The Search for Stone

Identifying, sourcing and matching Britain's building stones

Graham Lott


  St Radegund Church, Maplebeck, Nottinghamshire built of Triassic Skerry Sandstone (below right)

Britain's long and complex geological history has produced a very diverse range of rock types, many of which have been quarried for building purposes over the centuries. Some of the country's best known building stone quarries have operated continuously since earliest times. Many more, however, have long since closed and their stones are no longer readily available. Original quarry sources may often be difficult to locate as agricultural development and the expansion of cities, towns and villages have gradually changed the land surface.

Sourcing suitable stone for the conservation and repair of historic churches and other buildings can be difficult and, like so many aspects of conservation, is increasingly becoming the preserve of professional experts. Nevertheless, it is important that everyone concerned with the upkeep and maintenance of our buildings or monuments should themselves be aware, if only at a very basic level, of the procedures that the experts are likely to follow. While some areas of this work are best left to the professionals, others require closer study and with a little detective work can be an informative pastime.


One of the most important sources of information in this field is The British Geological Survey (BGS) as it maintains a comprehensive archive of the geology of Britain's building stones. Following its formation in 1839, one of the first commissions of the BGS was to locate a suitable building stone for the construction of the new Palace of Westminster buildings in 1839. Since then the BGS has documented over 1,000 different building and decorative stones which have been quarried and used in Britain and has undertaken the collection of representative samples from working quarries. The organisation now maintains the country's most comprehensive database of geological maps, samples and archives. This dataset is used in a wide variety of applied geological research, including the sourcing of building stone.

Where a building or monument is concerned, the criteria for sourcing new stone may be considered under the following headings: stone identification, sourcing and matching.


All natural stones are classified into one of three groups of rock types - igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic. Igneous
rocks are hard and crystalline and make up the primeval material of the earth. They are formed directly by the cooling of hot molten magma. The best known igneous rock used for building or monumental purposes is probably granite. Granites are coarse grained rocks in which large crystals of glassy quartz, opaque white or pink feldspars and dark brown or black ferromagnesian minerals (mica, hornblende etc) can easily be identified with the naked eye. The coarse nature of the crystals tell us that the rock formed from a magma that cooled very slowly deep in the earth's crust allowing individual crystals to grow to a large size. Some well known granites include Cumbrian Shap with its large pink feldspars and Cornish De Lank which has large white feldspar crystals. Many other types of coarse grained igneous rock occur (such as the granodiorites of Mountsorrel in Leicestershire), but few are used commonly for building purposes and most need to be identified by experts.

If molten magma manages to rise through the crust and emerge at the earth's surface, most familiarly in the form of a steep sided volcanic cone or as a fluid lava flow, then it will cool very quickly to form an igneous, volcanic rock. Such rapid cooling prevents large crystals developing and the resulting rocks are fine grained with individual minerals difficult to distinguish except by hand lens or microscope. There are examples of such fine grained volcanic rocks in the UK, such as the black basalts of Antrim, Northern Ireland, but in general few have been used for building in this country.

Intermediate in origin and crystal size to these two extremes are magmas injected as molten sheet-like bodies into the earth's crust and cooled just beneath the earth's surface. They are termed sills or dykes. The best example is probably the Whin Sill in Northumberland, formed of a very hard, dark greenish grey dolerite that was used extensively in parts of Hadrian's Wall. Although these rocks occur widely they rarely provide more than a local building stone. However, because of their hardness, they are commonly quarried for aggregate.



The Church of St John the Baptist, Muston, Leicestershire, which is built of two contrasting local limestones: ironstone (orange-brown) of the Lower Jurassic Marlstone rock formation and Middle Jurassic, Lincolnshire Limestone (cream coloured)

The sedimentary rocks include our most common building stones - the sandstones and limestones. Sandstones are formed by the weathering and erosion of pre-existing rocks. They consist of small fragments or grains held together by natural cements such as calcium carbonate (calcite) or silica. Most sandstones consist of grains of quartz, feldspar and small rock fragments. Their high quartz content makes them hard, durable building stones. By measuring the average size of the grains, sandstones can be divided into fine, medium or coarse grained types. Some sandstones can be identified by the presence of distinctive mineral components, at least at a regional level. Two examples of this are the sandstones from the Lower Cretaceous rocks of south east England which commonly contain the green mineral glauconite, and the very fine grained Triassic sandstones from the East Midlands locally known as 'skerry', which are commonly cemented by dolomite.

