Reclaimed Granite Setts In Britain – A brief history of their origins and uses.
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.
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
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).
Reclaimed Granite Setts Tower of London
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is our
good fortune that all these materials wear in a very pleasing way and
look good when used in combination.
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.
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.
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.
Reclaimed Setts at private residence in Ireland
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!