How I ached with nostalgia, reading Andrew Ziminski’s tour of his part of Britain, Wessex, that bosky, stony old kingdom. It wasn’t nostalgia for the long past, but for the days even last month when you could take the train to Avoncliff and, between the river and parallel canal, walk over to Bradford-on-Avon.
Ziminski, the stonemason of the title, describes the tall triple stone box of St Laurence at Bradford – one of the few Saxon churches surviving in more than fragments. He can also see it, not bare and chill as now, but as it was. “A golden cloth glistens with twisted threads, a beautiful covering for the sacred altar,” as Aldhelm (the seventh-century saint) wrote of such a church. “Here glistens the Cross of burnished gold adorned with silver and jewels.”
This is a country book, reminiscent of the post-war Geoffrey Grigson, for the country means old stone that makes the hills and determines the flora, and stone fashioned into the lasting signs of our culture, from West Kennet Long Barrow, in Wiltshire, built 3,650 years before Christ, to the canals of the Industrial Revolution lined with waterproof puddled clay.
Nothing really lasts. Ziminski has spent 30 years mending things, at Malmesbury, Sherborne or Mells. He shored up drystone walling in that Neolithic barrow in Wiltshire and reset a sagging corner of St Laurence. There he was surprised to find a stone wiggled out easily, for it was not bedded in mortar but in clay from the riverbank. He just pounded the clay back into life “for reuse and another thousand years of service”. Office workers, or homeworkers now, feel we’d like to be Ziminski, in tune with nature. “Above, venturing rooks, young and old, ignored the sour-tasting new buds and stole twigs from each other’s nests,” he recalls of a visit years ago, recorded in his notebooks. “Marsh marigolds and the green blades of young iris were encroaching on the riverbank.”
He is no solitary soul, despite having the courage to sleep in that long barrow, where dismembered bones of the long-dead were found in the Fifties. With his whippet he goes to a job, sometimes in his canoe Laughing Water, and works with a skilled mate. Finding an extempore barbecue in a churchyard on dole-cheque day in Devizes, he starts by asking them not to make a fire on top of a stone tomb chest, and ends up joining them in their Scrumpy Jack. The mark of Ziminski’s approach is that he knows what he is doing. From a youthful venture volunteering to put back together an early 17th-century merchant’s house from Reigate (an uncared-for Surrey town), he learnt by doing and imitating.
He became not just a man to chisel a lion’s head for a corbel, but one who knew the history of turning stone into architecture. Deepest of all, he grew to understand stone as an almost living thing. Ziminski sometimes speaks like a wildlife conservationist. In Wiltshire, sarsen stones scattered like sheep (greywethers) on the surface were once so common that a 19th‑century traveller claimed you could “walk from Avebury to Lockeridge without ever touching the ground as there were so many sarsens to step on”.
A gargoyle at New College, Oxford
Taken for building, he says, they “have been hunted almost to extinction”. He appreciates old words too, particularly place-names, which, like buildings, store unnoticed history. So the street in Bath leading to the Abbey and Roman Baths is Walcot Street, after “the cottages of the Britons”. Near Reading, beside the red-brick jail, he works hard to imagine the abbey that surpassed Old Sarum and Malmesbury as the dominant Romanesque church of Wessex.
He passes Taplow, near the railway, and knows it is Tæppa’s barrow or hlaw. He jokes about his oddly named tools – “the frig bob, cocks comb and French drag”. But though he likes the old ways, and mallets of apple, cherry, lignum vitae, and yew, his favourite one to use is made of white nylon. Ziminski is no mere recorder of impressions. He brings plenty of helpful information from history, geology and architecture.
With Vitruvius he believes in three characteristics for architecture: solidity, usefulness and beauty. Elsewhere, he describes the idea of the “Dark Ages”, an invention he attributes to Petrarch in the 14th century, as “discredited”. Naturally there are things to disagree with. I’m not sure Gislebertus really was the mason of the superlative carvings at Autun in Burgundy, rather than their patron.
There’s a strange quotation from Sir Thomas Browne, the agreeable 17th-century antiquary: “To have our sculs made drinking bowls and our bones turned into pipes to delight and sport our enemies are tragical abominations.” Ziminski applies that to the scattered bones of West Kennet, but Browne was arguing in Urne-Buriall that such abominations were avoided “in burning burials”, the Bronze-age cremations in Norfolk. Ziminski features “Samhain” in his chapter headings, and says that this, the first day of the Celtic calendar, was replaced by All Saints.
Yet there is no evidence that in England Samhain was ever celebrated before Hallowe’en came in. Nor had Celtic‑speaking people anything to do with the long barrows of the fourth millennium before Christ, built long before the arrival of the Celtic language.
