Building stones and the landscape

If you travel across Britain you will notice that different regions use many different types of building stone, and the tradition of using local stones for building adds to the richness of our culture and society.

Long ago, buildings were only built out of the local stone and building blocks were taken from the local quarry.

After the introduction of canals and railway systems in the nineteenth century, stone could be transported hundreds of miles, and today stone is shipped around the world.

Your nearest town or city may have examples such as granite from Cornwall or Scotland, slate from Wales or the Lake District and limestone from Dorset or Yorkshire. There may also be stone from countries such as Norway, France or even parts of South America.

Sedimentary rocks are by far the most common type of building stone used. Sedimentary rocks normally formed in shallow water conditions and it is not surprising that close inspection often reveals fossils incorporated in them.

When limestone is hard, resistant to erosion and easily quarried it is widely used as a building stone. There are many different kinds of limestone in use, each with its own attractive appearance, and each adds to the character of the region in which it is used (e.g. the Cotswolds, the Lincolnshire Wolds and the Pennines).

The younger limestones are usually too soft to be used for building, but Jurassic, Permian and Carboniferous limestones make particularly good building stone.

Tertiary limestone

Quarr Abbey

One of the geologically youngest of our sedimentary building stones is the Oligocene Bembridge Limestone (Quarr Stone) from the Isle of Wight.

Bembridge Limestone is crowded with fossils, especially freshwater gastropods. This young stone is not widely used for building, but examples can be found in the walls of Quarr Abbey (Isle of Wight), the White Tower of the Tower of London and in cathedrals such as Canterbury, Winchester and Chichester.

Upper Cretaceous limestones

Chalk

Beer Stone

Chalk is generally a fairly soft limestone and largely unsuitable as a building stone (although it is used extensively to make cement and concrete).

However, some horizons are made of hard, grey or white limestone that have been used for building, e.g. such as Tottenhoe Stone from Bedfordshire, Burwell Stone from Cambridgeshire and Beer Stone from Devon. The last two are particularly used for carved decorative stone in churches and cathedrals (such as Exeter, Ely and Peterborough).

In some cases in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, the Chalk, which is sometimes called 'clunch', has been used in the building of houses.

Flint

Lewes Old Grammar School

Within the Chalk there are nodules of very hard flints (made out of silica, similar to quartz). When the nodules are broken open, via a process called knapping, they reveal the dark grey or black interior, and are then used in the construction of buildings (for example in Wiltshire, Suffolk, Sussex, Essex and Norfolk).

Lower Cretaceous limestones

Paludina Marble

Sussex Marble

Paludina Marble is known by a number of names, for example Bethersden Marble or Sussex Marble, although it is not a true marble (which is a metamorphic rock), but a hard limestone.

Paludina Marble accumulated in a freshwater lake during early Cretaceous times. It takes its name from the abundant fossil gastropod Paludina that makes up much of the rock.

Paludina Marble can be seen in a number of churches in Kent and Sussex, such as at Ulcombe, Tenterden, Biddenham and Smarden.

Purbeck Marble

Purbeck Marble effigy

Perhaps the most famous of the freshwater limestones used to decorate churches and cathedrals is the early Cretaceous Purbeck Marble, which is quarried from a few thin fossiliferous limestone beds in the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset.

The dark greenish-grey to brown limestone, which is crammed with small fossil gastropods, has been cut, shaped and polished for statues, columns and fonts since at least the Middle Ages.

Examples of Purbeck Marble can be seen in Salisbury and Lincoln cathedrals.

Kentish Ragstone

Archbishop's Palace, Maidstone

In south-eastern England, in the Maidstone area, grey to greenish-grey sandy limestone called the Kentish Ragstone was extensively quarried as a building stone.

Kentish Ragstone was for a long period the most widely used building stone in London where it was used in the Roman walls, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and dozens of parish churches.

There are many buildings in Maidstone that are built of this stone, including the 16th century Archbishop's Palace.

