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Reclaimed Granite Setts In Britain – A brief history of their origins and uses.

Stone has been used on roads in Britain for at least 2000 years – since Roman times. Naturally rounded stones, or cobbles, were taken from fields, streams and beaches to make a harder, more resistant surface to roads and streets.

As Britain industrialised, it became evident that the poor quality and roughness of the roads was a major restriction on the transport of goods and our ability to trade – and Britain owed its success to trade. Production of shaped blocks of stone began. Judging from the materials we now find, the first examples were quite large blocks around 200/250mm in their dimensions and these tend to be found in use in dockside areas where ships would be loaded and unloaded.

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Production methods improved until consistently sized materials became readily available. Typically the types were rectangular setts with a constant width of 3, 4 or 5 inches and a depth of about 6 inches. These setts had lengths varying randomly from about 6 to 10 or 12 inches. For the less onerous situations, for example around houses in the centre of London, smaller sizes such as 3, 4 or 5 inch cubes were normal. (When they were produced Britain used Imperial measures such as inches – 1 inch equals 25.4 millimetres).

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Reclaimed Granite Setts Tower of London

Although the correct name in English is ‘setts’, because the stones are used to surface a roadway and this had long been called a cobbled street when surfaced roughly with round stones, setts are still sometimes called ‘cobbles’ by many people, often leading to considerable confusion!

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Cobbled street Culross

The cost of transport of such heavy material from the producing quarry to where it was needed was, in Britain, very significant. Until the construction of the canal system around 1800, transport by sea was the only economic method. The quarries that began the sale of granite setts for street paving were located on the coast wherever good hard igneous rock could be found. It did not matter much if they were in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England or even Scandinavia for the cost of shipping was not much different. Often the material was used as ballast to return the ships to Britain and particularly to London, Liverpool and the major ports. This led to the use of a great variety of granites of differing colours. Away from the coast, only very local material could be considered because of the high cost of inland transport.

Completion of the construction of a significant canal system by the 1830’s heralded the start of economic land transport, but almost before the system had become useful railway tracks were stretching throughout the land. In the period around the 1840’s and 1850’s, therefore, the whole country became connected by an efficient inland transport system. This facilitated a massive growth in granite production and there were eventually some 150 quarries producing road setts, each quarry often employing hundreds of men.

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Because the railways were owned by many independent, privately owned and fiercely competitive companies, the choice of material for a particular site was usually linked to the quarries within the nearest railway company’s system. For example, the largest quarry in the Midlands of England was a rich pink/red granite with a coarse grain very suitable for rougher quality production. It found ready use in the railway goods yards belonging to the Midland Railway and the companies with which it had alliances.

In London, which was served by many different railway companies, these are not the only setts found. There are fine-grained dark grey/black setts from North West England, greenish grey from Wales, silver-grey coarse-grained granites from Cornwall and also all of these colours from quarries in Scotland where there is much variety of igneous rock. Of course the original coastal granites could and did often come by sea which remained a competitive method of delivery for coastal destinations. Usually, the kerbs were made from granite also, though the colour was often different. Some granites simply do not lend themselves to the production of long pieces of kerb.

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Pedestrian walkways were paved with a sedimentary stone, either a beige/brown sandstone from the North of England or a dark grey hardened mudstone from Northern Scotland, both of which could be worked to produce a large flat surface by hand and were also very durable.

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It is our good fortune that all these materials wear in a very pleasing way and look good when used in combination.

By the middle of the twentieth century, other techniques of road construction had gained the upper hand, being so much cheaper. As road speeds and the volume of traffic increased, there were complaints about the slipperiness of some of the stones and about the traffic noise from others. Many were subsequently covered by asphalt but rarely were they dug up as they were such a good foundation layer for the road.

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Cobbled Street showing beneath tarred road

Setts had gone out of fashion and production in Britain ceased, unlike in much of Europe where the visual and aesthetic benefits of the material continued to be appreciated.

The reduction in Britain’s heavy industry, the closure of gas works, railway goods yards and dock facilities provided ready sources of reclaimable setts. From the 1960’s onwards, these were often recycled and used privately. Eventually, demand outstripped supply as people began to appreciate the wonderful quality of this natural material. Now we are again using newly-made granite setts in both public and private situations.

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Reclaimed Setts at private residence in Ireland

Today, old setts, kerbs and paving flags are all reclaimed. Many have already been recycled and much of the potential material still remains under road surfaces, but nevertheless there are reclaimed materials available. Because they have a well-worn surface and look so much better than new material, they command a premium value. It is, moreover, always rewarding to re-use old material wherever this can be done. However, anyone considering this idea should allow plenty of time for the acquisition of the stone. Such reclaimed materials cannot be made to order!

Reclaimed Granite Kerb