Ham Hill: England's most seductive stone
For the Society’s first meeting of the year, industrial archaeologist Dr Peter Stanier gave an illustrated presentation about Ham Hill stone, such a familiar feature of local buildings.
He took his subtitle from the description of Ham Stone by Alec Clifton-Taylor, an architectural historian whose most influential work was The pattern of English building, first published in 1962. The only other stone so praised by Clifton-Taylor was also from the liassic stone group, and used predominantly in Northamptonshire, where many buildings combine different stones in strikingly coloured stripes.
Ham Stone is about 170 million years old. It’s a sedimentary rock, laid down in sweeping layers by the movement of water, which are known as ‘current bedding’ and which give it its distinctive pattern. Over the years any layers of clay become eaten away, or ‘weathered out’, leaving the stone with characteristic grooves. Its warm colour is caused by the presence of iron oxide. Clifton-Taylor described this colour as soaking up the sun and reflecting it back (on a sunny day, that is).
It is known as ‘freestone’ because it can easily be carved. This made it naturally useful for producing shaped lintels and window surrounds, which can still be seen in many local buildings. It was less often used as the material for whole buildings, partly because of its cost and the difficulty of transporting it long distances – at least until the railways were developed. Ham Stone is therefore very much a local feature. Perhaps the most impressive Ham Stone building is Montacute House, built in Elizabethan times, but the stone is commonly found in all the towns and villages near Ham Hill. It would only be transported further afield for use in particularly important buildings, such as Sherborne Abbey, or the orangery at Hestercombe House. It was often used to ornament churches, banks, railway stations and town halls.
Quarrying at Ham Hill has been carried on since Roman times. The stone is still quarried today, mainly for restoration but sometimes for new buildings. The area is now a country park, but in ‘Deep Quarry’ the quarry face with the stone’s distinctive markings can still be seen.