Totternhoe Stone

Where Chalk has been cut from the ground and used for Building Stone it has come to be known as ‘clunch’.  Clunch is a word that originally applied to Chalk Stone derived from Pits in Cambridgeshire but has gradually come to be applied to any Chalk Stone.  Cambridgeshire Clunch was mined from a seam of particularly hard Chalk that ran all the way from the Chilterns of Buckinghamshire, through Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire and into Cambridgeshire.  The location of the Stone was easily identified because a Spring Line formed where the Stone occurred. The availability of clean water led to the establishment of small Settlements, with the Clunch being used as a Building Stone.

TottenhoeStoneButressTotternhoe Stone
Possibly the 1st use of Chalk as Building Stone was in the Village of Totternhoe, in Beds.  Here there are the remains of a Roman Villa built on the outskirts of what they called Durocobrivae, known today as Dunstable.  The invading Roman Legions set up a temporary Fort there.  This was one of several temporary Forts that were precursors to the building of Watling Street and the Icknield Way.  Totternhoe sits adjacent to a Steep Ridge of Chalk that provided commanding views of the surrounding landscape, and it is here that the hardened seam of Chalk reached its maximum thickness of around 5M.  After the Romans left Britain in the 5thC, quarrying essentially came to a halt until the invasion of the Normans in 1066, when it was kick-started again by the great Church & Castle building of the Period. It is in the surviving remains of such buildings that we find Totternhoe Stone today.

The Geological Story of Totternhoe Stone is one of the inundation by the Sea of much of Southern England, beginning some 115M years ago during the Cretaceous Period.  Initially, sandy deposits now known as Greensand were formed but, due to global warming at that time, the Sea deepened and eventually covered most of Britain & Europe. This resulted in a series of Clays we now call the Gault, topped by another layer of Greensand.  It is estimated that 98M years ago the Sea level was more than 20M higher than it is today and the conditions were such that there were huge blooms of plankton, the skeletal remains of which fell to the Seafloor to form muds of Lime (calcium carbonate).  These conditions continued for around 30M years, during which time 100s of Metres of Lime Mud were deposited. They eventually lithified into what we now know as Chalk.  It is the fineness of the bulk phytoplanktonic fossil skeletons that were dominated by a microscopic creature known as a ‘coccolithophore’ that makes Chalk such a dusty material. Because the Sea level was so high there was little Land Erosion to introduce impurities, which is why Chalk is so White compared with most other, less pure, Limestones.  The Totternhoe Stone was formed during the upper part of what is now called the Cenomanian Age, formerly referred to by Geologists as the Grey Chalk Subgroup. The Cenomanian occurred between 98.5M & 93.5M years ago.

But the Totternhoe Stone is a little different to the Chalk that is generally passed over as a Building Stone.  During the formation of the Chalk there were intervals when sedimentation slowed and more cementation occurred.  In some instances the Sea level dropped, allowing surrounding materials to erode so that a variety of pebbles & grits became included within the sediments.  Some of these materials included phosphates and the mineral glauconite (which typically has a green hue), shell, sharks teeth and bone fragments that make the stone of greater interest to Fossil Hunters & Scientists.

Stone Quarries have been operated in England since the Roman Period. Stone suitable for fine carving was particularly prized in the Medieval Period when extensive industries developed to meet the demands of Churches and other high-status buildings. The Quarries on the Totternhoe Knolls represent a particularly important aspect of this Industry, recorded as early as 1131 when control of the workings passed from the Crown to Dunstable PrioryTotternhoe Stone, highly valued for decorative work, is widely found in the region’s Churches and in buildings further afield such as Westminster Abbey & Windsor Castle. The development of the Industry is documented in numerous sources and is also evident in the range of Quarrying Techniques employed on the Site. Further information will remain preserved within the buried workings, including artefacts deposited at the time and the impressions left in the Working Faces by implements used in the quarrying process.

