With Spring Gardens just outside Frome, Vallis Vale is the easternmost outcrop of hard Carboniferous Limestone in the Mendips. Thus it logically attracted the early interest of quarry operators. Certainly there were two limekilns reported as operating just downstream from Bedlam alongside the Mells Stream in the 1840s. Most of these rivers powered small woollen mills and iron works before this date which would have required stone and lime for buildings and weirs and there are still traces of very small quarry workings. However, clear dated evidence of quarrying appears to be lacking.
Although the unconformity figured by Henry de la Beche in 1846 (in the World's first Geological Survey Memoir) has given this area pride of place in early geological research, the history of stone working here in Vallis Vale is poorly reported. Elsewhere in his lengthy paper De la Beche frequently specifically refers to other quarries in the south-west and south Wales, but here he is not explicit as to whether the sections are natural or worked. His illustrations of a site on the north bank are however sufficiently stark to suggest quarried faces.
No sites are given in the government's official lists of the 1860s. In the 1880s seven kilns were mapped (but may not all have been working) and a relatively large quarry is shown to have been opened up on the east side of the valley, just south of Vallis Farm, at that stage only having road access towards Frome.
The Somerset Quarrying Company began working here in 1893/4 and by 1898 was operating four faces with 40 men. About two metres of Jurassic overburden was removed by hand to reveal the harder limestones dipping at about 35°, the latter being blasted by gelignite or gunpowder. Of the 100 tons per day produced, 90% went out as roadstone. The remainder was burnt in two kilns to produce lime for use in agriculture and in water softening and sewage treatment — then a growing demand, following public health legislation. For roadmaking, the stone was collected by a series of 2'3" gauge tramways, fed from the various quarries chiselled into the valley sides and ultimately along a sinuous route, delivered to a processing works at Hapsford Mill. The stone breakers themselves were particularly interesting, and unusual in being largely water powered — by waterwheels from a former saw mill, and a turbine, with a portable steam engine to help out at times of low water. Before mains electricity had developed, taking raw stone for processing to a remote plant determined by the source of power was not uncommon (for example at Waterlip Quarry). The finished product was then railed to the Frome–Radstock Railway for despatch.
In 1898 'The Quarry' magazine commented 'there is some singularly picturesque scenery in and around, the Mendip Hills, especially so in the romantic vale where those [Vallis Vale] quarries are situated — unlike many works [they] do not detract from the beauty around but afford a pleasant break in the steeply wooded slopes'. The writer goes on to comment upon the interest shown in the area by eminent geologists — William Smith, Charles Moore, Sanders, Greenwell, McMurtie and others.
By 1907, the same journal suggested that Vallis Vale quarries 'are situated in one of the prettiest [vales] of its kind in the country' and some concern was expressed at the prospect of disfiguring so picturesque a spot by industrial operations. In that same year, the Somerset Quarrying Co. became a registered company by which time there were six working areas. Within a further twenty years, the number of quarries in this small area between Bedlam, Egford and Hapsford had doubled, so that apart from small breaks between individual openings, workings along the valley sides were almost continuous.
In the 1930s, the railway system was changed to two foot gauge and extended to link up more quarries as far west as Murder Combe.
As time progressed, more and more geological and logistical difficulties were being encountered. The overburden of Jurassic rocks was increasing; and in some cases, where beds dipped steeply into the valley or were badly faulted, these problems made it hard to progress by a deep cut into the hillside which could then be extended by widening along the valley side. A high proportion of hard chert (silica) in the Black Rock Limestone in the southernmost quarries near Egford had caused machinery to wear much more quickly. On the west side of the valley, workings were advancing towards the Great Elm–Frome Road and the railway system was probably becoming difficult to maintain.
The depressed market for stone in the early 1930s put great pressure on the industry to rationalise, resulting in the amalgamation of a number of operations to form Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd. This prompted a rethinking of operations at a strategic level. Gradually the Vallis Vale group of quarries were closed (culminating in Tedbury Camp Quarry in the 1960s) and their place was taken by New Frome Quarry (later renamed Whatley Quarry). However the initial ('primary') processing plant remained at Hapsford but relocated from the former mill to the rail sidings.
In many ways Vobster Quarry had a distinctiveness all of its own. Clearly its geological framework quite literally set it apart from Mendip proper and played an important role. Its location — uniquely surrounded (indeed underlain) by Coal Measures had two important influences. Coal, being a highly valued commodity, encouraged first the canal builders (1796–1808) to attempt to access the area's mineral riches — as it turned out, unsuccessfully. The building of this ill-fated Dorset and Somerset Canal, utilised Vobster lime in the 1800s. Coal also attracted the relatively early interest of the railway builders, so that by 1854 the line from Frome to Radstock was running and the branch connection to Vobster Quarry and collieries was in place by 1858. Although there were several small active collieries (known locally as 'coalworks') before 1850, by the late 1860s, Vobster, Vobster Breach, Old Vobster, Newbury, Mackintosh and Mells collieries were all operational. Some of these were to continue working into the 1930s and 1940s. Much of the coal produced was good quality coking material and resulted in banks of coke ovens being set up at Vobster and Newbury Colliery. In 1900 the main focus of coal working was Radstock–Midsomer Norton, by which time 6000 men were employed in the coalfield as a whole. Vobster and the other small detached slivers of Carboniferous Limestone resting on the Coal Measures at Luckington Manor and Bilbao Farm were obviously well placed to develop a lime burning industry having the two main raw materials, limestone and fuel, on hand.
The Westbury Iron Co. was formed in 1857 (Cretaceous ironstone deposits having been rediscovered in 1855 near Westbury), which that same year took a lease on Newbury Colliery and opened up Vobster Quarry as a source of limestone flux in the early 1860s. It set up another limekiln on site. The first workings were adjacent and just to the north of the Newbury Railway. By the 1880s, a tunnel had been driven northward through mudstones into what became the main working area. A two foot gauge system then fanned out in a series of branch tracks in the quarry itself, with rope-hauled tubs (hand loaded) serving the working areas for each group of men near the quarry faces.
