Bath Stone

Text extracted from "Bath Stone - A Comprehensive Guide"

By D. A. Rowell. 1994

Bath Stone has been extracted from the earth for nearly two thousand years, perhaps more; even as long ago as then our predecessors valued the quality of the stone. It is still used today but mainly for smaller constructions than buildings, such as statues, gravestones, and repairs to old listed buildings or war memorials etc. It would be uneconomical to build a house today out of Bath stone as the labour and equipment involved to remove the stone makes it very costly. Of course there are different grades or characteristics of Bath Stone - Box Ground, Monks Park and Combe Down stone considered to be the best for exterior work as they are very weather resistant. All the other stone is softer but carves easily. Nowadays, only the best stone is economical to quarry. The stone industry was at its peak at about the turn of the century when many companies were mining stone in vast quantities, a total of about 3,000,000 cubic feet per annum. At this time, stone was even exported around the world as news had travelled about this cream stone which was easy to carve and could look decorative yet be load bearing at the same time.

A lot of very hard work went into the removal of the stone, all carried out by men and horses. Few tools were available, all being very simple. The horses were used just to move the blocks of cut stone from the working face to the stacking ground, all the work of cutting the stone was done by hand. This technique will be explained later on. This traditional method of working was used until as late as the second World war. After the war the country in general had become more mechanised and methods were sought to make life easier for the quarrymen and to reduce costs by speeding up cutting; He needed an automatic cutting machine to increase the productivity. The cutting machine chosen is still in use today. The machine cuts the stone in the same way that a chainsaw cuts wood, a chainsaw creates far more sawdust than a manual saw so as the stone cutter works on the same principal it is very wasteful. It was originally designed to cut coal so the teeth didn't have to be very precise.

The term Bath Stone covers at least twelve varieties. The stone is an Oolitic Limestone formed in the Jurassic period about 140 million years ago when the British Isles as we know them were under water. The sediment in the water settled on the seabed and built up. After many millions of years the World changed shape due to continental drift and folds in the land appeared.

Locally the stone is found only on high ground. The deepest stone mines are at a depth below the surface of about one hundred feet whereas in some places the stone is open cast. A point to note is that officially the stone workings, be they mining or open cast are all called quarries which can lead to confusion. Exactly where the stone was quarried will be discussed later on.

The stone was first quarried commercially by Ralph Allen in the early 1700's. Ralph Allen is famous for his foresight and innovative ideas as well as good taste in architecture. He discovered that beds of the stone lay in the hills beneath Combe Down, Hampton Down and Odd Down overlooking Bath. In these areas the stone is very close to the surface. The "overburden" is between fifteen and twenty feet in most areas. Where it was economical Ralph Allen removed the stone in the open-cast method but when the stone became too deep he was forced to mine in order to keep up with demand. This method was employed in many other places later on as the stone normally lays at least fifty feet deep. Ralph Allen also commissioned the invention of a tramway to move the stone from the top of the hill down into Bath. Wagons loaded with stone descended by gravity while the empty wagons were pulled back up the hill by horses.

John Wood was the architect responsible for most of the famous buildings in Bath and it was during this period that buildings such as The Royal Crescent were built. As yet efficient transportation of the stone had not yet begun so most of the stone quarried from the area was used locally although some was transported on the River Avon. After Ralph Allen's death in 1764 the quarrying continued on the Downs but the stone was gradually being exhausted.. When the Kennet and Avon canal was built in 1810 the stone was moved further afield and other mines were opened up in the area.

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