<div style="display:inline;"> <img height="1" width="1" style="border-style:none;" alt="" src="//googleads.g.doubleclick.net/pagead/viewthroughconversion/1028731116/?value=0&amp;guid=ON&amp;script=0">
6 ISSUES FOR £6 Subscribe to Devon Life today click here

Devon Life columnist Tony Jackson goes underground into the Beer Quarry Caves

PUBLISHED: 10:20 03 April 2018

A worker would cut huge blocks of stone, the smallest weighing up to four tons

A worker would cut huge blocks of stone, the smallest weighing up to four tons

Archant

TONY JACKSON goes underground to find a centuries-old part of Devon’s past, the legacy of which still remains relevant to all of our lives today

The desirable stone, which could be so readily carved, was first discovered by the Romans in the 1st century The desirable stone, which could be so readily carved, was first discovered by the Romans in the 1st century

A mile inland from the coastal village of Beer in East Devon, hidden behind a narrow country lane, lies a 2,000-year-old quarry which encapsulates much of the history of these Isles, for here lies the source of the stone which was employed to create Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, some 24 cathedrals and scores of parish churches and manor houses countrywide. The Beer Quarry Caves, no natural phenomenon, but excavated by man over two millennia, are one of the most extraordinary and spellbinding sites in Britain.

The desirable stone, which could be so readily carved, was first discovered by the Romans in the 1st century. It was, however, concealed beneath 200 feet of solid impenetrable rock, making it impossible to excavate the desirable stone from the surface.

Today, visitors enter the cave complex through the substantial entrance carved out beneath the hill by the Romans and one can still see the original tool marks made 2,000 years ago. When the Romans left in the fifth century, the Saxons moved in, followed by the Normans and as they cut and hewed their way through the stone, creating tunnels and chambers, each left distinctive supporting columns and pillars.

Through the ensuing centuries the stone was quarried by hundreds of labourers, using only pickaxes, hammers, wedges and handsaws up to eight feet long. A worker would cut huge blocks of stone, the smallest weighing up to four tons, and eventually, as the centuries passed, this was to create the largest underground working in the country. Today the site covers around 75 acres - or the equivalent of 100 football pitches - while deep in the workings there are still chambers, blocked with waste, which have yet to be opened up and explored.

The noise must have been appalling with 600 men swinging pickaxes, the sound echoing through the caves The noise must have been appalling with 600 men swinging pickaxes, the sound echoing through the caves

John Scott, the curator of the caves, escorts me on a private viewing. Born in Beer, for years he has led parties through the caves and is steeped in their extraordinary history. “We do find bones occasionally,” he tells me, and on one occasion he and some helpers managed to enter a chamber where no-one had set foot for over 400 years. “The stone dust had settled like plaster on the floor,” he said, “and was covered in the footprints of men and horses’ hooves, which might have been made yesterday. It was very eerie”.

The Normans created a major industry which was to be organised by the Bishops of Exeter for seven centuries. They needed a massive workforce and employed quarrymen, stonemasons, carters, wagon-builders, wheelwrights, blacksmiths and harness makers. Today, one can still see the names of the men who worked in the caves centuries ago, recorded in cathedral documents.

The conditions under which men worked 14 hours a day were appalling. When the workers arrived they were greeted by total darkness until, along the tunnels, pin-pricks of light would gradually appear. Children, as young as eight, were forced to climb ladders to set lighted candles in holes cut in the rock face, and today one can still see the smoke burns on the walls, preserved by the underground atmosphere.

Men worked in near darkness, inhaling the stench of animal fat from hundreds of tallow candles while black, greasy smoke hung from the roof, only parting when a wagon carrying stone passed through. The noise must have been appalling with 600 men swinging pickaxes, the sound echoing through the caves. Men went literally stone deaf. Today, one can still see the names of workers carved into the stone.

Beer Quarry Caves Beer Quarry Caves

The caves have a definite atmosphere. Black, gloomy passages branch off in a maze of unlit tunnels, and I was not surprised to learn that when John escorts a party every member is given a ticket and a plastic square which is collected on the way out to ensure everyone is accounted for.

