And Some Fell on Stoney Ground ……

I surely did, the geological make-up of this planet has always been an influence  on  my life.  Even as a child I had a fascination for collecting pebbles off beaches and for visiting old buildings, especially  castles and churches.  I was fortunate to have a grand father who loved roaming the countryside and searching out the more remote places and the ruins hidden there.  There was nothing better than getting into his car on a Sunday afternoon and exploring the countryside of eastern Monmouthshire or even as far as Radnorshire.  He had a particular love of the Radnor hills to the east of the Wye around the Aberedw area.  Strange that I too am now exploring that very area.  Stone is always the fascination, it shapes the land, the geomorphology, by its resistance or vulnerability to the forces of nature.  It creates the soil which sustains or rebukes agriculture and determines what trees and plants grow naturally. Stone gives the distinctive character to buildings in any particular area, the manner in which the stone weathers, the manner in which it presents itself and its colour are all factors that determine what a landscape looks like.

Whether it’s the yellow chalk of the Cotswolds or the dark grey slate of North Wales, the rusty red of the New Red sandstone of Devon or the greens and burgundy of the Old Red sandstone of Breconshire, buildings in those area clearly reflect the natural geology beneath.  Today  of course that is not the case as modern transport, coupled with quarrying restrictions, means stone is taken outside its natural environ to be used in areas where it is an alien rock.

Fortunately in the area of my work alien stone is a rarity, dry stone walls were built using stone that was readily available nearby.  Indeed recently I have been working rebuilding walls that are classically composed of stone cleared from the land to create the field in the first place.  ‘In the first place’ can be a long time ago in these parts, medieval is common, early medieval (i.e. before the French arrived in 1066 and after the Italians went home in the early 5th century) is often found and Iron Age walls are not that rare !

Virgin land

This piece of grazed woodland is typically what the land looked like before man cleared it by cutting the trees and clearing the stones out of the way.

Conversely, later walls, built later than the mid 1700s, are very rare.  It is not rocket-science to work out where the stones in a wall were obtained. Field clearance stones are clearly ‘of the area’, notwithstanding rivers and glaciers move stone great distances, and walls built with such stones can be assumed to date from the time of the farmers who first cleared those fields.  Sometimes walls are built from stone that has been quarried nearby, normally within a few hundred yards or less.  Walls generally exist in areas where climate prevented the growing of hedgerows or where soil depth mitigated against deep rooting hedgerow trees.  The uplands have thin soil and plenty of stone, creating fields in these inhospitable areas was not an easy proposition.  Building a church or a castle demanded such quantities of stone it is difficult to imagine from whence it all came.  Stones have constructed our history, in the words of the great Welsh Poet Saunders Lewis, “Stone the language of its builders”.

Field Clearance Stone in a Wall.

This wall, in the hills above Llanwrthwl, is a typical example of a wall built from stones cleared from the land to create the pasture.

I have learned, over the many years of rebuilding dry stone walls, that the question of what period a wall was constructed is locked up in how it was built, the ‘typology’, and what the source of the stone was.

It is not surprising that I have continued my fascination with stones, the early collecting of pebbles, of picking quartz from the land, of filling the car with examples from any area I travel – even a piece of lava from Iceland ! – has stayed with me through my years of walling.  It is also then not surprising that I have amassed quite a collection of interesting examples of natural and worked stone.

During the inclement weather over the holiday period I had a little sort out.  I mentioned just a couple of posts ago that I had been given a new piece of stone, a Lebanese sandstone. carved by men over a thousand years ago.  That needed to be given a position of importance amongst my displayed worked stone and hence my ‘sort-out’.

Classical Column Head stone

The wonderful Lebanese sandstone column head I was gifted on my visit to Paddington recently. This stone is an unbelievable addition to my stone collection, it was probably carved over a thousand years ago.

I have done a little stone-carving, it is incredibly slow and tricky and demands more skill and patience than I seem to possess.  I have accumulated (legitimately I should add !) some really old and important examples of worked stone over my years of building dry stone walls.

I mentioned that in areas close to where I live there are extant examples of dry stone walls that were first constructed over two thousand years ago, in the period we call the Iron Age.  I often make the point in my guided walks and evening lectures that much attention is paid to the magnificent Hill-forts and defended enclosures in the Archaeological world, not so much attention is given to the field systems.  Of course, if there were settlements – and hill-forts are a clear sign that there were settlements nearby – there would have been farming and that required some form of enclosure.  Walls usually denote an exclusion zone, that is they are built to keep stock out of a given parcel of land.  That in turn implies those fields were about growing an arable crop, oats or barley mainly but also early forms of wheat such as emmer.

One of the most valuable and treasured items in my stone collection is a Quern Stone, a worked pair of stones that together form a means of grinding wheat into flour.  Many forms of querns have been found throughout the world.  I photographed some in Orkney back in the summer and one in that very Lebanese restaurant in Paddington was an amazing example of an early Roman quern.  I have an example which dates from the late Bronze/early Iron Age (1000BC) which I discovered close-by where I live.  It is shaped out of the local Brown-stone and contains small pebbles of quartzite.  The wooden handles would have been inserted into the carved holes and the top stone rotated on the lower as the corn was dribbled into the central hole to be ground to flour.  Imagine, much like the stonemasons who carved the ancient Lebanese stone, these quern stones were worked and used by Silurian tribes-people before the Romans arrived, before Christ was on earth, at the time the great Henges were being erected.