No matter, the author is a beguiling companion to the very bones of the Wessex landscape. His wife Clare Venables’s assured linocuts introduce chapters, from the Oriental-looking north porch of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol (1325), to the Regency offices of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company, perched above its tunnel. Ziminski is an antidote to isolation. I hope he has plenty left from his notebooks for another volume.
Christopher Howse - Daily Telegraph 5/4/20
Andrew Ziminski is the man who rebuilt the West Country. For 30 years, this skilled stonemason has renovated some of Britain’s greatest buildings. Along the way, he has acquired an unparalleled understanding of this country’s stones.
He got hooked as a young man when a mason asked him if he noticed that tea tasted different in different parts of the country. That was because the land’s personality had an effect on its water; and so it is with stones. It’s oolitic limestone that gives Bath its golden tint. It’s granite that gives Aberdeen its mighty, hard-as-rock profile — fizzing, incidentally, with a batsqueak of radiation.
Until the 18th century and the arrival of canals and, later, trains, buildings were largely made of the stone beneath them — except in places without building stone nearby, such as Westminster Abbey. That’s where Ziminski served his apprenticeship 30 years ago, working on the Caen stone imported at huge expense from Normandy.
But his home patch, the West Country, is rich in slate, granite, sandstone and the greatest building stone of all, oolitic limestone, formed by a billion ancient sea creatures and, joy of joys for a stonemason, cuttable in any direction. The author skilfully explains the history of these stones and — this is what makes his book so entertaining — relates them to jobs he has done.
He holds a stone in place with the same oily clay from the River Avon that had been used 1,000 years before
And what jobs! He worked on West Kennet Long Barrow, dating from 3,650 BC. This is built out of sarsen stones and thinly split forest marble — a flat limestone, carried over 25 miles from Somerset’s Mendip hills. In a job which I’m sure is much more complicated than it sounds, Andrew and his business partner Andy just use their hands to put back the barrow’s fallen stones, sticking them in place with chalky mud — the oldest of all building materials — and a backing mortar.
Ziminski is so in love with the sarsen stones of the West Country that he drags one home to his workshop, covering himself with dust as he bangs away at his impossibly hard, quartzite slab. Just as Michelangelo did with the stone for the ‘Pietà’, he checks for premature fracturing by striking it all over with the end of a chisel. Satisfied that the stone rings true, he gets down to work.
Only a master craftsman like him can spot the marks that ancient stone-masons leave behind. At one point, in a field near West Kennet Long Barrow, he spots a ‘polissoir’ — a 5,000-year-old axe-grinding stone bench, scored with a series of grooves where prehistoric polishers sharpened their axes. Ziminski is one of those lucky souls with rural X-ray spectacles. He looks at the countryside and sees a series of historical slides going back over several millennia.
When he moves on to Stonehenge, he doesn’t give us yet another crackpot theory as to the reason for its construction. He deals in hard facts, hewn out of cold rock. So I believe him when he says that Stonehenge is ‘the high point of European cultural prehistory, the only circle where the stones are shaped and jointed one to another’.
From Stonehenge, he moves on to a heart-in-mouth job at sublime Salisbury Cathedral, replacing stone panels near its peak, just below the corner pinnacles around the spire. Those panels are made out of silage-green Chilmark stone. That ‘silage-green’ is typical. Ziminski has a wonderful way of describing the look and feel of stone. He remembers discovering, aged 12, a flint axehead which had absorbed background minerals from the earth so that its surface turned from ‘marbled blue-white to toffee gold’.
He crisscrosses the West Country like a masonry paramedic, patching up its finest buildings. At Fittleton in Wiltshire, he rebuilds the spire of the parish church struck by a lightning bolt ‘that tore it open like a peeled banana’. In Bath, he works on the last remaining column and capital of the Roman temple of Sulis Minerva, dating to 90 AD. At the exceptional Anglo-Saxon church of St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon, he rejigs a stone that had slipped out of the north porticus, and holds it in place with the same oily clay from the River Avon that had been used 1,000 years before.
He ventures into Wales, beneath the ramparts of Carreg Cennen Castle, to stock up on Pennant sandstone in a neighbouring quarry. He then uses that sandstone to rebuild the crenellations of the walls of Wells Cathedral. What a magician!
Ziminski also has the best book acknowledgement I’ve ever read: ‘Sorry, Michael, that I caused the loss of your index finger on the circular saw.’
