In defence of interesting stones

on Wednesday, 02 February 2022. Posted in Architecture, Wiltshire Places

When is a stone not just a stone? – when it is a guard stone, also sometimes known as a glance stone. None the wiser? Don’t worry – I’m not about to try and convince you of these stones’ magical or archaeological properties, etc., but to make you see what is so easily missed in many historic street scenes in both town and country.

Following an interesting article on cornerstones in buildings in the Oxon Recorder Winter 2021 I was inspired to think about cornerstones, and also guard stones, in my home town of Warminster. These occur in a couple of narrow lanes in Warminster town centre and I’ve noted them in passing, but given little thought to what they were doing there.

Stones set into tarmac at the base of walls running alongside a roadside
Guard stones at North Row, Warminster

The Oxon Recorder speculates that these may have had several purposes originally; the most obvious, as observed in the very narrow North Row which leads off the High Street in Warminster, was to prevent traffic striking the walls. Wikipedia describes a guard stone: A guard stone, jostle stone or chasse-roue (French lit. "wheel chaser"), is a projecting metal, concrete, or stone exterior architectural element located at the corner and/or foot of gates, portes-cochères, garage entries, and walls to prevent damage from vehicle tires and wheels. This is also true in Chinn’s Yard on the opposite side of the road. These can be rough local stones just leant against a wall, which over time become set into the asphalt in a road when this is resurfaced. They are unspectacular, and anachronistic in today’s bare, tarmacked roads and lanes.

Stone set into cobbles at an angle leaning up against a wall projecting beyond a drainpipe and doorstep
Guard stone in Chinn's Yard, Warminster
Stone projecting out from base of a corner wall of an entrance
Guard stone at entrance to Poles Farmyard, Swallowcliffe

They are not only found in narrow passageways, but also in rural settings, such as the guard stone set at the entrance to a farmyard at Poles Farm, Swallowcliffe. Here it is obvious that the guard stone is a reused padstone that once carried a post in an open-fronted building on the site, repurposed to prevent cart-wheels from knocking off the corner of the building. Some houses have curved corners for the very same reason. It is illuminating that as you walk along a pavement and come across a curved corner on a house, that you are looking at a time before the pavement was made, allowing carts and other wheeled traffic to get very close to the building. The very many now-redundant shoe-scrapers built into the walls of historic houses come from this time before modern road surfacing, and indicate how different the roads must have been, especially travelling in foul weather.

It is also suggested that the other projecting stones - cornerstones - are ‘beefing up the land under a corner [of a built structure] to increase stability’ as seems to be the case at the aptly-named Corner Cottage, Frog Lane, Chilmark. Perhaps more rarely, cornerstones can be symbolic in that they indicate a boundary or other significance. An example of this is quoted at the Market Hall in Pembridge, Herefordshire where one of the posts of this structure rests on a previous medieval market cross THE MARKET HALL, Pembridge - 1081729 | Historic England . Whether this is a conscious reuse to indicate continuity of a site, or merely convenience cannot be established. So many customary practices were not necessarily passed down in print, but by unwritten tradition.

Where guard/glance stones occur in Conservation Areas they are presumably protected as one of the features that make a place unique. However, Google Conservation Areas and guard stones together and nothing comes up. Does this mean they have received no special consideration? They were no doubt as useful as bollards, walls, posts, or any other more obvious street furniture, but their literally lowly status seems to have made them almost invisible. Maybe it is time to look down and note where guard stones occur, and try to record them systematically before they disappear when a road is resurfaced.

Dorothy Treasure, Principal Buildings Historian

Wiltshire Buildings Record

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