Set in stone.

Set in stone.

Almost a year ago l paid my first-ever visit to the Ralph Allen Cornerstone Interpretation Centre – the place that tells the story of the Combe Down stone quarries which basically supplied the material to build the World Heritage city of Bath.



The Ralph Allen Cornerstone Interpretation Centre


This modest museum – on Rock Hall Lane – is named after the man who owned the underground mines and used his own product to build Prior Park – a house that doubled as an advertising billboard as it very publicly showed off what you could do with Bath stone.



There’s more evidence of this industry in the museum than out on the landscape but the Centre has been involved in a project to mark the industry with a modest but rather special memorial.

All the shafts have been filled in as part of a massive operation – which cost £155 million pounds – to stabilise the old workings. There was a real danger the houses above might fall into the voids!

Not much to show for something that provided employment for many and helped build a city. However, last year the museum organised the uncovering of what remains of the top of one of the old shafts on former mining land now known as Firs Field.


The idea was to conserve what is left of the surrounding wall and construct a low bench as a memorial to ‘the mines, those who worked them, the community of Combe Down and the wider City of Bath.’

A survey of the site and an excavation of part of the wall remains was carried out by a team of local young people during the summer of 2017 aided by members of Combe Down Heritage Society, Combe Down Stone Legacy Trust and Friends of Firs Field together with experienced Archaeologists from Cliveden Conservation Workshop.  



Last year’s excavation


Then last month a team from local builders Erwood & Morris got down to conserving the old remains. 


Artist Jeni Wood’s special insert has arrived ready for fixing.

Using stone donated by Bath Stone Group, the wall was raised and soon coping stones – bearing text about the site – will be carved by students from Bath College to complete the memorial structure. 


The specially-carved World Heritage logo.

It also bears a special insert. A World Heritage site logo cut into a piece of Bath stone by local artist Jeni Wood.


The memorial just needs its coping stones to complete the project.

As well as bringing closure for the community of Combe Down – which many feel is still needed – the aim pof the project is also to encourage interest in this aspect of the heritage of Bath, with Ralph Allen’s stone quarrying centre lying so close as it does to Ralph Allen’s‘show house’ (now Prior Park College), its attached parkland, now National Trust Prior Park Landscape Garden, the Bath Skyline Walk (also National Trust) and close to the route of the open top bus tour of the City.  

It will also serve to draw visitors to Museum of Bath Stone in Combe Road where much more of the local heritage and other items of interest are available to view.

Firs Field has unrestricted public access and is well used by the whole community, from toddlers to teenagers and dog-walkers.

The memorial scheme was initiated by the local Heritage Society a decade ago following the £155 million restoration project, to in-fill the underground voids with foamed concrete, completed in 2010. 

The village, although now secure, has lost virtually all the physical evidence of its stone-quarrying heritage. There is no longer any public access to the mines.  And Bath lost an important part of its Heritage.

Importantly, in addition to substantial financial backing from the World Heritage Enhancement Fund, B&NES Community Empowerment Fund and local Councillors, Bob Goodman and Cherry Beath, there has been a strong local community support with crowdfunding to raise the money to conserve and augment this structure.

It is now widely supported by Combe Down Stone Legacy Trust and community group Friends of Firs Field, plus local business, including Wessex Water.





Two-way traffic’s back on Cleveland Bridge.

Two-way traffic’s back on Cleveland Bridge.

The temporary traffic lights – which caused rush-hour holdups on Cleveland Bridge – are now gone. Work on the damaged toll house will continue for a week or so.


The temporary traffic lights – and scaffolding – has gone.

I was told when the lights would go good in an interview with James Byrne who is Project Directing the repairs to the toll house – on the London Road side of the bridge – which was badly damaged during a traffic incident.


The damaged toll house.

The bridge – and it’s four Greek Doric-styled lodges – was built for the Duke of Cleveland on the site of an ancient ferry crossing – back in 1827. It is one of the finest late-Georgian bridges – in Greek Revival style – which combines the antique with the use of new materials.


Some of the damaged section that has needed replacement.