On one occasion, he told me, despite being told to stay together a man sneaked off the back of a tour and wandered off, carrying only a small torch which soon expired. He was then in total darkness. It was useless shouting because the sound echoed from all directions. At 5pm a plastic disc was seen to be missing and it took 37 men 16 hours to find him! He spent the entire night in total darkness, the only sound the dripping of water. When at last discovered he was in a dreadful state of terror and exhaustion.

The Beer Quarry Caves, perhaps not as well known as they should be, are one of Devon’s finest treasures, and a reflection of the extraordinary persistence of man’s endeavours, despite hardship which we, today, can scarcely begin to understand. The men, who over 2,000 years, quarried the stone which has been used to create some of this country’s finest buildings, deserve our thoughts and gratitude. The quarry ceased to function in 1920.

Beer Quarry Caves: Open daily from the Monday before Easter to September 30 (10am-5pm last tour) and October 11am-4pm). Free car parking. Children under 12 must be accompanied. Flash required for underground photography. Tours are one hour. Call 01297 680282 for further details. beerquarrycaves.fsnet.co.uk

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Devon Life visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Devon Life staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Devon Life account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About

12:40

On 1 April 1918 the Royal Flying Corps – the aviation element of the Army – became the Royal Air Force, which means that April 2108 sees the 100th Anniversary of the RAF. KEN DELVE looks at the RAF’s presence in the county over those 100 years

Read more
Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Whether it’s on our beautiful beaches, in our magnificent moors or within our stunning stately homes, film productions are constantly setting up in Devon. Here are 16 that you might not know used the county as a filming location

Read more
Friday, April 13, 2018

The new owners’ renovation is expected to last a year and is planning to provide guests with vastly different experiences to what is currently offer

Read more
Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Every year local families vote for their favourite Devon family-friendly attraction as part of the Primary Times Reader Star Awards - here are 11 places they have chosen as some of their favourites

Read more
Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Sprinkled throughout Devon’s cities, towns and villages are some of the most picture-perfect roads and lanes you could ever wish to see. Those of you who are fortunate enough to live on one of these 11 streets will know exactly what we’re talking about

Read more
Tuesday, April 3, 2018

TONY JACKSON goes underground to find a centuries-old part of Devon’s past, the legacy of which still remains relevant to all of our lives today

Read more
Tuesday, April 3, 2018

From sandy beaches and lighthouse-topped cliffs to views of the Jurassic Coast, the Devon coastline offers many perfect locations for a seaside walk. We pick 10 of the prettiest routes to take

Read more
Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Bike-friendly Exeter is a great place to explore on two wheels. Chrissy Harris talks to the cyclists helping to promote pedal power in the city

Read more
Thursday, March 15, 2018

A new visitor centre at The Donkey Sanctuary sheds new light on the charity’s global mission, writes Owen Jones.

Read more
Tuesday, March 13, 2018

As both a location for many classic works and as a producer of iconic authors, Devon has rich ties to the literary world. How brushed up are you on these connections?

Read more
Friday, March 9, 2018

From stunning sunsets over Barnstaple to meeting the Dartmoor ponies, we have 23 reasons that prove Devon is the prettiest county…

Read more
Tuesday, March 6, 2018

With breathtaking beaches, rolling countryside, stately homes and unique villages, it’s no wonder high-profile film productions flock to Devon - how well do you know the movies that have set up camp here however?

Read more
Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Whether it’s the culture, nightlife, food & drink, shopping or the family-friendly atmosphere, there’s so many reasons for you to love Exeter. We’ve picked 24 but we know there are so many more

Read more
Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Encompassing large swathes of Dartmoor and plenty of the county’s most distinctive sections of coastline, it’s no wonder that the South Hams district is home to some of Devon’s prettiest places. We pick out 10 of the best towns and villages the area has to offer

Read more
 
A+ South & South West
 
Great British Holidays advert link
 
Pure Weddings advert link
 
South West Life advert link

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter


Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Subscribe or buy a mag today


subscription ad


Local Business Directory

Devon's trusted business finder

Job search in your local area



Property Search