Meet the flintstones
Paul Rayson was thrilled by history as a boy – his fascination heightened by a friendship with Basil Brown, the archaeologist behind the Sutton Hoo find. Today, as a flintworker, Paul literally cradles the past in his hands. Steven Russell joined him out on the road
Some of the buildings on the other side of the road, right on the pavement, have been blackened by years of fumes and dirt sent swirling in the air.
Traffic vibration like this has been known to fatally weaken walls, though is not the culprit in this case. It’s the ivy that’s guilty – feeding off the lime and loosening the flints. “It seems to thrive on it,” explains Paul, who reckons this wall dates from the 1850s. “If it wasn’t for the ivy it would still be up.
“This was built when horses and carts would have been running along here.” He relishes that sense of the past at his elbow. “Some jobs I go on, I virtually step back in time. If it wasn’t for my radio, and using a cement mixer, you could almost be there.”
Paul’s been a flintworker for about 15 years now, combining this traditional craft with his hard-landscaping business. He had a variety of jobs after leaving school, mostly building work and driving machinery. And then he met John Lord.
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“He’s one of the finest flintknappers in the country. He used to live near me at Culford and I got to know him. He gave me some tips and I worked with him for a couple of days. It took off from there.”
In 1975 John and Val Lord were appointed by the Department of the Environment to look after Grimes Graves, the Neolithic flint-mining area near Thetford. They learned the art of flintknapping and willingly shared their knowledge with anyone interested.
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John left Grimes Graves in 1987 to become a professional flintknapper. He had been sought out by the building industry, which needed knapped flints – broken, chipped and shaped into fist-sized pieces – for construction material.
On one job alone – a wall by Castle Mall shopping centre in Norwich – John and son William provided 160 tonnes of knapped flint.
When Paul decided he’d like to pursue this traditional craft, he couldn’t have been in better hands, then. He felt an immediate affinity with the simple tools of hammer, string line, gauging trowel and lime mortar – and the measured pace necessary to achieve the desired quality of work.
Nowadays he builds new walls, renovates existing ones, works on flint extensions to houses and repairs churches. There are some novel projects, too; last February (“blinking cold!”) he made a base for the village sign at Risby.
“Living as we do in a very modern, throwaway, fast-moving society, I have a very, very old skill,” he acknowledges. “The manipulation of flint and other similar types of stone is perhaps the oldest form of technology known to man: a skill that people still require to ensure they maintain their properties.”
There are other flintworkers locally, so he is one of a breed, but it’s probably not a career possibility considered by many school-leavers.
Although the craft has existed for centuries, Paul says there is no nationally-recognised training scheme or accreditation system to ensure young people are being taught the necessary skills. His two daughters and teenage son won’t be following in dad’s footsteps, either . . .
“There are no textbooks on this; no photographs or historical records. You can’t get a book from the library. You learn from your mistakes the whole time. It’s really a matter of teaching yourself – which Stone Age man did, anyway!”
The work can be hard, he admits.
“Monday of last week I was taking this wall down and there was a huge great heap of flints there and it’s filthy, dirty work. You’ve got to sort the flints out, barrow them round to do that side, and then there’s the mixing as well. Years ago, I think they would probably have had three or four blokes working on a job like this: someone mixing the lime by hand, and an old boy either side of the wall.
“I daresay some of the flints, if they didn’t come from a local pit, would have been brought on a horse and cart after the farmer had had them picked off his field, with the women and children doing that, and it would have been a cheap source of materials.
“People had a lot more time years ago, and labour was cheap, but now everything has to be done in a rush and people have no patience!” It’s well worth doing a proper job that keeps things looking the same as they did a century ago and acknowledges the skills of the original craftsmen, he reckons. Down the street is a flint wall in which someone has filled a gap with cement, doubtless with an eye on cost and expediency. It looks horrible.
East Anglia – certainly west Suffolk – is a region where flint-adorned buildings are plentiful. They can also be seen in Sussex, parts of Kent, and up in Norfolk in towns such as Cromer.
“I think it’s down to it being a cheap and available material, says Paul. “Cheaper than bricks; though I suppose some of the finer knapwork would have been expensive to have done.”