By the turn of the century, although the iron works was faltering, the quarry had a crusher, weighing machine and a haulage system for fully hand-loaded trucks from the quarry. It was employing about 50 men and boys. By 1902 the Asphaltic Limestone Co. also operated an asphalt works at Mells station, fed by the quarry which was then was sending about 30-40 000 tonnes a year out by rail. In 1904 John Wainwright & Co. Ltd. by then a well-known local quarry concern, was successful in competitive tender for the lease. By about this time lime-burning here ceased. As part of the deal, Wainwright took on the railway and colliery as well as the quarry, but had relinquished the colliery before 1911.
Operations continued under Wainwright's direction, expanding capacity significantly in 1910 and setting up a tar distillery here shortly after World War 1. In 1934 all Wainwright's limestone interests were pooled within a new major player, Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd. The rail system from the quarry to the plant was replaced by conveyors in 1949.
Meanwhile the Newbury Colliery site became a concrete works as did the railway siding at Mells road.
Vobster had proved a 'difficult' quarry to operate. There apparently were even claims as late as the 1950s that the blasts could be heard and felt on the southern edge of Bath at least eight miles to the north, The remaining workable reserves were also heavily constrained by geological factors and it was decided to run down production, closing in 1966 with markets being served from New Frome (later called Whatley) Quarry. Initially the remaining deep hole was used for disposal of fine stone from New Frome. Now it is a nationally known diving and sub aqua centre.
Just a little to the east of Vobster Quarry was Bilbao Quarry. For most of its life it was worked by the Beauchamp family, operating under various names — Mells Quarries and Mendip Mountain Quarries. It was connected to the Radstock–Frome line by a separate railway running parallel to that serving Vobster. In its later years, prior to being absorbed into Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd., it was only worked intermittently. The quarry itself is now flooded and the works area is occupied by light industry, however a small section of the rail system can still be seen at the road entrance.
The earliest date of quarrying here is difficult to ascertain. It is highly probable that the Romans used local stone, possibly from the scree slope at the foot of Norwood, adjacent to their road running almost along the line of the A361. Apparently some parts of the site were quarried in the eighteenth century but no operations are shown on the 1886 1:2500 OS plans and Welch, surveying this area geologically in the early 1930s, makes no mention of any activity here. It is probable that spring 1934 saw the first systematic working here by the Merehead Quarry Co., a subsidiary of Leigh on Mendip Quarry Co. (which by then also operated two sites at Leigh), with about 30 workers. Four years later, Western Trinidad Lake Asphalt Ltd. (a subsidiary of Limmer and Trinidad Co.) had taken over the company with the benefit of a 42 year lease at Merehead. They set about expanding production, building a bitumen coating plant (near the present position of Torr Works). By then there was also a small quarry on the south side, but the main operations were being developed into the steep northern slopes of the valley. The intervening War years caused production to fluctuate but the company invested £34 000 in a rail link south of Leighton and fine grinding plants to produce powder for mastic asphalt and agricultural limestone. This avoided the need to take stone to Leigh for processing by road, only to have to bring it back to West Cramore Station. Although asphalt was the company's main business, it only accounted for 20%, the bulk being for coated roadstone. However a planning dispute frustrated implementation from 1946 until 1949. Employment fell to 25 in 1941 then increased to 40 in 1948 and was due to rise further with the considerable transfer of men from the Leigh plant. The quarry itself was still being worked using horse drawn trucks along a narrow gauge rail system. Waste and overburden was running at 20% of output. The narrow valley limited the area for manoeuvre. By the late 1950s, the mainly pre-War plant was costly to run and out of date; meanwhile demand for roadstone was increasing.
By 1957, Foster Yeoman, having largely completed the upgrading of Dulcote Quarry, near Wells, took over Merehead from Limmer with 150 acres of reserves at a cost of only £15 000. A major site clearance, planning and investment programme was put in hand. By 1964 the access had been improved, old plant cleared away, the stream culverted and the new plant was installed, ready to meet the first big order, stone for the Honiton by-pass in Devon. By 1967, output had increased to a quarter of a million tonnes annually. New, larger gyratory crushers were installed in 1969, the Norberg being one of the largest in Europe. These raised output rapidly to 3 million tonnes in 1971 and 5 million tonnes in 1973 (with potential capacity of 7 million tonnes a year), making the quarry the largest single producer of aggregates in Europe.
The quarry itself was working through steeply dipping beds 20°–40° (occasionally with cavities) forming the southern limb of Beacon Hill Pericline. The western border of the quarry is parallel to the Downhead – East Cranmore road immediately to the west of which is the major Downhead Fault which marks the termination of the Carboniferous Limestone in this direction.
Parts of the site were overlain by almost horizontal Inferior Oolite limestone, which, although unsuitable for aggregate, still had to be blasted, ripped and removed, before the harder, saleable stone could be won. The southern boundary of the limestone is defined by the Cranmore Fault, running along the A361. As at Whatley, the operations were planned so that they were hidden when viewed from all public roads or anywhere outside the quarry itself. The working area effectively cuts deep into the East Mendip plateau and is bordered by landscaped screen banks and the natural woodland slopes of the scarp forming Norwood have been retained. In 1970, in recognition of the sterling efforts of Ron Torr, Yeoman's chief engineer, the name of the quarry was changed from Merehead to Torr Works. In the same year, a totally new rail loading system was introduced, involving a spur though Cranmore Park from the former Witham – Shepton Mallet – Cheddar railway. Yeomans linked up with Amey to supply coated roadstone to Berkshire and Hampshire.
