From cobbles to flags: The evolution of street surfaces
The history of our streets and how they have evolved is a subject of great fascination. People, buildings, roads and surfaces change over time and with it the look and fabric of the community. The streets we live in provide the backdrop to our daily lives and really make a statement about the area we inhabit.
In Victorian times cobbled streets were part of the fabric of our towns and cities throughout the UK. Dickens novels depict scenes set among narrow cobblestone streets in densely populated areas, lined with tenement blocks and crowds of people. Today cobbled streets have an iconic status in the hearts of the British.
The word cobblestone comes from the English word cob which is used to describe small, round lumpen shaped items. These stones were known as cobbles and their shape and durability made them perfect to construct roads with.
Cobblestones were first used to build roads back in the early part of the 15th century, traditionally set in sand and sometimes bound in water. They offered many advantages as they did not develop ruts or get muddy like dirt roads. They made for extremely durable surfaces and weren’t prone to cracking in freezing conditions.
Fashionable Commercial flags
As new building techniques and materials became available cobbled stones began to fall out of favour. Granite setts, or Belgian block became the stone of choice, with its rectangular shape and smooth surface making it ideal for creating patterns that are aesthetically pleasing.
Today granite setts, sometimes called ‘commercial paving’ or ‘commercial flags’, are ubiquitous in towns and cities throughout the UK. Popular in parks, driveways and town centres where they are framed by kerbs, their versatility and design potential make them an ideal stone to use for street surfaces.
With a choice of finishes, colours and sizes it is easy to see why this stone became so popular. From a design point of view it is pleasing to the eye and nothing brightens up a tired old street like the arrival of a new surface.
Traditionally sourced from various parts of the UK including York, Gloucestershire, Wales and Aberdeen, increasingly we are beginning to see stone imported from more exotic parts of the world including India and China.
Flag stones can be bought either as new or reclaimed depending on the effect and look you are trying to achieve. More traditional type cobblestones also still have a place in modern Britain and are commonly used in restoration projects.