They say that the cobblestone streets of Virginia were paved by the tobacco trade. So great was the demand for this American weed that arriving ships carried ballast stones to offset their light weight. Once they were anchored, the ballast was removed and replaced by heavy oak barrels of freshly cured tobacco.
Throughout the colonies, ballast stones accumulated around the harbors. These were often heavy, hand-hewn blocks of granite, and sometimes fired clay brick. Today you can see them occasionally in Boston and other old cities where the ballast stone paving is revealed when asphalt laid over them deteriorates. Today these communities cherish such pavers and are relocating them to high-profile streets of historic districts and using them for accent in urban plazas.
As much as we'd love to use old granite pavers at home, the cost is high and the supply limited. But nothing gives a new landscape an Old World look like hand-hewn stone.
When concrete pavers were first invented, they were manufactured with precise shapes and edges, and the rigidity was felt in the landscapes. Many of the colors, while highly variable, did not resemble natural stone. When you saw a paver patio, you knew exactly what it was.
Paver makers got the message and went to work creating new products that look old. What gave ballast block its character were signs of hand-hewing. In olden days, everything was done with hammer and chisel because labor was cheap. This meant surfaces were not smooth, but bore divots as chunks of stone were knocked off, giving it a rough rectangular shape.
Often old ballast stones were left over from European construction or teardowns. They might be cracked and chipped or just a piece of a broken block. This added even more irregularity to the process of laying pavement. Stone masons hand-set each unit, which required skill just as it does today, which drives up the cost of installing old reclaimed blocks.
Paver manufacturers such as Belgard Hardscapes Inc. were keen to create new lines of precast concrete pavers that offered the look and feel of old ballast stones without the irregularities that drive up the cost of installation. The first step was to create colors that closely resemble Old World granite. Then shapes were limited to squares and rectangles sized like the old cobbles. Finally, blocks were loaded into a huge drum and tumbled just as they would have been years ago when ballast stones were thrown into wagons and ship holds and then onto docks and into street-paving projects.
If you love that age-old look, live in a historic home or dream of an old English garden pathway, tumbled new pavers are an ideal choice. Look at Belgard's examples online at belgard.biz; click on the Old World collection to see a dead ringer for ballast pavers. Like the granite predecessors, these feature an irregular surface. But as a modern product, the pavers are uniformly sized for swift installation.
For a more refined look, try the Antique category, which offers new tumbled pavers with more sedate surface textures for the softer look of old building stone. With dozens of examples of finished patios, you're bound to find exactly what you want in these affordable new, yet old, pavers.
To learn more about options in pavers, visit the Interlocking Concrete Paver Institute (www.icpi.org), which has a gallery of residential designs.