To walk with Beatrice Searle through the pages of her book ‘Stone Will Answer’ — recently published by Vintage — is to experience stone within a new light, writes Alex Woodcock.
Stone is the most awkward of materials. As any stonemason will tell you, it is heavy and difficult to move but also fragile and easily chipped. It can be ubiquitous but often differs in quality within one postcode, within one quarry, within even one section of one quarry. It is the byword for longevity but if incorrectly chosen and placed weathering beyond useful capacity within short decades. It demands a polymath knowledge of everything from art and architecture to chemistry, geology, geometry and more, for those of us drawn to it. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t for such reasons that the characters attracted to stone are as uncompromising and hard to define as it is — read Fred Bower’s Rolling Stonemason (1936) or Seamus Murphy’s Stone Mad (1949), two of the foundational works of literary stonemasonry, and you’ll see what I mean. In recent years this slender tradition of stonemasons writing about stone has experienced a quiet revival of sorts with my own King of Dust (2019) and Andrew Ziminski’s The Stonemason (2020) to which is now added Beatrice Searle’s extraordinary Stone Will Answer.
Searle is as much artist-adventurer as she is stonemason and it is the journey she undertakes from Orkney to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, that forms the basis of the book. This is no ordinary journey, however, as not only does she walk (and travel by boat) but takes a forty-kilogram stone with her which she pulls upon a custom-built trolley. This is no ordinary stone either but a ‘stippled, leopard-surfaced lozenge’ of Orcadian siltstone, ‘beamy in the hips like a true Yole, Orkney’s traditional clinker-built fishing boat’. The analogy with boats runs deep throughout the book, for the stone itself, into which she cuts two footprint depressions, is itself a kind of boat, the Orkney Boat.
How can a stone be a boat? The chance discovery in a book, given to her by a stonemasonry tutor, of ‘a monochrome photograph of a knobbly and scratched stone boulder, containing two carved footprints’ spurs her on to investigate the phenomena of ‘footprint stones’. These are typically associated with saints and kings. The one in the photograph was the one that St Magnus, the former Magnus Erlendsson, twelfth-century Earl of Orkney, reputedly sailed across the Pentland Firth, his footprints magically remaining on its surface. If surfing saints seem slightly more interesting and relatable than the ones traditionally associated with gruesome endings then you are in good company as they are too for Searle, who sets out to find it, uncovering a treasure trove of folklore, as well as connections between boats and stones, as she does so.
Parallel to these discoveries is another factor, the dawning realisation that as a stonemason, serving her apprenticeship at Lincoln Cathedral, her work might be ‘upholding the unnatural stasis of a startling and shifting material’. As the rock cycle demonstrates, the natural way of stone is to be in perpetual movement, either oozed from the earth as lava, weathered and deposited to form sedimentary rocks, or otherwise recrystallised. Might there be more to learn beyond the walls of the workshop, outside of masonry principles? Perhaps she too could remain as ‘free as a sedimental grain, to be melted or metamorphosed, deposited in a succession of environments and always available for shape shifting’. A close connection between Lincoln and Nidaros Cathedrals, based upon a shared medieval mason’s mark, suggests the destination. She will follow the old pilgrimage paths to Trondheim with her stone, inviting people to stand in it along the way and discover for themselves a place of anchorage and strength.
The journey is a pilgrimage, despite Searle’s initial reluctance to accept that description (as she says, she hasn’t left home if she’s brought a piece of it with her) but there are multiple journeys in this book. There is the physical journey itself, by turns difficult, sometimes downright dangerous, occasionally comedic, here and there euphoric. There is a journey of relationships, both with her travelling companion, her own past, and the stone itself, again, which mines depths of emotions, understanding and tolerances. There is the journey of introducing the stone to other people, which sounds simple but can be just as fraught as moving the thing. And there is the journey of Searle learning to become a stonemason. For many of us the path to finding stonemasonry as a profession and learning how to work stone is, like Searle’s, circuitous, part-luck, part-dogged determination and part the generosity of strangers recognising a kindred soul. But as the lines start to blur and cross between past and present, art and craft, the moving stone becomes the only fixed star in a constellation of times, people and places.
Searle has a poetic eye and casually infuses everyday details with wonder. The creases on her boot, before they’d deepened to large cracks from the pressures of the walk, were ‘gentle as the veins on a primrose leaf’. Describing the surface of the green-grey soapstone of Nidaros Cathedral she notes ‘a rhythmic quilt of axe-marks, their intersecting carbonate veins like fawns streaking through dirty snow’. Weathering via salt deposition is normally the stuff of textbooks but here it is presented in an almost alchemical vividness, with nomadic ‘wandering salt grains’ either wreaking havoc or ‘leaving politely’ depending upon the composition of the stone, ‘causing little harm but thickly crusting on the surface, like a clutch of mushrooms’. Her writing often strays toward the profound, again in such an easy manner that while it might echo the medieval mystics it is nevertheless rooted in her lived experience as someone who has dragged a forty-kilogram stone along a path for two months. ‘Behind one face’, she notes, ‘stone has another, and another, and another — billions of them. The block is six-faced, two-faced and it has no face at all. Let it remain faceless then, and multi-faced; let them exist simultaneously and infinitely, unseen. Let us be content not to look on them all’.
Stone does answer, in its own irregular ways and through its unlikely combination of oppositions. It is both the purpose of travel as well as anchor. It is both weight and lightness, surface and depth, stillness and motion. It is sometimes said that stonemasons have a ‘feel’ for stone. This is something that comes from practice, hours spent working it into specific useful shapes. What is less well known is that this is a two-way street: the stone works on you. Searle has taken this relationship out into the wild, tested it in extreme conditions and come to know, unknow and re-learn her stone, which has forced similar processes upon herself. As she concludes, ‘I had thought it was an act of generosity to bring the stone; in the end it was our encounters with those on the path that revealed that I had been seeking and making real my own foundation myths’.
Stone Will Answer is a moving testimony to the power of art, of finding the extraordinary in the everyday and acting upon your instinct. To walk with Searle in its pages is to experience stone within a new light, not as something silent and inert but on the contrary — and perhaps not too dissimilar to us — as a part-knowable, ever-shifting medium in the process of slow but perpetual change, one long work-in-progress.
‘Stone Will Answer’ is out now, published by Vintage. Buy a copy here (£18.04).
Alex Woodcock is a writer, artist and former cathedral stonemason with a background in buildings archaeology. His book ‘King of Dust: Adventures in Forgotten Sculpture’, was published in 2019 by Little Toller Books. Visit his website here / follow him on Twitter.