SOLIHULL: ITS GEOLOGY AND BUILDING MATERIALS
Note: This guide is currently only available on-line. A printed version will become available when current developments in Solihull are completed.
Solihull was established during the 12th century as a market settlement in the sparsely populated Arden region of Warwickshire, and remained a rural and relatively secluded village until the late 19th century. We can explore some of the changes seen by Solihull as witnessed by the style and materials of its buildings.
Around The Square and the nearby High Street are some of the oldest surviving buildings – 15th and 16th century timber-frame houses and the 16th century George Hotel (re-named the Ramada Jarvis Hotel). From early times timber, bricks and tiles were the materials of choice for all but the most prestigious buildings. This arose from the scarcity of good building stone. The underlying rock is Mercia Mudstone, laid down during the Triassic period, over 200 million years ago. The Mudstone is weak and unsuitable for building but provides the base for a nutrient rich clay soil, ideal for growing great oaks and for manufacturing bricks and tiles. The fine exception to the rule of brick and timber is the Church of St. Alphege. Begun in the 13th century, with later extensions, it presents an assemblage of sandstones brought to Solihull from around the county and beyond.
The building of the railway station in 1852, on the Oxford & Birmingham line, brought Solihull within commuting distance of Birmingham and led to a rapid growth of the town. The rail network allowed for the first time the transport of high quality building materials from further afield at acceptable costs. York paving, Portland stone, granite and gritstone all made their appearances in Solihull from the mid 19th century, along with harder wearing Midland sandstones. Nonetheless, brick construction dominated the expansion of Solihull as new technology made possible the mass production of uniform high quality bricks.
Redevelopment of the town centre in the 1960s meant the destruction of the Medieval to Edwardian properties in Mill Lane and Drury Lane and their replacement with steel-framed retail buildings, infilled with brick and concrete and decoratively clad with polished natural stone, often imported. The shopping arcades of Touchwood, constructed in 2001, and shortly to be extended, doubled the size of the town’s retail potential. Their eye-catching interiors combine decorative brickwork with timber and stainless steel features. Contrasting and decorative natural polished stones have been used for the paving.
St. Alphege Church
The nave, chancel, transepts and lower tower of St. Alphege church (1) are built from 300 million year old red Carboniferous sandstone created at the same time as the Warwickshire Coal Measures in the north of the county. Sandstones are sedimentary rocks laid down over a long period by an accumulation of sand grains carried by wind or water and cemented together under the pressure of the accumulating mass. Oxides of iron and other elements in the naturally occurring cement impart colour to the stone. In contrast to the red sandstones of the nave, the 15th century upper tower was built from buff coloured Warwick Sandstone – rock from the deserts of the Triassic Period. The steeple was re-built in the 18th century using pale Arden sandstone, a Triassic rock found in parts of the Arden landscape.
The rubble stone (2) walls of the early chancel contrast with the dressed stonework of the later nave. Rubble stone is easily obtained from the top metre or so of a quarry whereas deeper levels provide better quality ‘freestone’, suitable for squaring and dressing, and called ashlar.
Inside the church, above the rubble stone tower arches, we can see the outline of an original lower nave roof (3).
Also, notice how the south-side row of nave pillars leans outwards, the result of pressure from a heavy roof upon inadequate Mudstone foundations. Iron tie bars and external buttressing on the south wall saved the day. The grey sandstone of the 1940s external buttresses is probably from Grinshill in Shropshire.
The Buildings of the Old Town
A row of timber framed 15th and 16th century buildings that lines the south side of the High Street is all that remains of Solihull’s domestic Medieval buildings.
The misnamed Manor House (6) shows two interesting features – an upper story jettied out from the lower wall to counteract sagging of the upper level floor joists and close studding of the vertical timbers as a decorative and expensive status symbol. The original infill between the timbers was probably thin wattle sticks with mud and straw daub, replaced at a later date by locally produced bricks (7), hand-made and containing debris from the Mudstone and glacial deposits in the clay dug from Solihull’s fields. The colour of the bricks is variable due to the primitive control of temperature of the firing kilns.
The Growing Town
The Old Council House
By the 17th century both industrial technology and manufacturing economics began to favour brick structures rather than timber frames for domestic buildings. Though much of Solihull’s history in brick has disappeared, a good example of Victorian civic brickwork can be seen in the old Council House (8) (now a wine bar) in Poplar Road. Compare the irregularity and inclusions of the Manor House bricks (Fig 7) with the more uniform factory produced bricks of the Victorian Council House.
