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Splitting, Sawing, Scappling, Axing, Dunting: in Search of a Quarry

The quest to find all the beautiful swimming spots on the moor continues. Before the rain filled clouds roll in from the west we have a few hours in which to find and explore another quarry which we have located on the OS map. The tiny tear drop of blue indicates a pool of some kind on top of the Tor and looks promising. This time we cross the spinal A30 to the south side of the moor and drive along deep lanes heavy with foliage.

The track is easily found and is bounded by mossy stone built hedgebanks topped with outgrown multi-stemmed hawthorn, hazel and sycamore which form a shady canopy above us. Last autumns leaves are still intact, rusty and dry.

Cornish Lane www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

Looking back down the lane

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We can see the gate ahead, a bright aperture through which we’ll pass onto the open moor. Centuries of over grazing on this upland have created a unique landscape which is slowly changing with a different management.

Farmers are no longer subsidized for the number of animals they produce but instead for the amount of acres they have. Hill farmers have been traditionally acre rich but production poor, given the harsh conditions in which they are raising animals. Now the pressure is off there is less need to go for maximum grazing and the moor is beginning to look a bit shaggier as a result. I don’t think anyone would want to see the landscape change entirely as it has evolved alongside human habitation since the Neolithic period and has its own ecology – but a few more trees, areas of scrub and increased hillocks in the grassland can only be good for wildlife.

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Bodmin Moor www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

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We make our way up the hill and much to our surprise there is a sign on the gate proclaiming that this is a working quarry. A slight disappointment that no swimming will be happening any time soon gives way to intrigue about the quarry. As far as we know there is only one granite quarry still in operation on the moor at De Lank. We pass through the gate and make our way upward along the track.

Possibly because the side of the hill is in the lee of the wind there is a gentle feel to this moorland scene. A dry stream bed snakes through long tufted grass pinpricked with heads of bracken which hides rocky knolls and dips. Huge rounded boulders are fringed with trees; small oaks and twisted sycamore. The telltale rags of lichen drape the branches, whispering about the clean wet air. Rarely seen, a fairly mature gnarled holly stands alone, leaves dark and glossy.

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Bodmin Moor www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.com

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The Holly – once probably nibbled by sheep, hence it’s multi-stem appearance.

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As we climb we look backwards across the land. The horizon is hazy but the light is beautiful. The hot weather has passed and we are back to our usual cloud filled skies and though we may miss the heat, nothing can beat the endless changing; the billowing and brooding backdrop we know so well.

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Up ahead is Bearah Tor.

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We make it to the top and glimpse the entrance.

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There is a slight frisson of apprehension that we will be seen off by the owners but this is Cornwall where everybody is really friendly and we are invited in to have a look around.

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Note relaxed stance. I am not in a hurry.

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He explains that they no longer lift granite from the quarry itself but cut and dress stone of all different types which is brought onto site from different places. As there are not many places doing this type of work stone can come from quite far. A lot of their work is for local projects but they do a fair amount for historic buildings all over the country. Today there are just two of them, but they also have an apprentice, putting things in place for the years ahead. He has worked here for 25 years.

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Regarding the history of quarrying in general on Bodmin Moor, the Tors and hills have been quarried for granite for over 6000 years. Incredibly durable, it was used for major monuments and buildings throughout the centuries including Early Neolithic chambered tombs and long cairns; Later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age standing stones, stone circles, stone rows and burial cists. Much later, granite-clad office blocks, 19th century lighthouses and 20th century war memorials are like the modern sisters to these ancient monuments.

The early medieval period saw inscribed stones and crosses and later medieval wayside crosses, bridges and churches. The granite was used extensively in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for bridges, dockyards and churches and other important monuments, toiled over by quarrymen to produce perfectly dressed stone. It was also used after the two world wars for the headstones of the dead.

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Smaller pieces were used at least from Tudor times for lintels, jambs, mullions, thresholds and other principal stones in domestic buildings. It was also an essential part of farming, being used for gateposts, field rollers, salting troughs, pig troughs, cider mills and presses. A miller would grind the flour with it, and others, including tinners (mining) and claymen (china clay) needed a stone which was strong and hard. Granite of lesser quality with its densely packed vertical joints and dykes of elvan (quartz porphyry) which easily crumbled also started to be quarried in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for roadstone and ballast.

