Stones of King’s Lynn

This is a resource about stones in King’s Lynn which was inspired by the exhibition of work by the great Dutch artist herman de vries ‘on the stony path‘. Starting from his remarkable collections of stones, earth rubbings and assemblages, we were inspired to look afresh at stones all around us in the landscape and the built environment…..

Robin Stevenson talking about herman de vries stones in the gallery.
Robin Stevenson talking about the stones from the Steigerwald in the herman de vries exhibition

This resource has been compiled from original texts and images from local geologist and former lecturer at the College of West Anglia, the late Robin Stevenson. We are much indebted to him for so generously making his researches available.

Stones of King’s Lynn.

River frontage of South Quay, King’s Lynn

King’s Lynn is situated on the banks of a major tidal river, the Great Ouse, just south of The Wash, and on the edge of the Fens. The nearest rocks suitable for building purposes lie several kilometres inland, to the east and north-east, or way over to the west in the limestone belts of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. During medieval times, when transport was largely by water and road transport was difficult and expensive, this meant that good building stones were essentially inaccessible. However, despite this, the buildings of Lynn are made from a wide variety of materials – materials which illustrate the long and complex history of the town. The oldest buildings in any town belonged to either rich and powerful individuals, or organisations. Of the latter the most important was the Church.

A geological and environmental resource

This resource is designed to introduce you to the main rock types you are likely to encounter, the buildings in which they are to be found, and to give you a flavour of how, when and why they arrived in Lynn. We hope that with its help, you will be able to interpret something of the history of some of the buildings and the relationship with the wider environment you may find in and beyond King’s Lynn as you do your own exploring.

Early Stone buildings

Most buildings (and medieval churches are no exception), consist of a mixture of components and demand a variety of skills in their construction. Local, relatively unskilled labour, and locally available cheap materials would be needed to build the framework whilst prestige quality materials and skilled craftsmen might need to be brought in to apply the finishing touches. Most of the quality components would have been manufactured at specialist centres elsewhere and delivered as a set of ‘flat-pack’ components to be assembled on site.

 St Margaret's Church showing smooth cut limestone wall surfaces
St Margaret’s Church showing smooth cut limestone wall surfaces

Both of the two main medieval churches in the town – St Margaret’s Church: the Minster, and St Nicholas’ Chapel are faced  entirely in limestone, a high prestige stone which would have had to be imported as there is nothing of this quality available locally

Limestone is a sedimentary rock consisting mostly of Calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Oolitic limestone is made up of small (sand sized) rounded grains; if it consists purely of oolites it may qualify as a freestone, which can be cut or carved in any direction. If, however, it is ‘contaminated’ with coarser shell fragments which give the rock as distinct grain along which it tends to split, then it may be referred to as rag or ragstone.

The west facade of St Margaret’s church Lynn, known as The Minster. The earliest stone fabric here dates from the 12th century.

Where the limestone came from? The only sort of limestone which
occurs in Norfolk is Chalk, which is usually very soft and so unsuitable for building major structures. The nearest sources of good quality limestone lay on the other side of the Fens, in Lincolnshire and Northants, from where it was brought in by barges traversing the numerous dykes, drains and rivers of the Fens. Good quality oolitic freestones came from a number of sites but the quarries around Barnack were the chief source for Ragstone. Although the dominant types of limestone come from Lincolnshire and Northants, a few other types can be seen in the church interiors.

Stones on buildings and paving in town centre

It is worth noticing the different flood levels incised round the entrance to the Minster, a reminder of Lynn’s position on the banks of a major tidal river. Inside the church, on the north (left hand) side note the distinctly leaning arch – building on clay soils, which shrink and swell, as soil water levels change in response to drought or flooding, is a hazardous enterprise.

Panels of decorative stone features in buildings, here St Margaret’s, were often supplied from specialist quarries.

The main body of both St Margaret’s and St Nicholas churches present a smooth ashlar finish though there is significantly more elaborate carving present on the facades and porches. Ashlar is a surface of thin slabs of freestone which conceal a rubble interior. Inside the church the rubble is usually hidden beneath a mortar covering, or render.

