Once they became mined out, the underground quarries of Caen stone generally presented no problems. They were excellent for producing mushrooms on a commercial basis. However, with pressure to build for an expanding population in the mid-20th century, many of the voids had to be filled in before building could take place. Several quarries, however, played an important and very positive role in the 1940s. During the bombardment of Caen by the Allies in 1944 these quarries provided safe refuge.
Although nearly 2000 inhabitants of the city died within two months of the D-Day landings on 6 June, many hundreds more owed their lives to the redundant quarries where their forefathers may have worked for many generations before them.
In 21st century Brighton, the use of this beautiful stone moved away from the ecclesiastic to the scholarly. Brighton College opened on its present site in Eastern Road in 1848. The original architect, George Gilbert Scott, used Caen stone for dressing the main flint-faced building of the first phase of the school.
This work included the magnificent 1849 oriel window sculpted entirely from Caen stone in the centre of the building, and the flint-built chapel on the left, dressed with Caen stone (1859).
But Caen stone will not last for ever. Some of the imported material was of poor quality. By the early 21st century, the oriel window had to be “completely replaced at a cost of £200.000.” (John McKean). This costly repair work did not discourage the college authorities from using Caen stone again. The oriel window can now be seen in its original, decorative glory.
On close inspection, the seemingly banal strip of “knobbles” between the window tracery and the roof of the oriel window reveals one of the joys of the restauration.
The craftsmen of Traditional Stone of Rudgwick must have been delighted to bring back to life this this cheeky little chap and his perhaps rather po-faced companion.
©Traditional Stone, Rudgwick, West Sussex.
Not only were the college building being renovated, but they were also being extended: in 2016, the new Music and Drama Schools of the college won a Sussex Heritage Trust award. Part of the citation reads: “The steeply gabled roof of the Music School echo those of the Scott Buildings, its colourful ceramic tiling a modern interpretation of the Victorian tiled roofs, above a Caen stone base and clerestory glazing”
What of Caen stone in the 2020s? Steve Turner, director of the Amarestone French Limestone company recently painted a rather bleak picture for me:
Nowadays, Caen stone is getting quite difficult to source in decent quality. There are essentially two beds of Caen stone. The “Caen Banc Ferme” is the harder, stronger bed and the “Caen Banc Demi-Ferme” is the softer, weaker bed.
The better bed is only about 200mm high now and so is not really much use for structural work. The Demi-ferme bed has too many flaws (cracks and soft spots) to be of much use either.
For these reasons, we tend to avoid supplying Caen stone and prefer to offer Lavoux in its place. Historic England approved Lavoux as a replacement stone some time ago and it is often used where we once would have used Caen. Lavoux is much more reliable and quite a bit cheaper as well.
For the few times we do need to import Caen, one of our partner quarry companies near Paris keeps a small stock of blocks and we buy the stone from them and not direct from the quarry any more.
Caen stone is still quarried and shipped by lorry overland to a few workshops where it is cut and processed (our Paris workshop being one of those places.) So now, the Caen stone would come to us on a truck via Calais/Dover route instead of the Ouistreham/Portsmouth route.
So when you are in the Brighton area, do keep your eyes open to spot those precious examples of Caen stonework. No hurry. They will be there for some time to come yet.