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27 November 2014
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    St George of England Church Toddington
    New and old clunch in Toddington

    Gone for Clunch

    By Ian Pearce
    For nearly one thousand years, the soft chalkstone known as clunch has been quarried in Bedfordshire. Totternhoe clunch is so soft it can be cut with a saw. There is now only one supplier in the whole country.

    New stone above eroded gargoyles
    New stone sits above eroded gargoyles.

    Some of our medieval churches are breathtaking and make you wonder at the sheer effort it must have taken to build them. How long did it take to carve some of the decorative gargoyles or rood screens? The use of materials influenced the ease with which the building could be completed.

    "If clunch becomes the new decking, the ramshackle yard tucked away in the northern corner of  Buckinghamshire could just become a boom industry."
    Ian Pearce

    In the Three Counties area many important buildings are built from the soft Totternhoe clunch. For example the flint remains of Berkhamsted Castle are just the internal filling of the walls. The original walls were clunch and were pilfered by a bastard son of Henry the Eighth to build Berkhamsted Place.

    diamond saw
    A diamond saw used to cut the clunch.

    Clunch is very common in France and it surfaces again at Totternhoe near Dunstable where is has been quarried for many years.

    Clunch saved time and in some cases years of work. It can be cut with saws and worked with woodworking tools. Even if the whole church or building wasn't built with clunch, it was commonly used for windows or decorative carving.

    Sheridan and Angus Clarke
    Sheridan the boss and Angus

    The softness of the stone causes problems for the custodians of our churches. Internally the stone is fine but externally, it can be badly affected by acid rain and in our area, years of sulphur emissions from the brick industry.

    The ease of working does mean that new clunch can be grafted in by stone masons and in some cases new gargoyles carved. In Victorian times some churches were given a cement rendering over the clunch and this has caused major problems with water ingress.

    Another characteristic to watch out for in clunch-built churches is the graffitti. If you visit some of the churches on the church trails in the South Bedfordshire District Council area, you'll find some intricate carved graffitti hundreds of years old.

    The Weston Underwood yard
    The stone yard at Weston Underwood.

    These churches welcome visitors on the first Sunday of the month through the summer and many of them have guides who will point out some of the features. All Saints in Leighton Buzzard is one where there are some interesting impromptu "additions".

    Only one firm remains in this country still quarrying the clunch. H.G. Clarke and Son are based in the beautiful Buckinghamshire village of Weston Underwood although obviously  they still quarry at Totternhoe.

    They took over the quarrying when they were stone masons at Woburn Abbey and the firm supplying them with clunch went bust. Angus and his father Stan, under the watchful eye of the real boss Sheridan, supply clunch to stone masons largely for restoration or extension work.

    Practice wall.
    The practice wall for Chelsea

    This year's Chelsea Flower show gained the firm some publicity. The designer Ginny Bloom was looking to create a French feel for the award-winning Laurent-Perrier garden. She turned up at Weston Underwood with a team of designers and eventually built a stretch of clunch dry stone walling.

    The Clarkes dispatched stone to Scotland where it was worked before being shipped to Chelsea. In the end some 30 metres of clunch wall was included in the garden although the Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire connection wasn't particularly highlighted in the desire to portray a slice of Gallic life.

    Who knows? If clunch becomes the new decking, the ramshackle yard tucked away in the northern corner of Buckinghamshire could just become a boom industry.

    last updated: 03/07/06
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