Hills and Hollows, Barnack: History of Barnack stone

People interested in stone know that famous cathedrals, like Ely and Peterborough, were built from Barnack stone. But how many know the history of the famous quarry, which was originally worked by the Romans?

Dog-walkers and ramblers probably have no idea that they are wandering through one of Britain’s most important stone quarries as they step on the almost manicured grass that covers the bumps and holes of what seems to be a large patch of wasteland close to the village of Barnack, some 11 miles north west of Peterborough.

The 50-acre site is now largely silent except for the cry of youngster’s excitedly charging up and down the ‘hills and holes’ or, as it is sometimes known, especially among locals, hollows.

The silence is quite opposite from the days when the area was a highly productive open quarry, where men laboured and sweated to split and crowbar valuable limestone out of ground that was once submerged in warm shallow seas.

Hard to believe, but most types of limestone, which are sedimentary rocks formed in the Jurassic period up to 205 million years ago, constitute a dense mix of the skeletal remains of tiny marine organisms, including molluscs and coral.

And here are some surprising facts; the large blocks of limestone grubbed out of the ground found their way the 11 miles to Peterborough to become the material of choice to build the mighty triple arched cathedral.

Today, samples of large blocks of Barnack stone can be found in the nearby village of Southorpe. Sitting by the side of the road a plaque on a piece of stone records that “Rough blocks of Barnack Rag limestone which fell from carts during transport to the River Nene before 1450 for building Peterborough and Ely cathedrals.”

Stone for the great abbeys at Bury St Edmunds, Crowland and Ramsey must have come along the same road, although history records that ownership of the site was often challenged by the various monasteries. Obviously the rightful owner could make great profits from selling the stone.

Payment for access to the quarry might seem bizarre by todays commercial standards –evidently Peterborough cathedral were paid in huge quantities of eels by the builders of Ely cathedral. And it is claimed that Ramsey Abbey paid 4,000 eels annually!

Another poignant reminder of the many hundreds, if not thousands of masons and labourers who worked at the Barnack site over the centuries, can be found in a village garden. It shows an almost full size statue of a mason carving a large block of stone.

Probably the most famous building raised from Barnack stone is Ely cathedral, said to be the only Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages in Britain. The heavy blocks of stone were shipped by river or dragged by teams of horses nearly 42 miles to the Isle of Ely, little more than a hump of dry ground in the middle of a Fenland waste, to build what was to become known as “The Ship of the Fens”.

At 565ft long from the eastern buttresses to the western door, it is claimed that not only is Ely cathedral the longest Gothic church in the country but Europe. And who would have thought it was built from stone formed from densely packed tiny sea bugs dug from just feet from the surface around the sleepy village of Barnack?

Like most important things at the time, the valuable limestone, which became to be known as Barnack Rag, wasn’t found by the ancient Britons; it was dug up by the Romans 1500 years ago, people who always had an eye for a good slab of stone.

Limestone, although an easy stone for mason’s to work, does have one drawback; it is prone to damage and serious reaction to acid rain. This is why you nearly always see scaffolding around parts of buildings made from limestone as conservators and masons work to protect and replace the vulnerable stone.

Besides being an important building material, limestone has many more everyday uses. Limestone quarry waste is crushed and used as an aggregate for road’s, the white pigment is a base for paints and even toothpaste, while powdered lime is spread over fields to improve soil quality.

Sadly, Barnack can no longer supply stone to build and restore the nation’s grand building, the site is worked out and nature has reclaimed the once busy workings. Today, the Hills and Holes or Hollows, if you prefer, have been smothered by a sward of grass.

Now, instead of huge blocks of stone, Barnack is known for its wildlife and wild flowers, including eight varieties of orchid, which are all lime-loving plants. In all, around 300 types of wild plants are found on the site and they all thrive thanks to flocks of roving sheep.

The ever hungry sheep wander the hills and hollows hoovering up all of nature’s debris, cropping the grass as they go. The site, because of its unique undulating features, could never be worked my man or machinery, the sheep do it far more effectively.

If you have an imaginative mind you can probably picture the site when it was a quarry; men grunting the get the stone out of the ground, the horses straining under the load of stone sitting on sledges as they hauled it to the waiting carts.

And if you have an inquisitive nature, you can hunt around Barnack village looking for the statue of the mason cutting a piece of stone with mallet and chisel. Here’s a clue. Try looking over one or two garden walls.

More information:
www.fbhh.org.uk (Friends of Barnack Hills and Hollows)

Mel Russ