How British stone is finally getting the credit and usage it deserves: ‘People wonder why we are hauling stone in from abroad when we have home-grown stone’

Bringing in stone from overseas has long been commonplace for our interiors, but designers are discovering the pleasures of home-grown stone, says Eleanor Doughty.

Look down when you walk around Kingsbridge in Devon and you might just spot a pink stone underfoot, an indigenous limestone from the Devonian quarries that is a distinctive feature of the local area. Contrary to Kingsbridge’s stony fame, finding British stone can be hard to do. But not for much longer. Chesneys, the luxury fireplace supplier, has launched a new range of fire surrounds made from locally sourced stones including As-burton, Ball Eye Blue and Swaledale Fossil.

Working on a Berkshire property a decade ago, the company’s founder Paul Chesney was asked to provide a chimneypiece in a British stone and called on stone suppliers Britannicus Stone. When the pandemic hit, Mr Chesney remembered the job. ‘I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to do a range of fireplaces made from those materials, rather than continuing the default position of the past 300 years of making marble chimneypieces and sourcing the material from Europe.’

That’s exactly what he did and, with Britannicus Stone, directed by Orlando Boyne, his company is producing fire surrounds using eight British stones. These range from Anglesey, a mid-grey carboniferous limestone with fine calcite veining, to the rare Ball Eye Blue quarried in Derbyshire and varies in colour from amethyst to royal blue. Ball Eye Blue, notes Mr Boyne, is ‘the rarest I’ve ever found.’ It is so exclusive that one very wealthy client wanting a new kitchen for his wife almost bought the last boulder of it for £250,000.

Orlando Boyne of Britannicus Stone, with Swaledale fossil quarried in North Yorkshire. The stone was used to build Durham Cathedral.

Mr Boyne was introduced to the concept of British stones at a party to mark the completion of a French marble staircase, where he was collared by the late petrologist Dr Graham Lott. ‘He said: “What’s wrong with the shining stones of Britain?” I had no idea what he meant.’ Mr Boyne adds: ‘We have as many foreigners as British clients wanting our stones. With people thinking more about sustainability, we are getting more enquiries. People wonder why we are hauling stone in from abroad when we have home-grown stone.’

It’s not that British stone doesn’t have a good reputation — it hardly has one at all. This is partly thanks to aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries, who returned from Grand Tours with a taste for imported marbles for their classically inspired homes.

Notable exceptions include Holkham in Norfolk (pictured top), where the Marble Hall features Staffordshire alabaster, and Hardwick Hall, where Bess of Hardwick built a chimneypiece from Ashford marble quarried locally in Derbyshire.

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.

When her great-great-grandson 4th Earl of Devonshire rebuilt nearby Chatsworth in 1687, he, too, used Ashford. By the 19th century, Queen Victoria was enjoying British marble so much that, in 1843, she had a fireplace made from Cumbrian Dent marble, and, says Mr Boyne, ‘gave it to Tsar Nicholas I for the Winter Palace’.

Despite its advocates, British stone has been overlooked. The other issue for indigenous decorative stones and marbles — as distinct from the familiar Bath, Cotswold and Portland stones — points out Mr Chesney, is that ‘there aren’t huge reserves of it, and it isn’t quarried in huge great blocks’. Conversely at Carrara, in Tuscany, ‘you can see that the mountain is literally made of marble’.

Not only that, but when quarrying is done in this country, it is usually for aggregate, explains Edward Smith, stonesmith at British stone company Artorius Faber. ‘Only about 10% of what gets extracted in this country ends up cut and polished — the other 90% is for concrete and toothpaste.’

He gives the example of Welsh Pennant, ‘a very hard sandstone, which has really good anti-slip properties to it, so it’s used on motorway junctions and roundabouts. If there wasn’t the demand for the tarmac, they wouldn’t get permission to extract the material in the first place’.

The Cirencester design for the British Materials Collection by Chesneys.

There are restrictions on extraction, too. ‘We’re only allowed to extract an eighth of an acre per 12 months,’ says Mr Smith. ‘After that we would move on to another section — we have to do it responsibly. Ultimately, the biggest thing that restricts the popularity of British stone is commercial viability. If there isn’t demand to have the aggregate, then it doesn’t make it viable to start digging a hole merely to get a few blocks out for a fireplace.’

It’s amazing to think that ‘the shining stones of Britain are used for toothpaste, and the grit for grouse,’ points out Mr Boyne. Hopefully, they will also be used for your next new fire surround.