29: Charnwood Forest ‘granites’ Pt.1. Bardon Hill ‘granite’.

“The streets are not paved with gold in London, they are paved with Leicestershire granite”

From an ancient volcano and one of the most spectacular hills in the Midlands of England comes one of the most common materials used to build London, the ‘granite’ roads chips that we walk, cycle and drive over every day and never really notice but have paved our London streets since the mid-19thC.

And one of the key quarries for these road chippings for over 150 years is that at Bardon Hill, one of the most spectacular hills in the Midlands, indeed of all of England south of the Peak District and now one of the most spectacular quarries! Bardon Hill is  “… the highest Hill in Leicestershire and on a clear day the Malvern and Shropshire Hills (approx. 50–60 miles), summits in Derbyshire (approx. 30–40 miles) and Lincoln Cathedral (almost 50 miles away) can be seen…”  

John Curtis, the early 19thC entomologist and illustrator [1]
wrote in the 1830s:  “… the view extends to over 5,000 square miles (13,000 km2) or one-twelfth of England and Wales … it probably commands a greater extent of surface than any other point of view on the island … An outline, described from the extremity of this view, would include nearly one-fourth of England and Wales. It may be deemed one of the most extraordinary points of view in Nature.” [2]  

Bardon Hill is 278m or 912 ft high and a both a  ‘County Top’ i.e. the highest point in the county of Leicestershire and very unusual as the only Marilyn in the Midlands east of Clee Hill, Marilyns being “ … defined as peaks with a prominence of 150 metres (492 ft) or more, regardless of height or any other merit” [3] [4]

Trig point looking west ..

Bardon Hill was first quarried in the 17thC for stone for building, but it was not till the 19thC that it’s stone was recognised as being of use for road building and it’s fate to be quarried almost to the point of extinction was decided.  [2]

Roads and road stone

18thC road from http://www.johnhearfield.com/History/Roads.htm

Roads up until the early 19thC in most parts of Britain were almost impassable at wet times of year “Wagons were taken off their wheels and dragged on their bellies.” [5] but in the late 18thC, for the first time since the Romans, a large scale effort was made to improve roads including the use of stone as both chips and blocks. First Telford then Loudon McAdam devised system of building roads with stone. McAdam’s system of simply using different sizes of stone which, when pressured by wheels, locked together, worked remarkably well, [6] as McAdam [7] explained in his 1816 opus “Remarks on the present system of road making ; with observations, deduced from practice and experience, with a view to a revision of the existing laws, and the introduction of improvement in the method of making , repairing, and preserving roads, and defending the road funds from misapplication.”

Diagrams of McAdam’s road and noted the use of broken stone in layers – from https://ngneerz.blogspot.com/2017/07/history-of-highway-engineering-engineer.html

And one of the stones he recommended was from Bardon Hill ( when talking of a street in Bristol. “Was that granite stone ?—No, a kind of stone called the blue pennet in that county, and part of a light stone called Brandon hill stone ; both tolerably good stones : the blue pennet is certainly not so good as granite ; the Brandon Hill stone, when broken, is pretty nearly as good as granite.” [8]

Macadam road being laid with broken rock on soil
from http://www.bruzzone.org/macadam/1st.jpg

Re 19thC road making see also Paul Hasluck’s 1904 “Road  and footpath  construction – Macadamised roads,  stone, wood, and asphalt paving and footpaths” [9] Within a short time it was noticed that tar, from industrial processes, and then later from rock asphalt could be used to bind together those road chips and ‘Tarmac’ was born. [10]  

Annette McGrath has written brilliantly about the Charnwood Forest ‘granite’ quarries in her The Rock Quarries of Charnwood Forest and I’m going to quote from her extensively.

“By the end of the 18th century, igneous rock chippings were recognised as an excellent hardwearing material with which to surface a road…. John Loudon McAdam became Surveyor-General of Roads in 1827 and famously promoted the use of ‘granite Macadam’ when he professed that Roads should be constructed of broken stone…covered by a series of thin layers of hard stone broken into angular fragments of nearly cubical shape. Incidentally, McAdam provided guidelines for the correct sizing of a piece of granite to be one that could fit easily into a man’s mouth. This back-fired on him when one quarryman had broken granite to too large a size; when he queried the workman, McAdam discovered that the man had no teeth, and therefore a much larger mouth cavity than normal!”