It’s 30-metre cast-iron span has since been strengthened and restored.

Work on repairing the damaged section has been causing lengthy rush-hour queues but James Byrne told Bath Newseum why the traffic control has been necessary. Apologies for the noise but – if you are a motorist using this road – you will know what it is like!

Many of the construction photos are courtesy of Mr James Byrne MSc MRICS.

Bath’s ‘Stone Age’ attraction.

Bath’s ‘Stone Age’ attraction.

We get something like four and a half million visitors a year in Bath but how many of them will see anything other than Roman remains and Georgian terraces and crescents.

There has been a lot of talk recently about trying to spread the load a bit and persuade our visitors – a very important part of local commerce – to expand their horizons to some of the attractions further out of the centre.

kennet and avon canal

The canal towpath through Bath’s Sydney Gardens.

Everything from Beckford’s Tower to Prior Park Gardens with other areas of interest including things like the Kennet and Avon Canal, the American Museum and Museum of Bath at Work.

One rather modest museum that tells a major story you can find half way around the number 2 First Bus route which climbs the hill to Combe Down.


The CornerStone museum at Combe Down.

The Ralph Allen CornerStone Interpretation Centre –  on Rock Hall Lane – opened in 2014 and is described as a community history centre.

Combe Down is the main site of Ralph Allen’s stone quarries – the stone that built the World Heritage City of Bath.


The abandoned workings were in-filled with an innovative £155 million restoration project, completed in 2010. 

The village, now secure, has lost much of the physical evidence of its stone-quarrying heritage. Hence the need for a museum that tells the story of its industrial past and the men who worked underground.


Interior of the stone museum

But – outside its doors – there are now plans to uncover and preserve what remains of the top of one of the shafts through which stone would have been brought to the surface and transported on Ralph Allen’s tram system down the hill to the river.

It’s on former mining land – and now a public space known as Firs Field. A group of young local people have also got involved in preparatory  survey and excavation work to see exactly what is left just below the surface of the ground.


Preliminary dig in Firs Field

The idea will be to conserve what is left of the wall and construct a low bench as a memorial to ‘the mines, those who worked them, the community of Combe Down and the wider City of Bath.’

I had a chance to speak to Val Lyon who is the Director of the Firs Field Project. I asked her to tell me first about the Ralph Allen CornerStone museum.

Three of the youngsters   – involved in the project –  have contributed to a blog (led by Bert Nash) which tells what they have been doing and its importance to Bath’s World Heritage status.

Bert’s blog can be viewed at:

Check out the Ralph Allen CornerStone Museum at





Names on a Bath stone wall.

Names on a Bath stone wall.

This is the sad and neglected Georgian building in Broad Street that was – for over two hundred years – a bustling school.

king edwards school

The old King Edward’s School.

It was built in 1754 to house King Edward’s School and in use through to  1990 when the last of the pupils still based there left to  join their already relocated colleagues in a move to the school’s new 14 acre North Road site.

Since then the Grade 11• listed property in the city centre has remained empty. Sold for development – plans to turn it into an hotel or pub/restaurant have so far come to nothing.

The building remains on the ‘Heritage at Risk Register’ though repair work to the roof has at least reduced the risk to the property.

Recently, I was in the car park behind York Buildings and could see the side of the old school wall above the boundary wall of the parking lot.

Etched into its surface – in very neat carved writing – are the names of various people and a range of early 20th century dates alongside them.


The side wall of the old school building.

Are these former pupils with the dates of their time at the school alongside their names? Or maybe teachers who taught in this building?


A closer look at some of the names carved into the Bath stone.

Perhaps someone knows more. I am sure a list of pupils from 1900 onwards would help identify some of the names carved in stone.



Making your mark

Making your mark

The 1774 graffiti

The 1774 graffiti

It was an insignificant example of 18th century graffiti that first got me interested in studying Bath stone in slightly greater detail.

Walk to the blind end of North Parade Buildings – formerly Gallaway’s Buildings – as the incised lettering just above the ground floor windows indicates – and you will come across IG 1774 . 

