Sandstone of St Bees
Join me for a moment on the cliff-top at St Bees'. If we had been standing on this same spot about 200 million years ago, our feet would most likely have been on the bottom of a river bed. The dog, running on the grass behind us, might have been slithering down a sandbank. The Solway plain would have stretched out at eye-level in front of us, rather than the sparkling blue sea that is 100 feet below. The peregrine that has just folded its wings and dived down the cliff-face would not have been here: nor would the cormorant that is lumbering past like a Hercules 'plane. No gulls, no fieldfares, no noisy wrens shouting at us from the gorse: there would have been no birds at all. No bipedal mammals either – for the early mammals had only just evolved. We could not have been there, but that was the beginning of the formation of the red sandstone of St Bees'.
Fleswick Bay: a tapestry by Heather Seddon, of the Eden Valley Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers
As I walk over St Bees’ Head in the November sunshine I see a boat putting out of Whitehaven, its shape almost hidden in a halo of white spray. It ploughs through the waves, speeding towards the Isle of Man, and my suspicions are confirmed when – a couple of miles out – it slows in a wide arc round a trawler: it must be the Solway Protector. It’s a happy coincidence, because it was my trip on her that led to my being here now, standing on the red sandstone cliffs that I had earlier seen from out at sea. In fact, my interest in this spectacular feature of the South Solway coast arose from a concatenation of circumstances: collecting smooth red discoidal pebbles at Allonby; reading about the enthusiasm of Victorian geologist, Robert Harkness, for the Solway’s New Red Sandstone; the trip in the Protector: and my pleasure in the sculpture “Phoenix in Flames”, carved in local red sandstone by the sculptor Sky Higgins.
Down in Fleswick Bay the tide has already covered the wave-sculpted platforms but the dog and I potter along the high tide mark under the overhanging red cliffs; the rock is smooth, wave-washed, finely-contoured with lines that curve and dip towards the horizontal – evidence of ancient river banks, and sand-banks between braided channels. In 1885, J Harrison, Whitehaven, carved his name on the red cliff but now the waves have almost rubbed it out. The pebbles underfoot are finely-graded and so smooth as to be almost friction-less. It’s like walking on ball-bearings, so I give up and sit in the sun while the dog laps fresh water from a hollow that has been formed by incessant dripping from an overhang. We have the beach to ourselves and there is complete silence except for the waves hissing in the shingle. Later, on the walk back to St Bees’ carpark, there are a few unseasonal scabious and several gorse bushes in flower (“When the gorse is not in flower, kissing’s not in season”). The mole-hills are red, and so too are the almost-too-neat drystone walls, and the older houses, and St Bees’ church - all built from the local stone.
A geology tutorial
Birkham's Quarry, September 2015 (photo: Ann Lingard); Marshall's have recently been granted permission for extension of its licence
The reason why I was too late to catch the low tide is because I spent the morning having a personal "geology tutorial" with David Kelly, at Sandwith, North of St Bees. David has had plenty of experience in leading field trips in this area, both for his sixth-formers and for members of the Cumberland Geological Society. He’s tall, white-haired and relaxed, and strides apparently effortlessly up and down the cliff throughout the morning; he’s also full of enthusiasm (and patience), and knows exactly where to find all the best features. We walk along a narrow path northwards from Birkhams Quarry where the sandstone is still a raw, bright red, and – because the sandstone layer is tilted - we also walk backwards through Time, to a face where the blocky layers of rock are whitened by lichen, and partly hidden by fern and heather. But despite the vegetation there are plenty of fascinating clues to find, and we scramble around on the banks to look at the exposed rocks.
The layers of sandstone are interspersed with shallow bands of red shale, like flaked tuna between slices of solid rye bread. The shale, formerly silt that has been compressed and solidified, is easily-fragmented, soft and shiny when rubbed with a finger. This sandstone complex - the rock and shale – was laid down in those flash-floods and braided rivers that crossed the Solway plain. And this kept on happening, for millions of years: the floods bringing down silt and ground rock, quartz and fragments of granite, from a large mountainous mass to the South of “Britain” and “Brittany”, and the sediments being continually compressed, until the sandstone layer - the St Bees’ sandstone formation - was 1 km thick. As always with the Solway landscape, it is a thrill to discover that parts of it are so unimaginably old – and have gone through such unimaginable changes. I realise that the greasy red mud smeared on my finger-tip and now my note-book may be 230 million years old, give or take 10 million years or so.
