Beer Stone is seam of creamy-white crystalline, granular limestone deposited during the Upper Cretaceous period (about 120,000,000 years ago) as a mixture of pulverised shell, clay and sand. The seam is only 4m thick and is roughly made of two beds, resting on Cenomanian limestone:
- Upper 2.6m - thick-bedded
- Lower 1.4m - harder, thinner-bedded and composed mainly of crushed shells
It has been worked at a number of sites in the County of Devon, England (yellow area on map). Masons like it because when freshly quarried it is easy to carve, but hardens on exposure. Its smooth texture makes it ideal for carving heraldic shields, tracery (decorative window surrounds) and monuments.
Beer Stone is classed as a freestone - this means that it can be sawn or squared up in any direction, independently of the alignment of the joints.
It is believed that the Romans were the first to start working Beer stone and the current entrance leads into the older Roman section of the mine.
Excavations of a Roman Villa at the nearby town of Seaton discovered Beer stone in various parts of the bath house - hotroom wall quoins, flue linings and pilas (floor supports)
The older workings on the south side of the valley (now open to visitors) have always been hand-worked with the quarrymen using picks to cut the stone blocks. From the 16th century small amounts of black powder were used to make the breach - the intial cut at the top of the stone. In the early 18th Century saws were introduced, but were mainly used for pillar robbing.
The museum display inside the entrance to the mine, shows a range of hand tools used by the workmen.
The Remains Today
As you tour the workings today, many of the supporting roof pillars near to the entrance have been 'robbed'. Pillar robbing happens in many mines where pillars have been left to support the roof. As the mine reaches its economic limit the miners find it easier to remove the better quality material from the pillars rather than work fresh material deeper in the mine.
The older underground workings at Beer were last mined in the 1920's, but ceased due to a geological fault.
Stone from Beer has been mainly used in Church construction. The stone has been found in Saxon and Norman churches, and buildings like Westminster Hall and Abbey, the Tower of London, Winchester Cathedral and Exeter Cathedral.
All this stone was hand-cut and hauled by horse (or oxen) out of the workings.
One of the striking features of a tour around the mines is the large number of signatures and names carved or drawn on the rock walls.
The work force was effectively split into two groups Quarrymen and Masons.
William Cawley (see right) was a Mason who worked here in the 1860's - judging from his age (19) he was presumably still an apprentice Mason.
While Anthony Northcott was a quarryman working at Beer in the 1750's.
Visiting Beer Stone Mines
If you are interested in visiting the Beer Stone mines they are usually open to visitors from Easter to October. Further details can be obtained from the web site:
Telephone (UK): 01297-680282
I.A.Recordings for use of freeze frames from their video archive for some of these pictures.
Report & additional pictures: Kelvin Lake