In 1978, the company won a major order to supply 200 000 tonnes as large blocks of stone to prevent scouring of the river bed at the Thames Barrier Project. The site was equipped with the biggest loading shovels and dumper trucks then working in the UK. As quarry faces extended away from the main fixed processing plant through the 1970s, haulage costs within the quarry rose and a bold decision was taken to introduce a mobile crusher, the only one of its kind operating in the UK. It went into action in 1985, weighs 1100 tonnes, is equivalent to seven stories high and can process 22 500 tonnes of rock in a day. It has the advantages of being able to be fed by loading shovels very near to the quarry face, being powered by electricity rather than diesel and sending its product for further processing by conveyor to the main works. This took output up to 6 million tonnes a year, peaking at 8 million tonnes in 1988.
By 1984 trains carrying up to 3000 tonnes of stone were in service. In the following two years Foster Yeoman, purchased five class 59 locomotives from General Motors (USA), then the first privately owned locomotives to operate on the British Rail network. In this first year, they hauled 2.8 million tonnes of stone. Rail now accounts for over 80% of the material now delivered from the quarry. Trains of up to a third of a mile long, the heaviest ever to run in Britain are now running, serving the company's fifteen reception depots and many others owned by agents and other major quarry companies in Southern and Eastern England.
As further new greenfield sites were unlikely to be approved in conventional English quarrying areas, in the late 1970s, John Yeoman began to search for potential large scale coastal hard rock quarry sites. In 1981 Yeomans purchased a substantial reserve at Glensanda on Loch Linnhe in the Scottish Highlands. Production began in 1986 on a pilot basis making use of the large, but now redundant Norberg crusher from Torr Works. Meanwhile in 1985, at projected rates of extraction, Torr Works still had a 30 year life.
In common with the rest of the UK, production has fluctuated reflecting general construction demand. In recent years, normal annual production has been about 5 million tonnes per annum. Major contracts have included sea defences at Minehead, improvements to the A30/A35 (Exeter to Hamworthy), the Honda Car Terminal at Avonmouth and the Second Severn Crossing, the last project alone consuming two million tonnes. One of the largest and most recent contracts has been to supply 3 million tonnes of stone to Heathrow, for the building of Terminal 5. In this last case alone, carriage by rail avoided 300 000 lorry movements. These were all projects supplied by Mendip Rail, a joint company formed in 1993 with ARC to rationalise train movements and rolling stock and to supply contracts from Torr Works.
In 2000, permission was granted to extend operations (making a total of 313 Ha), to eventually involve a new area to the south-east. Working depths were restricted to 115 m above sea level, and output was limited to 6 million tonnes, of which a maximum of 3 million tonnes a year could be sent by road. This represented 100 million tonnes of permitted stone reserves plus a further 100 million tonnes of proposed longer term reserves.
Environmental measures include the planting of 30 000 trees around the site, the landscaping of 60 ha, the restoration of 22 ha and the incidental hosting of peregrine falcons and orchids. Some 4.5 million tonnes of rock are hauled annually by rail in almost 400 company owned wagons. At the beginning of the Twenty-first Century, Torr Works was claimed to be the largest producer of Carboniferous Limestone in Europe. Face operations were producing 30 000 tonnes per day (or 6 million tonnes per year). The business, until recently family owned, had a turnover of £140 million and employed 600 people, over a third of whom work at Torr Works.
Whatley Quarry and Torr works today exhibit many similarities but early development was quite different. The very early days of quarrying at Whatley are not clear. Certainly there were small quarries in the 1880s at Murder Combe and Whatley Bridge adjacent to roads crossing the Fordbury Water Valley. The latter site currently hosts the Hanson East Mendip Study Centre.
Frome Rural District Council operated quarries at both sites from at least 1895 until about 1919 in the case of Murder Combe and about 1930 at Whatley; presumably the latter was relinquished when the County took over rural highway responsibilities. However these units were very small and didn't really coincide with Whatley Quarry as we know it now.
The uncertain markets of the 1926–1933 period prompted the amalgamation of many companies in the area to form Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd. A rationalisation of the twelve sites then held by the companies concerned, followed. Sites such as Vallis Vale (in reality about a dozen sub-sites) and most smaller operations absorbed into the group, such as those around Binegar, were uneconomic and closed relatively quickly, but some were not fully exhausted until the 1960s or even later; other operations purchased or acquired through mergers or asset swaps, were also closed or mothballed. By 1987 the company had concentrated virtually all their Mendip production on Whatley in the east and Batts Coombe in the west.
The New Frome Quarry Co, a subsidiary of Roads Reconstruction managed Vallis Vale in its last stages of working. Work at Whatley, originally known as New Frome Quarry, began in 1937 with first production in 1939.
Geologically, it is the northern counterpart of Torr Works in that it extracts stone from the opposite flank of the Beacon Hill Pericline and again, almost all Formations within the Carboniferous Limestone are represented. The stone varies from fairly chemically pure oolites to mudstone-rich and cherty limestones. However dips are much steeper, typically at 60 to 70° and in some cases, beds are overturned. Minor faulting is significant and the eastern part of the site (now worked out) carried a cover of Inferior Oolite.
Initially stone was taken by a 2 foot gauge railway along a tortuous route in part following the Vallis Vale tramway route, 4 km to Hapsford Mill to be crushed. As early as 1943, demand had increased and the unmanageable rail system was rapidly upgraded to standard gauge. Trains of up to seven Hudson side-tipping wagons hauled by Sentinel locos were filled by electrically powered 100 RB face shovels.
By 1948 a team of 60 were producing 6000 tons per week, and a quarry face 270 m wide and between 10 and 20 m high had been developed. Although road aggregates were the main product, sales were also made for rail ballast, agricultural limestone, coal mine safety dust and steel flux. Annual production between 1940 and 1951 was 150–160 000 tons. In the early 1950s, a primary crusher was installed at the quarry itself but the remainder of the processing was still conducted at Hapsford.
