As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to the East Devon AONB, our writer, Paul Miles, heads 200ft below ground in Devon to visit the Beer Quarry Caves, a vast and fascinating labyrinth of centuries-old caverns, some of which date back to the Romans
Most visitors to the Jurassic Coast, Britain’s first natural World Heritage Site, rejoice if they find a fossil. However, if you’re a stonemason, a fossil is an annoyance, an imperfection that hinders intricate carving. This is why a seam of white limestone in the Beer area, that is fossil-free, has been prized since Roman times and is now found, elaborately carved, in cathedrals and monuments worldwide.
A tour of Beer Quarry Caves is a must when visiting the area. Unlike other underground attractions – think Cheddar caves or Jersey’s war tunnels – there’s no song and dance: no light and sound show, no fancy visitors’ centre, not even a café. There’s something more thrillingly genuine about this low-key approach, where the only touristification of the caves is a string of bare electric light bulbs and a display of some old black and white photos.
“It’s quiet here now, all we can hear is the dripping of the water, right?” says guardian and guide, John Scott, as we stand some 200ft below ground in the cool man-made caves, drips echoing. “Well, you imagine, hundreds of men with pick-axes, saws, horses and carts…” and John suddenly whacks a safety helmet against the side of the cave, the loud bang reverberating through the caverns “…all that noise! That’s why we talk about being ‘stone deaf’.” Quarrying was such a part of everyday life, its language has entered our lexicon. You will also learn the origins of the phrase ‘not worth the candle’.
There are centuries-old signatures on the walls belonging to quarrymen who hewed blocks of stone. John has discovered intriguing tales linked to these names.
Although the accessible area of caves stretches over an area of 100 football fields, this is only a small percentage of what has been dug out over the millennia. John points out some original Roman workings and others from Saxon, Norman and modern times. They are all distinguished by the shape of the archways in the maze of tunnels, where underground roads were once busy with teams of horses and carts. “One team of 26 horses pulled a 24 ton block of stone out of the quarry to Exeter cathedral,” says John. “It took two weeks to get there.”
There’s plenty of headroom in the caves and no need to squeeze through any crevices but that’s not to say others don’t do this at times. John points his torch to a pile of quarrying rubble that reaches to the ceiling. “Some volunteers cleared a space above that spoil heap and squeezed over the top and down the other side,” he says. “The air in there had been still for 200 years and in the white stone dust, they found footprints of humans and horses, and wagon tracks that looked as fresh as the day they’d been made,” he says. “They also found the remains of a quarryman’s packed lunch. Scientists identified it as rabbit and cider.”
The warren of caves was a perfect hiding place for contraband and the quarrymen, who earned less than farm labourers for their 14-hour days, would also work at nights for the smugglers. As we stand by a signature of a certain “William Cawley, 1st August, 1801” written neatly on a pillar in the caves from where he would have sawn a block of stone that day, John tells a tale of untimely death, smuggling and a cover-up by the church. Smugglers compensated Cawley’s widow for his death. “But her children didn’t see a penny of the money,” says John. “Follow me and I’ll show you what she spent it on, fifty years later.” I won’t spoil the story for you but it brought a tear to my eye.
With its rare bats and its echoing warren of seemingly endless caverns, the Beer Quarry Caves is an eerie subterranean space, but it’s the very personal histories diligently researched by John Scott that make it fascinating. With the lack of high tech interactive displays, a visit feels like a real discovery. Don’t be tempted to wander off and explore solo. The last person who did that got well and truly lost. It took a team of 37 people 16 hours to find him.