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Sunday 25 May 2014

Devon's Underground Secrets

The photograph above shows the view from inside a cave looking out. It isn’t very clear, but you can just make out what appear to be a couple of rounded archways on either side of the central pillar. Round arches were introduced to Britain by the Romans, and it was the Romans who built this cave – the part of it that’s visible in this picture, anyway. But the Romans were just the start of it. The cave complex was steadily expanded (with a short break in the 16th and 17th centuries) from soon after the Roman invasion in 43 AD all the way up to the early 20th century. In the course of that time – almost 2000 years – the caves have witnessed their fair share of secrets, from religious outcasts and smugglers to the shadowy world of freemasons.

The cave complex is located near the seaside village of Beer on the south coast of Devon. Although Beer is only 20 miles from where I live, it wasn’t until last week that I finally got round to visiting the site. Its official name is “Beer Quarry Caves”, which never sounded massively interesting to me. I pictured a typical open rock quarry with a few shallow caves dug into the rock face. In fact it’s nothing of the sort. The entire “quarry” is underground, consisting of miles and miles of man-made tunnels. Most people would think of it as a “mine” rather than a “quarry”, but technically a mine is a place for extracting minerals. What was extracted here was stone – a special kind of limestone called Beer Stone.

Most limestone is either too soft to use as a structural material, or so hard that it is difficult to carve into intricate shapes. That was a big problem in the Middle Ages, when everyone wanted to build ornate churches and cathedrals out of stone. Beer Stone offered the best of both worlds. In its natural, waterlogged state it is easy to work (into any shape, since it’s very fine grained) but when it dries out it becomes as hard as the hardest Portland stone. That meant there was a huge demand for Beer Stone. Not only was it used in building the nearby cathedral at Exeter, but also much further afield at Winchester Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and even the Tower of London.

The heyday of Beer Quarry was the great age of church building in the 13th to 15th centuries. All this came to an abrupt end with the English Reformation in the 1530s. This proved to be a disastrous time for the quarrying industry. It wasn’t just that work on church building came to an end, but the demolition of all the monasteries meant that millions of tons of ready-worked stone suddenly came onto the market for use in non-religious buildings.

During the enforced hiatus in quarrying at Beer, other more clandestine uses were found for the caves. When Catholic church services were made illegal, on punishment of death, they were driven underground... literally. Part of the tunnel network was converted into a chapel, the empty shell of which can still be seen today (see photograph). Originally this was decorated with fittings made of Beer Stone, but apparently these were “stolen to order” early in the 20th century. The thieves were eventually caught, but they never revealed who their clients were and they were never prosecuted. According to legend, the stolen fittings now adorn the private chapel of the Houses of Parliament!

The other clandestine use of the mine was for storing smuggler’s contraband. It was ideal for this purpose, partly because of its close proximity to the sea and partly because of the vast and confusing network of pitch-dark tunnels. Customs officers brave or foolish enough to venture into the caves often disappeared without a trace. According to the tour guide, each tunnel branches into nine other tunnels, and each of these into another nine, before they start to join up again in a gigantic rabbit warren. The tour route only covers about two percent of the total – the only part fitted with electric lights. A few years ago a visitor deliberately detached himself from a tour group in order to go “exploring” on his own with a flashlight. Its battery failed long before the search party found him... 16 hours later.

In its heyday, Beer quarry employed hundreds of workers – women and children for domestic tasks and men for the muscle work. The latter fell into two categories – “unskilled” quarrymen who were paid 3 shillings a week (with deductions for poor work) and “skilled” stonemasons who got 21 shillings a week (with bonuses for good work). Much of the masons’ skill lay in their trade secrets, which they guarded jealously – the origins of the secret society still known as the Freemasons today.

Beer caves are full of pillars, like the pair seen in this photograph. The size and separation of the pillars has to be capable of supporting the weight of rock above it, which depends on the amount of rock and its physical properties. Nowadays that would involve a complex computer calculation of the forces and tolerances involved – but that wasn’t an option when Beer quarry was being worked. Yet the dimensions and separation of these pillars are within three centimetres of what modern engineering regulations would stipulate. The masons knew the secret – and they kept it to themselves!

The slightly smudged inscription below consists of a name: Anthony Northcott, a date: 1758, and a few other cryptic symbols. Under the name is what looks like the initials AN – but if you look carefully, the “A” is actually a stylized representation of the Masonic “square and compasses” symbol!

1 comment:

Bathtub said...

In the Bath area, where limestone is often quarried in the same way, workings of this kind are called 'stone mines'.