In 1963, the line was improved with additional tunnels, but it was only in the following year that the first comprehensive processing plant was erected at the New Frome Quarry itself, capable of producing 500 tons per hour. This took annual output up to a million tonnes a year, of which about 0.4 million was destined for rail ballast. The area of the former Hapsford plant in Vallis Vale became a marshalling yard. Ten years later, the most difficult sections of the railway were realigned and an entirely new section to join the British Rail line more directly, was put in place. This enabled much larger trains and wagons to be deployed. New plant was added in 1970 to allow more road sub-base material to be produced to meet the growing motorway programme. By the early 1980s, production had increased 2.5 million tonnes annually with the plant running, at full capacity so plans were laid for expansion. In the mid 1980s, roadstone accounted for 40% of sales.
The new £25 million plant was opened in 1987 by Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal. The housing for the new crusher and stockpile system alone required the removal of 2 million tonnes of rock. This took the potential capacity of the site up to 10 million tonnes a year, supported by workforce of 100. The original name, New Frome (reflecting the old company, based at Hapsford) was changed to 'Whatley' with the construction of the new plant.
The variable geology of the site, particularly the dolomitisation and silicification (and with that, varying rock strength) of the limestone indicated the need to work a number of relatively small faces (up to ten) simultaneously and to blend the feed into the primary crusher. Clay pockets and small sections of fissures infilled with Inferior Oolite, together with faulting and more recent deposits, also complicated the pattern of workings. As the quarry deepened, so the rate of dewatering initially increased from 3 million to 12 million litres of water daily. It now extends down 100 m from the surface, necessitating the pumping of 10–12 million litres per day in summer and 20 million in winter.
Each of the six benches (steps in the rock face) is designed to be 12 m high giving a total working depth initially of 72 m, but with the possibility of extending ultimately to 12 benches. Each blast brings down 25 000 tonnes. Unlike Merehead and particularly on account of the need to work many faces flexibly and simultaneously, it was decided to use face loaders feeding dumpers and a central plant, (the latter being controlled by a single operator) rather than a single large mobile crusher.
The new rail facilities were capable of loading a 2000 tonne train in less than one hour. Provision for 4000 tonne payloads was put in place and upon completion, 2.5 million of the 6 million tonnes produced, was due to leave by rail. From 1994, this was handled by Mendip Rail Co., a company operated jointly with Foster Yeoman (now Aggregate Industries, see Torr Works), owning its own American-built locomotive and wagons, serving 20 or so depots in southern and eastern England. Road deliveries concentrate on Dorset, Somerset, Bath, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Hampshire.
The siting of the quarry, cutting down into the East Mendip plateau coupled with comprehensive landscaping, means that the operations are almost entirely hidden from external public view, apart from when viewed from the air! The quarry is now about 1.7 km long and 700 m wide.
The north Somerset area was one of the first anywhere in the world to be geologically surveyed. With adjacent areas, it was the subject of William Smith's work in the early part of the Nineteenth Century. Within ten years of the establishment of the Geological Survey of Great Britain (formed in 1835, it was the world's first national geological survey organisation), the area was also surveyed vigorously at a scale of 1" to 1 mile. Yet the igneous rock core of the Beacon Hill Pericline went unnoticed. This is perhaps particularly surprising as elsewhere, many much smaller outcrops had been known and exploited, in some cases for centuries. One of the reasons may have been that in comparison to the neighbouring Old Red Sandstone and Carboniferous Limestone, there would have been relatively little contrast in the original landscape.
It was only thanks to the meticulous work of Charles Moore in the early 1860s that the igneous outcrops, stretching from Beacon Hill in the west, to Tadhill in the east (a distance of 5 km!) were discovered. The proper geological term for the volcanic rock quarried is 'andesite' but in the initial period it was sold as 'granite' and for much of its life the operation has been known as a "basalt" quarry, and is shown erroneously on Ordnance Survey maps as a 'Basalt' quarry.
In 1884 during a visit to the by then active Moon's Hill Quarry, another famous local geologist and mine surveyor, McMurtrie was describing it as one of the most 'noteworthy recent discoveries'. On a later 19th century field visit, 'in order to give visitors an idea of the mode of obtaining the quarry, a charge of 1lb of dynamite and 8lb of gunpowder was exploded within the rock at the face of the chief boulder; 400 tons were dislodged, loosened and brought down to the floor'.
Moon's Hill Quarry was on the Knatchbull family estate and in the early days was worked either directly, or managed via their agents, Tribe Clarke and Co. Solicitors in Bristol. The partnership of John Wainwright and the Luffs added it to their existing limestone portfolio by purchasing the site in 1897, at which time it was apparently the only 'basalt' quarry at least of any size, in Somerset. Wainwright's became a limited company in 1902. Although Moon's Hill lies on old routes across and along Mendip, it was relatively isolated from markets, as far as good transport was concerned.
Between about 1907 and 1925, a narrow gauge railway connected Downhead and Moon's Hill Quarries with the rail system at Waterlip.
In 1934, presumably using proceeds from the Roads Reconstruction (1934) deal, Wainwright's invested in their first coating plant (although they had earlier had an interest in the Mells tar plant). Appropriately this was manufactured by Stothert and Pit of Bath; it had a capacity of 80 tons per day. However, in the quarry, 'stone getting' was still a manual job, involving hand loading into large buckets which were then winched up to the crusher. This continued to be so until face shovels and Muir Hill dumpers were introduced more than ten years later. The subsequent development of the site saw other new coating plants introduced c.1962, in 1973 and more recently 2005/6.
