Caught Knapping

You know how much I like people with passions, especially unusual ones (passions and people…) and Paul, our friendly neighbourhood flint-knapper, is a Man On A Quest.

He and I have been discussing the lack of flint in buildings round here, which, when you come to think about it, is a bit odd…

Flint is Paul’s passion – you only have to check out the flint-knappery on his website to see that. He loves the stuff, even if to you and me it’s just bits of rock, Paul sees it as fabric of beauty, and its knappers as people of a great lost skill.

Paul has been trudging round Greenwich (can’t you just see him in his Neolithic loincloth, stone axe in hand?) searching for what appear to be non-existent flint buildings. He finds this puzzling as “many 19th century geology journals mentions Blackheath and Charlton as a good flint source in London. One geologist mentions you only need to stroll up Blackheath Hill or through Hanging Wood to find flints lying on the ground.”

But despite hours, nay, years of trudging, so far he’s only managed to find two examples in the whole of the area – and at least one of them is surprising. Let him tell you about them…

“The first is barely in Greenwich at all. Four or five hundred yards in the wrong direction and it would be in Lewisham instead. The building in question is St Michael & All Angels church nestling down Blackheath Park. A private road, not exactly welcoming to visitors.

The church itself is not flint and was built in the 19th century in two phases. Around it is a superbly crafted flint wall. I have no idea when the wall was made but the flint shows the discolouration of weathering and aging so was probably put up around the time of the church. The high quality of the flint bricks also suggests age too. Knapping is a dying skill and few people today could manufacture bricks of this quality. At its most basic level the wall is simply flint bricks + mortar. The skill is in the knapping of the flint bricks.”
Here’s the wall, “consisting of almost perfectly shaped bricks fitting tightly together with a thin layer of mortar. An excellent example of the skill of the 19th century brickies. Most flint buildings stretching back millennia show this.”

But by the 20th century, when a bit of the wall was damaged, the art was already dying. The repairers used the original flints, but they don’t quite fit together neatly, the person lacked the skill to modify the bricks so filled the gaps with mortar.

“Another repaired section uses modern bricks,” continues Paul. “Only the most basic knapping skills have been used splitting the flint, the pieces are erratic in both size and shape, the end product being more a mortar wall with lump of random flint added.”

Still, flint it is – and the fact that it wasn’t used in the actual church implies either that it was a rare commodity only used for ‘special’ bits – or that it wasn’t actually good enough for the church itself. Who can tell?

Paul wrote to the vicar of St Michael and All Angels, who passed the question onto John Allen, who knows about these things. He reckons that the wall is almost certainly from that time, though no records of the building remain, since it was built as a private chapel and no one was compelled to keep records for private builds. But he confesses he has absolutely no idea why the architect (George Smith – don’t I vaguely remember him from the John Penn Almshouses – or is it another George Smith?) chose flint for the walls and not the church itself. And if John Allen doesn’t know and Flint-knapper Paul can’t tell, chances are it’s lost to History.

Given that flint seems so rare around here, and that knapping is going the way of the dinosaurs, it’s surprising then, that the only other example of flint in Greenwich that Paul’s found is very modern. On the brand new estate along Nelson Mandela Road in Kidbrooke:

“Only a few of the houses have flint walls and then only one or two of the walls on that house. The flint itself is very basically worked mostly in its original quarried state, the white cortex on the outside testifies to this. Once again it uses mortar to replace brick shaping, usually a recipe for an ugly wall, but the excellent pointing work make these buildings an exception and quite stunning.”

It’s an even braver move given that “when making flint walls traditional Lime Mortar must be used, which takes weeks to dry, so discourages people to use it.

This is because flint has a water content which on hot days dries and wet days increases, so the flint expands and contracts. Lime Mortar moistens each time it gets wets so continually sets and resets around the moving flint. If a hard setting modern concrete mortar is used, when the flint expands and contracts, being held firmly in place by the mortar it cracks and the wall eventually falls over.”

So good on the company for making the effort to create something virtually unique in this area.

So here’s the thing. So far, Paul has found no examples of flint in the town of Greenwich itself at all. Now – I know what you’re thinking – surely you’ve seen some somewhere in the town… Me too. But I’ve been racking my brains and I can’t come up with any either. Admittedly Greenwich itself is largely chalk, gravel, and the much-talked about Thanet Sand – but it’s close to good flint places – you’d have thought something would be made of the material.

Can you come up with anywhere that’s made of flint for Paul?

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