Iron-Age Quern Stones

Quern stones of the Silures from the area of mid Wales.

Quern stone base

The bottom stone is shaped to allow the grind-stone to revolve on it. The accuracy of the circle is quite astonishing as is the central hole.

Rotating stone of a pair of Querns

This is the stone that rotates – a stick pushed into the hole on the side – and corn is fed into the centre hole. It is a stunning piece of craftsmanship.

The other major stones in my collection come from a much later period, over a thousand years later.  In the two hundred years following the Norman Conquest vast buildings were constructed throughout the land.  Castles, Cathedrals and parish churches dotted the landscape marking the major settlements of the new Kingdom.

In remote mountain locations and along steep sided river valleys another set of grand Ecclesiastical edifices emerged, the great Abbeys of the Monastic orders which came to Britain from their Mother houses in France.  Of these Orders one became a dominant force in Wales, the Order of the White Monks, named for their white wool habits. They spread through the benevolence and favours of local Lordships, keen to ingratiate themselves with those thought to have an influence at the Pearly Gates, and had vast lands bestowed upon them by such as The Lord Rhys in Dyfed.  The Cistercians built huge Abbeys which matched the grand cathedrals of the cities of England and France, they occupied large tracts of land where they introduced a new method of farming, sheep became a dominant force in the open upland expanses of Wales (and northern England).  They left their mark on our landscape by these buildings and their ranching methods of sheep farming.

As we all know, by the middle of the C16th they and their Papal master had fallen out of grace with one King Henry (Eighth in the order of Kings bearing that name and famed for having all those wives !) and ultimately their houses were re-possessed and they were thrown out, the great Abbeys and the Granges and land given or sold to whosoever had the means to acquire them.  Many of the Abbeys were razed and the stone removed and used nearby.  Some were less badly demolished and much of the original church remains to this day.  I have undertaken a number of restorations of dry stone walls in the precincts of some of those great Cistercian Houses of Wales.  Amazingly much of the original stone-work lies in piles scattered around the ruins, often heaped in a corner by well meaning voluntary conservation minded folk or by staff and contractors of the agency now charged with their care, Cadw.  Always, when rebuilding a wall, I need extra stone (it always perplexes me as to why that should be, the wall was standing, it fell, the stone is still there…. alas it never all seems to remain on site – “Something there is that doesn’t Love a wall” (Frost and frost !).  Invariably when working on those old sites my extra stone comes from the large piles of architectural salvage lying around.  Much of that is beautifully worked stone which once made the columns and carved cornices, the corners and the window mullions, it now lies broken and discarded suitable only for inclusion in a newer wall that serves some later purpose.

Medieval fluting stone from a column holding up an arch.

This stone is carved so that it can fit into a tall arch as the fluting, it is one of my favourite; a medieval flat-pack ‘lego’ .

The tall slim arches of the doors and knave were decorated with fluted columns.  The fluting was achieved by carving individual stones which fitted together like a medieval lego kit or flat-pack.  I have several such worked stones in my collection which came from Cistercian houses in Wales and date from the C13th.

Some of the stones are carved from Old Red Sandstone and others of  chalky limestone giving a bright ochre contrast to the burgundy sandstone.  The chalk is softer and thus was easier to carve more elaborately, paradoxically it was that softness that was its Achilles heel, it suffered greatly from erosion once exposed to the elements.  The couple of pieces I have came from one of the great knave columns and still has traces of the original lime plaster on it.  Again it is carved in small pieces which stack together to make the whole.

Fluted stonework

This piece of limestone is a small section of a large column with fluted decoration.

What I particularly like is the connection with the men who worked the stone all those centuries ago.  There is something tangible as well as tactile in holding a piece of stone handled by a craftsman that long ago.

It is the same with the walls; most of the dry stone walls out on the hills which I have spent so long rebuilding, have not been touched since they were first erected.  In some cases therefore I am the first person to touch the stones for a thousand and more years.  Imagine.

It is no wonder I have a tendency to grab examples of such historic artefacts.  I make a point of bringing the last stone from each job I do home….. yes, there is a large pile of stone hereabouts !

Mason's mark on a piece of carved stone.

This mark is individual to the man who made it. A mark that can be followed throughout the great Monasteries and maybe other medieval buildings. He existed, this is his mark, put on this stone nearly a thousand years ago..

It is not only building stone that attracts me.  My large collection of farm related items also has a selection of interesting and increasingly rare worked stone.

I have gathered several dozen geologically different stone roofing tile, they are always a fascination.  I have some very heavy and large thick round slate slabs that have a very unusual story to tell.

The English Staddle Stone, that mushroom shaped stone on which corn ricks stood to keep the crop safe from vermin had a Welsh equivalent.  I came across a collection of the staddles in an old remote farmstead high in the hills above Llanbrynmair in Merioneth.  They were a real find as most such examples have long since disappeared, broken and forgotten.