The most recent asphalt plant offers several environmental advantages. It uses gas (brought in by a new mile-long pipeline) rather than oil, it is further away from Stoke St Michael village, is more fuel efficient and has been relocated so that reserves of good stone previously sterilised by the old plant, can now be worked. At the same time the mobile plant in the quarry has changed out of all recognition to the 1940s and the quarry has been deepened to 150 m from the surface.
From the earliest days of the quarry, particularly resilient material for road surfacing has been the main product (still accounting for 70% of output) although at times, particularly in the 1930s, concrete products have also been important. As Moon's Hill is the only source of such tough material over a considerable area (including the whole of south-eastern England), the quarry is of interregional significance. One particularly interesting job was the production of aggregate to make concrete for bank vaults in the 1960s. Production capacity is currently about 0.5 million tonnes per year. The nature of the rock means that a substantial amount of otherwise unusable material has to be extracted to produce good stone, but where possible, the 'waste' is being cleaned up and good stone removed. At various times over the last 100 years, the adjacent sandstone (Portishead Formation) has been extracted and is sometimes suitable for aggregate, but its quality can be variable.
Just to the south of the quarry, a nature area with an attractive large pond has been developed. This was dug by quarrymen in the early 1970s when power cuts during the '3 Day Week', stopped quarry processing.
John Wainwright & Co. Ltd. is still a privately owned company and throughout its history, members of the Luff family have been on the board.
Just across the road to the west of Moon's Hill lie two further igneous rock quarries, known as Matthews and Sunny Hill quarries, or taken together known as Stoke Basalt Quarry. Although one source indicates that the quarry was operating in the early 20th century, there is little other corroborative evidence of significant working here before World War II. The site was worked in at least 1948 by Henry Matthews & Son (Quarry Owners) Ltd., who had been quarrying limestone at Highcroft Quarry, Gurney Slade many years prior to this. In about 1957/8, Matthews, along with another Taunton-based quarry group W J King & Sons, was taken over by Anglo-American Asphalt Co. By 1985 this last company had been acquired by ECC Quarries Ltd. and apparently the quarry closed shortly after this date. Sunny Hill, and further east, Downhead and Tadhill Quarries (the latter two belonging to Somerset Basalt Co.) had all ceased production by 1977.
The Mendip Granite and Asphalte Co. Ltd. was formed in 1902 to run the quarries at Windsor Hill and Cranmore (Waterlip), both limestone producers. Downhead ('basalt') Quarry a little to the east of Moon's Hill was added in 1905. By 1920 the Somerset Basalt Stone Co. were operating Downhead Quarry with J Hamblin (still Managing Director of Mendip Granite and Asphalte Co. Ltd.) listed as manager and at this time employing 25 people, a slightly larger workforce than that at Moon's Hill.
Roads Reconstruction Ltd. appears to have taken over Mendip Mountain Quarries Ltd. in 1924 (if not 1923), but continued to trade here as Mendip Mountain Quarries. In 1925 Downhead came under the Somerset Quarry Co. based in Vallis Vale but the workforce had fallen to nine and only on an occasional basis. By 1928, Downhead had closed.
The transfer of Downhead to Wainwright's may have taken place as part of the Roads Reconstruction (1934) package (in which Wainwright's pooled its limestone holdings with others to form the new company while retaining its igneous rock assets). Today, Somerset Basalt Co., although not producing, is jointly owned by Wainwright's and Aggregate Industries plc.
There are two disused quarries at Waterlip (sometimes misspelt as Waterslip). The one east of the road was more often known in the trade as Cranmore probably through its association with Cranmore Station.
The quarries worked a relatively small inlier of Carboniferous Limestone (surrounded mainly by Inferior Oolite beds). The limestone here was extensively silicified which made it particularly tough. On that account it was compared favourably with granite and indeed in the early days even marketed as a 'granite'.
The early development is not clear, but at least one of the quarries appears to have been active as part of the Strode Estate in the 1860s, i.e. shortly after the East Somerset Railway had opened to Shepton Mallet. Shortly afterwards, a row of quarrymen's cottages were built (some of which were still inhabited by the same families into the 1970s). W B Beachamp leased the quarry from the Strode family in the 1870s and was joined by J Hamblin in working one of the eastern quarries by at least 1889. In the 1880s there were two quarries to the east of the main road, the northern of which was a lime producer. The lime produced at Waterlip was even said to have been used at Shepton Prison for the burial of hanged murderers!
On Beauchamp's death in 1894, the quarry passed to the Mendip Granite and Asphalte Co. (a partnership of Hamblin and Spencer). The quarry was linked by a horse drawn 2-foot gauge railway to the main line at Cranmore Station, where the main stone processing plant was located. An extension to the north had a more moderate grade and was worked by locos to Moon's Hill and by horse to Downhead Basalt quarries. The tubs were initially loaded and unloaded by hand and quarrying was also highly primitive, but the output was a respectable 100 000 tonnes per year by the mid 1890s, largely on account of the high reputation of the stone's hard wearing qualities for roadmaking.
In 1923 the quarry was leased to the Mendip Mountain Quarries Ltd. and shortly after (probably in 1924), the quarry was taken over by Roads Reconstruction Ltd., a Devon firm which immediately set about creating up a 'state of the art' plant. This began operations with a grand opening in 1927 which foresaw 'vast possibilities for mass production'. The railway was expanded to standard gauge and the old plant at the station was replaced by largely automated crushing screening and asphalt works at the quarry itself. The main novelty was the use of mains electricity to power the plant, face shovels and even the wagons within the quarry which were controlled remotely from a central office. However, despite the early optimism and highly reputed quality of the stone, Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd. (the successor company) struggled to make the operation work effectively, largely on account of the poor assessment and understanding of the reserves of good stone. Waterlip apparently closed in about 1939 (possibly with occasional production until about 1950). Its place was effectively taken by New Frome (Whatley) Quarry.