Upper Jurassic limestones

St Paul's Cathedral

Late in Jurassic times, a number of different limestones formed in the shallow sea that covered much of England. In Dorset, sandy limestones formed, including an ooidal limestone (Osmington Oolite) that is used in local buildings.

Portland Stone is a white stone that became very fashionable when Sir Christopher Wren rebuilt St Paul's Cathedral and other London churches, following the Great Fire of London.

Portland Stone has been used in many other towns and cities throughout the country. 'Portland Roach' is a particularly shelly horizon with bivalves and gastropods including the famous 'Portland Screw'.

The stone has been used extensively in buildings and statues in, for example, Nottingham, Manchester and Leeds.

Middle Jurassic limestones

Lincolnshire Limestone

Ely Cathedral

Middle Jurassic limestones, particularly the Lincolnshire Limestone, are well-known building stones.

The stone has been quarried in many places for villages and churches along the 'Limestone Belt', which extends from Dorset to Yorkshire. Many local names have sprung up as a result, including Ancaster, Barnack, Clipsham, Weldon and Ketton Stones.

Some are ooidal, others are made of broken shell fragments and yet others are a mixture of the two. Barnack Ragstone, quarried near Stamford and widely used in the local villages, was used extensively in the building of Peterborough and Ely cathedrals.

This coarsely shelly type of Lincolnshire Limestone formed in turbulent marine conditions that caused the shells to be broken down into fragments creating a characteristic appearance.

Cotswolds Hills limestones

Arlington Row, Bibury

The Cotswold Hills are particularly famous for limestones and many villages in the region are constructed from the local yellow and brown stone, which adds to their charm.

The Chipping Norton Limestone, Taynton Limestone, Forest Marble (a shelly limestone often used as a roofing stone) and Wheatley Limestone were used in many villages such as Burford, the Slaughters, Stow on the Wolds, Broadway and Chipping Norton as well as in Oxford.


Malmesbury Abbey

Bath Stone, also from the Cotswolds, was used as long ago as the Roman times. This ooidal limestone originally formed in shallow, high energy, marine conditions. It contains variable amounts of broken fossil shells, which add to the texture of this beautiful creamy stone. There are many examples of this stone in the buildings of Bath and surrounding villages.

Lower Jurassic/Upper Triassic limestones

Southam Church

The latest Triassic and early Jurassic rocks in Britain are mainly mudstones, but at some horizons impure limestones called the Blue Lias and the White Lias are formed.

The Blue Lias is a brown-grey limestone of earliest Jurassic age and the White Lias comprises a greyish-white limestone of latest Triassic age. These thin, blocky, muddy limestones are widely used as building stones in villages between Dorset, central England and Yorkshire.

Permian limestones

The Magnesian Limestone of central and northern England is the only building stone that dates to the Permian. It is actually a limestone in which the calcite has been converted to another mineral called dolomite and, strictly speaking, it should be referred to as a dolostone not a limestone.

The colour of Permian limestone varies from nearly white to a dark, yellowish brown and has a number of local names such as Anston, Cadeby, Mansfield White and Tadcaster Stones.

This beautiful stone has been used in the construction of many buildings in the towns and villages between the Trent and the Tees, such as Bolsover, Southwell, Newark, Selby and York, as well as the Houses of Parliament in London.

Conisborough Castle
Houses of Parliament
Bolsover Castle

Carboniferous limestones

Frosterley Marble

Carboniferous limestone has been used for decorative effect in many buildings because it is hard and can be highly polished.

Crinoidal limestones such as the Monyash Marble (Derbyshire) and Dent Marble (Yorkshire) are two examples.

The Frosterley Limestone from County Durham is also a Carboniferous limestone, and when polished the numerous cross-sections of corals produce a particularly appealing ornamental stone.

Frosterley Limestone can be seen as columns in Durham Cathedral and in statues in Lincoln Cathedral.

Locally quarried Carboniferous limestone was used in the construction of villages such as Settle in Yorkshire, Hognaston in Derbyshire and Beaumaris in North Wales.