THE SPECTATOR Harry Mount - 5-3-20
William Morris maintained that “if a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry, he had better shut up. He’ll never do any good at all…” Yet Morris’s own poetic output, while prodigious (he is claimed to have been able to produce 700 lines a day), is really very bad indeed. It may have been praised by his willow-bough-struck contemporaries, but The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, for instance, is every bit as embarrassing as it sounds. Nonetheless, Morris’s notion that poetry should come easily from a mind engaged in active toil has some truth to it. There is, at least, a great deal of poetry to be found (albeit in mercifully un-epic form) in The Stonemason, a new book by Andrew Ziminski, self-described journeyman mason, William Morris Craft Fellow, and ministering angel to the crumbling monuments of western England.
Ziminski records Thomas Browne’s observation that time “antiquates antiquities and hath an art to make dust of all things” – and, travelling through the West Country, the gap between ourselves and the world and workmen that produced its most famous monuments can feel unbridgeable. The 13th-century spire of Salisbury Cathedral seems distant enough, but compare it to the West Kennet Long Barrow, which has always been a strong contender for the title of England’s most important but unassuming monument. It was already an object of suspicious, even sinister, antiquity, and the better part of 4,000 years old, when the Romans came to Britain.
Ziminski comforts us with the knowledge that our sense of detachment from the past is not a novel phenomenon. Working on Roman Bath, he is reminded of the Old English poem “The Ruin”, whose author, in the eighth or ninth century, marvelled at the “wondrous” remnants of a lost civilisation, its corrupted and incomprehensible shell appearing to him like the “work of giants”.
For Ziminski, the work of a stonemason offers a visceral and immediate means of bridging this gap. At Salisbury, he reminds us, the tower contains a 14th-century windlass that was in use as a means to haul materials up into the warren like spaces inside the spire until alarmingly recently. At Wells Cathedral, some time in the Eighties, he recalls being led by his tutor into the “Tracing House”, where the church’s original masons had sketched out plans on the floor: “faint scratches in the plaster showed a palimpsest of ogees, radiuses and arcs”. Throughout his career Ziminski has picked through the lunches of his predecessors – oyster shells packed into the mortar of churches across the country as the “at hand” setting material – and, at the heavenly St Lawrence’s Bradford-on-Avon, pulled out the clay they dug from the nearby river bank and pounded it “back to life for reuse and another thousand years of service”.
This historical connection is not only felt with the anonymous masons of the medieval world (or the neolithic for that matter – Ziminski recounts some admirably dangerous-sounding experiments with “diamond hard” sarsen stones and prehistoric tools to erect a backyard monolith). Some of the most moving moments in the book are to be found in a broken tomb and a benediction from the very hand of Thomas Gainsborough, or in the affectionate washing of the stony hair of an unknown Roman matron with a “gentle warm poultice”. A moment of inattention from a representative of English Heritage means the spring of Sulis-Minerva at Bath now contains another folded lead tablet invoking a particularly severe curse on whichever young miscreant was foolish enough to steal Ziminski’s “best Nilfix Axe”.
Most of us cannot hope for so close a connection to the past as that enjoyed by Ziminski, whose journeys around the West Country (by pickup truck or canoe) are relayed in The Stonemason as a stream of memories: here a dissenter’s chapel whose walls he has shored up, here over the Avon or Nadder a bridge whose ancient vaults or cutwaters he has hauled bodily from the riverbed, here the long barrow where, lying on his back, he pounded the dark stones back into place with his feet. But with charm and precision, he shares his knowledge of these buildings – an intimacy of which most architectural historians can only dream – and his insight into the world that ancient monuments draw around them today.
This might be the annual standoff between the differing archdruids at Stonehenge, gowned and straw boater-ed Rollo Maughfling and tin-crowned, sword-wielding Arthur Pendragon (ever ready to defend the henge from the maltreatment of “English Heretics”, as the sight’s modern custodians are known in Druidic circles); or, more personally, the torment of spending days strapped to the tower of St James’ Trowbridge, where “the aroma of the Ushers brewery merged with the aromatic delights of the adjacent Bowyers sausage and pork pie factory…”
In another of Morris’s injunctions to his disciples, he declared that, if they could not learn to love good art, they should at least learn to loathe a sham. Zimiski’s fanatical quest for authenticity in his work, preserving where possible “the golden stain of time”, is infectious. A particular pleasure is to be found in the pointing out of poor work, most obvious in the mortar smeared over the facade of the Royal Crescent Hotel, Bath, “as though a chimpanzee had been let loose with the lipstick on Audrey Hepburn’s face”.
