Though tucked away behind the village post office, Lloyd's Stoneyard in Great Bedwyn is not difficult to find. Outside the little shop, news boards proclaiming the latest sex and poaching scandals in north Wiltshire are interspersed with monumental tablets, headstones and discarded angels' wings. Around the corner, in the yard itself, the building's eaves are virtually encrusted with corbels, busts and tiles. Behind a hi-tech ornamental fountain in the garden, a carved biplane sits incongruously in a flowerbed. "Anything in stone, marble or granite is our line of business," John Lloyd explains. "This collection has just grown up as a sideline."
Mr Lloyd is the seventh generation of his family to work as a stonemason in the village. His father, Ben, was an inveterate collector, offering a home to neglected tombstones and unwanted statuary from all around the county, whilst two centuries of apprentice works and commissions that have never been collected have added further to the strange museum. Soon, a giant pineapple carved by a local student will be hoisted up on to a gate-pier of the yard's entrance, once Mr Lloyd has found some greenstone for its foliage.
The nature of the business has inevitably altered with the years. Monumental work for churchyards was formerly the main concern. Lloyds are still well known for such skills and Graham Bowley, the senior stone-carver, is currently engaged in lettering a slab of Cornish granite for a gravestone. Having worked at Lloyds for more than 30 years he is proficient in the old techniques, first carving out the letters with a chisel, then beating in thin strips of lead that will be etched and polished before painting. "It's time-consuming," he admits, "but it gives a finish like no other." However, diocesan authorities are increasingly resistant to memorials that do not conform precisely to a pattern, and are imposing a black granite uniformity over the nation's churchyards. The biplane was a victim of this policy. Commemorating an early hero of the Royal Flying Corps, it was originally in a private burial ground that was scheduled to be redeveloped. The parish church refused to find a space for such a joyous aberration, but in its final resting- place at Lloyds it is at least respected and appreciated.
Fortunately the decline in monumental masonry has been more than compensated for by the growing popularity of traditional materials amongst gardeners and interior designers. Aside from the occasional `experiment' to add to the collection, Lloyds work entirely to commission, producing hand- carved urns and benches, balustrades and fountains that are made to individual designs. Moving with the times, John Lloyd will occasionally even condescend to use reconstituted stone. "Some of the new materials are quite convincing," he concedes, "but the best are almost as expensive as the real thing, and they never weather properly, or get more beautiful as they grow old. They just look dead and dull." He prefers, whenever possible, to use indigenous materials in any outdoor setting and waxes lyrical about the joys of working natural stone. "You have to listen to its ring. If the note changes, then you're doing something wrong. The stone will tell you what you can get away with, so long as you respect it."
It is in the recent fashion for stone floors that Mr Lloyd notices the worst examples of disrespect: Portland slabs so thin that they can be snapped across the knee are laid on wooden boards or bedded into concrete. "Concrete shrinks, stone doesn't," is his succinct comment.
As a craftsman rather than a salesman, Mr Lloyd is seldom loath to give his opinions to potential clients, having no desire to waste his time on the impractical. When asked to build a marble bathroom or a granite kitchen, he prefers to have the raw materials standing in his yard long enough for him to notice any tiny flaws before commencing work. He knows his quarries as a vintner knows his chateaux, and can recognise the finest marble from a mountain's higher slopes, or limestone taken from too near the surface. Such perfectionism may be scarcely cost-effective, but then Mr Lloyd's favourite warning to apprentices who cut corners to save time is that they may end up as accountants.
Stone has always been a valuable material and mistakes can prove expensive. Contrary to popular belief, masons do not chip away artistically, adapting and creating as they go. Designs are first worked out on paper and models may be made in plaster before any chisel is applied to stone. The work cannot be rushed; every curved edge of a kitchen worktop must be laboriously formed by instinct, hand and eye. Even when the work is finished, "there's always time to knock the end off," as Mr Lloyd wearily observes. The constant need for such perfectionism may perhaps explain a certain anarchistic streak that has always been apparent in stonemasons. Mr Lloyd's collection includes some curiosa not suitable for popular display: copies of strange carvings found in the dark and high recesses of old churches where the details of a mason's work were unlikely ever to be noticed. Given his mild irritation with the church authorities over their drab policy in graveyards, Mr Lloyd is understandably delighted by one old carving that he recently discovered. Viewed from the eyeline of the pulpit, it is no more than a bunch of flowers. "But if you get up a ladder, you wouldn't believe what's going on down there ... it would bring blushes to the vicar's face!" He roars with laughter at the thought, a man who relishes the secrets to be found in stone.
John Lloyd, 91 Church Street,
Great Bedwyn, Nr Marlborough, Wiltshire.
Tel: 01672-870 234
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