Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Rubislaw Quarry: Source of Wealth. Curse. Liability.

We heard recently that the remains of Aberdeen's world-famous Rubislaw Quarry were to be put up for sale at auction, starting bid £30k. The sale is now complete.

We read that the quarry, starting work in earnest in 1778, produced something like 6 million tonnes of the fine grey silver granite we are so familiar with. The granite from the quarry supported an ecosystem of business networks in the city and the stone found its way into some famous buildings elsewhere in the world such as Waterloo Bridge, the Palace of Westminster and the parliament in New Deli. But all things must pass, and the quarry became uneconomic and closed in 1971, round about the time of this famous picture...


Here's a picture of the quarry in its high Victorian hey-day in 1885.

Interestingly, in this illustration looking south towards the low hills of Kincardineshire, on the brow of the ridge in the middle-distance we can see Kepplestone House to the left (east) and Rubislaw House to the right (west).

Rubislaw House has been well preserved and added to over the years, and today houses the Gordon Highlanders' regimental museum.

Kepplestone House has fared less well.

Back on-topic... Often fetishised by Aberdonians, 'the granite' - and the perceived need to maintain the city's 'granite heritage' - can sometimes act as a brake on innovation in urban realm architecture and spacemaking in the city. Worse, as the grey silver granite is now hard to come by, all too often we see builders paying lipservice to this heritage through the use of 'granitette' blockwork simulacrum (which is concrete breeze-block with a coating of rice-crispie-sized granite chips). This is used to hoodwink the passerby into believing that a building politely fits in among its Neo-Grecian Georgian and Neo-French-Gothic Victorian neighbours. This 'granitette' un-material can be seen most obviously on the deck of the St Nicholas Ctr in the heart of the city. But look at any - yes any - residential building built between 1972 and 2010 - it's everywhere. And it's horrible.

Ironically, the granite itself built the long breakwater pier at Aberdeen Harbour from which it was exported worldwide. Today, in Aberdeen, the quarry exhausted, rather than dig and blast our wealth from the ground, we sook it from beneath the seabed. This over-reliance on one business sector is known as 'the Dutch Disease' and is related to 'the Resource Curse'.

There is, however, in addition to this economic disease, a real physiological disease associated with Aberdeen granite: lung cancer. Granite contains uranium and radium, both of which follow a radioactive decay chain to form radon gas. Radon is the single largest contributor to an individual's background radiation in the UK and there is a well established link between breathing high concentrations of radon and the incidence of lung cancer. Radon is heavier than air, and so accumulates in the basements of granite buildings. You have been warned.

It's often said that the quarry is the biggest man-made hole in Europe, but we can't find any reliable confirmation that this assertion is a fact. But one thing's for sure, it is now one of the largest man-made lochs in Scotland!

We didn't have the Other Aberdeen theodolite with us on the day we visited the quarry loch to take this photo, but by simple dead reckoning on line of sight, we could establish that the water level is now significantly higher than the road level of Queens Road at Queens Avenue (opposite Kepplestone) where access can be gained to get a look at the quarry loch.

As mentioned at the top, the quarry loch was put up for sale with starting bids of £30,000. And, as luck would have it, the buyers happen to be friends of a relative of ours. They won't say how much they paid, but will say that it was "less than a one-bedroom flat". We scratch our heads at why they bought this obvious liability... one day, the water level will overtop the berm on the Queen's Road side.

A friend has calculated that the quarry loch now contains about 2 million cubic metres of water. That's two megatonnes in weight. He asks:
"How do you get rid of that amount water? Do you simply drop a sump pump down the hole with a riser draining onto Queen's Road and hope the water finds its way down to the sea?"
This makes for an interesting thought experiment: On it's way downhill, the water would first encounter Stewart Milne's magniloqent (if oddly asymmetrical) grand processional stairs at Kepplestone:

"All Grecian, sir; Modernist details on a classic body"

We think that the resulting cascade would be most beautiful and spectacular! It might even become a top tourist attraction for the North East! Unfortunately the SuDS at the bottom of the Kepplestone basin would need upgrading.

Kepplestone SuDS
We don't think that this is up to the challenge of half a megatonne of water.

And the culvert of the West Burn of Rubislaw (or the Holburn, if you want) which drains this entire basin is only 1.5 metres in diameter.

This culvert runs below the houses of Cromwell Road and Union Grove, so we can't see any way to increase its capacity other than by demolishing some of these prestigious, exclusive west end properties.

But hey, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs!

1 comment:

Brian said...