What is stone?

Were you horrified to find a large white van parked by the church gate last weekend, and even more horrified to be greeted by a young man with a glorious grin and asked, ‘What is stone?’ 

Did Scott really not know? Digital microscopes, lumps of rock and high-resolution hand lenses were spilling out of his van onto the road. He and his colleagues demonstrated their uses to over a hundred visitors to the Mobile Heritage Lab. He convinced us that stone, or more specifically, the limestone of which Iffley Church is built, is made from remains of living creatures and plants. As we looked more closely we could see fossil fragments and shining crystals that were buried in these ‘living stones’ more than 150 million years ago. 

What interested these young research scientists even more than what stones are, was what causes stones to break down and, as in the case of St Mary’s Church, Iffley, how to prevent them from doing so. The still slightly startling sheltercoat (nearly two years old already) came in for much scrutiny. The precious Romanesque carvings round the west and south doorways have never, in their 850 years, been re-carved or replaced, but those nearer the ground are quietly being rubbed away by the rain and by the increasingly polluted atmosphere. When the top of the tower started dropping gargoyles in the 1970s the only solution appeared to be a faithful recreation of the original. The superbly high quality craftsmanship was drastic and expensive. When funds ran out a completely different technique was used to preserve the rest of the vulnerable stone. This gentle process of spraying a lime-based protective coat over the magnificent carvings allows the stone to breath. On hearing who had applied this technique at Iffley Church, the young scientists declared, ‘Strachey’s work is the gold standard in conservation.’ 

Scott’s enthusiasm and his specialised understanding confirmed how vulnerable our rocky heritage is, and reassured us that we are right to care about its future. He and the visitors were keen to come along to the 3-day celebration of The Stones of Iffley on 27-29 September and learn more about our stones from eminent geologist, Philip Powell; carving and conservation from stone-carvers Alex Wenham and Richard Martin; the architectural and decorative uses of stone in some of Oxford’s famous buildings with Philip Powell and Geoffrey Tyack; and the inspiration and hard work behind Iffley’s most recent sculpture, Nicholas Mynheer’s aumbry. See https://iffleychurch.org.uk/living-stones/events-diary/ for details of all these events, and come along to watch stones being carved by students on our stone-carving course. The plan is to create a brand-new Romanesque arch! The Mobile Heritage Lab was a fascinating appetite-whetter. ‘It was brilliant!’ was the verdict.