A Welsh Pilgrimage
by Father David
A crazy angle
It was a crazy idea, but it meant returning to one of my first passions, Geology. The Roof and Access project that we began planning back in 2016 was, first of all, to repair the steadily deteriorating roof of St Clement's, and to ensure that the building's fabric was safe and secure for another generation. But it needed an angle, something to engage a bit more interest than a big thermometer showing how much still needed to be raised or pictures of church members holding buckets and looking sad as they watched the rain dripping through the ceiling. So, with Roderick's support (as enthusiastic as usual) I decided to make it about the building materials, the stone and brick which makes the building, each element with a great story of its own!
Isn't slate really boring?
Coming from the Lincolnshire Fens, I grew up thinking anywhere with protruding rocks - or even proper hills for that matter - was a little bit exotic. Family holidays in Wales and Yorkshire, along with school field expeditions to the Peak District and Cader Idris, awoke an interest in rocks that led to me deciding to study Geology at university in Durham. It was a great course, though it meant a lot of climbing and getting very cold and wet, unlike the Chemistry students snug in their laboratories on the lover floors of the same building. My first proper induction to slate was in the Lake District, sliding down a scree slope of Silurian slate looking for graptolites, a very early life form usually appearing like the ghost of a leaf frond and never more than a few centimetres long. I never found any.
But I got to know these most ancient rocks, deposited as mud in a deep, cool sea 380-500 million years ago through the Geological Periods known as the Cambrian, Ordovician and Silurian. That I'm the first person to touch these rocks an unimaginably long time after they were laid down has always awed me, and I still get a kick out of looking at rocks. So having the chance to talk about rocks again, and share that passion, seemed a way of underlining project's continuity with the past both by using the same types of stone in renewing the church that had been used when it was built, and acknowledging that every type of stone has its own story.
From Wales - with hard work
Welsh Slate has been used for building for centuries but by the beginning of the 1800's, and with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, slate was an important industry, one which would grow hugely through the nineteenth century. Thousands of men were employed quarrying the rock for the houses and churches of the British Isles, and far beyond. The work was hard, often dirty and sometimes very dangerous. Even the innovations of the early industrial age just increase the need for workers with skill and care to extract and shape slates.
The biggest slate quarry in Wales was - and still is - Penrhyn. Producing slate commercially since 1782, much of UK-quarried slate still comes from this mountain, now half eaten away. Over the past two centuries and more many Penrhyn slates were brought to London, very likely including those that came to St Barnabas, King Square in the early 1820's . But they came by a surprisingly circuitous route, and not the one you'd take today. In an age before railways (and log before the motorways), heavy materials like stone always travelled long distances by water, with along the canals or, more probably n the case our our slates, around the coast from one of the small ports of North Wales by sail barge, unloaded in one of the new docks being built alongside the Thames, perhaps London Docks at Wapping.
Time for a change
Even rocks as robust as Cambrian slate don't last forever, especially exposed to two centuries of London weather and pollution. Though the fact that over 30% of the old slates could be recycled to be used again on St Clement's roof is a tribute to their toughness. As a listed building Heritage England and the Heritage Lottery Fund rightly steered the project towards like-for-like replacement. Tiered courses of Welsh slate. Although Welsh slate is going strong, and Penrhyn still produces 500,000 tons of slate every year, 90% of slate used in the UK is now from northern Spain. But for St Clement's, and our contractor Roberts Roofing, it was time to turn again to north Wales and its dark, Cambrian slate tiles. And time for me to wrap up warm, dig out my boots and go to see for myself.
A pilgrim and a tourist
The ancient concept of pilgrimage, older than Christianity, has always been to go in search of the holy and, in so doing, to know our selves and our world a little better. For me there has always been such delight and wonder in stones, that is was with a great deal of excitement, as well as a little apprehension that I set out. I had bought a new geological hand lens (to look at rocks up close) and remembered my scarf and some rainproof clothing (I had been to north Wales before!). The drive up ad across England and into Wales was a long one, but I set out early enough to avoid the worst of the Friday traffic. As I crossed the border the distant mountains loomed in the darkening day, and I knew I was almost there.
Turning up for the first tour of the day is surprised me that, even in winter, there were some hardy souls other than me wanting to spend their Saturday morning in a slate quarry. As you drive in from Bangor to the north the vista opens up, the green hillside replaced by a yawning grey gap, terraces of jagged slate sliced into the mountain.
The Red Bus that takes you around is cute, but not that comfortable. Hard hats are compulsory and the tour begins with a rather solemn safety talk (the tone is "any messing about and you'll all be back on the bus"). The whole takes about 90 minutes, but it flew by for me. Different levels, the techniques of extraction, the long history of the site and even a little geology along with slate-splitting (it's clearly much easier to find someone with the knowledge and skill in north Wales than it is in London!). Again and again the vista would open up, pulling your gaze up, or down, or out to the Menai Straits shimmering in the distance. It had rained in the night so the stone was deep purple/grey, rising in tiered cliffs to the skyline.
I left, after tea and cake, with a long drive ahead of me. But I felt a sense of accomplishment and I will remember that visit always. It was moving to think that, two centuries apart - and by very different routes and using different technologies - St Clement's had been roofed with the same dark, fissile stone laid down in a deep, cold sea full of some of the earliest recognisable life forms almost 500 million years ago. History that everyone can touch.