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Purbeck Stone

By Treleven Haysom

31 May 2021

This is a book on geology like no other. Treleven (Trev) Haysom is a tenth generation stone mason, who undoubtedly knows more about Purbeck Stone than any other living soul. With greatest respect to W.H. Auden, if ever there was a book to be called In Praise of Limestone, this must surely be it.

The title could be misleading as this book is much more than a description of Purbeckian Limestone. It includes marine Portland (Cliff Stone) and non-marine Purbeck (Inland Stone) without worrying too much where the Purbeckian-Portlandian stratigraphic boundary lies. The stones are introduced from the top down – unconventionally for geologists – which makes sense when you are digging from the surface. The stratigraphy is presented in such a bewildering array of masons’ names – Spangle, Thornback, Burr, New Vein – that for once the geologist is left floundering. The origins of these names are explained, when not lost to antiquity, and there is a logical order to their presentation.

For a geological specialist, many things are not addressed as might be expected; no stratigraphic column, no cross section, no scale bars to the figures; but Trev knows his geology – to the extent of using ‘geopetals’ in Salisbury Cathedral to address the way-up of the columns and cylinders used in the construction. His colleagues certainly have learned to know their ostracods.

The quarrymen are the main characters – the many recurring family names, their trace ‘fossils’ – the broaching, lettering, symbols, recorded in stone. It is amazing to think that 49 masons worked on Westminster Cathedral alone at the height of the industry. Trev knows their family lines and descendants personally, and navigates through all the variants of their first (nick)names, including who the individuals are in the old photographs.

The quarrymen know all about facies and diagenetic changes, as these aspects control the hardness and durability of the stone. The muddy rocks don’t get much of a mention and the distribution of silicification and replacement would be very interesting to map out. One day perhaps this knowledge could also be captured, but for the moment geologists should welcome and be inspired by this very different view of a beloved and venerated rock.

The inexpensive volume is well produced with a lot of pictures, many from the author’s own collection. The increasing appreciation of the importance of one’s identity of place – geoidentity – make this a treasure trove. The book explains so much that I didn’t understand about the place I grew up in that has formed the bedrock of my life.

Reviewed by Patrick Corbett

Purbeck Stone by Treleven Haysom (2020) Dovecote Press, 312 pp. (hbk) ISBN: 9780995546364 PRICE: £35 www.dovecotepress.com