The Stones that built Cambridge


This fascinating article will take the reader back through time to the early 1400’s. It covers the various building stones used in the construction of Cambridge through the ages. There is reference to transportation from quarry to development site and an indication of costs of the stone and its transportation. The research was greatly assisted by a publication called The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge by the late Robert Willis, published in 1886.

The city of Cambridge has no building stone of its own, sitting on gault mudstone, there is a small amount of chalk to the south east of the county and some limestone outcropping to a small area in the north western corner of the county. Medieval Cambridge was principally built in timber, the exceptions being ecclesiastical buildings, colleges, large houses, bridges and the castle! From early medieval times, limestone was brought in from Rutland and Lincolnshire to the north and Northamptonshire, to the west via barges on the Rive Nene and over various fenland drains.

Car stone from Norfolk was occasionally used along with flint which built many churches but due to the nature of these materials most buildings would either be round or would have brick dressings and corner details. Flint would be either whole or knapped. Large quantities of chalk were used in construction especially between the 13th and 14th centuries. Evidence of chalk (clunch) can be found in footings including the castle chimneys, boundary walls etc. Also in the construction of St John’s College, Trinity College and in St Mary’s the Great. Chalk quarries were situated at Bunwell, Swaffham, Cherry Hinton Reach and Isleham, Barrington and Haslingfield. These were connected by canals, making transportation relatively simple. The downside was that chalk has a short life, for example most of the facing stone at Trinity required replacement after 150 years.


The 1400’s

King’s Hall at Trinity was commenced in the year 1400 along with a substantial wall along the length of the river bank, the building materials were brick, ragstone and chalk (clunch) from Hynton believed to be the old name for Cherry Hinton and Barrington.

Kings Hall chapel



Commenced in 1446 under master mason Reginald Ely who was credited with its design. The stone of choice was magnesium limestone from Tadcaster in Yorkshire. In 1461 when the masons heard that King Henry 6th had been defeated in the War of the Roses they downed tools and fled.

Work finally resumed in 1476 under the watchful eye of John Worlich, a mason who worked under Reginald Ely 20 years earlier. John would now assume the roll of master mason. Simon Clark who joined the team in 1477 was credited for the design of the tracery window on the east elevation and for other fine details, within the chapel fabric. In 1477 stone was brought from Peterborough and from Clipsham. John Bell stonemason was sent to Huntingdon to make other stone purchases. In 1480 there is evidence of stone being purchased from Weldon, Hasilborough and other places such as Ancaster in Lincolnshire. The death of Richard 3rd (August 1485) stopped work for 20 years. At the time 89 masons plus the master mason were employed. The quarry referred to as at Peterborough is most likely Barnack which was used to build Peterborough Cathedral and Burghley House.

The quarry at Hasilborough has not been firmly identified but is referred to by Dr Jennifer Alixander as Heselburgh by Heydour from written evidence during the year 1352. The quarry belongs to the Ancaster group.

In 1508 the building of King’s College chapel resumes once more. During the year 1509 it is recorded that a large quantity of stone was purchased from quarries at Clipsham, Weldon and Yorkshire.

Paving for the church floor was described as marble or ragge of Kent. It is stated that the white magnesium limestone from Thefdale or Huddleston is most useful in determining the portion of the building erected during the reign of Henry 6th for after his deposition the regular supply of stone from Yorkshire ceased. An oolite from Northamptonshire or Rutland replaced it. There are further references to Clipsham and Weldon stone being identified above the level of the magnesium limestone except for the vaults of the north and south porches which are built according to contract of magnesium limestone from Hampole in Yorkshire. The chapel was finally completed in 1515. In 1560 Weldon stone was used on the western library at Trinity. Corpus Christi College was built from 1583 in oolitic limestone from King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire.

The 1500’s

At the entrance to Trinity College a mason’s lodge was built during the years 1518 to 1519. Reportedly 15 tons of stone was purchased from quarrymen at King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire. The tower of King’s Hall was started at the same time. The Caius building was built between 1564 and 1573. Trees were recorded as being purchased from Sir Henry Cromwell (Knight of the Shire of Huntingdon and grandfather to Oliver Cromwell). Ramsey stone was purchased both Freestone and Ragge which was carried to Cambridge by land and water. Freestone also came from King’s Cliffe and Weldon.

White stone (Whyte) came from Haslingfield and Barrington (Clunch). A small amount of stone came from Barnwell near Oundle. King’s Cliffe (also spelt Kynges Clyffe) and also called Cliffe Regis is in Northampton and 6 miles west of Oundle. Haslingfield is 5 miles south of Cambridge. King’s Cliffe also supplied stone at 4 shillings ye tonne at ye pit. For the porch at Corpus Christi chapel (1583). Further costs included carriage by cart to the waters side at Gunworth 3 shillings Plus wharfage.

John Martin freemason was paid 14 pence per day for visiting the quarry and accompanying the stone on its journey. EDW Buck from March carried the stone by boat from Gunwell to Jesus Green for the sum of 3 shillings per tonne. Two tonnes of Weldon stone was used on the Chapel along with a quantity of marble from Sussex.

Trinity College



During 1559 reclaimed building stone is brought in from the Greyfriars in Cambridge which was abandoned 21 years earlier. Reclaimed stone also came from Ramsey Abbey in Huntingshire, newly quarried limestone was brought in from Barrington and Weldon transported along the River Ouse and into Cambridge by water.

Emmanuel College



Commencing in 1588 projects included, the Masters Lodge, the great gates and the outer wall. Large quantities of reclaimed stone were brought in from Cambridge Castle. The separate chapel at Corpus Christi College as started in 1579. The Earl of Bedford supplied 146 tonnes of reclaimed stone from Thorney Abbey. Thomas Wendy sent 182 loads from his Barnwell quarry.

