Sunday, 25 May 2014
Devon's Underground Secrets
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.
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.
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!