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Underfoot and overlooked

tedLast month we featured Sandy Whyte and Hugh Black of Aberdeen, who are working to return Rubislaw Quarry, Europe’s deepest open pit and Aberdeen’s longest-lived granite quarry, to use. Though not, alas, as a quarry; those days are over, at least for Rubislaw. Rubislaw reborn will be a community resource and conference centre, with a signature building, cantilevered out over the abyss, faced in granite. But granite from where?

The beautiful and vastly over-budget Scottish Parliament in Holyrood was faced in Aberdeen granite, from Kemnay. Such an object of national pride could hardly have facings in imported Chinese granite; but that is what almost everyone else is using. Even Indian granite is now highly likely to be exported first to China for finishing; while a certain academic bathroom in Princeton, I am reliably told, is lined with British limestone that reached New Jersey via China, where the quarried block was sent for cutting and polishing. And although the Annenberg Courtyard at Burlington House uses a mix of British, European and more exotic granites, setts recently used to re-pave the courtyard of Cardiff University came exclusively from China.

Messrs. Black and Whyte are salvaging Rubislaw granite from wherever they can, in the hope that it can be strategically re-used in their new building. But the staple business of the UK granite industry (namely, kerbstones and setts) has long moved beyond even Europe’s shores. This process began in the early 20th Century, when British quarrying (having enjoyed the Empire advantage) found itself unable to satisfy demand, and began to import from Europe. A protectionist import tariff, lobbied for by quarry firms themselves, failed to stem the tide, and resulted (for exchange rate reasons) chiefly in favouring imports from just one country – Finland. Finally, during the 1930s, the very first kerbs and setts from India arrived here, bought at what the Quarry Managers Journal termed ‘coolie labour prices’ by traitorous London boroughs. Now, India and China command the entire base market of the granite trade.

But kerbstones in British granite remain a staple of urban geology. While visiting the London Book Fair recently I was pleased to note, in Seagrave Street near Earl’s Court, the canapé salmon squares of pink orthoclase typical of Shap Granite, gracing kerbs and quarter corners, polished by generations of shoe leather.

But all of us who spend our time wondering at such everyday things will have asked – what are all those initials, deltas and Maltese crosses? Nobody really seems to know. In this issue, Peter Dolan sets out his own theory.