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Singing Stones at Teesdale Stone Festival

October 23, 2012

Tommy Leatherbarrow playing a stone xylophone This afternoon I attended the Singing Stones demonstration at the Teesdale Stone Festival. The Stone Festival, the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, aims to raise the profile of the UK stone industry.

Teesdale is a hotbed for quarrying, stone cutting, walling and sculpting. The festival is the brainchild of Ewan Allinson, founder of the Stone Academy which was set up to bring stone apprenticeships back to the dale.

The Stone Academy draws upon the educational philosophies of John Ruskin who owned a stone instrument (similar to the one in the photograph) that was made by Joseph Richardson in the 1840s. The instrument can still be seen at Ruskin’s home ‘Brantwood’ in the Lake District, the source of much of the stone for the xylophones built for Leeds University’s ‘Resonating Stones’ project.

Researchers from the university explained how they visited various quarries in search of stones which both ‘ping’ and ‘zing.’ These two qualities are essential for stones to ‘ring’ when cut. They found 17 different ringing stones such as; limestone, Shap blue, green slate and marble. Ringing rocks were cut to mathematical formulas using diamond saws and filed to the right length to give different pitches to form sets of octaves. These were mounted onto ash and oak blocks secured with silica.

Although my ear is not pitch perfect (a music teacher once said I sang a perfect scale – only in my own key), it was interesting to listen to the different sounds created by playing the stone bars with beaters, thimbles and knuckles. Yes, knuckles!

Adult participants seemed to enjoy learning about geology through the medium of sound just as much as the children who the team normally teach to recognise stones by their resonances. The percussion instruments need a new home and are available for use by groups, societies etc. who would enable the public to continue learning about geology this way.

Singing Stones is just one event from the Stone Festival programme which runs until the 31st October. The festival is based at The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. Details of other events can be found at

You could try your hand at stone skimming, stone lifting, drawing on stone paper or having a go at sculpting your initials with mallet and chisel. This activity had groups of school children buzzing with excitement today.

The Stone Festival apprentices at workIf you are a creative practitioner who adheres to Julia Cameron’s ideas,  you could make an artist date out of visiting the festival and create your own sculpture in another medium as I have done below.

This is only the second time I have written a concrete or shape poem. The first was a pyramid, each word being a block in the structure which considered Egyptian theories of life after death.

It took me several drafts on graph paper to work out the construction to the mathematical formula of the 3 x table.

This time I’ve taken the Greek idea that statues are often warmer to the touch and have the potential to be more human than people. The lament is narrated by Icarus’s mother after his failed attempt to fly with his father.

O Icarus

I watched you plummet from the pumice cliffs,

heard wings smash on rocks below,

waited for the tide to come in,

collected every last piece,

one piece at a time,

bound bones

with cloth

not feathers,

buried you in sand,

waited for the sun to set.

You emerged, warmer in stone

than you ever seemed in human form,

freed from life to follow your own path of light.

I wonder how this poem would look if etched onto stone paper. I can’t make it to The Big Draw activity on Saturday 27th and never thought to ask for some paper today, but I would be interested to know what it is like to work with. I also look forward to finding out which of the apprentices wins the Worldskills UK Stonemason competition. They were each presented with a blank slab of stone and given five days to create a sculpture from it. The judging takes place this Friday in the grounds of The Bowes Museum.


From → Poetry

  1. I love the poem Judith – it works perfectly and I’m sure would be wonderful etched on stone paper – whatever that is…

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