What is clunch ?


Time Team:  Island of Eels

What is clunch ?

The Shorter Oxford (CD-ROM) and American Heritage Dictionaries (Web) were
either possibly misleading or nor clear enough, or with no entry.

"South Downs" by Peter Brandon page 27 has an explanation.
ISBN  1 86077 069 X

Chalk hardened with gritty bits of shell (species of shell unknown).

Has anybody got any more ?


Andy Horton.
History of Shoreham


Clunch is a hard chalk used as a building stone - see Coombes Church, West Sussex (Adur Valley)  and many other similar old buildings.

We usually think of Chalk as a 'soft' material, but it is very variable in colour, composition etc.

Martin Snow.

I did not see the programme, so I do not know in what context it appeared,
but clunch is a very soft (and therefore not very good for external use)
limestone. It is very fine and white - in effect just chalk. It occurs in
various parts of East Anglia, and can be seen quite a lot in and around
Thetford - mostly for property boundary walls, but also for some building
walls. In Ely Cathedral it was used for a lot of intricate carving in the
Lady Chapel (if I have remembered correctly).

Hope that helps. (My Penguin Dictionary of Geology doesn't give it!)
I have come across the word 'clunch' used to describe the brown masses of
iron-cemented grit, gravel and sand which was used in medieval church
building in Essex and Suffolk. As this is an area with little 'proper'
stone, there is a fair amount of this in Early medieval churches, which is
unfortunate as its not very stable.

Paul Barford


Clunch also appears as a building material in the Berkshire Downs (i.e.
chalkland).  As a child I found the description in Pevsner of a 'clunch and
sarsen hamlet' very funny, thinking it sounded like something to eat!

Paula Martin

Dr Paula Martin
Duart Point Shipwreck Project
School of History
University of St Andrews
Tel: 01334 462920

The NMR Main Building Materials Thesaurus
http://www.rchme.gov.uk/thesaurus/bm_types/default.htm gives the scope note
for Clunch as "A hard, gritty, grey/green coloured form of chalk".

Martin Newman

Clunch is chalk lump.  It was a very common building material in West
Suffolk, where it was used not only for boundary walls but whole houses, but
as it flakes very easily when subjected to frost it is not very good for
either purpose.

Sandie Geddes

I'm sure the resident experts will come back with a textbook definition of Clunch here is my understanding:-
A denser form of chalk (i.e. Cretaceous Limestone) which has better weathering properties and thus can be shaped and used as a building stone. There is very little building stone available in East Anglia apart from Flint, Carrstone (ferrogenous bonded sandstone) and Clunch and thus most later buildings like Ely Cathedral use a lot of imported limestone.  In Ely there is a band of very friable sandstone which can be seen in some old boundary walls within the city. This may represent the southern limit of the Carrstone which occurs in West Norfolk between Downham Market and Hunstanton (the hill of the honey coloured stone).
I do not remember if clunch occurs or is used in chalk areas outside East Anglia.  I suspect that clunch is originally a dialect word and it is good to have the non-natives puzzling over  its meaning.
Denis Smith

From:         "RUSSELL, Nick" <nrussell@GLOSCC.GOV.UK>
Subject:      Re: Clunch
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generally speaking clunch is any sort of chalk building, usually refers to
walls. Doesn't particularly apply to dressed chalk.

:         Edwin Rose <edwin.rose.mus@NORFOLK.GOV.UK>
Subject:      Clunch
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Well I can only speak for Norfolk but here, clunch simply means
chalk cut into blocks and used as building stone, usually in small
blocks with flint galletting/outline.

:         Catherine Petts <catherinepetts@HOTMAIL.COM>
Subject:      Re: Odp: Clunch
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It is incorrect to use the word 'clunch' to describe the stone you mention.
Clunch is 'hard' chalk used as building stone. The stone you describe is a
silcrete. It comes in two forms and the popular words used for one is
'puddingstone', the other is 'sarsen'

The use of this material in your area is fully discussed in:

       CHURCHES OF THE LONDON BASIN. Proceedings of the Geologist's
       Association, vol 109, pp289-304

Catherine Petts


:         Andy Russel <nikita@UNISONFREE.NET>
Subject:      Re: Clunch
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The keep of Guildford Castle (Surrey) was built of clunch, quarried from
nearby hole in the North Downs. As its a large square Norman keep and its
still in good condition clunch can be a very hard stone and weather well. I
have seen softer chalk used in buildings in Southampton and Portchester
Castle for instance, there it was used in places where it would not be
exposed to frost. Those old masons knew their materials!




Thanks, I found all the BRITARCH responses interesting.

There was a serious mistake in my original message that started this theme.
The mistake was the reference given. The name of Peter Brandon's book
is 'The South Downs'.

Quote for the purposes of review:

Building with Chalk

It has been noted that 'Chalk (except for a few special varieties), cannot
be successfully used in building unless it is studied and codified, its
weaknesses understood and guarded against'. Chalk indeed was usually too
soft and lacking in durability to be suitable for building, at least for
exteriors, in contrast to the Oolitic' limestone of the Cotswolds, for
example, which provides the finest of building stones. There are, however,
some more compact beds of chalk at the base of the northern escarpment
which contain tiny fragments of shells and other impurities which produce a
more gritty texture. This is called 'clunch', a word evocatively conveying
a sense of its soft, yet dense and resistant quality. Clunch is hardest in
the Western and the East Hampshire Downs and was widely used for the
exterior walls of farmhouses, cottages and barns in the Meon valley and
eastwards along the northern escarpment towards Duncton as at Cocking,
EIsted and Harting. On account of its inability to resist rainwater, clunch
had to be protected by wide eaves from rain-bearing winds, and by a
foundation course to keep it clear of the ground, generally a footing of
sarsen stone. To a lesser extent it was used near Lewes, as in barns at
Hamsey. Several church interiors are modelled in clunch, including Burpham
in the Arun valley.
Local builders have now forgotten how to select or handle chalk, and no
longer trouble to use it, although there was a local saying, 'Find Chalk a
good hat and shoe and it will serve You well".

Mitigating circumstances for the original error:

1)  The message was composed whilst the television programme Timewatch was
on. The previous TV documentary was about a Saxon who had his head chopped
off at Stonehenge.
2)  Peter Brandon edited an earlier book called 'The South Saxons'.


Andy Horton
"History & Archaeology  (Britain & Ireland)"
Group Home Page: http://www.Jiglu.com/spaces/history/
Group Email Address: British-History@smartgroups.com

For the record there are various geological definitions of the term Clunch - this is from Arkell & Tomkeieff 1953 ' English Rock Terms' OUP.

'Local name for various stiff clays including marly chalk; probably derived from adjective clunch, 'lumpy; heavy and stiff or close', which is perhaps a contraction of a lost adjective cluntish (cf. Scottish, Scotch; Frencisc, French) (OED). Still used by well sinkers.

1686 Plot, Staffordsh. 132, 'an earth called blew-clunch, 3 yards (Coal Measures)

1712 Bellers, Phil Trans., OED, ' a blewish hard clay; the miners call it Clunch' (Coal Measures).

1776 OED, ' In puddings there's something so clumsy and clunch'

1793 Smeaton, Edystone L. OED, ' What is called near Lewes in Sussex, the Clunch Lime, a species of chalk'.

1817 William Smith, Strat. Syst., ' Clunch Clay and Shale Oxford Clay).

1818 w. Phillips, Geol. Engl. & Wales, 57, ' The lowest beds of the grey chalk, provincially termed clunch' (Cambridgshire).

Graham Lott
British Geological Survey

Clunch Pit