St Nicholas Chapel

St Nicholas Chapel, is a building of outstanding design for its late 14th-early 15th century date & of European importance. Probably the stones for the window tracery and the doorway would have been supplied direct and pre-cut from the quarry

St Nicholas Chapel

The Trinity Guildhall

The Guildhall, which is situated very close to the Minster, is another example of a prestige building employing ‘quality’ stone; again the chief materials are Lincolnshire limestones but here enhanced by flint flushwork, which can be examined more closely than in the clerestory of All Saints.

Kings Lynn Town Hall, Trinity Guildhall
The Guildhall (Town Hall) an example of alternating cut limestone ashlar and knapped flint. 15th century.

Flint is a hard black material found embedded within some layers of the Chalk. Suitable flint for flushwork, as on the Guildhall facade, does not occur anywhere round Lynn so would need to have been imported from elsewhere in the county, possibly by barges from further south round Thetford or Brandon.

Ashlar, rubble, flushwork and reused stones at All Saints church

All Saints church
Reused stones built into the fabric of All Saints church

All Saints church  is a revelation, as it shows the bare bones of church construction. Strip away the veneer of ashlar panels from the Minster or St Nicholas’ chapel and this is probably what they would look like: the rubble skeleton on which the smooth sophisticated exterior hangs. The upper walls of the clerestory are flush-work, which is flint alternating with cut ashlar stone in a checkerboard pattern

Many of the materials seen in the walls of All Saints show borings by marine organisms – a strong indication that they were picked off a beach for use as ballast.

The Custom House

After the end of the Middle Ages, Lynn lost its position as one of the major ports in the UK; despite this, it remained prosperous enough for many fine buildings to be erected. However, few new materials were employed but extensive reworking and reordering of older buildings took place. The main building material remained brick and, to lesser extent, recycled limestones or Lincolnshire limestone specifically imported for prestige projects, like the Custom House of 1683.

Custom House
The Custom House, by Henry Bell, 1683. Limestone faced (GroundWork Gallery in the distance)

Rubble

Stone has always been expensive and money has always been tight so, even early on, masons learned to practise economies. Chief amongst these was the use of rubble. Churches generally seem such massive imposing structures that it is tempting to imagine that their walls consist of solid blocks of stone, but that was only the facing. Beneath it was a much rougher construction of irregular rubble. Stone rubble was also used for extensive utilitarian structures, like town walls.

Muddy sandstone rubble
Muddy sandstone rubble, Wyatt Street town wall

Rubble also had value. Around Lynn there were, until recently, no readily available sources of rubble so it would have to have been imported, either deliberately or coincidentally. The main sources of rubble in King’s Lynn would have been a) material recycled from earlier buildings. b) deliberately imported rubble, probably otherwise waste material from the quarries producing higher quality stone.

Wyatt Street town wall and diverse rock collections

The town walls in Wyatt Street are a veritable collection of interesting imported stones, probably all coming in to the town as ballast in trading ships from the Baltic.

Stones were used as ballast brought into the port incidentally by ships coming in without a load, the ballast being then discharged before the ship was loaded and departed. This was subsequently used as useful rubble for building material. In medieval times Lynn was one of the major ports in England, trading, with its partners in the Hanseatic League, across most of northern and eastern Europe ( http://www.hanse.org/en/ ).  Ships coming into Lynn from distant ports may have picked up ballast materials from their local beaches. These provide very interesting historical evidence of travel and trade and in some cases these materials were sufficiently distinctive as to be able to be traced back to specific regions. A study of the rocks in the town walls, for instance, was able to identify materials from Norway, southern Sweden and the eastern Baltic.  They include sedimentary rocks such as sandstones as well as igneous and metamorphic rocks.

Wyatt Street town walls
The town walls, here seen at Wyatt Street, are major users of rubble in the town.

Igneous Rocks. Granite / gabbro / basalt/ porphyritic textures / vesicular basalt

These rocks originate at depth in the crust, as liquid magmas. They can be very variable both in texture, composition and colour. They do not occur naturally in Norfolk but are frequent components of ballast, probably originating in the Eastern Baltic, as well as having been introduced deliberately as building materials.

Sedimentary rocks. Mudstones and shales / sands / grits / gravels / oolitic lsts / shelly lsts / coal / rocksalt / gypsum

Familiar examples of sedimentary rocks include muds, sands, gravels and limestones. They consist of fragments of pre-existing rocks, broken down by weathering and then transported and re-deposited. Transport may have been as physical particles (e.g. sands) or the material may have been transported as chemical solutions, which subsequently became re-deposited – either as a result of chemical or biological processes. As a result of their methods of transportation and deposition sedimentary rocks very frequently show signs of layering or bedding.

