This resource about the stones of King's Lynn has been compiled by Robin Stevenson following the interest shown in stones inspired by the herman de vries exhibition 'on the stony path' in 2017. It 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 the town. We hope you enjoy it, and that, with its help, you will be able to interpret something of the history of other buildings you may find in King's Lynn as you do your own exploring.

 

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. 

 

Stone building

St Margaret's Church showing smooth cut limestone wall surfaces

 

Panels of decorative stone features in buildings were often supplied from specialist quarries.

 
 

Bricks:

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.

Bricks: clay, formed into rectangular shapes and then baked in a kiln to make the material hard and durable.

 

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.

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

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

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.

Stretcher bond, used for many modern houses

 
 
 

Reused stones built into the fabric of All Saints church

 

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.

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

 

Ballast reused in the town walls, probably imported on a ship from the Baltic. This stone is Amygdaloidal granite. 

Basalt from Wyatt Street town walls

Hornblende-Mica Schist from Wyatt street town wall

Rapakivi granite, Wyatt Street Town walls

 

Stones of 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.

Panorama of South Quay taken from the opposite bank of the Great Ouse. Photo: Simon Dell

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.

Stone building

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

The main body of both presents a smooth ashlar finish though there is significantly more elaborate carving present on the facades and porches. 

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

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 Nicholas Chapel. Probably the stones for the window tracery and the doorway would have been supplied direct and pre-cut from the quarry

Bricks

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

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.

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

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. 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 Street, showing timber framing and red brick infill

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.

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. 

Brick house, Chapel Street

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 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.

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

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, 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.

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

Ballast

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. 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.

Porphyritic Andesite in Wyatt street town wall

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.