A wide variety of limestones are used as building stones. They are principally composed of calcium carbonate (calcite) and are relatively soft in comparison to most sandstones. Their softer nature allows them to be easily carved and they are our best freestones. Most limestones were formed by the accumulation of the broken shells of marine organisms on the seabed in tropical or sub-tropical environments. Good examples include the Clipsham and Ancaster stones. In coarse grained limestones, fossil shell fragments are easy to see with the naked eye. The white chalk of southern and eastern England is a good example of a fine grained limestone. It is composed entirely of the calcite skeletons of microscopic organisms known as coccoliths. A distinctive group of limestones which form perhaps our best known building stones are the oolitic limestones from the Bath and Portland quarries. They were formed at the seabed as concentrations of millimetre-sized spherical ooliths. Their distinctive spherical shape and concentrically laminated structure developed when microscopic algae precipitated successive coatings of calcium carbonate around a tiny nucleus, which may have been a shell fragment or quartz grain. In some limestones the fossils they contain may be distinctive enough for an expert to be able to determine which quarries they may have come from.

Also included in this group of rocks are the magnesium-rich limestones or dolomites. Dolomites are formed by the chemical alteration of an original calcium-rich limestone. This alteration process may completely destroy the original shelly limestone fabric to produce a crystalline rock, or it may preserve it. Well known dolomitic building stones include the Mansfield, Cadeby and Tadcaster limestones.

An important feature of sedimentary rocks is their porosity. Pores are natural holes in the rock which allow fluids like rainwater to enter and leave the fabric. Some free fluid flow through a rock is necessary to maintain the rock's durability, and it is not always advisable to block such flow by using incorrect mortar mixes or by injecting unsuitable synthetic fluids. Very high porosities, however, may allow excessive volumes of corrosive fluids such as acid rainwater to enter and cause severe damage to the rock. Thin section rock analysis can identify where such problems are likely to occur. Most durable sedimentary building stones commonly have moderate porosity.


Detail of the fossiliferous ironstone from the Lower Jurassic Marlstone
Micrographs of two different Middle Jurassic Lincolnshire limestones: the famous Barnack (above) and Clipsham (below) stones.

The third group of stones are the metamorphic rocks formed by the alteration of other rock types by heat and pressure. They show some of the characteristics of both igneous and sedimentary rocks, often having a hard, crystalline structure but retaining traces of original sedimentary bedding surfaces. Metamorphic rocks are not widely used as building stone but they are the main source of roofing slates in the UK. Such slates are still quarried from the older metamorphic rocks of North Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria. Important slate industries in Leicestershire (Swithland) and throughout Scotland are long since closed or very much reduced in scale.

Slates are formed by the recrystallization of fine grained sedimentary or igneous rocks under extremes of temperature and pressure. Under such conditions, which develop over many millions of years, new minerals (most notably micas) grow and the characteristic slaty cleavage is formed. It is the alignment of these new minerals that enables the slates to be easily split into thin sheets. An important feature of metamorphic slates is their lack of porosity which makes them impervious to fluid flow. So-called stone-slates are not metamorphic slates but thinly bedded sedimentary limestones and sandstones which naturally split into thin layers or slabs.

Included in the metamorphic rocks are the true marbles. Geologists only apply this term to limestones that have been altered by metamorphism. Metamorphosed limestones show very different textures from the original stone but mineralogically they are still principally composed of calcium or magnesium carbonate. One thing you can be sure of is that if you have identified a metamorphic marble in a building or monument, it is almost certainly an import from overseas. The only marbles that have been produced in the past in Britain are those from the islands of Iona, Tiree and Skye in Scotland and Glen Tilt, Tayside; the quarries at Ledmore near Ullapool, producing metamorphosed Durness limestone, now provide Britain's only indigenous marble.

In the building stone trade the term marble is commonly used to describe any sedimentary limestone which is hard enough to polish. Close examination of the polished surface of sedimentary 'marbles' such as Purbeck, Bethersden or Frosterley will usually reveal the unaltered fossils that make up much of the rock.