The initials are carved into one of the long and short rustic quoins that mark the corner of each block and were added just 24 years after the terrace was built.

According to Michael Forsyth in his Pevsner Architectural Guide to Bath, this Georgian terrace was completed in 1750 – in a handsome blind alley set at an angle against the medieval wall – and was probably designed by Thomas Jelly to a plan instigated by an apothecary called William Gallaway who then lived in one of the houses.

Was IG a relation of Mr Gallaway’s – as a mason wouldn’t date his mark years after requiring payment for his work!

BC Great Pulteney StreetSpeaking of masons’ marks takes me to Great Pulteney Street – Thomas Baldwin 1788-93 – and the initials BC which you will see in several places.

They are carved above the doorway into number 88 and at the point where nearby Darlington Street and Vane Street meet.

According to the Wikipedia on-line entry for ‘Masons’ Marks’…. ‘The exact purpose of mason’s marks is unclear, although it is generally assumed that they mark the working of a piece of masonry by a particular mason, in order to claim payment.

Others are assumed to indicate the position in which a stone should be laid. It has also been suggested that marks indicate the origin of the stone, or the location in which it was worked.’

The BCW mark above the tap

The BCW mark above the tap

Local historian and author Kirsten Elliott also came up with some other suggestions including  Bath Corporation or Bathwick Church and – even more interesting – she tells me that just above King Edward’s School on North Road there is a gate and if you go to it you will see an old spout with the initials BCW which most likely stand for Bath Corporation Water which of course predates the Wessex Water Authority that manages and maintains supplies now. 

While we are talking about masons’ marks let’s go onto the towpath of the Kennet and Avon Canal as it passes through Sydney Gardens  and was constructed around 1799. The whole length was open for navigation from Bath to the Thames at Reading in 1810.

A triangular mason's mark

A triangular mason’s mark

While l was busy investigating 19th century graffiti l soon became aware of a mass of markings. They were mainly triangular in shape but examples of other markings also incised into the blocks of cut Bath stone.

I made contact with Elaine Kirby who is Archive Administrator for the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust and she told me : ‘These are Masons marks, used by the stone masons to mark where their work was and for others the identify the individuals work.’

Elaine referred me to a paper  entitled ‘The Kennet and Avon Canal and its marks’ written by a Major Gorham just after the First World War. He explains that work on the canal’s construction started in 1794 and took sixteen years to complete.

Triangular markings

Triangular markings

 He says: ‘After considerable trouble and much correspondence the author has been unable to ascertain who were the actual masons employed. It was considered that records of the contract for building might have been among old papers of the Canal Company; and such old papers did exist at one time and were kept in the old canal house over the tunnel by Sydney Gardens.’
Seems the papers were lost but Major Gorham was keen to picture the scene.
‘Carrying our imagination back to the years 1794 to 1810 we see the “gangs” of navvies digging out the canal and we can see the Operative Mason at work, preparing the stone for the locks, houses, bridges and aqueducts and erecting them.
The canal buildings afford one of the most striking and perhaps, one of the last examples of those Masonic operations in which the architect had directed that the “banker marks” and other marks should be made on the outside or “face” of the stone, and as such a large percentage of these marks are plainly visible today, it has been considered worthwhile to make a record of them.’
That’s what the Major did and recorded in sequence all the way from Bath to Devizes.
‘Most of the marks are undoubtedly those of the Operative stone masons who cut the stone and such marks are preferable called “banker marks”. There are, however, many other examples of small marks which are assuredly marks of approval of “passing” the work, and the Greek cross is undoubtedly used for this purpose in the canal works, as are also the triangle and square.’
It is interesting to read that its thought Bristol masons were involved in the work but that
‘there is a tradition that Scottish operatives were called in for making the stonework on the canal – especially the large aqueducts.
We know that John Rennie was the architect and that John Thomas was superintendent of the works. The stone itself is local, but endeavours to trace the quarrying of stone for the canal works have been unavailing.’
J Hodges 1862

J Hodges 1862

Meanwhile there is quite a history of graffiti along this stretch of waterway. I have mentioned the inscription of 1807 elsewhere on the Virtual Museum.

