4 Building Materials

For most of its history the range of building materials available in Glastonbury was limited by the difficulty of transporting them.  Thus, for all but the major buildings, it was the normal practice to have a timber frame with a wattle and daub filling or to build cob (mud) walls and to use thatch on the roof.   The frame, as well as it’s infill, was covered with a thin clay, daub, plaster or cement stucco and then lime washed to keep out the weather.  Knight’s fish shop in Northload Street and a number of the Market Place facades show this.  For important roofs good timber would have to be brought in.  In the late 15th century St John’s Church roof was made from 16 oak trees brought the 20 miles from Witham Friary by ox teams.

The local quarries around the Tor produced Torr Burr which was useful only for rubble walls.  For dressed stone laid in courses with fine joints (ashlar) or for fine moulding and detailed carving oolitic limestone was used.  The Abbey developed quarries at Chelynch near Doulting which still produce a small quantity of stone.  This fine limestone was also sold to the Bishops for the building of Wells Cathedral.

Blue lias limestone has also been used extensively.  This stone was quarried at Street and Keinton Mandeville well into this century and was particularly useful for floors as an alternative to the decorated tiles made by the Abbey.  It was used for walls where rubble would be too poor but Doulting stone too expensive to cart and work.  There are early examples in the transepts of St John's Church and a later one at the Victoria Nursing Home in Fishers Hill.  It was used by Abbot Turstin for some of his high quality Norman re-building.  It can be polished like Purbeck Marble but often does not weather well (see the capitals in St Joseph's Chapel).  The quality of the available lias stone deteriorated and production had all but finished by the 1950’s.

Much of the inside and outside carved work was painted.  Examples are the arms on the George Inn and the Camel Tomb in St John’s Church.  Many walls other than ashlar, again both inside and out, were coated with a layer of plaster or cement stucco and then lime washed and often coloured.  Walls of reused ashlar in Bove Town show remains of the stucco and colouring.

After 1539 the major source of building materials was the Abbey, although not every old reused stone in Glastonbury can automatically be claimed to come from its Church.  The first action of the new owners was to take the lead from the roofs to be used on fortifications in the Channel Isles.

Much of the Abbey was as we now see it by the mid 17th century, with the exception of the Abbot’s Lodging, which was pulled down in 1713 to build the original Abbey Grange in Magdalene Street.  However, workmen were still employed breaking stone in the Abbey for road repairs at the beginning of the 19th century.  The first owner to conserve the ruins was the lawyer John Fry Reeves in 1825.

In addition to being used for cob walls, or to fill in the wooden frames, the plentiful clay was used from the 18th century to make bricks and tiles.  Brick works are identified at the junction of the New Wells Road and Old Wells Road near Tin Bridge in 1811 when John Down was mayor and moulding his name on his bricks.  Subsequently, the north of Edmund Hill was being used all along the Wells roadAvalon Brick and Tile Works (later ECC Joinery), Edmund Hill Pottery (later the County Council yard) and another brick and tile works at Cox’s Close by the entrance to St Dunstan’s School.  All of these kilns had been worked out or closed down by the 1950’s when bricks were only available from Bridgwater and then even further afield.

Until clay tiles were available the roofs of a few important buildings were covered with lead but most had thatch or stone tiles.  With the improvements in transport of the 19th century slate was imported from Wales.

The intrinsic character of the ordinary buildings was formerly imparted by the craftsmen who built and adapted them.  They were required to work without detailed plans, which were not prepared for most building work until well into the 19th century.  These Glastonbury craftsmen developed a local style as they learnt from their predecessors and from the buildings around them.  They interpreted the needs of their customers taking into account the materials available and what was thought to be fashionable at the time.  This tradition was enriched in the 19th century by the influence of Frederick Merrick who developed a team of craftsmen with more than average skills in restoring mediaeval buildings which they also used on the decoration of many new ones.  Ninety of his men were employed on the building of Butleigh Court for Buckler and his son John Merrick similarly had a large team rebuilding the Abbey ruins for Caroe in Edwardian times.

The proportions and details of doors and windows evolved gradually with many buildings, ecclesiastical and secular, being continually modified and updated according to changing need or fashion.  In Glastonbury early windows had mullions of stone or wood with leaded glass, often in iron frames set in stone surrounds.  From the 18th century small panes were held between gradually narrowing wooden glazing bars with opening casements or, increasingly, sliding sashes.  The proportions of the windows became taller and the glazing bars thinner until, in Victorian times, with the development of plate glass, the glazing bars were often removed leaving the original details only on the top floor of a house.

Stone walls often had windows and doors framed by the more durable brick from the late 18th century on.  Most Glastonbury houses had simple six panel doors, although some early eighteenth century ten panel doors survive and in late Victorian times doors with semi circular headed panels were popular.  Where there was no fanlight above the door the top two panels were often glazed.

The replacement of windows and doors to different designs is one of the things that can greatly devalue a building, both aesthetically and in resale value, particularly if it is one of a group or terrace and the owner’s insensitivity is even more obvious.  The modern door with an in-built semi-circular mock fan light is particularly offensive almost everywhere other than on a modern mock Georgian estate house.  Fortunately it is now possible to buy replacement doors and windows to traditional designs and, where necessary, in modern materials.

In more recent times, with most building materials being bought from national suppliers, to achieve a harmonious range of materials used on adjacent buildings reflecting a local character needs particular care.  Such results have now come to depend upon the skill and imagination of the person preparing the specifications as well as the builder who has to carry them out. 


All images and text © Glastonbury Antiquarian Society 2022

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