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Totternhoe Stone Quarry

Totternhoe Stone Quarry by George Shepherd 1813 [X254/88/249]
Totternhoe Stone Quarry by George Shepherd 1813 [X254/88/249]

The chalk of the downland around Dunstable and Totternhoe was formed in the period when the dinosaurs ruled the earth, which ended with their extinction - the Cretaceous Period, dating from 145.5 million years ago to 65.5 million years ago. During this vast period of time microscopic algae multiplied in warm, shallow seas. On death they fell to the sea bed and, together with clays washed from the land still above water, built up the thick layers of chalk. As the seas rose higher the harder limestone that rest on this bed was deposited - again mostly from the skeletons of minute algae.

Totternhoe is famous for its stone quarries, used from early times to harvest the easily worked limestone, known as Totternhoe Clunch. As, basically, a hard chalk, the stone is soft and easy to work but, when used on the outside of buildings will weather quite quickly. However, given how easy it is to work it was a favourite stone for interior ornamentation. There is evidence that stone was quarried at Totternhoe before the Norman Conquest as Walkern church in Hertfordshire has an 11th century Anglo-Saxon nave made from Totternhoe stone [CRT130Tott2].

Totternhoe Clunch was used for interior features of many local churches, for example the font and columns at Eaton Bray. It was used fore chancel screen at Saint Albans Abbey and, most famously, in the altar screen of Westminster Abbey. It was used on the outside of churches like Chalgrave, Houghton Regis and Saint Mary's, Luton, in combination with flints, top give a chequer board pattern. In later times it was used in large quantities to build the Duke of Bedford's mansion of Woburn Abbey.

The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record [HER 2437] notes that the medieval quarries lie on the hillside below and to the north and north-west of the motte of Totternhoe Castle. They appear as a series of infilled pits, spoil heaps and extraction scars lying both in open ground and in woodland. Not visible are the underground mine shafts also employed. The beds comprising the Totternhoe Clunch vary in width from just over a foot to about sixteen feet.

In 1748 a Swede named Pehr Kalm visited England and recorded his impressions. Whilst staying at Great Gaddesden [Hertfordshire] he made a visit to the stone quarry at Totternhoe. Volume I of Bedfordshire Notes and Queries, a selection of short pieces collected by Frederic Augustus Blaydes and published in 1886 includes the following, taken from a newspaper cutting.

"To be Sold by Auction by Mr. Appleford, on Wednesday the 13th Day of January 1762, at the Duke of Bedford's Arms Inn in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, between the Hours of Ten and Twelve in the Forenoon, by Order of The Executor of Mr. Thomas Johnson, deceased; The remaining Part of the Lease for e Thousand Years of which above Nine Hundred and Eighty-six are to come, of that valuable Pit or Quarry, called Tattinghoe, or Tatternole Quarry. And in the Afternoon will be sold, all the Machines and Implements used in getting and raising the Stone; a parcel of Stone already raised in the Pit, being of an exceedingly good Quality, and approved of by the ablest Workmen in the Kingdom, several thousand Loads having been lately used of it at Wooburn Abbey, a Seat of his Grace the Duke of Bedford's , and at several other Noblemen and Gentlemen's Seats in the Neighbourhood: Also several Chimney Pieces, ready finished, made with the same Sort of Stone: Together with some White and other Marble in Black Chimney Pieces. &c. For further particulars enquire of Mr. Appleford, Auctioneer, at his House in Dunstable".

The Northampton Mercury for 3rd and 10th August 1772 carries an advertisement of the sale of Totternhoe quarry as follows: "To be Sold, All that valuable FREE-STONE QUARRY, late Mr. George Collings's situate at Tatternhoe, near Dunstable, in the County of Bedford, now in full Work; together with the Dwelling-House, land and tenements adjoining. The same may be viewed by applying to George Collings, who will shew the Premises and any Person inclined to treat for the same, may send their Proposals to Mr. Robert Burgess, Bricklayer, in St. Martin's-Lane, near Long Acre, London; or to the above George Collings, at the Quarry-House, at Tatternhoe, near Dunstable".

The Bedfordshire Archaeologist Volume 1, Number 1 of 1955 (page 20) has the following, un-credited article: "Considerable interest has been shown recently in the re-opening (and subsequent blocking) of one of the entrances to the medieval stone quarries at Totternhoe. It is 90 years since the first 'modern' quarry was started there, and since then there has been a constant danger of cutting into the old workings. The quarries were accessible until about 30 years ago when they were blocked up for safety. We here quote an account of the quarries as seen in 1871 by James Wyatt of Bedford".

"The principal quarry is entered by a level adit, where a tunnel is made to a considerable distance, and the galleries on each side show where the clunch of Totternhoe stone, has been worked out. Occasionally the modern excavators have come upon some old workings; and it would appear as if there had been a sudden collapse, or caving in, of some portion of the strata, causing the abandonment of those drivings, as several tools were found, all of them being of different forms to those now in use. It is probable that a large area of this portion of the Downs has been undermined as a considerable number of the churches of the district as well as the Abbey of Saint Albans, have drawn their building stones and materials for internal decorations from these beds. The stratification is in some places displayed in a very interesting manner, the best building material being the bottom bed of the lower chalk rock, where there is an entire absence of flints. In the lowest zone 'coprolites' and shark's teeth are found in the lowest stratum. Some portions of the tunnel are just on the line of saturation, and the filtered water trickles fast through the low roof of the passage". The original report appeared in Bedfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society Papers Volume XI, page 141.

Stone quarrying ceased at the site near the castle in the late 19th century. The site of the quarry was designated a separate Site of Special Scientific Interest called Totternhoe Stone Quarry in 1996 due to the incidence of fossils in the chalk, including sharks' teeth from the Age of the Dinosaurs.