She notes “The increase in road building and repair was further accelerated following two important turning points in history. First was the abolition of the turnpikes in 1827, which resulted in a far greater freedom of movement for all vehicles. This encouraged more people to use the roads, which obviously called for additional maintenance of the road surface. The second turning point relates to a Local Government Act in 1888 that compelled local authorities to be responsible for the maintenance of their own roads.” … “The effect of these developments resulted in a major increase in quarrying activity in Leicestershire, leading to the opening of many new quarries including at Bardon Hill in 1857”

More locally to Bardon Hill she notes “Output increased when transport by horse and cart was superceded by the opening of the Leicester and Swannington Railway Line, one of the world’s earliest steam railways, in 1832…. At the same time, construction of the main line railways throughout the country created a constant requirement for railway ballast, and also provided a means to transport aggregate far afield…By 1890 Charnwood Forest ‘granite’ had become the main source of aggregates for the whole country, from the Midlands southwards, with Leicestershire producing over a million tonnes per year by 1900. A well-known colloquialism at the time sums up the success of Leicestershire granite – The streets are not paved with gold in London, they are paved with Leicestershire granite (J. Shenton, pers. com.).”

McGrath states that the stones was popular simply because “…  there are no reserves of hard rock suitable for roadstone in the South of England; Leicestershire therefore provides the nearest and cheapest rock resources to these ever-expanding markets.” [11] [12]

Bardon Hill 1882 – note how small the quarry is.
National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/view/114593178
and in 1938
National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/view/101592378

RWD Fenn in his “Bardon Hill Quarries The Bardon Hill Quarries 1858-1918” also highlights the importance of the railway in creating the Bardon Hill Quarry. “Leicester & Swanning Railway opened in July 1832 “The train was decorated with flags and banners bearing such slogans as ‘Cheap coal and granite’ …. From the start the freight brought into Leicester by the railway included ‘small stones for macadamizing’.” The quarry expanded over the next decades and by 1891 “… between 600 and 700 men worked at Bardon producing 175,000 tons of stone a year” [13]

The Leicester and Swannington Railway between Leicester and Burton on Trent was one of the casualties of the infamous and criminal Beeching cuts to passenger services in the 1960s but the track is still entirely there and used by Bardon Hill Quarry. It’s now called the Ivanhoe Line and there is a strong campaign to have the services re-instated with apparent government support. [14]

Don Clow in “From Macadam to Asphalt: The Paving of the Streets of London in the Victorian Era. Part 1 — From Macadam To Stone Sett” notes how important road stone was for London: “On Victoria’s accession to the throne in 1837, in spite of some improvements, … were in a poor state and, even if constructed reasonably well, generally were poorly maintained… Macadam’s own recommendations were quickly adopted and within a few years most roads in the Metropolis were of water-bound macadam. His method depended on the careful selection in sizing and placing of stone such that stones would interlock, any voids then being would be filled by fine material from stone crushed either by rolling or by traffic, and washed into the interstices by water. The end result would be a road construction with a crust more-or-less impervious to the ingress of water… A Macadam road tended to be insanitary because of the penetration of horse manure and urine, giving rise to contaminated mud or wind-blown dust… By 1848, the City of London had only one short section of Macadam remaining but the City was an exception for, whatever its limitations, the Macadam method was economically attractive and certainly a great improvement on what had existed previously. It provided a good footing for horses and the noise generated by horses’ hoofs and vehicle wheels was low. The Macadam road continued to be the standard for lightly trafficked roads well into the twentieth century but was ultimately superseded by bituminous pavings …” [15]

The summit of Bardon Hill has some beautiful rocks and ancient oak woodland.

When is a granite not a granite!

But why have I put ‘granite’ in inverted commas throughout?
Well it turns out the ‘granite’ of Bardon Hill is not granite at all but a another igneous stone, the 540 to 635 million years old Peldar Porphyritic Dacite [16], a Dacite being a type of volcanic rock. [17]

The British Geological Society defines Peldar Porphyritic Dacite as “A highly porphyritic dacite, with abundant large phenocrysts of white plagioclase and less commonly, green-grey quartz in a dark grey, fine-grained groundmass.” [18]

The Oxford University Geological Society state “This rock is a porphyritic dacite. Closer inspection revealed common phenocrysts of quartz and plagioclase feldspar. There are also xenoliths of grey microdiorite. This extremely hard rock is known to the local quarrymen as ‘Leicestershire Granite’” [19]
Nb A porphyritic stone is an igneous rock “… with a distinct difference in the size of mineral crystals, with the larger crystals known as phenocrysts” [20]

Charnwood Forest ‘Macadam’ at the Sedgwick Museum – see my previous post – https://buildinglondon.blog/2021/12/20/23-the-john-watson-building-stones-collection-at-the-sedgewick-museum-in-cambridge/

For those of you who want to read more on Peldar Porphrytic Dacite check out “Igneous processes within late Precambrian volcanic centres near Whitwick, northwestern Charnwood Forest” by John Carney [21] [12]

And the BGS Open Report: OR/10/044 Guide to the geology of Mount St. Bernard, Charnwood Lodge, Warren Hills and Bardon Hill, Charnwood Forest by J N Carney [22]

