13 March 1998

Keith proves that slate quarries could fit in with farming

Conservationists are getting worried about the roof over

your head and the roofs that are stolen from barns.

Tom Montgomery reports on plans to boost slate supplies

SINCE Roman times stone slates have been widely used to keep out the rain. They have also given different areas of the country an architectural style that is regionally distinctive. In the Yorkshire Pennines it was large slabs of yellow and black sandstone that provided houses with their crowning glory; in the Cotswolds the lighter-coloured, smaller, knobblier limestone slates set the seal.

This diversity is now being seen as an invaluable part of our heritage and worth preserving. The problem is, while this great stone roofing tradition is being increasingly admired and appreciated, the small, local quarries that supplied the slates have almost disappeared. Areas that had half-a-dozen 10 years ago are down to one or two.

These quarries did more than provide slates. They brought harmony to the countryside. In our most scenic areas houses, roofs and dry stone walls match because all the stone came from the same source.

If your home is a listed building planners may insist you repair with original, matching slates. If new ones are not available you may have to turn to the salvage market and therein lies many a tale of barn roofs that have disappeared in the middle of the night to fill the gap between supply and demand.

Concerned about this vanishing, rural industry English Heritage launched a two-year research project in Derbyshire (with the local county council and Peak District National Park), where new slate production had dried up completely. The aim was to find ways of getting local quarries restarted and use the experience as a model for other parts of the country.

The response has been positive and the ring of hammer and chisel is once again being heard in the hills, albeit faintly at present. Susan Macdonald, an architect with English Heritage, says the countryside is dotted with tiny, historic quarries, often in the most unlikely places. They can be so small that they just supplied a village or even a farmstead. In Sussex many of the duck ponds on farms were once the holes that provided the Horsham stone slates found on the roofs.

Her belief that small-scale quarrying could fit in very well with farming is supported by Keith Brogden, who fetches stone out of the Swaledale hills.

&#42 Wears two hats

When he isnt making slates he runs his 101ha (250-acre) sheep farm at Borren House, near Kirkby Stephen. Wearing two hats keeps him busy but when he is rushed on the farm, at lambing or hay making, he can down tools at the quarry. Hes stretched only when he gets a rush order for stone, then hes working all hours, all weathers.

The quarry, at Hill Top, near Keld, has existed for several hundred years, according to Keith. He believes it is the only one of its type now working in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. He rents it from the Gunnerside Estate, extracting 200t of sandstone a year for slates, paving, walling and gate posts. The environmental impact is minimal because of the operations restricted nature .

Keith uses a digger to strip away the rubble and vegetation and expose the near-surface rock which he prises out with a crow bar to avoid damage. He works a lot by himself but at most hell employ a couple of helpers.

The art of making stone roofing slates lies in splitting the rock evenly. Keith was taught by his father-in-law, George Clark-son, who worked the quarry before him. "Mine are about an inch thick and they have to be fairly uniform so they will lay properly on the roof. Reopening these rural quarries is a good idea but the skills will have to be learned," he said.

The stone slates, known by various names including flags, thackstones, slats and tilestones, are made from sedimentary rock that splits along its bedding plane. If the rock is left exposed it is a job the frost will do, a method popular for Collyweston slates, mined in Northants. In some areas weathering is so effective at splitting, slates can be found on the surface or get turned up by the plough.

&#42 Nice skirt

Slates have to be squared up and trimmed so they have tight sides and a nice skirt, or bottom edge. The aim is to ensure water drains away rather than soaks into the overlap. Holes used to be picked out with a spike hammer for the wooden pegs which hung them on the lathes. Now a drill and copper nails do the same job.

The slates are laid in courses diminishing in size to the ridge. The heaviest ones, near the eaves, can weigh 1cwt each. Nails and lathes will fail before the slates, which can be good for hundreds of years.

Hill Top Quarry must have supplied half the farmhouse and barn roofs in Upper Swaledale, says Keith, who has been a quarryman since the early 1980s. In the last couple of years hes seen the business revitalise. His most unusual order for the honey-coloured stone was from Euro Disney which wanted it for covering concrete steps.

Hes got planning permission for another two years but has applied for 10. Modest expansion plans include a shed for dressing stone. Making slates outdoors, 15000ft up on the Roof of England, in winter is tough work. But it can be profitable. A tonne of new slates, numbering between 40 and 60, fetch £500, making them rather an expensive product.

Susan Macdonald says that of the 15 or so types of stone slates on our roofs, from the New Red Sandstone of Cumbria to the Forest Marble of Dorset, only a third are now available. Most of the quarries that provided them are there, but dormant. She is keen to get farmers to open them up: "It fits in ideally with agriculture because it is a low scale, low technology industry with a local base and demand. Planning permission will be required but an expensive outlay isnt necessary," she said.

The rich landscape provided by stone slate roofs is slowly disappearing, threatening local character and distinctiveness. Cheaper, mass-produced alternatives have undercut the traditional industry.

The present lack of new slates has led to the widespread use of salvaged material. English Heritage is keen to stamp out this practice, except where slates are reused in their original location. It encourages the unscrupulous and undermines attempts to regenerate an important rural activity.

&#42 Training module

English Heritage is developing a training module, and a technical leaflet that will be published in June, for conservationists. Its Roofs of England exhibition is available on loan.

In response to its initiative the Stone Slate Roofing Association has been set up to deal with inquiries on (01286-650402). English Heritage is at Room 227, 23, Savile Row, London W1X 1AB (0171-9733314).

Slates are laid in courses with the heaviest ones near the eaves. This is a West Yorkshire stone slate roof.

Right: In the Yorkshire Dales farmer Keith Brogden now extracts 200t sandstone a year.

Isolated barns are easy prey for thieves who strip roofs and sell slates.

A barn in the Yorkshire Dales. Each area has its own distinctive slates.