Metamorphic rocks. Slate / schist / gneiss

Like the igneous rocks these metamorphic rocks often originate at depth in the crust, when pre-existing sedimentary or igneous rock are subjected to high temperatures and pressures, as a result of deep burial and/or earth movements. If heated enough these materials may melt completely, and re-enter the magma pool. However, before that occurs the texture of the quasi-melted rock may result in the formation of new, larger, minerals, even though traces of the original sedimentary bedding may survive.

Basalt and Syanite setts from Chapel Lane

Brick building

Brick are made of clay, formed into rectangular shapes and then baked in a kiln to make the material hard and durable.

In early periods, ordinary people would mostly have lived in huts made of wattle and daub – mud, plastered onto a framework of wooden poles. However, as the town and its people prospered more sophisticated building materials would gradually have become available. Of these, stone, because of its durability and aesthetic qualities remained pre-eminent, whilst brick was the dominant material available to the less well-off.

Whitefriars Gate
Whitefriar’s Gate

The quality of the raw materials available was clearly variable, as were the skills of the brick makers, which accounts for the huge range in colour and textures seen.

Varies bricks
The temperature and length of time of firing, determine the durability and colour of the brick. 

Although the Romans knew how to make bricks and tiles this technology disappeared in England for a few hundred years after they left. However bricks were probably introduced into East Anglia from the Low Countries as early as the 12th century. At this point the wealthy would have been able to build more substantial timber-framed houses with bricks being used to fill in the gaps between the timbers of the main frame – the sort of construction seen today in Hampton Court . 

Half Timbering.

Hampton Court, Nelson St
Half-timbered buildings were normally covered over, so Hampton Court and the Valiant Sailor in Nelson Street are more ‘authentic’ in that the bricks are covered in a rendered surface

There are few examples of half-timbered houses left in Lynn. The Lattice House, in Chapel Lane shows the brickwork very clearly.

Lattice House, Chapel St
Lattice House, Chapel Street, showing timber framing and red brick infill

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, until the advent of the railways,  Lynn remained relatively prosperous, but its overall importance declined somewhat. Its main trade continued to be across the North Sea. Other ports on the west coast became more prosperous on the basis of the Atlantic trade. Improvements in transport overland were slow and fitful, so it remained difficult to utilise local materials other than brick. However, rich merchants expressed their status by the simple expedient of building bigger and better brick houses for themselves; in many cases these were built around and over the shells of older buildings based on rubble (including ballast) as well as timber frames. 

Red Mount Chapel, brick built with limestone ‘quoins’, marking each corner of the polygon. Stone is also used for window surrounds and top storey.

The Red Mount Chapel, (situated in The Walks, the town park), is an interesting example of an early (1485) brick built structure, although it also incorporates quite a lot of oolitic limestone on the quoins and around the windows, as one would expect of an important ecclesiastical building. The South Gate of the town, and the Whitefriars Gate are also built from brick, rather than rubble, but – like all Saints – have limestone detailing.

South Gates
South Gates. An impressive remainder of the original town fortifications. 15th century, brick build with ashlar dressings

In an area where muds and clays were readily available, but stone was not, the technology of brick making quickly took root,  bricks being made locally. In the absence of any common standards the size and shape of these varied considerably, although they were all (more-or-less) of a size which would fit comfortably into a human hand.

Brick House, Chapel St
Brick house, Chapel Street
Dukes Head hotel
The Dukes Head hotel, Tuesday Market Place. Brick built, covered in stucco and coloured
Corn Hall
The mid 19th-century Corn Hall, Tuesday Market Place. Brick built, with a prestigious cut stone facade

Brick Bonds.

Bricks are rectangular, the long side being known as a stretcher, and the short end as a header. There are a number of different ways, called bonds, in which bricks can be laid relative to each other; although the primary purpose of the bond is to strengthen the structure of the wall, aesthetic considerations are also involved and patterns can be created, especially if different coloured bricks are available. In older buildings the commonest bond pattern seen is the English Bond whilst the Flemish Bond was introduced in  the c17.