It is the year  the Abolition of Slavery Bill went through our Parliament.

J ? BITTON 1840

J ? BITTON 1840

Another date inscribed was J Hodges 1862 – a year during which the American Civil War was raging.
Further along J. ? BITTON 1840 – the year Victoria married Albert, Britain issued the world’s first postage stamp – the Penny Black – and novelist Fanny Burney died and was buried at St Swithins in Bath.
Let me know if you find anything more of interest and enjoy your walk through history along the canal towpath.
‘B.C.’ was here!

‘B.C.’ was here!

The Virtual Museum bicycle had been dropped off at Take Charge Bikes on Bathwick Hill for essential brake repairs – leaving your Director free to wander for an hour with a camera.

BC initials vane street

‘B.C’ carved between Vane and Darlington Streets.


A close-up of the mystery initials.

As one who delights in looking up – rather than continually down at a touch-phone or portable video game – l came across an immediate mystery carved in Bath stone at the point where Darlington Street and Vane Street meet.

What do the initials ‘B.C.’ mean and where had l seen them before?

I quickly cleared up the second part of that mystery in nearby Great Pulteney Street where ‘B.C.’ is also carved in the keystone above number 48.

BC Great Pulteney Street

‘B.C’ in Great Pulteney Street

But what do the initials mean and are they carved elsewhere in our World Heritage city? Well my thanks to Andrew Swift – well known local historian and writer –  who sent me an image of another ‘B.C’ – this time at the back of Darlington Place.

Along with Kirstin Elliott – another local history expert and writer – the joint thought is the initials stand for Bath Corporation but could just be Bathwick Church. Kistin says she will do some more checking!

This 'B.C' is at the back of Darlington Street. ©Andrew Swift

This ‘B.C’ is at the back of Darlington Street. ©Andrew Swift


Street signs are also fascinating.

A modest wooden sign for Laura Place

A modest wooden sign for Laura Place

Not all are carved in stone but some are wooden signs like this one for Laura Place – named after Henrietta Laura Pulteney, Countess of Bath and daughter of Sir William Johnstone Pulteney owner and developer of the Bathwick estate.

While nearby Edward Street – one of the major side-turnings from one of Britain’s finest formal streets – appears to have two signs. One after the other.

One faded sign is on the left and another more visible can be seen after the next down-pipe along!

One faded sign is on the left and another more visible can be seen after the next down-pipe along!

Double click on any of these images to explore in greater detail.

A closer view of the first Edward Street sign.

A closer view of the first Edward Street sign.

Another little touch l like – at the other end of Edward Street – is how the people who erected a very fancy mid- 19th century cast-iron veranda – just around the corner – dealt with the problem of obscuring the Vane Street carved sign that one of its supports cuts into.

The impressive mid-19th century verandah in Vane Street.

The impressive mid-19th century verandah in Vane Street.

You will see how the obliterated ‘N’ has been added with a smaller additional letter to the left of the balcony support.

Obliterating the 'N'

Obliterating the ‘N’

Back in Edward Street l found number 10’s ground floor sporting what Michael Forsyth (Pevsner Architectural Guides : Bath) describes as ‘an eccentric late Arts and Crafts bay window with leadlights by J.Howard and Son, Builder of 1920 for F.E.Weatherley, songwriter.’

Fred Weatherly's 'Arts and Crafts' bay window in Edward Street.

Fred Weatherly’s ‘Arts and Crafts’ bay window in Edward Street.

Fred Weatherly (1848-1929) earned his living first as an Oxford coach, then at the Bar but he is best known as a song writer.

He penned over 3,000 but amongst the most memorable are Roses of Picardy and Danny Boy.

While a little further along – towards Great Pulteney Street – l spotted the Prince of Wales’s feathers carved over the door of number 5.

The old Duchy offices in Edward Street. Now a luxury town house called The Duchy.

The old Duchy offices in Edward Street. Now a luxury town house called The Duchy.

It turns out these were former Duchy of Cornwall offices and now – as The Duchy – a luxury townhouse you can book to stay in!