21 December 2001

Delve for stone and slates

AN organisation has been set up in Herefordshire to help farmers revive a once-thriving cottage industry. It is focused on the 12th century, Cistercian Dore Abbey which needs a new roof.

The problem is there are not enough traditional stone tiles to repair it with. But on the surrounding farmland there are many disused "delves", or small heritage quarries, that once provided the necessary material to keep the rain out. West Herefordshire alone had 300. Many farms would have had one, a source of stone and tiles for local use.

The chink of hammer and chisel is no longer heard in these delves but not because they were worked out. With the advent of modern building materials and roofing sheets they fell into disuse. Now the Hereford Stone Tile Project has been launched to encourage farmers to look again at the delves as a source of extra income and employment and help them obtain planning permission to open them up.

"Dore Abbey is a flagship restoration highlighting the shortage of the traditional old red sandstone tiles," said Alison Silver, one of the founders. "It will take more than the output of one small quarry to repair its very big roof.

"But it is not just the Abbey that needs tiles, there is a dire shortage of them in Herefordshire. A lot of buildings have lost their original roofs; barns have been cannibalised for their tiles.

"Quarrying the delves works in very well with farming and doesnt affect the environment. A typical one would cover about a tenth of a hectare and would be worked by one or two men. There is no blasting; the stone is extracted with a small digger or a crowbar.

"It is very worthwhile. Tiles are now worth £120/sq m and a man can produce 2-3sq m/day."

Alison, whose late husband, Alan, opened up his own delve for stone and slates on their smallholding, says the project is in touch with Young Farmers. It is hoped to run workshops in the near future showing how to operate the delves and demonstrating skills like cutting tiles. One or two delves are already working but she is keen to see as many as possible back in operation.

Stone slate, or stone tile roofs are broadly found on the west side of England and up into Scotland. They have given architecture a regional distinctiveness that varies according to the stone locally available.

English Heritage frowns on the second-hand slate market. It wants traditional slates to be put back on roofs, not used elsewhere. In any event damaged or worn out slates still need replacing.

Terry Hughes, a consultant with English Heritage, has set up the Stone Roofing Association to help architects and builders who are having a struggle to find traditional materials. He reckons that several heritage quarries could be opened up around the country especially in Cumbria, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, the Cotswolds and East Sussex.

Sheep farmer Keith Brogden runs a one-man quarrying operation at Hill Top near Keld in North Yorkshire. He extracts about 200t of sandstone a year and recently obtained permission from the Yorkshire Dales National Park to extend his operations. His quarry supplied the stone and slates for many of the farms, barns and cottages in the area.

Tom Montgomery