Buckingham Slate: “It’s expensive, but it lasts fo
The roofer ran his hands over the broken slate that sat atop a neat pile in my back yard and looked up at my roof.
“It’s Buckingham,” he said. “It’s expensive, but it lasts forever.”
I’d never heard that word — Buckingham — applied to anything other than a palace before. I was getting an estimate on roof work, so I liked the “lasts forever” part. The “expensive” part? Not so much.
A few months earlier, I had opened our back door and discovered that the edge of the patio was dusted with what looked like lumpy snow. I looked up to see where it could have come from and saw a perfectly round hole in the fascia of the roof, about three feet from the end of the house. It was the diameter of a tennis ball.
Then it struck me: It wasn’t snow. It was insulation from the attic. Some devious squirrel had probably chewed through the side of our 70-year-old house, scattering R30 on its way out.
That’s what the varmint trapper I summoned thought, too. He was wise in the ways of squirrels, snakes, rats, mice, moles, raccoons, possums and their ilk. He leaned his ladder against the house and climbed up to investigate. Then he climbed down and took a slow walk around the house, scrutinizing it for gaps and chinks.
Next stop: the attic. I pulled down the overhead stairs and ascended after him, apologizing for the suitcases, trunks, boxes, photo albums and other impedimenta that filled the dusty, low-ceilinged space.
He crawled to the far end, pondered, then crawled back.
It was curious, he said, once we returned to the back yard and the initial crime scene. The splatter pattern of the insulation suggested that the fascia hole had been created from the inside — an exit wound, if you will. But he saw no other means of ingress around the house’s roofline. How had the squirrel gotten in?
True, there were signs of rodents in the attic. They They leave characteristic tunnels in blown insulation, he said. But these cavities were too small to be from gray squirrels. Mice, he figured.
Whatever was going on, he did the obvious next step: He covered the hole with duct tape. If a squirrel was sleeping in the attic, it would eventually come back and gnaw through the tape. Then we’d know what we were dealing with.
One day, two days, three days, a week: The duct tape remained untouched. The squirrel never returned.
If there had ever been a squirrel. Our handyman, Mike, came to fix the hole and found that about five feet of the fascia was punky. The wooden roof under the slate was bad, too, and some of the rafters. He figured a cracked slate had let water in and the wood had slowly rotted. The wood may have just fallen out on its own, no squirrel required.
Whatever the cause, it needed to be fixed. It ended up taking two days for Mike and a helper: scaffold raised, platform assembled, slates removed, wood cut away, rafters rebutted, fresh plywood laid, tar paper unfurled.
Mike is very good at what he does, but he doesn’t do slate. He nailed down a temporary sheet of metal to keep things waterproof until we could find a roofer. He stacked the slates he’d been able to salvage.
And there I was in the back yard.
“It’s Buckingham,” said Jimmy the roofer. “It’s expensive, but it lasts forever.”
Some people say a Buckingham slate can last 300 years.
Prized for its water resistance and its non-fading blue-black color, Buckingham slate covers roofs at the University of Virginia and the Smithsonian Castle — and now the roof of a columnist’s home. (Courtesy of Buckingham Slate Company/Courtesy of Buckingham Slate Company)
“We don’t know,” Brad Jones Jr., sales manager for the Buckingham Slate Co. in Arvonia, Va., told me when I called him. “The country’s only 200 years old.”
Arvonia is smack dab in the middle of Virginia, about an hour’s drive west from Richmond. “It’s Nowheresville,” Brad said. There isn’t much to do there but dig slate out of the ground.
Brad said the quarry dates to the late 1700s. It was first worked by Welsh immigrants. They knew their slate.
Slate is a metamorphic stone, Brad explained, compacted over millennia. Brad’s a bit metamorphic himself. He was a legal assistant in D.C., then a sommelier in North Carolina before his father and two partners bought the quarry six years ago.