Naming of names
“Naming of names”: there’s something exclusive but poetic about scientific jargon, and David enjoys the proper names of the features he shows me: “load casts”, “shale flake conglomerate”, Brockram and breccia, and small pockets of muddy “rip-up clasts”. There is evidence everywhere to show that this sandstone was sedimented from rivers. In places the rock shows parallel lines, indicative of fast strong currents; on one block the lines fold back on themselves, suggesting the soft sediment itself was folded, perhaps when a river bank collapsed. Here and at Fleswick Bay (where I later use my newly-acquired knowledge to identify the signs for myself), there is obvious “cross-bedding”, sloping lines that intersect the horizontal, signs of those ancient sandbanks with variously-angled slopes.
There are boulders with bulbous growths, where the sand was pressed down into mud before it was hardened into rock. In another place, meandering ridges on the surface of the block show where the Permo-Trias mud dried out and fresh sand spilled into the deep desiccation cracks.
Colour and sparkle
David hands me a fragment of the rock, turning it to catch the light; it sparkles. “You see those glittery bits? They’re mica flakes – they settled out of the water. If this sandstone had been wind-blown, like the Penrith sandstone, you wouldn’t see any mica because the particles would have been well-sorted on the dunes.The grain in St Bees’ stone is less than a half-millimetre in diameter. You can’t pick out the grains under a lens.” Both the mica flakes and quartz add the glitter to "Beestone", as it's known in the trade.
Sculptor Sky Higgins, expressing a quiet, almost shy enthusiasm for her work, had told me about the sparkling. “When you’re carving,” she said, “the stone’s covered in dust and just looks pale. The warmth and the hidden grain come through when you wash it. There’s a lovely sparkle, you can see the tiny specks glistening in the light.”
“The sandstone’s incredibly abrasive on tools – it’s sandpaper! I use the files and then I take a piece of sandstone – something I’ve cut off the block, a sandstone pebble, anything, to sand the surface. If I find a piece that’s suitable I keep it and use chips off it – you can choose a piece that’s the right shape for the bit you’re needing to sand. It’s handy, it’s free! And then for the fine sanding I use wet and dry paper.” Finally the sculpture has to be washed, and polished, and a little oil rubbed in. “Fine sandstone is quite silky, you get a crisp image, the maximum sculptural effect. With sandstone there’s no reflection of light to distort what you see.”
The rock’s colour, beautifully brought out by polishing and oiling, is due to the presence of haematite, in which the iron has been oxidised to the red ferric form; in the St Bees’ formation, the sediment was exposed to oxygen in the rivers and on the flood-plain. This is in complete contrast to the red Penrith sandstone, David tells me, for that was formed in arid desert conditions, as wind-blown dunes. The dunes were 30 metres high, and the quartz grains are large (referred to as “millet seed” grains – you probably need to be a gamekeeper or to keep budgerigars for that to have any meaning) and often look “frosted” and abraded under the microscope. There’s no shale, no mica flakes, and the stone is coarsely cemented together with silica. The iron in the Penrith sandstone was oxidised in the hot open air.
Gypsum and Brockram
On the cliffs at Sandwith, the shadows are finger-numbingly cold and the wet grass has soaked the bottoms of our jeans. Down below us lies the Barrowmouth gypsum mine, so we skid down the slick muddy path, through the brambles and stunted trees. It’s lumpy, difficult terrain, formed by the shales which have slipped down from the sandstone face, forming deep half-hidden holes, into which the dog falls, twice. She scrabbles with her front paws to pull herself out, rolling her eyes in embarrassment and we have to pretend not to notice.
The path that follows the tramway to the mine has become buckled and indistinct, interrupted by slippage of the shales. There is a small square bridge of neatly-cut and faced red sandstone blocks; the remains of a sandstone pumphouse and weigh-house, tipped backwards by the rotated slip face; a few hard white rocks of anhydrite; and “John Smith 1935” – he had carved his name at the top of the cliff, and the looped and flowing script of his name is carved here too.
We lose the path on a landslip, and when we finally reach the shore we're muddy and damp, but it’s worth it. We’re surrounded by boulders that have tumbled from the cliffs above us, many of them now disguised by slimy green seaweed, but neither algae nor the salty white encrustation can completely hide the colour of the slabs beneath our feet.