Bricks laid in Flemish Bond, where they are alternating in each row with their long sides (stretchers) and short sides (headers)

Stretcher bond, with all bricks laid wth their long sides facing out (stretchers) is used for many modern houses

Roofing Materials

Most buildings, other than churches and other ecclesiastical structures, would have been either thatched with reeds or covered by wooden shingles. No such buildings remain in the town.

Tiles

Tiles: thin flat slabs of baked clay which can be used to cover a roof or floor.

appear to have come into use before bricks (whence the common surname Tyler). The earliest tiles were flat, like shingles. They are made from the same materials as bricks, and by the same process.

Later uses of stone

The arrival of the railway to King’s Lynn, in the 1840s, meant that transport costs were drastically reduced, allowing the importation of stone from a much wider field, and ironically also from closer at hand.  Although the development of turnpike roads had improved communications in general, the fact that they were toll roads meant that they were probably not that much used for the transport of high bulk, low cost materials such as stone.  Stone was still  mainly transported cheaply by river, so a relatively local stone like Carr Stone, not on a river route, did not appear in the town until after the mid-19th century. 

Local stones and materials

Carr Stone

The most widely used local stones were from the two Lower Cretaceous units the Dersingham Beds and the Carstone. These two separate geological units yielded somewhat similar materials known respectively as Small Carr and (simply) Carr or Carstone.

Carstone: this is a generally coarse foxy brown material which can occur in quite big blocks. Occasionally it is traversed by thinner, darker, seams of slightly better cemented material; it may also contain occasional small pebbles of white quartz.

Small Carr: This is derived from the slightly older Dersingham Beds. It is usually somewhat finer grained, and darker in colour than the big Carr. It usually comes in thin slabs.

Kings Lynn Public library faced in Carr stone
The Public Library, London Road, Faced in Carr Stone

The Town Library (London Road) is Victorian, and constructed from local Carstone, with interesting brick and terracotta detailing. Although there are good outcrops of Carstone not far away they were not exploited to any significant degree until improved transport links (and its use in Sandringham House), made it much more fashionable.

Homage to Geothe in carr stone and terracotta
Public Library, homage to Goethe in carr stone and terracotta. By Victorian times the skills of the brick maker had been extended to the firing and fashioning of terra-cotta, a material also made from clay and fired in a kiln.

Because it was abundant and cheap Carstone quickly became the restoration material of choice. It is, for instance, an extremely conspicuous component in the Greyfriars Tower.  Ironstone may well have been a significant component of the original rubble fill but Carstone was used for later repair work simply because ironstone was no longer readily available.

Carstone was the main material used in the royal residence of Sandringham House; this undoubtedly raised its profile and made its use much more fashionable.

Greyfriar's tower
Greyfriars Tower showing repair work with Carr stone

The Greyfriars Tower (St. James’ Street) is a remnant of an original Franciscan friary; the rest of it was, presumably, used as a quarry following the Reformation, its stone being recycled elsewhere in the town. It incorporates quite a lot of ballast materials but also contains much carstone. However, the latter may have been introduced as a repair material much later. Again, limestone is used on the quoins and for detailing.

Ironstone.

Although this is a local stone there are very few examples of its use in Lynn. It can, however, be seen in the exterior walls of the cottages on the north side of Priory Lane. It has been much confused with Carstone; however, it is a geologically much younger post-glacial deposit, consisting of coarse sand and gravel material, heavily cemented by dark brown iron oxides. Elsewhere in the county it is much commoner and seems to be especially associated with Saxon buildings where it was probably encountered in the course of drainage works. It occurs as isolated blocks of rubble in Priory Lane, blocks which may have been recycled from earlier Saxon buildings. There are very few places where Ironstone can be seen in situ nowadays and the suspicion  is that a lot of the Carstone seen in structures such as the Greyfriars Tower is only there because Ironstone is no longer available for repair work.

Red Chalk, Kettlewell Lane
Red Chalk, Kettlewell Lane

Back to art

German artist Sibylle Eimermacher made a wonderful film in 2016 about the gneiss stones on the eastern coast of Finland which was shown Upstairs at GroundWork alongside herman de vries, ‘on the stony path’. She had been captivated by their subtle variety and spent weeks exploring their detail. http://www.sibsite.eu/

Sibylle Eimermacher, The Meandering Eye
Detail from Sibylle Eimermacher, The Meandering Eye, 2016
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