The two separate quarries on the eastern side of the road eventually coalesced into a single large quarry. Now all that remains is a large and very deep lake. Stott's haulage depot occupies the former plant area and RR (1934) maintenance workshops. On the western side of the main road was a quarry operated by the Wilcox family of Leigh-on-Mendip.
The early history of these two neighbouring quarries is sketchy — as an indicator, the geologist Welch in a paper of 1933 describes Asham Wood as a 'virtually impenetrable thicket'.
Asham Quarry was apparently opened up by the Evermy family, already operators of Lime Kiln Hill Quarry near Mells, probably at some time around World War II. The Evermy brothers were hauliers and as such were involved in transporting stone from nearby Merehead, to Leigh upon Mendip Quarry for converting into asphalt. An extensive planning permission was granted to the Asham Quarry Co. under the Town and Country (General Interim Development) Order 1946 covering 350 acres, i.e. virtually the whole of Asham Wood. The company was taken over by Hoveringham Stone Ltd. in 1965 (itself only created in the previous year as a subsidiary of the Hoveringham Group, gravel pit operators then controlled by the Needler family of Hull). By 1971, the quarry only extended over 22 acres into the main area of the wood with two benches each of 50ft. The scale production capacity was typical of quarries for the period, utilising mostly inherited plant and an asphalting unit. Access was quite tortuous despite having one of the largest planning consents.
Extraction was not easy. The outcrops concerned contained almost every combination of geological impediment. The northernmost operations encountered folded mudstones (Avon Group) and muddy limestones in the basal Black Rock Limestone, heavily faulted and dipping southwards (i.e. into the general direction of working). Thick clay-hematite-calcite filled veins (up to 3 m wide) had to be tackled and the extent of weathered ('rotted') limestone was much thicker than the normally seen elsewhere. Chert nodules were common. The southern operations also ran into some dolomite and cherty limestones, calcite veins and vugs in well as caves and fissures.
The woods were designated as an SSSI for its biological interest and part of the woodland was leased to Somerset Wildlife Trust as a Nature Reserve in about 1970.
Westdown Quarry lies on the southern side of the Chantry stream valley, south of Dead Woman's Bottom. Here again, the early history of working is not very clear. Bradgate Granite Quarries Ltd. is noted as the operator in 1948. Bradgate, based in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire, became part of the Inns Group of Hertfordshire in the 1930s. Inns were taken over by the Redland Group in 1966. By 1970, an old processing plant which had been semi-derelict for a number of years was being removed and a new plant, including the third largest crusher (after Whatley and Merehead) had been erected. Within a 170 acre planning permission stretching as far as the A361 west of Holwell, only about 20 acres had been opened up by the same date and output was above the average for most quarries in the area. There was also an asphalt and concrete plant. Most of the product was coated roadstone, but small amounts of agricultural and industrial limestone were also sold. Quarrying here suffered from some of the same problems encountered at Asham Wood, but possibly to a lesser degree.
Then in 1973, the two respective subsidiary companies Redland Roadstone Ltd. and Hoveringham Stone Ltd., established a new joint company, R H Roadstone Ltd., to run Asham and Westdown as a single unit, improving further the relatively new plant at Westdown and abandoning processing at Asham. At the time this made the combined holdings by far the largest permitted reserve in Mendip, with over 500 acres of limestone. However the two most obvious routes to link to rail had already been captured — by Whatley in the north and Torr Works in the south. This no doubt frustrated the implementation of these grand plans, distribution by rail being key. A potential rail spur from the Cranmore-Witham line to Westdown was therefore under consideration as an alternative. Downturns in the aggregates market and the take-over of Hoveringham by Tarmac in 1981 contributed to a radical rethink. In the event, the whole site was acquired by ARC (later Hanson) in 1985.
In return, ARC agreed to supply market commitments of Tarmac and Redland (later acquired by Lafarge). Quarrying and the permission in the Asham Wood portion were effectively abandoned in perpetuity (the original permission having lapsed in 1998 without challenge) and the area turned over to become a managed nature reserve. Westdown was retained as a potential future quarry to follow on when the Whatley extension has been exhausted. Very recently (2007), in the interim before quarrying is restarted, permission has been given to a Cheddar firm to establish a £5 million concrete products plant at Westdown. This will no doubt consume otherwise often unsaleable fine limestone material from neighbouring quarries.
Along the northern flank of eastern Mendip from Mells to Emborough, there have been a string of medium and relatively small-scale operations. Most are no longer active. All began as local family firms and almost all were acquired in the 1930s–1950s by regional or national firms primarily to meet the demand from the road building boom.
There are a cluster of quarries around Leigh upon Mendip. Activities at Barnclose Quarry in shattered and very variable limestones began in 1931 operated by Western Trinidad Lake Asphalte (a subsidiary of Limmer and Trinidad) held under lease on the west side of the road. After a period of inactivity from 1946 to 1954 the site was purchased by Hobbs Quarries Ltd. in 1968, a group based at Backwell near Nailsea. Hobbs and Wimpey merged quarry interests and later became part of Tarmac. Barnclose closed in the mid 1970s.
To the east of the road was Leigh on Mendip Quarry Co.'s operation which contained even more contorted rock structures, with overfolding and overthrusting. Working began before 1928.
A little further east was another site normally known as Halecombe (or in some instances Hailcombe) was operated by Halecombe Quarries Ltd. A quarry was shown in this location in 1884 which may have been that worked by Frome Rural District Council ten years later. By the mid 1930s the company was operating Leigh, Halecombe as well as Merehead, all of which were also acquired by Western Trinidad in about 1938. (One account suggests that Halecombe Quarry commenced production in March 1939). The site was acquired by the Hobbs group in 1967.