The effect of the arrival of railway transport in the 19th century is evident at The Square, where we find building materials from much further afield. The War Memorial (9) is Jurassic Portland Limestone from Dorset. This is a durable and readily carved stone formed between 150 and 200 million years ago in warm shallow seas, where calcite, precipitated from the seawater, built up around sand particles and fragments of shell. The paving is York stone, a hard-wearing Carboniferous sandstone from the Pennines, that can be split along its bedding planes as flags. The kerbstones are hard crystalline Markfieldite, quarried from the remains of ancient volcanic activity in the Charnwood Forest area of Leicestershire.
There are several examples in Mell Square of stone from the around Britain. The cladding on the Post Office (10) is a Jurassic iron-rich limestone, a south Warwickshire building stone from near Edge Hill, sometimes referred to as Hornton stone. It has a rusty brown colour and contains veins rich in iron. Look for pockets of pale coloured brachiopod fossils, commonly called lamp shells for their similarity to the shape of Roman oil lamps.
Opposite the Post Office, the statue of ‘The Family’ stands on a plinth of dolerite, a hard dark igneous rock, possibly from Rowley Regis in the Black Country, surrounded by a paving of granite setts. The cladding above the Boots store is Westmorland slate (11), a stone created when shale rocks were placed under great subterranean pressure during the creation of the Lake District mountains over 400 million years ago.
The Marks & Spencer store is faced with a polished granite similar to the stone quarried from Dartmoor. Granite (12) is formed from the slow cooling and solidification of magma below the Earth’s surface. Because it cools slowly it grows large crystals and, in this example, we can identify the white crystals of quartz, pink feldspar and black hornblende, plus a sparkle from particles of mica.
Much of the decorative polished stone facing in British high streets is imported stone. There are two good examples in the Mell Square area. Firstly, along Drury Lane, and especially on the Co-operative Travel shop, the cladding is a veined greenish crystalline stone, known as serpentinite (13), that resulted from a transformation of ancient ocean crust thrust upwards under intense pressure by tectonic plate movements. It can be found in the mountains of Italy and Greece, and in the Lizard peninsular of Cornwall. It is named for its snake-like patterns and colouring.
Another dominant cladding stone in the Square is dolomite (14) ; a crystalline limestone transformed under pressure with some of the rock’s calcium being replaced by magnesium in a complex chemical process. The coloured veins result from traces of iron. A large area of this cladding can be seen on the entrance to the passageway adjacent to Marks & Spencer.
The Touchwood Arcades
Touchwood contains some fine examples of imported decorative paving stones. In Poplar Arcade the predominant paving is a German dolomite (15), ranging in hue from grey to brown. Fractures in this rock are filled with veins of white calcite crystallised out from mineral-rich hot water rising up from deeper in the earth’s crust.
Turning into the Crescent Arcade, the paving is dominated by a pale cream Italian travertine (16). Travertine is a form of limestone precipitated from hot mineral springs, taking its name from Tivoli near Rome and used extensively by the Romans for their temples and other public buildings. Darker colours in the stone result from impurities such as iron and copper.
The Mill Lane Arcade is paved with hard wearing Jurassic limestones from the Cote d’Or in France. These warm cream to beige coloured stones contain fossils, including ammonites (17) and belemnites, that lived in warm shallow seas. Today, these limestones provide the terroir for the great chardonnay wines of Burgundy.
Step out into the Library courtyard from the Lower Mill Lane arcade and note the cream and tan tufa cladding of the Library building. Tufa (18) is a similar stone to travertine but more porous. Its natural unweathered colour, full of streaks of iron compounds, can be seen to best advantage on the stairwell inside the Library.
Finally, as you leave the courtyard note the dense black commemorative plinth. This is basalt – a crystalline volcanic rock, probably from Africa.
A previous trail was produced as an assignment on the Earth Sciences Certificate course, Open Studies Department, University of Warwick and the use of their work in this new version is acknowledged.
This guide was written by Peter Band and edited for WGCG by Brian Ellis. Photographs were provided by David Gosling (WGCG), web page format by Ben Steer (WGCG) and the map drawn by ‘The Drawing Room’.
Additional information for this guide was provided by Martyn Bradley, Brian Ellis, Colin Frodsham and Hugh Jones all of Warwickshire Geology Conservation Group (WGCG), Eric R. Kuhne Associates, Touchwood Architects, and Andrew Cole, General Manager, Touchwood.