Having made a preliminary identification of the building stone, the next step is to find the original quarry source for the stone. The first place to look for information on the provenance of a building stone is in original documents or archives related to the building or monument. If, as is often the case, this becomes a fruitless search then a little more detective work is required.

The first step is to establish the age of the structure in which the stone occurs. Stone buildings constructed from medieval times or earlier (this includes a large proportion of our churches) to the late 18th century used local stone sources where possible, because of the difficulties and costs of transportation. Obvious exceptions are high status buildings where expense was no object, and buildings in coastal situations or close to navigable river systems where water transport was available. Particularly attractive stones for decorative and monumental work, such as the black marble from Tournai (Belgium) have been imported from medieval times. For most early buildings, however, local stone sources should be investigated first. The geological maps and archives held by the BGS identify the different types of stone that outcrop across the country, and are an invaluable resource for research into potential stone sources in any given area.

From the latter part of the 18th century to the early part of the 19th century, the construction of the canal network provided the first national transportation system for moving bulky goods such as stone across the country. Existing stone quarries soon took advantage of the canals and many new quarries quickly opened up. The canals were, however, soon eclipsed by the development of the railways. Transportation costs rapidly plummeted as the rail network extended nationally and by c1850 stone could be supplied to almost any part of the country at a reasonable cost. Welsh slate, for example, rapidly appeared on roofs throughout the country, displacing many equally durable but more expensive locally quarried varieties.

The 19th century was a boom time for the British stone industry, with thousands of new quarries opening across the country to supply the ever-growing urban centres, factories and houses. 19th century buildings are therefore more likely to contain stone from outside the local area, often supplied by the much larger scale quarrying operations that developed in Derbyshire, Yorkshire or Lancashire.

Builders and architects currently use stone from even further afield. Recent buildings in the London area have used Indian marbles and Australian sandstones. Today you can even view and order your stone via the internet from anywhere in the world and, in some cases, have it on site, prepackaged in polythene, within days.


Finding the original stone source solves only part of the problem. In many cases it soon becomes clear that the original stone is no longer quarried. Few of the stone sources that supplied Britain's early ecclesiastical buildings, for example, have survived as producing quarries into the 21st century - some only operated long enough to complete the church and a few local buildings. Fortunately, however, if the stone has been correctly identified and its source properly located then other options can be considered. Re-opening the original quarry may be a possibility, providing the local planners can be convinced. The economics of re-opening even a small quarry on a temporary basis can be somewhat daunting, so it may be useful to assess whether there is a wider market for the stone which would make better economic sense. In the East Midlands area, for example, one local stone which has been widely used for church buildings and village housing is the red-brown and orange-brown sandy ironstone, known to geologists as the Lower Jurassic, Marlstone Formation. This stone was widely quarried for building purposes from medieval times but no quarries now exist in the area. Existing buildings are commonly in a sad state of repair simply for lack of readily available matching stone. BGS maps show that there are still sources of the stone available in the area, and a concerted effort by interested parties is probably needed to develop a new quarry for conservation purposes. Traditional building stone quarries can be small concerns and if properly planned and managed can be worked using low-tech methods so as not to damage the stone or the environment.

In many instances it may not be necessary to go as far as re-opening an original quarry to supply stone. In Britain at present there are more than 350 building stone quarries still in operation, quarrying a wide variety of good quality, durable stones. Some quarries, such as those for the Bath and Ancaster limestones, have a history stretching back to Roman times. Careful matching of an original stone in terms of its geology, texture, mineralogy (by thin section analysis) and colour with one or other of these stones should provide a suitable matching replacement in many cases.

The BGS maps and archives are a primary source of geological information where some of these questions can be readily answered. However, there is no real substitute for experience, and looking at stone in buildings of varying ages and in as many different locations as possible is still the best way to become an expert in the subject.



This article is reproduced from Historic Churches, 2000


DR GRAHAM LOTT is a sedimentologist with the British Geological Survey, Kingsley Dunham Centre, Keyworth, Nottingham NG12 5GG Tel 0115 936 3100 Fax 0115 936 3200 This article is published with the approval of the Director of the British Geological Survey.

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