Totternhoe Castle

TotternhoeMapQuarrying of Totternhoe Stone
In times past, the bed from which the Totternhoe Stone is obtained was overlain by potentially up to 30M of overburden. This resulted in the majority of the Stone being mined rather than extracted by open cast quarrying.  The last Pit reportedly closed in 1914, when the Mine Galleries were sealed off because they were unstable.  This was yet another casualty of WW1 and the changes in construction methods that followed.  Unfortunately, Maps of the Mines were lost during WW2 and any survey of the Quarries would be too dangerous to carry out without them.  It is known that the Mines run at least 400M from exposed faces in some locations.

Pit or Quarry, called Tattinghoe, or Tatternole Quarry. Sale of 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 1000 Loads having been lately used of it at Woburn Abbey, a Seat of his Grace the Duke of Bedford’s , and at several other Noblemen & 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.

The Principal Quarry is entered by a level adit, where a Tunnel is made to a considerable distance, and the Galleries on each sideshow 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 St 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’ & 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”. 


In 1748 a Swede named Pehr Kalm visited Totternhoe Underground Quarry at Castle Hill and recorded his impressions.

We went afterwards to a place where the White Stone is hewn, which is here called Freestone, and of which Churches and other houses etc, are built. The place where it is taken out is one of the highest Chalk Hills in this District, situated in Bedfordshire just 6 miles North of Little Gaddesden. The nearest Village to it is called Tatternel, after which the Quarry or Stone-pit, likewise got its name.  In some places, these Chalk Hills were long-sloping, in other places steeper.  The ploughed fields were on the top of all, where the Chalk seems white enough, yet not quite so white as Chalk, doubtless because it has from time to time been mixed with all sorts of different Manures which have been carried on to the Fields. Here there were Ploughed fields in many places on the top of these Chalk Hills, when just under the same, deep into the Hill there were large ‘drifts‘ or ‘adits‘ (horizontal passages), where they hewed & dug up this Stone. When the Hill was observed, on a side where it was steep and all the grass sward was off, so that the clear White Chalk showed itself to the open day, it then lay mostly in this order:-
On the top was the grass sward, with the soil immediately under it about 1 foot thick, or sometimes a little less…
After that, the ordinary Chalk came on, which however was blended with the harder kind of Chalk which is here called Hurlok, and is so hard that one cannot write with it. The deeper one gets the more he meets with this Hurlok, and less and less of ordinary loose Chalk, till after 20ft perpendicular depth there is nothing else than bare Hurlok.
Among the Chalk & Hurlok, Flints next to never appear, so that Flint is here very rare. When one comes still farther down, this Hurlok begins to be mingled with Freestone, when the Hurlok, as one gets deeper, diminishes more and more, while the Freestone on the other hand increases, until very low down one sees nothing else but bare Freestone.

Freestone, so-called because it can be sawn or squared up in any direction.

This Freestone is dug deep under the Hills. There were 3 places, where they had formerly hewn the same, and where adits down at the foot of the Hill went far under the earth, or the Chalk Hill.  I was as far in as the ends of 2 of them, one of which was longer than the other. The former went as far as 660ft underground.


At the Entrance into the Hill, the same was walled round for about 12ft, as a door to this Freestone, to prevent the Hurlok on the steep side of the Hill from slipping down and closing up the entrance again.  After one gets farther in, it was not any longer walled, but the roof & walls consisted entirely of Freestone, just as nature had set it there.  When anyone wished to enter, a light which was carried in the hand to guide oneself with was lit at the Entrance of the adit. For after one had come 40ft into the Mine, there was no more daylight, but it was coal-black darkness.  The breadth of these adits underground was for the most part 6ft, the height 7ft.  Still, the breadth and height were sometimes a little greater, sometimes again somewhat less. The water now trickled down everywhere through the Roof, or Vault of the adits from the Hill above, which was said to come from the snow & rain which had collected on the Hill in the Winter-time, but in the Summer, according to the unanimous account of the Workmen known locally as Carls, this is everywhere as dry as it is on a dry highway Road. The workmen avail themselves of this water which is filtered down when they would sharpen their tools with which they perform their work, but for nothing else.  Both roof & walls were very uneven, for sometimes the sides projected, etc, sometimes went in hollows, accordingly as it occurred to them to hew the Stone and its natural divisions.  The adits into the Chalk Hill went mostly horizontally, yet they sloped a little down in some places. On both sides of the main adits there were other adits, both at acute and obtuse angles, so that if the Entrances of all these Cross-galleries had been open, this would have been to one unacquainted with them the worst Labyrinth & Maze there could possibly be, but these adits were now mostly filled up with the loose bits of Freestone which had been broken off in the process of hewing.

