This is hands-on, practical fare, rooted in a deep understanding of geography and geology, as well as a craft that has changed relatively little over millennia (the occasional use of power tools exempted). Stonemasonry might, with the knapping of flints, even be our oldest skill. And out of such a bounty of knowledge and an insistent curiosity emerge some startling theories. Such as: what if the reason there isn’t more than one Stonehenge is due to silicosis, a fatal disease that could have been caused by inhaling the dust from carving and polishing, and which could have killed most of its builders?
The mark of Ziminski’s approach is that he knows what he is doing. From a youthful venture volunteering to put back together an early 17th-century merchant’s house from Reigate (an uncared-for Surrey town), he learnt by doing and imitating. He became not just a man to chisel a lion’s head for a corbel, but one who knew the history of turning stone into architecture. Deepest of all, he grew to understand stone as an almost living thing. Ziminski sometimes speaks like a wildlife conservationist.
At times, the foundations of Ziminski’s historical anecdotes are a little shaky (I yearned for a stone–mason’s take on the link between Wells’s and Salisbury’s “angry owl” strainer arches), but such details are forgiven as he charms the reader in a gentle fireside read which “sprinkle[s] a good amount of culture into the head”. “Thirty years ago, strolling down the longest church nave in the country, awed, cowed and a little dishevelled … I felt like I finally belonged”. Absorbing and engaging, The Stonemason perfectly captures the genius loci of the British landscape and its ancient buildings.
Most of us cannot hope for so close a connection to the past as that enjoyed by Ziminski, whose journeys around the West Country (by pickup truck or canoe) are relayed in The Stonemason as a stream of memories: here a dissenter’s chapel whose walls he has shored up, here over the Avon or Nadder a bridge whose ancient vaults or cutwaters he has hauled bodily from the riverbed, here the long barrow where, lying on his back, he pounded the dark stones back into place with his feet. But with charm and precision, he shares his knowledge of these buildings – an intimacy of which most architectural historians can only dream – and his insight into the world that ancient monuments draw around them today.
And what jobs! He worked on West Kennet Long Barrow, dating from 3,650 BC. This is built out of sarsen stones and thinly split forest marble — a flat limestone, carried over 25 miles from Somerset’s Mendip hills. In a job which I’m sure is much more complicated than it sounds, Andrew and his business partner Andy just use their hands to put back the barrow’s fallen stones, sticking them in place with chalky mud — the oldest of all building materials — and a backing mortar.
Ziminski weaves together architecture, craft, landscape, archaeology and natural history, all the time keeping a sharp eye on modern everyday life around him. His sentences sometimes clamber a bit further than they should: ‘The limbs of an adjacent alder sag under a platoon of preening starlings as a solitary big-eyed field pigeon stares knowingly down from what may have been the top of the first stone to have gone up.’ As he glides from place to task to thought to past and back to present, it can be easy to lose the thread of exactly where he is and what he’s doing. But he is never dull and never tendentious.
Whilst erudite and well-read (without possessing a single O-level), it’s the author’s eagerness to experience the past physically which sets him apart from drier academic historians. As a stonemason, he sees many things in our geology, our fossils and fosses, henges and holy places, which the ordinary eye might miss, and it’s this which makes his time travels so rivetingly alive and detailed. How many people, one wonders, would spend a night like he does, actually sleeping inside West Kennet Long Barrow in an ‘ineffectual sleeping bag’, his torch picking out of the enveloping darkness the ‘tiny beads of condensation’ and ‘the eyes of cave spiders’?