In all these cases, the main product was road aggregate and in particular, processed asphalt. Halecombe now extends westwards to the Leigh–Soho road and is currently operated by Tarmac. Small amounts of stone are still extracted but the site mainly processes stone won from Torr Works to produce asphalt.
Lime Kiln Hill Stone Quarries Ltd., a family firm, took over Limekiln Hill Quarry in 1928. Parish records indicate that the site was quarried back as far as the 16th century. Workings to the east of the road were abandoned probably in the late 1940s. The main site is hemmed in by roads on all sides and having been virtually worked out in the 1970s is (extraction stopped in 1989) now being landscaped for other uses.
Just north of the Moon's Hill andesite quarries, were three limestone operations. The easternmost, Cooks Wood was more of a complex of units, fragmented by minor roads and originating in 1906. It developed into a significant operation in the 1970s. At the northern edge of the site, sandstone (part of the Quartzitic Sandstone Formation) was also occasionally extracted. It was opened up, and for much of its life run by a local firm, S C Gilson and Sons. It was a typical small-medium scale operation, producing about 30 000 tons per annum in 1940s/50s. In 1958 it was bought by the Amey Group of Oxford which in 1972, became part of ARC and ultimately the Hanson Group. Although like the Leigh upon Mendip cluster of quarries it was proposed for expansion in 1970s county minerals plans, it has been inactive since 1989, the company opting to concentrate production on Whatley. Stoke Lane Stocker and St Dunstan's Well lie within the site. The small neighbouring Stoke Lane Quarry opened in about 1945 and was taken over by Stoke Lane Quarry (1964) Ltd., in 1963. Working has been intermittent since 1976 and stopped in 1993. In the 1940s, Tarmac also worked the small Western Quarry adjacent to Cooks Wood.
Still further west was Fairy Cave Quarry which apparently began just after World War I. However, until about 1948, neither the operating company Mendip Stone and Concrete Co. Ltd., nor did the quarry appear in official lists, presumably as it was too small to register (i.e. less than 20 ft deep). This again was a relatively small operation, but in this case developed into a relatively deep quarry. It gained considerable publicity on account of its workings intercepting and destroying cave systems feeding St Dunstan's Well (which used to be used for public water supply).
It was taken over by the Hobbs Group in 1963. What began as a small operation thereafter expanded considerably occupying a surface area almost equivalent to Cooks Wood in scale. By 1986 the quarry had been disused and proposals were made to open up the site for access as a show cave centre.
Moving westward, the next quarries are grouped around Binegar/Gurney Slade/Emborough. The largest of these, and still operating, is Gurney Slade (sometimes known as Gurney Slade Bottom Quarry) which began on a small scale in the mid 19th century (according to some accounts Francis Flower began lime-burning here in 1873). The operation was expanded considerably after 1928 by F Flower and Sons to feed limekilns, some of which still exist. In the 1930s, one of Flowers' main customers, Blanchard and Burgess (building merchant in Poole, Dorset) took over control then. After closing down in 1947, it was reopened in 1951, being operated for a short period by John Yeoman. It then passed to City Sand and Gravel Co. before another customer, Sidney Morris (from near Yeovil) and his son-in-law George Perry, took over in 1962, forming Morris and Perry Ltd., the present owners. In the early 1970s, lime was still being produced for mortar, agriculture and steel flux modestly consuming c.15 000 tonnes of limestone annually. Since then production here mainly concentrated upon aggregates with a ready mix concrete plant being added in 1963 and a coated macadam unit in 2001. The company is now managed by Sydney Morris' grandson, Brian Perry.
Meanwhile Francis Flower decided to specialise in mineral powders and tanker (powder) transport. The company's main business still based at Gurney Slade and is concerned with the collection of limestone powders generated all over England and Wales by the quarrying industry (e.g. as emissions collected in filter bags from drilling and processing operations). These are then processed in special equipment, classified according to size, to be sold back to asphalt manufacturers.
West of the A37 was Binegar Quarry, operated by Read and Sons from about 1900. It was producing about 40 000 tonnes a year just before closing in about 1957, having been taken over by Roads Reconstruction (1934) in 1942. It has been partially infilled with coal mining spoil.
A little to the south of Binegar, Highcroft Quarry began working in 1923 and was worked by H Matthews & Son until with Stoke Basalt Quarry, it was taken over by Anglo American Asphalte (Sales) Ltd., ultimately becoming part of Aggregate Industries and closing in the 1990s.
On the northern outskirts of Binegar was Cock Hill Quarry worked by Dalleys from 1908 until it was absorbed into the formation of Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd. and was closed. It had an over-head cableway to link it with the railway at Emborough. The quarry itself now falls partly within the working area of the present Gurney Slade Quarry.
The Emborough Stone Co. Ltd. was registered in 1907 with a capitalisation of £8 000 to acquire the business of the quaintly named Somerset Fuller's Earth and Ochre Co. There were two limestones quarries, straddling the Somerset and Dorset Railway, together with a smaller sandstone quarry just to the north at Emborough Grove containing a purplish coloured quartzite. The main Emborough Quarries entered the coated roadstone market at an early date, being particularly well placed to supply the Bath area by rail. The two quarries were themselves interconnected by a tramway and workings tended to concentrate on one quarry or the other, over time. The company was one of the original partners in the formation of Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd. It continued to operate until after World War (then producing about 130 000 tons per annum) mainly for aggregates, but also iron flux and ground limestone for farms. Since its closure, it has been used for a variety of purposes including military training, waste recycling and concrete product manufacture.