The Stone divided itself here in the Quarry all in Cracks or Fissures which all went from above downwards, more or less perpendicularly, but no Fissures ever ran horizontally or very obliquely, which was the unanimous account of the Workmen. These Fissures were sometimes broader, 6ins wide or more, sometimes quite narrow, but nearly all very deep, so that a stick 4ft long could be stuck into them without reaching the end of them. These Stones clear each other somewhat perpendicularly, or as though the whole of the lower part of the Chalk Hill inside, as it were, consisted of 4-sided Pillars, placed perpendicularly, yet of unequal thickness, that is to say, that some of these Square Pillars were larger, some less.  Similarly the sides also are not of the same breadth, so that when on one Pillar all 4-sides are of equal breadth, on another only the 2 opposite sides may be of the same breadth – eg, 2 of the opposite sides may be 6ft broad, but again the 2 other sides standing opposite to one another are nor more than 4ft, 2ft or 18ins broad, and so forth.  One does not here expect an absolute mathematical equality in breath of the 4, or of the 2 sides which stand opposite to each other, but one is content if only they are somewhat about the same breadth, Thus these stones naturally clear each other perpendicularly on all sides, and form as it were, perpendicularly sides of cubes & oblongs, but they are never naturally divided horizontally, but all horizontal division must be effected artificially.  When the Workers wish to have a Stone broken horizontally of any perpendicular height or thickness, they hew with their picks a horizontal line where they wish it, by which they Spring it loose horizontally to any thickness they please.

The loosened pieces are afterwards carried out on a low Wagon or Truck, which instead of 4 wheels has 2 rollers, of Ash, at each end.  The diameter of each roller is nearly 1ft. The Body of the Wagon is made of solid Oak timbers. This Wagon, with the Stone which lies upon it, is drawn by the men along the shaft till they get it out to the day, and if they afterwards wish to have it up the Hill at the Entrance of the Mine, it is wound up along the Road with a Windlass, and is so drawn to the place where they intend to hew & work at it.

The Stone, down in the underground Quarry and when it was 1st hewn, was of a Grey or Clay colour, and so soft that it could be cut with a Knife as easily as a hardened or dry pot-clay. Similarly one could then with the hands & fingers break it in pieces, provided the pieces were not too thick; but when it had come up to the day, and lain for a time in the open air, it became very white, although not so white as chalk: for it could be seen that there was a considerable difference, if one wrote with a piece of chalk on a wall built of this Stone; which I tried, and the man who had the direction of that Mine, also showed me. Similarly, it has also the property that after it has come into the open air it always hardens more and more as it gets older and comes to lie longer in the open day.  Hence it is, that as soon as it comes out of the Quarry or Stone-pit, it is worked by the Carls, while it is still soft, for any purpose they please and which it can be used for.

The use of this Freestone and the purposes it is used for are various. The principal is to build houses of it when it has 1st been hewn here at the Quarry into a 4-sided oblong form. Likewise, it is used for window-frames, door-posts, & arches over fire-places, windows, & doors, for several kinds of Pedestals & Pillars, the bottoms of Baking-Ovens, and other such things.  Most of the Churches in this District are entirely built of this Stone, which indicates the great age of this Stone-mine. A quantity of it is carried to various Gentlemen’s Estates round to build Houses and other things. The small pieces which are struck off and chipped in the Mine, when the Stone is broken loose, are used, partly to be carried on to the Roads to fill up the deep Wagon & Cart-ruts; partly they are carried home by some Farmers, brayed into fine dust mixed with water, and worked into a cement, of which the floors of Malt Houses and ‘Lodges’, or the part of the Barns where they Thrash the Corn, are made, because this, thus prepared, binds very strongly together. I asked the workers whether Lime can be burned from this stone? They all answered no, and added that one may burn it as long as he likes but he will never make Lime of it – which I leave there.  Likewise, they said that it is no good for laying as a floor because it softens and is reduced to sediment by water which comes to stand upon it.