It’s sandstone, again, but of a deep purplish colour, a different age, a different origin. Where we're standing was a humid tropical swamp, about 290 million years ago, in the Carboniferous: this is Coal-Measure sandstone, “Whitehaven sandstone”; you can see it further up the coast too, and to the North of the harbour. The coal-miners working far out beneath the sea would have seen a less colourful rock above them, dull and pale, because it was deposited in stagnant, anaerobic water. Only later, at the start of the Permian, when the swamps dried out and the area became arid desert, would the surface become oxidised to that characteristic purple-red.
“Come and look at this! This is what I really like about this part of the shore,” David calls. I clamber over the boulders towards him, and then we are both standing on what looks like a large shallow spill of concrete, one to two metres thick, into which gravel and chunks of rock had been stirred before it set: it looks artificial and unattractive. This “non-conformity” and the way it arose is extraordinary. The surface of the Coal Measure sandstone had been smoothed and hollowed, slowly eroded as it was exposed and oxidised in the desert air – and then suddenly, into every dip and joint had poured this mess of “Brockram”, forming a dramatic contrast of colour and texture. In the Permo-Trias a river had flooded out onto the sandstone, its powerful currents carrying a mixture of volcanic material, limestones, sandstone and even Ennerdale granite from the Lake District region, and had deposited this breccia in a fan.
So we stand there on the non-conformity and look up, through tens of millions of years and a staggering range of climate change: swampy Carboniferous sandstone and a patch of alluvial Brockram beneath our feet; then about 5 metres of pale Dolomitic limestone that was laid down in a shallow salty sea; muddy shales rising for an uneven, vegetated 100 metres or so; and crowning it all the great cliffs of red St Bees’ sandstone, deposited on an arid plain by rivers and flash-floods, in a layer that was once 1000 metres thick. Geology certainly cuts you down to size!
Further along I find some bleached bones scattered on the rock, one of them a perfect fox or dog skull. Next to it a fox has left its scat, two neat turds: a derisive two-finger sign at the symbol of vanitas mundi.
"The chiselling edge"
A few days later I go back to catch Fleswick Bay at low tide, with my husband and elder daughter. The wind blows us along the cliff and has churned the sea into great brown breakers, which are crashing onto the shore; their booming is amplified by the dripping cave where we sit to eat our sandwiches. This time the red rocky platform is uncovered and we find that it’s pitted with deep circular pools, each fringed with pink Corallina. Everywhere the sandstone has been eroded into shapes that are so tactile that you need to feel and stroke them. Parallel grooves are separated by edges so thin and fine that they must surely break.
Millom poet Norman Nicholson had a sculptor’s eye when he wrote about St Bees’ sandstone:
“Smooth as a walnut turned on a lathe,
Or hollowed in clefts and collars where the pebbles
Shake up and down like marbles in a bottle.
Here the chiselling edges of the waves
Scoop long fluted grooves, and here the spray
Pits and pocks the blocks like rain on snow.”
(from St Bees in The Pot Geranium;
Norman Nicholson: Collected Poems,
edited by Neil Curry; Faber 1994)
Sky Higgins knows about the fragility of sandstone. “Sandstone won’t stand up to being carved too fine or too thin. It can break – and if it does, you know it’s broken for a reason, because it was too weak or you tried to do something it wasn’t suited to. But you learn how to work it, how to use it, you get a feel for what you can and can’t do. I build up a bond with the piece, I get a feel for the stone.”
She told me about the red sandstone of Maryport’s harbour wall, cut by man then sculpted by waves, and she told me about Fleswick’s pebbles, too. “There are some really good egg-shaped ones. I wanted to set pebbles into one of my sandstone sculptures, so I cut a hole the right size in a piece of paper then went down to Fleswick and fitted pebbles into it, to get one the right size.” The sculpture is an abstract of flowing lines, and half-hidden spheres that mimic “load casts” but is more surely described by Nicholson’s words. And at Fleswick there are so many pebbles to choose from, all sorted by the waves according to size: the large sandstone eggs are on the lower shore, and the more varied and delicate pebbles near the top.
