My home town of Penrith is a small, unremarkable market town, save for one notable feature: the stone used in the construction of both public and residential buildings, especially during the nineteenth century. This is Penrith sandstone, a desert sandstone laid down during the Permian period of Earth’s history (299 to 251 million years ago), when much of what is now Western Europe was covered by deserts. This formation is known to geologists as the New Red Sandstone, in contrast to the Old Red Sandstone of the earlier Devonian period (416 to 358 million years ago).
The rounded shape of individual quartz (silica) grains in the rock indicates that they had originally been blown around by the wind, which confirms it as a desert sandstone. The cement that now holds the grains of sand together is also silica, deposited from solution in groundwater, and it is likely that the softer sandstones are deficient in this cement.
The prominent hill to the east of the town (‘the Beacon’) is part of a narrow sandstone ridge that runs approximately north–south. Several long-disused quarries can be found around this hill, but the sandstone here is quite soft, and it is likely that the sandstone used for building in Penrith came from quarries further east, where the rock is much harder.
The following photograph shows a typical street scene in one of the town’s nineteenth-century residential areas, although the main thrust of this post is to highlight some of the more interesting public buildings.
There are several grand nineteenth-century mansions in the so-called ‘new streets’ area of Penrith, although I would be surprised if any have not now been converted into flats. The next two photographs are of Fernleigh at the bottom of Lowther Street. Although it isn’t strictly speaking a public building, I’ve included it because it was built by master builder Alf Grisenthwaite, who happens to have been my great grandfather.
Note that the stone blocks along the street frontage have been cut by machine (‘dressed stone’), which means that the surface of the wall is smooth, but as the second photo shows, the side walls are conventional masonry in which individual blocks were hewn by hand and are of varying sizes.
Although all of Penrith’s extant churches are sandstone, I made a deliberate decision not to include any of them here, although Christ Church is featured in Mythical Kings. However, the next photograph is of the former Congregational Church in Duke Street, which was rebuilt by Alf Grisenthwaite in 1865 on the site of the old Beckside Chapel. It was closed in 1991 because of dwindling congregations and has since been converted into flats.
Another former public building that is now flats is shown in the next photograph. It is the former Church of England girls’ primary school on Drovers Lane, which closed in the 1970s. It was built in 1858. The equivalent boys’ school, further along the same road, was demolished in the 1970s.
Moving into the centre of town, the next two photographs show the former Bank of Liverpool building in Market Square. Despite it’s quasi-mediaeval appearance, it was built in 1912 and is now occupied by Barclays. The first photo shows the front elevation, while the second is a view of the rear of the building. The first two floors are occupied by the bank, but the top floor is residential.
The next photograph shows the former National Westminster Bank building in King Street. When NatWest moved a few metres up the street, the Trustee Savings Bank (TSB) took over. However, the TSB moved out when it amalgamated with Lloyds Bank, and the building currently appears to be empty. The upper floors were formerly offices, but they may originally have been residential premises, judging by the balconies on the first floor.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I like puzzles, so I’ve decided not to identify the building in the next photograph because I think that it should be possible to guess its purpose without further clues.
Finally, I couldn’t compile a list of the most interesting sandstone buildings in Penrith without including a picture of Penrith Castle, which was built in the fourteenth century and is now a ruin (it was used as a convenient source of building stone for many years). A lot of the sandstone used for the main walls is quite soft, leading me to conjecture that it was sourced from quarries on the Beacon.
The castle’s most famous occupant was the Duke of Gloucester, a decade or so before he became King Richard III. Richard also had a house in the mediaeval town centre, which gave rise in later years to one of Penrith’s most enduring legends: that there is a secret passage between the castle and the house. Needless to say, the existence of this passage has never been proved.