Devon Life columnist Tony Jackson goes underground into the Beer Quarry Caves
PUBLISHED: 10:20 03 April 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
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.
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.
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