You might not think about it but you will notice when buildings are made from local stone. You will sense that these buildings merge with the landscape, they fit in and sit comfortably and harmoniously in their setting. The example in the photograph is from Caithness but once you start looking you will see buildings created from local stone everywhere you go. Last summer we climbed the steep descent of Whaligoe steps. These old steps wind down the cliff to a tiny sheltered harbour that is hidden in a fissure in these sedimentary rocks. Fishermen once launched their boats from here and when they returned with a catch, women gutted the fish and carried the heavy loads back up the winding 300-plus steps to sell them at market. The harbour and steps were built from local Caithness flagstones and have been lovingly restored by local volunteers; the sedimentary sandstone splits easily to make excellent building materials. When these sandstones meet the sea they result in sheer cliffs that create ledges for nesting seabirds. The sea exploits the cracks in the rock forming fissures, sea stacks and arches and creating a dramatic coastline.
It was Richard Fortey’s wonderful book, The Hidden Landscape that first got me thinking about the place of vernacular buildings in the landscape and their relationship with the underlying rocks. He writes evocatively about the hidden rocks that shape the personality of a landscape, dictating the soil, the plants and the buildings, describing how slate roofs and thatched cottages can be traced back to the geology of an area. His book begins with a journey back in time:
‘I travelled to Haverfordwest to get to the past. From Paddington Station a Great Western locomotive took me on a journey westwards from London further and further back into geological time, from the age of mammals to the age of trilobites… Under the River Severn and into Wales, I was back before the time of the dinosaurs, to a time when Wales steamed and sweated with the humid heat of moss-laden and boggy forests in coal-swamps, where dragonflies the size of hawks flitted in the mist; and then on back still further in time, so far back that life had not yet slithered or crawled upon the land from its aqueous nursery.’