 Industrial scale quarrying on remote Tors only became commercially viable with the advent of better road access and a more efficient method of splitting. Prior to this they were visited for centuries by stone splitters, laboriously chiselling series of grooves and using metal wedges to cleave the granite. Mostly these splitters and skilled stone-masons used surface stone, or ‘grass-rock’, the large weathered blocks which are scattered over the landscape.

The Bearah Tor quarry in 1979. Picture from Bodmin Moor - An Archaeological Survey (English Heritage)

The Bearah Tor quarry in 1979. Picture from Bodmin Moor – An Archaeological Survey (English Heritage)

From around 1800 the plug-and-feather method for splitting stone was used, which meant hand drilling series of holes, then placing short iron chisels, the ‘plugs’, between pairs of thin iron feathers which reached the bottom of the holes. Striking the plugs cleanly in turn brought percussive pressure to the sides of the holes and thence to the heart of the stone, making splitting more efficient. From the outset, deftly controlled blasting was also used to extract the stone before splitting, using gunpowder in hand drilled charge holes, lit by a safety fuse. The powder was stored in small secure powder houses or magazines, away from the main quarry.

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Nice place to work eh?

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The fortunes of the Bodmin Moor quarries were always unpredictable, even though some attempts were made to churn out the more stable products like headstones and setts. But in the end, competition from abroad forced many these moor quarries to close.

This one has survived as a going concern for specialist pieces. Here is a gallery of images of the working quarry. Please click on a photo to enlarge.

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There is also the great St Breward pit of De Lank where granite is still lifted, now cut by thermal lance. It is sawn and polished and mainly used as cladding for smart high rise buildings and provides high quality memorial monuments too. On their website there are some interesting images both past and present.

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The De Lank Quarry in 1907. Picture from Bodmin Moor - An Archaeological Survey (English Heritage)

The De Lank Quarry in 1907. Picture from Bodmin Moor – An Archaeological Survey (English Heritage)

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Hopefully this yard will survive into the future but one thing is for sure, what will remain forever are the plug-and-feather and charge holes, the traces of cleaving etched indelibly into rock.

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Leaving the others chatting about machinery I climb up above the yard and find the pool. It’s possible for a swim but I don’t like the look of those submerged angular rocks too much.

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Maybe a launch from here? This is the same pool as in the 1979 picture above.

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The landscape is fascinating though, a mix of industrial and wild, the present and the past.

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Is this the base of the crane in the 1979 picture above?

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This is a ‘finger dump’ with trackway. ‘Wasters’ were piled in long fingers away from the pit, often 4 metres or so in height.

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Afterwards we go onto open ground for a picnic, Twelve Mens Moor above us. We are watchful of the gloomy mass of dark shapes heading our way. A lone walker with her collie dog strides across a few hundred metres away but other than that and a few alarmed looking sheep we are alone. We sit on a massive rock, eat our lunch and listen to the noise of the moor.

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Twelve Men’s Moor

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This is where we were.

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24 Comments Post a comment
  1. Don’t you feel privilaged being able to visit places that have been going for so long? Where you can feel satisfied and comforted by the perpetuity of humanity and gain some measure of faith in our ongoing existance. No such luck here! We just wander around amongst the sticks and stones with 1840 as our earliest history and we count ourselves amongst the oldest keepers of the history here in Australia (at least the white history that I am part of 😉 ). Love your ebb and flow girl, a wonderful gift to we antipodeans where age is still something to be marvelled at 🙂

    August 3, 2013
    • You’re right, there is a sense of privilege to be close to such an amazing landscape with all it’s history. I wonder what it was like for those early peoples living there? Yesterday we went to a stone circle…about 4000 years old. Such a mystery!