For a pic of Peldar Porphyritic Dacite see https://hypocentre.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/rock-365-day-265-peldar-porhyritic-dacite/

What’s also interesting about Bardon Hill is it’s not just the Dacite it has sent to London! The Strategic Stone Study Building Stone Atlas of Leicestershire states re the Charnian Supergroup of rocks “ Charnwood Forest is an area of craggy hills, about 10 km wide, located to the north-west of Leicester. Its relatively small outcrops represent the exhumed topography of an ancient mountain range, the lower slopes of which remain buried beneath the Triassic strata that now surround it. The rocks are largely the products of explosive volcanic eruptions, and include lavas, volcanic breccias, conglomerates and tuffs. Several igneous intrusions are also present. They were formed between about 650 and 540 million years ago, and have been divided into three major stratigraphical units: the Blackbrook, Maplewell and Brand groups. These collectively make up the Charnian Supergroup.” [23] And the Breccia from Bardon has been used in London at Battersea Park, albeit for ornamental not building “… large blocks of dark grey-green Bardon Breccia have commonly been used for ornamental purposes; for example, rows of them can be seen just inside one of the riverside entrances to Battersea Pleasure Gardens in London.”

Also see the BGS Open Report: OR/10/044 Guide to the geology of Mount St. Bernard, Charnwood Lodge, Warren Hills and Bardon Hill, Charnwood Forest by J N Carney [24]

One of the rocks at Bardon Hill here called Felsitic Agglomerate but now called Benscliffe Breccia .. this may be the stone used at Battersea [25]
You may well hear and see blasting from the summit!


Bardon Hill is an incredible place to visit, the views are extraordinary and while spoilt by the quarry and development in the area, the quarry is spectacular in it’s own way and I’d highly recommend if you are anywhere near. The whole Charnwood Forest is full of smaller volcanic hills popping up often capped with unusual rock formations and it would make an interesting few days walking or cycling visiting these hills and the many old quarries.

This is a really good guide to the area.  https://www.choosehowyoumove.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/themed-walks-charnwood-forest-geology.pdf

And these two have OS maps embedded! https://www.mudandroutes.com/summit/bardon-hill/ https://maps.walkingclub.org.uk/hills/2873/bardon-hill

Down, down, deeper and down. [Rossi/Young]

Getting there

Since the railway line is still closed to passengers the nearest mainline stations would be Loughborough and then Leicester though the later has better public transport to Bardon. The 29 bus to Coalville from Leicester has two stops on either side of Bardon Hill that could be used.
Cycling. Lots of interesting looking routes from Leicester and Loughbrough through Charnwood Forest

Driving: Bardon Hill is minutes from Junction 22 of the M1.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Curtis_(entomologist)
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bardon_Hill
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Marilyns_in_the_British_Isles
[4] https://www.rhb.org.uk/marilyns/rhb199206.htm
[5] https://www.aggregate.com/sites/aiuk/files/atoms/files/aggregate-industries-bardon-hill-quarry.pdf
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macadam
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Loudon_McAdam
[8] https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Remarks_on_the_Present_System_of_Road_Ma/a9RMAAAAYAAJ?hl=en
[9] https://archive.org/stream/roadandfootpath00haslgoog/roadandfootpath00haslgoog_djvu.txt  
[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarmacadam 
[13] https://www.aggregate.com/sites/aiuk/files/atoms/files/aggregate-industries-bardon-hill-quarry.pdf
[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leicester_and_Swannington_Railway
[15] http://www.glias.org.uk/journals/8-a.html
[16] https://webapps.bgs.ac.uk/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?pub=BDHV
[17] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dacite
[18] https://webapps.bgs.ac.uk/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?pub=PLPD
[19] https://ougs.org/files/wsx/reports/Pre-Cambrian_Charwood.pdf
[20] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyritic
[22] http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/12098/1/OR10044.pdf
[24] http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/12098/1/OR10044.pdf
[25] https://webapps.bgs.ac.uk/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?pub=BENS

3 responses to “29: Charnwood Forest ‘granites’ Pt.1. Bardon Hill ‘granite’.”

  1. We understand that what comes down the Angerstein Rail line in Greenwich now comes from Bardon. Angerstein (in case you don’t know) is a goods only rail line from Blackheath Tunnel to the river. You began with an article on Upper Watergate – irrelevantly my latest book is ‘Greenwich riverside – Upper Watergate to Angertstein.


    1. Haha that’s a nice coincidence! Thanks for pointing it out! I want to get to see a train on that line soon! I bought your other book, the Greenwich Peninsula one …


      1. there are about 8 trains a day and apparently if you are a keen enough rail fan and know how to interpret the documentation you can work out when they are due – some apparently do tortuous journeys. Apparently the users want to increase the number of trains, can send stuff if you like


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