I’m in Remo’s in Broomhill which, I guarantee, still serves the best coffee in town, facing down many young pretenders. The girl at the next table says to her companion, “It’s been done like this for 50 million years. We couldn’t change it because the world would end.” This might have been a sarcastic rant […]

I’m in Remo’s in Broomhill which, I guarantee, still serves the best coffee in town, facing down many young pretenders. The girl at the next table says to her companion, “It’s been done like this for 50 million years. We couldn’t change it because the world would end.” This might have been a sarcastic rant about her Human Resources department, but it called to mind the casual conversations between avenging angels in the film Dogma. She continues, “Danny’s a real brick, totally reliable, but Adam’s such a stoner….”

It’s strange that when we compare people to building materials, stone seems to lack the rigidity of the others, as though the geological timescale were as fickle as party politics. Papa may have been a rolling stone, but it’s not just humans that are judged harshly for their masonry tendencies. “The starlings are tough, but the lions are made of stone” is a lyric from one of my favourite songs. The big cats might look serious, but they’re powerless against being clambered on by the kids or perched and pooed on by the birds. If you wanted to guard a bank or a museum, you could do a lot better than these fossils.

Mythology is full of living things being turned to stone, usually to punish or silence them. What if this really happened? Could you entomb your enemies? Is stone made up of trapped noise, stymied misadventures and foolish men lured into suspended animation? Could the magic be reversed at any moment, bringing walls crashing down, lifting pavements and releasing a cacophony of ancient troublemakers into our midst? Looking around, are there things made of stone that didn’t used to be so, or are temporarily so? Is stone, or stoniness, a fleeting state?

Look at how nature, art and society flow from lumps of rock. The combination of iron ore (for smelting), gritsone (for grinding) and sandstone (for building) made Sheffield the Steel City, but the supply of fine metals brought the artists, and the dirty working conditions attracted reformers and philanthropists, like John Ruskin, who managed to examine geology, species and sociology in equally intricate detail. Check out the Ruskin in Sheffield events if you don’t want to take my word for it.

Modernist architecture interrupted that flow. It used to be standard practice to give buildings a new look by re-skinning them with a fashionable facade. In the backlash against modernism, we grew an umbilical cord to a half-imagined past, preserving facades while replacing the buildings behind, as may soon happen at the top of Devonshire Street. The older parts of cities gradually acquire a ‘Trigger’s Brush’ memory of ancient structures given four new faces and three new sets of innards.

These days it’s the modernist buildings that get the bold makeovers, to resolve the unforeseen decay that befell their ferro-concrete skeletons and the social experiments within them. Park Hill is the poster boy for such re-designs, presently freeze-framed in a ‘before and after’ pose, half in contemporary technicolour, half in sparse, Soviet camouflage. Meanwhile in the sandstone inner suburbs of Sharrow, Broomhall, Crookesmoor and Walkley, each blemish in the original flesh falls victim to an amateur cosmetic surgeon, armed with reconstituted stones, synthetic slates and uPVC.

Old masonry cracks in the frost, dissolves in the rain, and makes way for extensions and conservatories, but, as it does so, stories are released into the wild. The small quarries that peppered the land where Sheffield’s big parks now sit. The horses that carted the stones to the building sites, and the masons who cut and laid them. The unassuming family homes in Bents Green that were built from re-used pieces of the original Sheffield Cathedral. The rubble waste that is taken away and fills up holes where opencast coal mines used to be, laying the groundwork for a new industrial estate. The grinder dust that billows up and nags at the lungs, before being washed down the road gullies, silting up the rivers and finding its way into the flood defences of a nature reserve. Stone is always on the move, always telling a new story.

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Andrew Wood