The 1600’s


The hall at Corpus Christi College was started in 1605. White stone (clunch) came from Barrington and Eversden. Limestone from King’s Cliffe, reclaimed Ragge from Cambridge Castle and slates from Northamptonshire. The east gate of Clare Hall was commenced in 1639 by Thomas Gumball also spelt Gumbold freemason. Gumbold originally from Raunds in Northampton brought the rag stone known as Raunds marble due to its beautiful grain and firmness of texture, along with him, he also built a stone bridge the same year. St John’s College library commenced in 1625.

For the building of Clare Hall during the year 1637, 40,000 Ely bricks were ordered along with ashlar stone and blocks from Ketton and Weldon, clunch was bought from Haslingfield and roofing slate from Collyweston. Interestingly the parliamentary party seized wood and stone from the building site at Clare Hall towards fortifying the castle during the English civil war. Emmanuel college chapel commenced in 1668 and principally used Ketton stone. Trinity library commenced in the year 1680.

The master mason Robert Gumbold used Ketton Stone on this 10 year project designed by Christopher Wren. Portland stone became popular mainly for refacing damaged facades and to face public buildings previously built in brick.

The 1700’s

Stone usage in Cambridge was certainly slowing down during this century. William Whiting contracts to build Trinity Hall in 1740. The stone used was 6” thick Ashlar from Ketton. The architect was Esquire Bedells. It most likely stood on an earlier Hall.



The 1800’s

The Fitzwilliam Museum commenced in 1837. The first stone laid with much ceremony was a 5 tonne Portland block. Bath stone became a stone of choice for church refurbishments, for ashlar (formal) stone and window/door mouldings. Daulting stone was used on new court in 1883 at Pembroke College. During the late 1800’s, Welsh slate flooded in by virtue of the railways. This would cause the demise of Switherland slate production in Leicestershire. A limited amount of stone from Ham Hill on the Bridgepont stone formation, described as golden yellow brown, was used in the Masters Lodge at Trinity Hall and at Westcott House at the Theological College. A small amount of Doulting stone was imported from Somerset and used in New Court Pembroke College the year 1883.

The 1900’s

Ancaster stone was used in the medieval school at Sedgwick Geology Museum 1901 to 1904. Portland was used in several colleges and administration buildings for example The Cripps building at St John’s College in 1967. A small amount of Purbec stone from Dorset was used at the Second Courts of St John’s. York flag stones were brought in from west/south Yorkshire, described as a fine grained sandstone particularly suitable for pavings, flag stones and sometimes plinths. Sussex marble and Kentish Rag were also used for pavings.

Portland stone would later become popular for high quality cladding panels and ashlar (formal stone). It was used in several universities and administrative buildings, e.g. The Cripps Building, St John’s College 1967. Purbeck stone from Dorset was used in limited quantities and described as a dark grey Shelly limestone used on the first and second counts St John’s College, Cambridge. Ketton stone got renewed popularity from the early 17th century and was also used to re-clad many of the public faced earlier brick walls.


Ancaster stone described as a streaky bacon appearance was widely used in the colleges, churches and chapels. It was brought in from the great limestone belt, part of which runs through Lincolnshire. Ancaster played an important role in the early years of Cambridge and was used in King’s College in 1480. In the 19th century Ancaster stone found favour once more across Cambridge including the Gothic revival chapel at St John’s College. The buildings of Tree Court at Gonville and Caius College. Following a fire in 1852, Trinity Hall was rebuilt in Ancaster stone plus the re-facing of Petercourt old court. Ancaster was such an important stone that it became under royal control in the 14th century due to the massive building project at Windsor Castle.

What happened to the quarries that built Cambridge?

The Kings Cliffe old quarry in Northamptonshire and associated quarries were worked during the late medieval to post medieval periods. They have long ceased to exist.

The chalk pits of Cherry Hinton lie abandoned and flooded with water. The Weldon stone quarries were situated south and to the south west of the Northamptonshire village. They covered 25ha. Many abandoned quarries and shafts were still evident during the 1970’s, in fact a small area was still being worked at the time. All is now abandoned!

Swithland slate. The quarries became uneconomical following the arrival of the railway mid- 1800 and particularly due to the impact of cheap Welsh slate flooding the country. The old pits are abandoned and water filled. Clipsham stone was originally quarried at 7 locations. Today it is available from two of these locations.

An area in Clipsham Parish close to the original big pits quarry and Hooby Lane quarry, Greetham. (See our report on the Clipsham stone quarries). Car stone from Norfolk is still quarried by two companies. The chalk (clunch) pits became abandoned, some became part of a cement works which is now closed. The pits at Cherry Hinton are flooded. Ham stone is still quarried from two pits on Ham Hill.
Ancaster stone is quarried at Castle Pits quarry by Goldholme Stone Ltd., plus at Wilsford
Castle Pits is the original Ancaster quarry and is situated within a lost 32 acre fort built by the ninth legion in AD 48.

The Ketton quarries are under the ownership of Hanson Cement and are used principally for cement manufacture.

The Peterborough quarries have not been identified but most likely refer to Barnack to the north west of the county. Peterborough cathedral was built out of Barnack ragge. The quarry was worked out in the late 1400s. After a period of closure, it is believed that Doulting stone is available once more.

Ketton stone is now controlled by a cement works. The limestone blocks are available but have moved a considerable distance from the original quarry location. The stone may have little resemblance to the medieval characteristics of Ketton stone. Bath stone is available from two mines, both have moved a considerable distance from the original extraction locations. Portland stone is still mined by 3 separate companies. Purbeck stone is still available.


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