      Glad you enjoyed it … You old bird…. 🙂

      August 7, 2013
      • lol I recovered from the comment and the scotch and am now bright eyed and bushy tailed and 50! :). I didn’t decend into the pit and I made it despite drinking a couple bottles of sticky white and forgetting which way bed was on the day ;). I can’t WAIT to read about the 4000 year old stone circle! I bet it vibrated with age :). I love old things, I, like most of the rest of the world, want to caress them and feel the age pouring out of them…I guess that’s why they have to stop us manhandling them or we would have worn them away by now. Precious reminders that humanity has been quite persistent and offering us hope that we may endure :).

        August 7, 2013
      • Hi, I would very much like to contact you regarding your lovely feature on Bearah Tor Quarry. As you can see from the website that I have created I have had the pleasure of spending many an hour there with Mr Piper as the very large piece of granite for the memorial was so kindly donated by him. In response to his generosity I am just about to start creating a couple of websites for him and his son as a token gesture. I’m not quite sure how I came to find your delightful piece on the Quarry but was wondering how you would feel allowing your work (clearly marked as being created by you) to take the home page of “bearahtorquarry.co.uk”. I guess you don’t live far from the Quarry and are lucky enough to choose a day when the weather is fine. Unfortunately apart from my first visit 4 years or so ago now I’ve managed another 8 or 9 visits from Hayling Island of which I have rarely seen the sun and in a couple of cases struggled even to see the lump of granite!

        I look forward to hearing from you.

        Many thanks

        Mike Beel

        4 lulworth Close
        Hayling Island
        Hants
        PO11 ONY

        02392 637261

        September 22, 2014
      • Hi Mike

        Glad you enjoyed the post. Yes please feel free to use it, with a credit, that would be lovely. I’m a bit busy at the moment but will check it out when I return from holiday – just getting ready!

        Best wishes Sarah

        September 23, 2014
  2. Wow, a fantastic post, thoughtful, informative, and beautiful. The images are amazing!

    August 3, 2013
    • A trio of adjectives I was never more pleased to hear! Glad you enjoyed it Lemony.

      August 7, 2013
  3. Harriet #

    So interesting! There’s a piece in the current Land magazine called ‘In Praise of Quarries”, reflecting on how small scale quarrying is as much living on the land as horticulture, farming or forestry, and exposing some of the dafter unintended consequences of legislation.

    http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/issue/land-issue-14-summer-2013

    Lovely lovely photos – Bodmin Moor is actually fairyland isn’t it?

    August 4, 2013
    • Aw thanks Harriet 🙂 I like the look of the Land magazine, I’m going to order a copy. Bodmin Moor IS fairyland….we were there yesterday at the Hurlers. I don’t know, something just comes over you when you’re there. Maybe it’s that mix of human and animal making it magic.

      August 7, 2013
  4. This is a wonderful landscape you are sharing with us. Fascinating place and post 🙂

    August 4, 2013
    • Its funny, your landscapes are mostly blue and brown, mine are mostly green and grey! If I were choosing clothes I’d go for yours 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed the post.

      August 7, 2013
  5. I ditto Lemony. I love the photographs of the landscape especially. And the story of the quarry was fascinating. I don’t know anything about it, but there was a mica quarry on my grandfather’s property when I was a child. I wish I had asked about that before all of the old folks died! I really did enjoy this fine post.

    August 5, 2013
    • Welcome to Bodmin Moor George! You may not have realised – it’s a bit of an obsession of mine 😉

      My goodness, I now know all about mica as I have been looking at it on wikipedia. I’m sure there would have been some interesting stories to tell about that little industry. As I’m getting older I too am becoming aware of wanting to hear about the past before it all disappears into the mists along with the people who have the knowledge.

      Thanks for the lovely comments.

      August 7, 2013
  6. Oh my – you live in a magical, glorious place! Stunning. I love to imagine the sound of the moor…

    August 6, 2013
    • It is an amazing sound. I guess because there aren’t many places in this lil ol island of ours that are truly away from it all – and also that doesn’t belong to someone!. The moor is open access so you have the feeling of space without trespassing – a lovely freedom. There is the wind and the birds, but also the sounds of livestock.