If I had to choose a favourite amongst my geological collection, these would be high on the list.

Slate Staddle Stone

The perfectly round stone has a polished flat surface which faced downward to prevent vermin getting up into the corn.

The stones were placed on a tall upright stone or log, eight to a rick, and a trellis of hazel formed a mesh which sat on them and onto which the rick was placed.  The English version of the mushroom staddle is an expensive garden ornament today.

Staddle of slate on a stand

The upper face is roughly shaped, sufficient to place hazel rods onto. They weigh over 100lbs each and are probably over 200 years old.

Once cast iron became available the staddles were replaced by legs with rounded tops and a metal trellis replaced the old hazel rods.  I would like to find one of those examples alas I suspect they long ago went away with the scrap man !

Stones were also used for cooking on, the old ‘bakestone’.  When oats were the staple food source in the upland areas (as they were all over the United Kingdom) one of the concoctions were ‘oatcakes’.  These small round cakes were cooked on the hot ‘bakestone’ which sat over the flames of a floor based fire.  I have a part of one and two examples of the trivet on which they sat.  Further important items in my collection of worked stone !

Bakestone of Stone !

The broken bakestone was salvaged from a derelict old Hafod along with the trivet it sits on. The stone examples are rare having been replaced by thick iron ones in the C18th

Working stone for household and farming use goes back to pre-history.  Hand-axes were the first examples but these were replaced by bronze and eventually iron cutting tools.  All metal tools need to be kept sharp enough to perform their function.  Once steel edged tools evolved sharpening became a skilled and oft necessary activity.  Once again man turned to stone and the last of my worked stone examples, which came from the centre of a dry stone wall around a farmyard I had to rebuild, is such a stone.

Along with Millstones, the largest examples of worked stones, these ‘Grind-Stones’ were a hugely important part of life.  ‘Nose to the grind-stone’ is a common phrase coming out of the common  hard work of sharpening tools (and domestic knives).  Millstone Grit – the geological name – is normally associated with the milling activity and is common in ancient quern stones too.  Grind-stones on the other hand are most often local to the area and more often than not, shaped of sandstone.  Mounted on a frame to allow the stone to be rotated against the edged tool, which is held steady against it, was the normal method.  A square shaft was inserted into the centre of the perfectly rounded sharpening stone.  These are often encountered on old farms or in antique emporiums and usually show signs of much use – in other words they are well worn on one edge.

Sandstone grind stone

Why this was discarded into a wall I know not. It shows very little use and is about 18″ diameter. It is of sandstone and probably originates from the north somewhere.  Another useful ‘sharp’ stone can be seen in this picture – the flint stones I brought back from my Norfolk excursion in 2011.

In my line of work strange and interesting stones are an everyday occurrence – well almost.  Even when working in some remote hillside location there is always something interesting to examine.  As the great majority of the walls I rebuild (or newly build) are constructed using sedimentary rock – that which has been re-made by nature, having been eroded from the basic rocks of the earth by the action of ice, frost and rain, washed out to sea or blown to desert landscapes then pressed back into a ‘stone’ by weight and heat – which is laid down in layers over millions of years and which also supported vegetation and animals.  The remains of these are present in these sediments, fossils.  I have gathered many different examples over the years and recently added to that collection with a variety I had not encountered previously.

I am fascinated by fossils, for as with the worked stones above, they too are touchstones with a time long gone, very long gone, like millions and millions of years long gone.  Plants are the common fossil in the Coal measures of South Wales – animals are more likely in the Limestones (which itself is an amalgam of bones and shells) – and to see a fossil of a plant that was growing before Dinosaurs roamed is mind-blowing.  Nothing provokes questions of the creation, of Darwinism, of the meaning of life, more than seeing living things ‘remembered’ in sedimentary rock laid down hundreds of millions of years ago…

The fossil Stigmatia ficoides

This is the underground part, the rooting system, of a tree lycopod, Stigmatia ficoides. The dots are the scars of the rootlets that were attached.

There it is, stone, it’s more than just the ingredient of the walls I build.  It can mark the important aspects of Man’s evolution, it can mark unimaginable time-scale, it allows us an opportunity to connect with the past, see it, touch it and feel it.  This past week or so it has been in my face as I spend some time away from hill walls – work is back in the mud of a garden –  and start the long job of sorting and cataloguing my geological collection….

Oh yes, and a little distraction of building a dry stone wall at the home of Welshwaller !! Busman or some such !?

Dry stone gateway wall

Finally, a pile of stone that had lain in my way for 10 years has mutated into a wall and inspired some long overdue sorting-out !

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One Response to “And Some Fell on Stoney Ground ……”

  1. Anne Says:

    Hello Welshwaller, thank you for your enjoyable and entertaining blog. I have been looking at your best stones and I am interested because I found what I think is an Iron Age quern stone in a stream a few weeks ago. I can send you a picture if you would like to see it. It’s about the same size and shape as the one you found and made of millstone grit I think. I found it in a coastal stream near Dinas Cross.

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