HISTORY — EAST MENDIP QUARRIES
Vallis Vale quarries
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
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.
Vobster and Bilbao quarries
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,
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.
Torr Works Quarry (Merehead)
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 (New Frome)
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
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.
Moon's Hill Quarry (The 'basalt' quarries)
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
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
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
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
Asham and Westdown quarries
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.
The northern flank
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 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.
Cooks Wood Quarry
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.
Fairy Cave Quarry
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.
Binegar, Gurney Slade and Emborough
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
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
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.
Windsor Hill Quarries
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
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
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
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
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.