Further south on the same former railway were Downside, Winsor (or Windsor) Hill and Ham Woods Quarries and a little off the route was Maesbury (or Masbury) Quarry. Although they were all the subject of early planning permissions, none of these appear to have been worked since 1950 and they would presumably have been early casualties of the Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd. rationalisation. With the closure of the line in 1966, their fate was sealed. John Wainwright's first involvement with quarrying was in 1880 at Downside Quarry (sometimes also known as Winsor Hill). This was located immediately south and east of Winsor Hill Tunnel. By 1902 the firm, with capital from the Luffs, had expanded rapidly and had taken on the nearby Ham Woods Quarry. Meanwhile, William Beachim Beauchamp, a noted local entrepreneur associated with the coal industry, for some years had worked Winsor Hill Quarry (between the two sites just noted). On his death in 1894, his partner, John Hamblin, took over and, with Frederick Spencer, in 1902 set up the Mendip Granite and Asphalte Co. Ltd. to run this and as well as Waterlip and later, the Downhead 'basalt' quarries. Mendip Granite became Mendip Mountain Quarries Ltd. in 1923 and almost immediately became part of Roads Reconstruction Ltd. In 1934, of course the Wainwright quarries here also become part of the new consortium, Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd.
The Doulting Quarries are somewhat anomalous in being the only ones consistently devoted to the production of shaped building (or 'dimension') stone and secondly, their historical development spans centuries, indeed millennia. These quarries supplied some of England 's classic building stones. Located between Wells and Shepton Mallet, this variety of limestone from the Inferior Oolite is perhaps overshadowed by Portland Stone to the south and Bath Stone to the north.
Apart from its occasional local use by the Romans, it became firmly established in Medieval times (if not earlier) with the building of Glastonbury Abbey. The abbey was in existance, possibly as far back as the fifth century, with datable seventh century structures. Doulting Quarry was certainly in the possession of the Abbey at least as early as the eighth or ninth century. This suggests that workings around Doulting may possibly have continued, presumably with some relatively short breaks, even from Roman times through the Dark Ages into the Medieval period. This is probably a unique claim for any British quarry area or confined group of quarries.
However, the Abbey's control up to the dissolution of the monasteries, also limited its widespread early use and restricted it essentially to ecclesiastical buildings. Even the nearby Dean and Chapter of Wells Cathedral appeared to experience difficulty in obtaining supplies. The constraints on the Doulting Stone were particularly irksome as stones more local to Wells such as Chilcote (over which the Dean did have control), were not as well suited to such a magnificent building. Wells Cathedral as we see it today (which replaced an earlier structure), was begun in 1180 AD and despite those supply challenges is almost entirely built (or at least faced) with Doulting Stone. Each new lot of stone had to be the subject of a separate arrangement, so we see in 1354 Walter de Monyngton, Abbot of Glastonbury granted William de Camel, Canon of Wells, forty wainloads of freestone for the new cloister house and twenty loads for other works. The following year, a further fifty loads were called for in repairing the Great Bell Tower. A little over a century later, the cost of haulage to Wells was 12d (5p) per load. Records in 1381 specifically referred to Chelynch Quarry (which operated for six centuries, only closing in 1967) for which the Dean and Chapter had by then secured a direct lease, thereby easing supplies.
Doulting was not a single quarry but rather a patchwork of operations from Chelynch in the north to the present A361 at Doulting, with occasional workings such as Brambleditch, just to the south of that road.
This beautiful light brownish stone at first sight appears to be a typical oolitic limestone freestone (meaning it can be readily cut in any direction) which becomes much paler on exposure to the air. Upon closer inspection, most of the material extracted, particularly in the more northerly of the workings, is actually seen to be composed of finely broken crinoid ('sea lillies') fossil debris, eroded and broken down by wave action from the adjacent Carboniferous Limestone, recrystallised and recemented as a new rock. Ooliths are in fact quite uncommon in many blocks.
From the late 1870s, Doulting Stone was used in about ten colleges and public buildings in Oxford but even before 1910, carved work, dressings and mouldings were already showing signs of deterioration through weathering (whereas ashlar, plain walling, was performing well), following which it appears to have fallen out of favour for a time. However, the stone used prior to the 19th century appears to have fared very much better, as evidenced by the Wells Cathedral itself.
Doulting Stone however was used in considerable quantities for the interior of the new Guildford Cathedral in the 1930s, being completed in the 1950s, and in 1981 for Lancing College Chapel in Sussex. It was also used in some M5 motorway bridges. After a short period of closure around 1970, the quarries were reopened to contribute to a major restoration programme at Wells Cathedral. They have also supplied stone for the building of 300 houses for the Tadley Acres at Shepton Mallet, a further 400 homes are to be built as part of the scheme on this Prince of Wales' estate. Over many years it has been used in restoration and new work at Bury St Edmunds Cathedral, Suffolk.
The stone was traditionally worked by hand, using two types of pick (a jad and then a standback) to cut a narrow trench parallel with the working face. The rock would then be wedged out (using a similar principle to plugs and feather techniques elsewhere). Long bars would be used to lever out each large block) which would then be lifted out by hand-turned crane. The process was speeded up in the early 20th century by the introduction of a steam powered channelling machine (known locally as a chandler or Jenny Jumper) replacing the picks; steam cranes replaced manual cranes. However when the 'chandler' was damaged beyond repair, the quarry reverted to hand workings. A gravity-run railway took stone down to Cranmore Station. The present works is now equipped with modern stone cutting machinery.
The control of the quarries over the last 150 years has been chequered and at times complicated. Various people were employed by the Strode family (the landowners) to manage operations until they were leased to Charles Trask and Sons in 1889, a company then operating Ham Hill quarries near Yeovil.
By 1900 the Ham Hill and Doulting Stone Co. Ltd. had been incorporated and was taken into United Stone Firms Ltd. before 1914, eventually becoming part of the Bath and Portland Group in the 1930s. Bath and Portland was acquired by ARC Ltd. in 1985, part of the site being held under a lease from Colin Keevil. When the lease expired in 1993/4 Mr Keevil took on operations directly as Doulting Stone and continues today. There are two other operators now working Doulting Stone, albeit on a smaller scale.