      August 7, 2013
  7. my home town of Nuneaton in warwickshire is also known for its history of quarrying granite. As with Bodmin most of the quarries are now disused and have that feeling of the past and present mingling although with the extra dimension of there new function being convenient landfill sites. So these immense monuments to our past endeavours have now become graveyards for garbage. Out of the landscape we took something permanent and useful and now replace it with something transient and useless. This always strikes me as sad. If old quarries can no longer be used for making things then they should be appreciated for their unique sculptural beauty and preserved for future generations. They form part of our cultural history and add to the diversity of our landscape, I really hope the quarries of cornwall don’t suffer a similar inglorious fate.

    August 6, 2013
    • That is incredibly sad. And a crime against landscape. As you say they are part of our cultural history but are also amazing places for their strange beauty. Not to mention the wildlife and flora which recolonize them – all those nooks and crannies and water are fantastic. Why did the people of Nuneaton not rise up? However, the other question must be asked….why do we consume and throw away so much? And how to persuade people to change habits. That’s a difficult one. I’m in the process of retraining but I don’t always behave how I want to or should.

      August 7, 2013
      • why don’t the people of Nuneaton rise up? thats a very good question. There are some safety issues connected with disused quarries, particularly deep quarries as in Nuneaton which complicate things. Tragically there have been some horrible local incidence of young people drowning and there is no doubt they can be dangerous places. Although this has to be taken seriously I think the main reason for the lack recognition of the potential cultural and wildlife benefits of old quarries has more to do with money. Where there’s muck there’s brass even when it comes to burying it.

        August 9, 2013
  8. Lovely to see this – an area I have not been to for years. The lichen(?) hanging from the trees is just amazing. Interesting to see quarrying from a different perspective too.

    August 6, 2013
    • Glad you enjoyed the tour. The lichen is amazing isn’t it? When you see that you almost forgive the film of mildew on NEARLY EVERYTHING – I mean inside too! 🙂

      August 7, 2013
  9. What you found must have made up for the lack of a swim. Fascinating post and it makes me think that there is still a market for the stone so why is it cheaper to haul it into the UK from around the globe? Doesn’t seem to make sense.

    I really enjoyed your series of photographs, they beautifully capture the spirit of the Moor,

    August 11, 2013
    • Thanks Finn. I can’t seem to get enough of the moor.

      There is a market for stone but as always these things come down to money – when you can get Indian sandstone paving for as little as £25 per m2 you understand why (some people don’t want to think about where it comes from or how it’s produced).

      August 11, 2013
  10. Whenever holly trees (TREES?), lichen or hillocks show up here, I’m happy no matter what. I look and look. Those hillocks especially look like footstools for elves.

    I love the photos of the quarries. Small independent Texas quarries provided limestone and sandstone for early houses, and believe it or not, the pink granite used for the Texas state capitol was quarried by Scotsmen who were brought here especially for the task! Apparently, their skill was well-known and honored.

    The huge granite blocks for our jetties are pink granite, too. I think the Galveston jetties still have the Guiness record for being the longest in the world – six and a half miles long, and seven times wider at their base than at the top. The granite was quarried inland, then brought to the coast on railcars.

    I love the portrait of the man – relaxed, totally self-possessed. I’ll bet he’s just as alert as someone in alligator country, though. There are a lot of dangers lurking around that quarry – best keep an eye open!

    Now, I’m going to go start from the beginning again. I don’t want to miss anything!

    August 11, 2013
    • Six miles long! The US is so huuuge 🙂 Mind you, everywhere seems big after here… I went on the longest bridge there too…is it the Ponchartrain?

      I like your description of the hillocks as elf footstools – funnily enough in another piece about a quarry I’ve written about an elfin queen! The landscape definitely lends itself to imagining different worlds.

      I’m curious to know why you don’t have holly trees? Is it the same species…Ilex aquifolium?

      Glad you like the portrait. I used to do a lot of them before I got into plants and landscape. He has what quite a few people have around these parts – a kind of unhurried strength and also friendly and open. Must come from living at a slower pace. It does have it’s downsides… things get done ‘dreckly’ = ‘directly’ = ‘possibly never’ 🙂

      August 12, 2013

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