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13 November 2014

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You are in: Dorset > Places > Places features > Purbeck: built on stone

Local artist Carlotta Barrow at work in the centre

Local artist Carlotta Barrow at work

Purbeck: built on stone

It's literally what makes the Isle of Purbeck what it is – and a new centre in Langton Matravers is helping to reconnect local people with what's under the ground beneath their feet: Purbeck Stone.

Purbeck Stone has played a key role in the landscape of the Purbeck region, both visually and economically, and The Burngate Stone Centre in Langton Matravers, part of a scheme called the Purbeck Keystone Project, has been set up to highlight that fact.

Stone mason and centre manager David Callaghan explains the thinking behind it:

Centre manager David Callaghan

Centre manager David Callaghan

He says: "The centre's been put together to enable local residents to have a go at stone working, carving, masonry and letter cutting, to re-engage people with the heritage of stone working in Purbeck.

"The area has a long and prestigious history for stone working, going back to Roman times."

Although tourism has since surpassed stone extraction as Purbeck's biggest industry, there are several stone quarries still going strong, and they also supply the centre with its stone.

Purbeck Marble

Purbeck Stone is still very much in evidence today around Dorset and beyond.

As well as being the main building material for most of the local area, one of its many variants, Purbeck Marble, features in several cathedrals. Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire contains more Purbeck Stone than any other Cathedral.

Purbeck Marble is not actually a marble, but it can be highly polished to achieve a marble-like appearance, and is only one example of Purbeck Stone.

In fact, Purbeck Stone can be classified into several different 'beds'.

There are several different types - or 'beds' of local stone

There are different types of stone found locally

David says: "There are probably a dozen varieties that are commonly referred to, like Purbeck Cap, which is a very hard stone. I've seen it used recently for headstones, but also for things like kerbing or paving, as it has a slow rate of weathering.

"Another variety is Spangle, which has a large fossil pattern in it. I've seen it used as fireplaces, and it will take a nice polish.

"But all types of Purbeck Stone have got their own purpose, and some work better for particular jobs.

"But if you were to look at the stone exposed on the cliff down at Durlston, all the beds would look pretty similar really - they all just look like rock."

Local heritage

It's this sort of knowledge and interest in Purbeck's local heritage that is key to the centre's philosophy, and this is something David is keen to develop further.

He says: "We've got six or seven local masons delivering courses - ranging from half day to five day long.

Each type of local stone has distinctive qualities

Each type of stone has its own qualities

"There's lots of local knowledge and expertise here, the intention [over the longer term] is to concentrate on people renting out the workspace, and delivering their own courses.

"Someone came up with the analogy of the stone centre being a bit like a village hall – where people can come in and use it for their own [stone-related] purposes."

The courses will enable everyone attending to leave with something they've created out of stone.

David says: "What we try to do is teach a certain set of processes using structured steps, and we supply templates [of a design] as there’s only so much you can do if you’re on a one day course. But anyone can have a go."

Disused mines - now a home for bats

Near to the centre are the remains of entrances to long-closed mines, where stone was once extracted.

An old mine in the area - this one's had dry stone walling to help preserve it

A preserved but disused old mine

Since their use stopped in the 1960s, some have had their entrances protected with dry stone walling to help preserve it (such as the one in the photo to the right), while others are just abandoned, overgrown holes in the ground, like one to the rear of the Burngate Centre, which was built on the site of an old stone workshop.

David explains: "This is the entrance to the underground mine that the workshop used to serve (see picture below).

"The quarry men would dig a shaft down at an angle of about 45 degrees, through the overburden [the material they didn't want] to the beds [of stone] that they wanted to extract, to about 20 or 30 feet down."

The entrance to the old mine

The entrance to the old mine

And as an indication of how busy the industry once was here, Dave says: "Within about 400 or 500 yards from here you can find another four or five of these mine entrances.

"And this particular mine is now a habitat for bats. There are about six species here, including the endangered Greater Horseshoe Bat, but you wouldn't want to go down there, it's very dangerous."

'Purbeck stone has defined the local area'

The extraction methods used today are known as 'open cast' – digging a large quarry, extracting the stone, then filling in the hole - rather than by mining, but stone extraction remains an important part of both Purbeck's past and present, which is why the centre is important, says David.

"Purbeck Stone has pretty much defined the local area. It's obviously defined the shape of the hillside, and the geomorphology, but the extraction of the stone has brought a lot of wealth to the area, it's bought attention to Purbeck – in particular Purbeck Marble and its use in cathedrals, but also in terms of industry and jobs.

"It's got this tremendous history, and it is part of the identity of the local area. It's been a really significant thing."

The centre officially opened on Saturday 4 April 2009.

last updated: 06/04/2009 at 15:05
created: 17/03/2009

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