The Tools and other things which the Miners use here at their Work are the following:- Inside the mine, where the stone is hewn loose, there are used only a pick, iron-wedges, and a mallet. The picks or pickaxes exactly resemble the Picks which we use in Sweden to hack Mill-stones with, only that these English ones are very sharp, and are often sharpened.  The iron-wedges & mallets are of ordinary kinds. They avail themselves of the described Wagon to carry the larger Stones out of the Mine, but small bits are carried out with a Wheel-barrow.  All the Labour in the Mine is performed with a Light, because not the least Daylight can get to the places where they Work, but when the Light is put out or taken away, it is Pitch Dark.  After they have got the Stone to the place they wish, they hew it with the Picks, of which some are larger, some smaller, some are broader, others narrower.  With these, the Stone is hewn tolerably even and flat on the sides.  If anyone wishes to have a very broad Stone, or any other narrower Stone in half, a long Saw is used, with which one or 2 men saw it asunder, just as they please.  To make the sides even, and the corners square, a ruler or straight-edge & set square are used. To finally make all quite plain & smooth, they use an iron scraper or rimer, with which they scrape or shave it flat.

Down in the Quarry which went underground, were set here and there of the Walls of the shafts fast stuck shoots of Wild Thyme, Sweet Briar etc, about which the men related that if these were set there fresh in the Summertime, they will remain there Green and as fresh, and smelling as sweet in a couple of months’ time.  Some whom curiosity had driven down or into this Mine had written their names with the date on the Walls.

I asked the Workers whether those who continually Labour in these Mines are affected by any particular illness above others? They answered that they, for the most part, get to enjoy good health, and are not aware that they are exposed to more illnesses or cramps than others. It is also very seldom that any Stone falls down by itself from the Roof into the shafts. They remembered only one unlucky accident, which had been timed in such a manner that a man had been killed by a Stone which fell from the roof and crushed him to death. This may doubtless have been the god-forgotten man of whom Mr Ellis tells in his “Shepherd’s Sure Guide“.  The Carls also said that they had not remarked any sign of approaching Weather from this Mine.  The place and entrance to the mine was well on for 120ft perpendicular depth below the highest Summit of the Chalk Hill, if not more.

In several places appeared unsightly large Pits, which now on the Bottom were overgrown with Grass, where they in former times had hewn up this Stone. The Workmen told us that in one & each of the same Pits there is a hole or shaft in under ground, but that the Entrances to them were now fallen in. The deepest hole which was 660ft into the Hill where they were now working, and in which I was, was said to be over 500 years old. The whole Mine was said to have been worked for 1,000 years. There was a House or 2 here built of this Stone thatched with Straw, in which the workmen took their Meals, kept their Tools, and Worked in bad Weather.

The underground Quarries were last entered in the 1970s, and all the entrances are now lost. The Dunstable Caving Club succeeded in re-entering 2 of the underground Quarries in 1972 & 1973, and the following information is taken from their Journals

“At midnight on 16th December 1972 Ian Kemp, Chalky (White) and Kevin X lifted a large steel and timber lid in a disused quarry at Sewell to reveal a stable shaft 9M deep and 1½M in diameter. The 1st 2 made a descent and at the bottom, a small hole gave access to a large chamber with several passages leading off. Most of these proved to be blocked by roof falls or walls of ‘deads’ (waste rock left in the Quarry). However on the right of the shaft, in one of the collapsed sections, a loose crawl led to a small drop into some lower workings. They then spent about 2 hours in exploring a series of very stable passages with a cross section averaging 3M x 2.5M.