And yet, running his hand across the south-west face of stone 52 at Stonehenge, Ziminski reminds us that there is more to this work than wistful elegy and criticism. There, carved into the well-travelled bluestone face is a slashed “I”, possibly an abbreviation for “Christos”, followed by the word WREN. It was Sir Christopher Wren, whose tie beams continue to keep the spire of Salisbury Cathedral from collapse, who, whether by design, accident or the same intuitive understanding of attractive space, built the dome of St Paul’s with a radius almost identical to that of the henge itself. In attempting to reconnect us to this continuous narrative of English history and architecture, Ziminski is undertaking something more profound than the charm of this delightful book first suggests. Delicate as the threads that tie us to the past can seem, thanks to work like Ziminski’s, both as mason and as author, we can hope they will remain unbroken. Robert Leigh-Pemberton, Sunday Telegraph 21-3-20
Review - Gillian Darley, History Today
Review - Will Wiles, The Literary Review
Just off Reigate’s busy high street once stood a seventeenth-century tenement – an extension to a medieval residence, itself now long lost to history. This dilapidated brewer’s house was the window that opened to reveal Andrew Ziminski’s future. Rather than being demolished, in 1981 the building was dismantled and reconstructed at the Weald and Downland museum in Sussex. Ziminski, still at school, volunteered to assist first in taking the building down, then in reconstructing it. Under the guiding wing of Mick “the Mason”, Ziminski was borne into a working life reminiscent, he writes, of a “Thomas Hardy plotline”. The juxtaposition between past, present and future presented by the reconstruction of the “mournful hunk” is the perfect metaphor for the creative outpouring of this most specialized of English stonemasons: the “fixer” (one who mends and conserves existing structures).
A series of vocational vignettes that illustrate the evolution of a specialist in “the most challenging aspect of the craft”, The Stonemason merges history and place-writing with memoir to create a wistful sense of nostalgia punctuated with humour (his description of a youth’s job on the volute pointing of Bath’s Royal Crescent: “as though a chimpanzee had been let loose on Audrey Hepburn’s face with a lipstick, in the dark”).
The subtitle – A history of building Britain – is fulfilled through Ziminski’s effort to “know everything about [these old places] … Who built them? … Where had they sourced the stone?” He is as interested in the long-forgotten itinerant men and women behind them as he is in the stone leviathans themselves.
It was as a schoolboy that Ziminski discovered a fascination for “the material aspects of the past, the tangible remnants”, digging on the North Downs. His father was taught to hew Scottish granite after the Second World War, and it was from him that his “gift of building materials, the understanding of which is the foundation of architecture” was inherited. Despite leaving school without any O levels, over three decades Ziminski has become one of the country’s foremost conservators.
The book is split into four parts, each focused on a material crucial to the stonemason’s weathered craft. Ziminski is reminiscent of Birkin in J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, as he traverses the land seeking monuments and souls of a bygone Britain. Whether aboard his canoe Laughing Water in a bout of experiential archaeology to understand how such stone was originally transported, or rejoicing over days spent with Nutmeg (his trusty whippet, etched on the cover in Bath stone) leading spiritual peregrinations in search of sarsen at Avebury, Ziminski witnesses “mansion[s] of the dead”, Devil’s Dens, Georgian vaults, Saxon mynsters, apocalyptic scenes, fallen mullions, “Shakespearian-looking knights”, and rotting ribs.
And like the crumbled stone he daily encounters, “ruined by circumstance and by austerity”, the human “unfortunates” he meets along the way avow the same tales. At St John’s, Devizes, he intervenes when “regular users of God’s acre … smoking crack with a Special Brew chaser”, cook up a storm on the North family’s ledger slab; at St Mary’s on the other side of the town, when the side-panel of the medieval alms table falls in, it reveals a trove of archaic remnants discarded by the town’s destitute: “a reminder that those people were perhaps the authentic residents of the place”. From one generation to the next, Ziminski makes the connection that those who “trample … parish to parish in search of alms and shelter” never really change.
At times, the foundations of Ziminski’s historical anecdotes are a little shaky (I yearned for a stone–mason’s take on the link between Wells’s and Salisbury’s “angry owl” strainer arches), but such details are forgiven as he charms the reader in a gentle fireside read which “sprinkle[s] a good amount of culture into the head”. “Thirty years ago, strolling down the longest church nave in the country, awed, cowed and a little dishevelled … I felt like I finally belonged”. Absorbing and engaging, The Stonemason perfectly captures the genius loci of the British landscape and its ancient buildings. The Times Literary Supplement 4-4-20
Emma J. Wells is Lecturer in Ecclesiastical and Architectural History at the University of York. She is the author of Pilgrim Routes of the British Isles, 2016
Interview Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller.
Interview Ellie Cawthorne - BBC History Magazine