4 out of 5 stars
All of my career I have been an engineer, working with all sorts of materials and changing them from one form to another and making things out of them. But stone as a material has always been a mystery to me; how can people take this material from the ground, cut it, shape it and form it into beautiful buildings and art. Cutting stone with modern tools is relatively easy these days, but the art of taking a roughly shaped stone and using just hand tools and the eye of the mason to create a perfectly square and shaped block is still amazing.
People have been working stone for thousands of year in this country, though how they did it without metal tools is another mystery. Andrew Ziminski has got three decades of experience as a mason and it is with the Neolithic that he begins his journey around the South West of the country, beginning in the West Kennet Long Barrow on the festival of Samhain. He was there to see if the collapsing walls could be repaired, and it was an opportunity to see how our ancient relatives built these structures without metal tools to dress the stones.
Just over a month and a half later he is at Stonehenge for the Solstice and to follow for himself the route in his canoe, laughing Water that most think that the stones took along the Avon and up onto the site and to check for himself a new alignment that a farmer had discovered. Mostly though he wanted to study the sarsens for himself to see how these ancient craftsmen had made their monument.
Next up is a trip to Bath where he is there to help repair a tholos, but this gives him an excuse to consider the impact that Roman architecture had on the country and Bath in particular. When finished there he is back in his canoe to paddle to Bradford-on-Avon to go and see St Laurence’s Church which is a rare survival of a stone Anglo-Saxon church.
The third part of the book is concentrating on marble and he is responding to an urgent call to repair some carved corbels in the Norman church in Lullington. Carving requires more delicate tools than regular masonry and it is an opportunity to hear about the tools that he inherited from a carver from the Purbecks that are over 80 years old now. A trip to Wales to collect freestone from a quarry. After a brief interlude for the summer solstice at Stonehenge again, he is back in my part of the country for this, as the stone he needs for repairs uses the fine stone from the Purbecks.
This is a charming guide to our architecture and history. I really liked this book, as not only is it a fascinating history of how our nation has used stone to build a humble home, breath-taking palaces and places of worship over the past 5000 years, it is also a very personal history of our land seen from the perspective of the craftsmen and women who built it over thousands of years with a little bit of travel thrown in for good measure. He has a wonderful conversational style in his writing, I can imaging sitting in the garden of the Square and Compass pub listening to him tell of the places that he has worked and paddled. I liked the way he wove in the folklore alongside the Christian faith, seeing what they have given us in the way of building as their true contribution. There were a couple of tiny flaws, I would have liked a little more on the craft of masonry, it would have been nice to have some photos or diagrams of the building elements that Ziminski was talking about in the book as well as photos of the buildings that he has worked on. Thankfully he has a website with some of the images here.