey castle, but which has largely been quarried away.

Castle Hill

Another motte and bailey castle is found just a stone's throw away from the church of St. Nicholas to the north-west, at Bailey Hill, which has earthworks around parts of the bailey to the south and east and with an easily defended steep slope running down to the west.

Views of Bailey Hill

Low Bradfield, 1 km down Woodfall Lane from High Bradfield, lies in the upper part of the Loxley valley and it is strongly associated with the Great Sheffield Flood that swept two bridges and several buildings away, including the old manorial corn mill - which once made a significant contribution to the largely agricultural economy here.

A view down Woodfall Lane from High Bradfield