Paul’s flintwork business seems to have taken off in the past seven or eight years, though it is seasonal. You can’t do it when the weather’s cold because frost will damage the lime mortar. It won’t set, and therefore won’t hold the material together.
“Work tends to run out towards the end of October and then you’re pretty much stopped until the end of February, into March, and even then you have to be careful and cover everything up at night.” So is he glued to the weather forecast and ready to act if it’s ominous? “No,” he grins. “You can just tell. It’s common-sense, isn’t it?”
There’s a lot more to natural hydraulic lime than meets the eye. Water needs to be added, though too much will make it sloppy and ineffectual. On the other hand, it mustn’t be allowed to dry out – to “go off” – too quickly. Interestingly, steadily-drying lime mortar will continue to gain strength for six months, a year, or even longer after a job is finished.
The type of sand used with it is also critical. Softer sands with fine, rounded grains make weaker mixes, apparently, whereas “sharp” sands with more pointy and jagged particles create stronger mixes.
Paul, who lives in a village between Bury St Edmunds and Thetford, describes the restoration of a wall like this as “random rubble work”. He’s reusing everything – the original flints, bits of old mortar, recycled bricks, rubble – as he rebuilds in layers, with fresh lime mortar. Every now and then he strikes and shapes an old flint, a spark or two flying off, before setting it in place.
“There’s bound to be not enough, or some left over!” he laughs, nodding at the pile of flints awaiting selection and a place in the new order. “You try to imitate what was done, but it doesn’t always work out! It’s not as simple as laying bricks. If you can do a couple of square metres a day you’re doing well.”
With fine flushwork, such as might be seen on the outside of some homes and churches, surfaces of the flints are cut so they are almost as smooth as marble.
It’s clear the skill of knapping lies in being able to “know” the structure of a fresh flint when you pick it up, being able to cut and flake it in the right places to achieve the desired effect. It’s obviously a skill that grows with experience.
The basic tools of his trade are a gauging trowel and a pointy hammer that itself looks a bit like a Neolithic implement. Is it specially-designed? “Just an old hammer I picked up at a car boot sale, really! An old boilermaker‘s hammer.” Does the job, though.
He says flintworkers need a good eye, “and a bit of patience, really; and to appreciate what’s gone on before”.
Paul certainly has no regrets taking up the craft. What is it that appeals, apart from the sense he’s keeping alive traditional techniques?
“It’s peaceful, really . . . apart from today! The money’s reasonably good as well – I suppose it’s because there’s a limited number of people doing it. Whenever I am working on a flint project, which can at times be cold and lonely, people stop to talk, for they are always interested – fascinated by the old craft and curious why anyone is still doing it.”
A final question – one of those essentials on a journalist’s must-ask list. How old is he, if he doesn’t mind letting the cat out of the bag? The sunshine catches the flint in his hand and makes it glint. “I’m not telling you!” he grins. We’ll just settle for “younger than these stones”, then, shall we? “Yeah. That’ll do!”
Basil was brilliant
BASIL Brown – the Suffolk smallholder and archaeologist who in 1939 unearthed the ancient ship burial at Sutton Hoo and paved the way for the discovery of Anglo-Saxon treasures – occupies a special place in Paul Rayson’s heart.
As a young boy in Walsham le Willows, where he was born and grew up, Paul was introduced by his mother to the legendary Brown – a move that helped fan the lad’s interest in history.
“I used to go on digs with him,” remembers Paul, “though not at Sutton Hoo – although I have still got all the old rivets he gave me from there. I used to go over to his house on Saturday mornings and see his shed with all his pottery and stuff in it. He also had a lovely stamp collection, with Penny Blacks and Penny Reds.”
The schoolboy recalls accompanying the archaeologist to a dig at Hinderclay, to the excavation of a Roman villa at – he thinks – Rickinghall, and the examination of a medieval house just outside the village.
What was Basil like?
“A lovely old boy. He always had a pipe; and he used to cycle everywhere. He biked from Rickinghall to Wood-bridge! Incredible.
“I’ve been over to Sutton Hoo, but I think it’s all very sanitised – very commercial. I didn’t think Basil would be very impressed with it. Far too clinical.”
• Flintworker Paul Rayson can be contacted on 01359 268 500 and 07870 320 354