Nick Yandle of Gallagher’s Hermitage Quarry in Kent explores the enduring appeal of Kentish Ragstone.
Traditional but increasingly ‘rare and ancient’ materials such as Kentish Ragstone have made a positive contribution to some of our best-loved buildings – but how and why has the stone lasted as long as its appeal to kings and ‘commoners’ alike?
What do Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Rochester and Leeds Castle have in common? They’re all certainly major tourist attractions, and iconic worldwide symbols of Britain’s heritage. They’re all old stone buildings and they’re certainly very fine too. But if we add the Archbishop’s Palace at Maidstone, Igtham Mote and Knole House at Sevenoaks, the Keep at Dover Castle or the parish church of All Saints in Woodchurch, Kent or the wall of the railway bridge near Kemsing station (near Sevenoaks), rebuilt in 2011, what is then the connection?
While geographic proximity is one – they are all located in south-east England – the main connection is that they are all built either exclusively or partially using Kentish Ragstone, the local indigenous and high-quality stone found only in a limited number of seams across Kent and quarried in only two places.
Vast quantities of Kentish Ragstone were required for the construction of Westminster Abbey in the 11th century, so that a royal command decreed that "no Kentish Ragstone shall be carted to London for any other purpose until the Abbey is built". The White Tower, the iconic, perfectly-formed centrepiece of the fortified Tower of London site, is also made of classic Kentish Ragstone. In 1319, King Henry V commissioned 7,000 cannonballs made of ragstone, which may well have been hurled at the French army at the Battle of Agincourt!
But ragstone was not only used to house kings or bishops: all around southern England, long before the days of canals or motorways allowed its transport more widely, the local indigenous stone is evident in the construction of parish churches, walls and old stone bridges. Most of these date from medieval times. Indeed, ragstone was originally discovered by the Romans and its presence is evident in the old Roman wall near Tower Hill underground station in London and in Boughton village.
So why was ragstone used and what are its endearing features? Kentish Ragstone was an important natural resource in medieval times. It has been used for over 2000 years because it is strong, attractive and a functional building stone that is good for construction purposes.
It is strong and enduring – dense, water-resistant and withstands the annual battering from the elements from the vagueries of Britain’s temperate climate well. In the days before creature-comforts like central heating or modern plumbing, ragstone building provided respite to wealthy nobles in their fine homes and to serfs and villeins worshipping in their village churches. The most obvious feature of ragstone is, therefore, its longevity: ragstone lasts!
The clue is also in the name: ragstone derives its name from the word 'rag' which is a term for any hard stone that is difficult to work with. Kentish Ragstone was difficult to carve with early tools because of its inherent hardness, giving it a 'raggy' surface, so it was generally used for rough walling. However, by the medieval period improved stone-working techniques allowed for its use in window tracery, quoins and ashlar walling.
Architects from Roman times onwards – and those visiting those buildings that now form part of our ‘heritage’ and vital tourist industry – appreciate the aesthetic appeal of ragstone. Kings and archbishops found its solidity grand and imposing whereas visitors down the ages have found its texture and colour visually attractive. The way architects have combined the strength of ragstone with aesthetic beauty makes people want to visit Britain’s heritage with some of the world’s finest buildings.
While, since the 20th century, ragstone has also been used in less glamourous ways – as a crushed rock aggregate for road building – it is enjoying an active resurgence in modern architecture. Today’s architects are increasingly building in differentiation and sustainability to their designs which demands using locally sourced materials. The stone is used in the building of new homes, retail and office buildings which might otherwise appear bland – as shoppers at Sainsbury’s in Hythe or the Fremlin Walk Shopping Centre in Maidstone might notice.
The Hermitage Quarry, the main source of Kentish Ragstone in Kent, continues to supply it to enhance, protect and repair our ancient buildings. This ensures that repairs blend in with the original construction and comply with planning regulations. The growing popularity of ragstone is undisputed. The only challenge now is to ensure its survival into the future as the current seams are running low. But that’s another story
About the author:
The author is Chief Executive of Hermitage Quarry, near Maidstone in Kent. For more information about Gallagher Hermitage Quarry and Kentish Ragstone, visit: www.gallagher-group.co.uk.