On 6th January 1973 a larger party, including members of the Derbyshire Caving Club, entered the Quarry, and several people became temporarily lost in the quite impressive Labyrinth. Four carvings and a very interesting poem dated 16th November 1756 were found, as well as material left by the workmen who were known locally as Carls

The 3rd visit on 3rd February 1973 located a new Upper Circle. Some 280M of passage was surveyed, bringing the total passage explored to an estimated 1.6Km. The club decided to give the Quarry the temporary name of Hunger Hill, until such time as the original name can be traced.

In the 1980s, Hunger Hill, which once stood east of Castle Hill, was completely quarried away for cement & lime.

The Totternhoe Stone comes in 3 distinct Grades:

  • Firm grey sandy stone in beds totalling up to 2.7M thick
  • Hard brownish stone in 2 massive beds totalling up to 2.4M thick
  • Hard brownish stone in 3 beds with many phosphatic clasts at the base totalling up to 1.5M thick.

The current workings have a total bed height that can be up to 4M thick.  The Totternhoe Stone deposit is underlain by a thin layer known locally as ‘fleck’, which sits on a layer of Chalk Marl. The top of the bed is marked by a thin black line, above which is Grey Chalk. The presence of these Beds is fortunate as they allow the Totternhoe Stone to be recognised easily.

The Stone is considered to be fine for internal works, being extremely easy to carve. Externally, it is not expected to be as resistant to Weathering as most other Limestones, meaning that, ideally, it should not be used for the more exposed elements of a building nor be ornately carved.  Even in use as plain Walling, a high degree of weathering must be expected, especially if the Stone is allowed to become saturated before Frosts occur.  Chalk generally is particularly susceptible to deep laminar shaling under Frost action and the Totternhoe is no exception, although it is more resistant than other Chalks.  The water absorption is typically in the order of around 15%, while the saturation coefficient is relatively high – not a good combination of properties.

A density of around 1.9T per cubic metre ought to put the stone in a category of its own – most Limestones have densities of 2.1 up to 2.7T.  The stone also weathers by dissolution of the constituents at the outer surface by acidified rain, although this is of far less importance than the damage likely to be caused by Frosts.  The high water absorption rate presents an almost unique problem with installation because of the Stone’s high suction potential. Moisture can be rapidly drawn from mortars being used to set the Stone, making them unworkable. It is reported that some Stonemasons have coated hidden faces with linseed oil thinned with turpentine to reduce the suction while the Stone was being fixed.

On completion of the construction, there was sometimes an instruction that the face be treated with the same thinned linseed oil, which darkened the Stone’s appearance. It is not known if this process had any effect, beneficial or otherwise, on long-term durability. Without regular re-application, water might get in behind the treated surface, where it could be trapped and cause deeper problems.


Woburn Abbey remains the primary example of the use of Totternhoe Stone, but there are many Secular buildings in Bedfordshire and the surrounding Counties where it can be seen. Eileen Roberts’ article ‘Totternhoe stone and Flint in Hertfordshire Churches’ (published in Medieval Archaeology, 1974, and available on the internet) is a pretty comprehensive read on the history of the subject.  Totternhoe Stone is commonly used in combination with flint, a material formed within the Chalk that might be considered its antithesis, being ferociously hard, impossible to cut, and present in small nodules only.

Records show that Totternhoe Stone was used further afield – for the Palace of Westminster & Windsor Castle – during the 14thC. In the same period, it was used in conjunction with flint to build the Dominican Priory at Kings Langley.  Totternhoe stone often exhibits zig-zag jointing, which is not perceived to be a problem until it is cut more thinly when it can allow the joints to open up. It is for this reason that the stone should not be used for ashlar.  It is also important that the stone is used on Bed, even though the beds may be difficult to see. Some stonemasons believed they could tell the bedding direction by the way in which water was absorbed at different faces.

Small Quarries struggle to survive and those that somehow have managed to hang on in there in these increasingly demanding times deserve to be recognised.  Totternhoe is a good example of a Stone that survives on the basis of being part of the history of a particular area, one of the few survivors of the wealth of small quarries that once existed the length and breadth of Britain.  And it is because Totternhoe stone is a survivor, and chalk an icon of the British landscape, that it deserves to be considered a great British Stone.

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