For decades, people have carved their names along the cliffs: families from nearby Kells are particularly well-represented. Judy McKay’s name is the most perfectly formed, and although there is no date the lettering is perfectly finished, deeply incised, in a careful script that isn’t much used today. The oldest that we found was “M.I. 1774”, almost hidden by green algae. Twenty years after M.I carved his initials, the open excavations for gypsum were started at Barrowmouth, but it was not until the 1880s that the tramway and sandstone pumphouse that served the mine were built. At that time Robert Harkness would have been examining the red sandstone of Dumfries and the south Solway shores; he would have been geologising in the Caldbeck hills at almost the same time as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins stayed at the Ship Hotel in Allonby, further up the Solway coast. I like to think that the reason Collins fell and hurt his ankle on Carrock Fell was because he was distracted by a strange figure hammering and peering at the rocks.
Quarries, stone-masons and sculptors
Sculptor Shawn Williamson is a tall man, with well-cut white hair - and strong-looking arms. (Sky Higgins - who, sadly, is no longer sculpting - once told me that, when she was working full-time at Cockermouth’s former Regeneration Gallery, wielding her mallet and chisels all day long, she "had impressive biceps then - like a crab with one big claw!”).
Shawn is well-known and respected not just for his own work but because he has put so much of his energy into encouraging and training young people in the art and techniques of stone-sculpture, and getting them involved in big projects. He began his work in West Cumbria in 1998 when Richard Cross at Groundwork West Cumbria asked him to start sculpture workshops for community groups, and he set up Cumbria Rock Sculpture Ltd at Workington as a base. "Many of them were kids from the street, some of them as good as any artists I've known, they were naturals": one of those "naturals" was Sky Higgins who went on to sell her sculptures at the then Regeneration Gallery, run by Viv Austin and Karen Cottier in Cockermouth. "Viv and Karen were incredibly supportive of us," Shawn told me - and this support continued when Viv and Karen moved to Percy House Gallery.
Work in progress: the red sandstone lion at Furness Abbey (with thanks to Shawn Williamson for this photo.)
One big project that used St Bees' sandstone was a series of sculptures for Furness Abbey at Barrow in South Cumbria. "We didn't just work with schools," Shawn told me, "it was also with kids from homeless hostels and kids that had been in trouble." Six large blocks of St Bees' red sandstone were donated by Realstone Ltd of Lazonby, Penrith, and money for the tools was donated by the Heritage Lottery Fund - and the project's remit was to produce pieces that were in keeping with the Abbey's heritage.
"The blocks were all irregular and I got the kids to decide what they wanted to do, based on the shape of the stone. The first step was educational, we took them around so they learnt about mediaeval history and the abbey. ... The kids are very three-dimensionally orientated. I'd say to them, 'What does that block look like?' 'An owl.' So that's what we carved. 'What would an owl eat?' One girl said 'What about a mouse?' So that's what she did, a mouse at the owl's foot. 'An abbey has monks. What's the monk doing?' 'Praying.' 'So let's carve a monk praying'. I taught them how to carve first then let them get on with it.
Drawing and photos of Albany Cathedral in the RealStone office (thanks to Andrew Kendall, Branch Manager, for allowing me to use this image.)
Faced with six big blocks, how do you get started on the practicalities of turning ideas into hard fact? "I got them to do sketches and drawings. I knocked the rough off the blocks with a pneumatic breaker to start with, so they could see where they were going." Then they would chalk in an outline or would make models - maquettes - using clay or 'Plastiline' clay. "We worked as a team, and the kids did more and more work as they got used to the tools. They really got into it, and keeping them away when they shouldn't be there was the problem!"
Shawn has often worked with St Bees' sandstone. "I like the colour of it, and the shadow it gives off. It's quite soft, easier to carve, and there's not a massive amount of silica to dull your tools like the Lazonby (sandstone)."
And St Bees' sandstone, or "Beestone" as it's known in the architectural circles and quarrying trade, has been sent all over the world to build and repair buildings. Tina Bailey at Block Stone told me how they and their sister company Realstone Ltd - where the cutting and dressing is done - were given a contract to send 800 tonnes of cut and finished stone, by road and sea and road again, to Albany, New York State, to repair the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. They have sent Beestone to Prague in the Czech Republic for the Radio Prague building and the Four Seasons Hotel, and to Germany for various civil projects. Shawn Williamson, working on a block of their stone, proved a great draw to their stand at an exhibition in Nuremberg!
Copyright Ann Lingard, August 2010, September 2015.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Cumbria Life
magazine in February 2004