Beer Quarry Caves (Beer, Devon)

Whilst on holiday recently, I visited, as an ordinary tourist, Beer Quarry Caves. One visit hardly qualifies anyone as an expert and the paragraphs that follow are intended, not as an authoritative article, but as a general review from a visitor's point of view.

Beer Quarry Caves are not caves at all, but subterranean quarries from which a fine-grain limestone, used for building (principally for decorative purposes), was extracted. This leads to interesting comparisons between them and our local quarries in the Merstham/Godstone area. Throughout the tour, both striking similarities and differences can be seen.

The quarries date back, in places, to Roman times. In these areas, the chambers are vaulted, having a rounded cross section. The Saxons later quarried a long (relatively) straight passage, then the Normans and subsequent quarrymen constructed workings to the sides of this passage. these areas constructed subsequent to the passage are apparently random in nature - the systematic working which can be seen in areas of the Merstham quarries cannot be detected, and the lack of planning is borne out by the fact that some areas break into each other. The techniques used to work all except the Roman sections are strikingly similar to those used at Merstham, the edges of the blocks being cut with picks and iron wedges used to split them away from the rock face. (This technique is documented in Merstham Firestone Quarries' and will not be repeated here.) The similarity in quarrying techniques leads to a noticeable similarity in passage appearance - square passages lined by stone pillars supporting the roof (pillar & stall working).

If the general appearance of the passages resemble those locally, the scale certainly does not! The entire band of limestone (i3ft thick) was excavated, and allowing for cutting away rock above the limestone prior to removing the top levels, some lift height of passage was cut. (Hard hats were issued to all visitors, but since nobody was above normal height one can only assume that this was supporting the image rather than being of practical benefit.) The passages are now, in fact, somewhat lower than this because one technique used for disposal of waste was to spread it on the ground, thus raising the floor level significantly. This is a technique which was not available at Godstone and Merstham, were waste had to be heaped into disused areas filling them (in some cases) to the roof, so many more passages have been 'lost' in this way in Surrey than at Beer. Another striking difference is the fact that the Beer quarries are nearly level, whereas those locally have a distinct slope. This is, of course, simply because of the dip of the bedrock which must be followed by the quarry.

The general condition of the quarry (or at least the part of it to which we were taken) was very good. There were no obvious signs of compression cracking or other deterioration of the pillars, so the passages had an immaculate, square appearance and were free from the debris associated with deterioration due to ageing. I only saw evidence of one roof-fall, although there are apparently two in the quarry. One of these I was told was caused deliberately to make it look unstable and to prevent the quarry being taken over by the Admirality during the war! Consequently, the quarry has a totally different 'feel' to those at Merstham, and most of those at Godstone. It most closely resembles the Arch Series at Godstone ( which may be remembered by a few readers during one of its 'open' periods.)

During later periods, other techniques were introduced from outside the locality and this results in further visible contrasts between the workings. Saws were introduced for cutting the rock, and this also speeded 'pillar-robbing'. This is a technique (removing additional material from the sides of pillars) to be found in many quarries but it is particularly noticeable at Beer where saws have been used to rob pillars in areas originally quarried with picks. Later, explosives were introduced in an attempt to speed the quarrying, though apparently with dubious results.

The quarries remained in use until relatively recently though in a small way. Indeed, since they occasionally produce an isolated block to special order for renovation work, it could perhaps be said that they are still in use! They remain under the ownership of the quarrying company whose current operation takes the form of a traditional open-cast quarry, on the opposite side of the road, producing lime for agricultural use. Because the quarries were in use so recently, the later period is fairly well documented and there are even photographs showing the quarry around 1900. Surveys have also been made, though at least one of these was deliberately falsified and shows the quarry much smaller than it actually was at the time. Apparently the Inland Revenue taxed quarries according to their size, and the owners found it cheaper to bribe the surveyor than pay the taxes.

The guide's presentation. (though this may depend on the Individual concerned), was very good. The quarry was presented in an interesting and educational manner with just the right element of humour, generally avoiding the over-dramatisation traditionally associated with underground guides. There was no reference to a ghost of the quarry (I thought all public underground sites 'grew' a ghost) and I accepted as probably accurate the connections with the smuggling trade, which were at the very least within the bounds of possibility. The guide was very friendly, and quite willing to discuss the quarry after the tour. Much more information can be gleaned in this way, and it seemed far too soon that I was dragged away to lunch (no doubt to the relief of the guide!)

Generally, if anyone has an interest in historic underground workings and is in the area, I feel that a visit to Beer Quarry Caves is well worthwhile, and at around £1.50 for a tour of about 1 hour it seems to represent quite good value compared to other entrance fees. If anyone does go, take your camera; the owners permit photography by private individuals using hand held cameras, but the quarries are 60 large that the best available flash and a fast film are essential.

Graham Denton