Beer Quarry Caves is a man-made underground complex located about a mile west of the village of Beer, which gave its name to both the quarry and the limestone extracted. The stone has been quarried for perhaps 2,000 years as Roman artifacts have been found in the quarry. Beer stone is a fine grained limestone laid down in the Cretaceous period – between 65 and 140 million years ago. Because of its fine grain, it is a freestone i.e. it can be cut and carved in any direction. However, in order to resist weathering it is best laid in the same plane as it was deposited.
Geologically the productive beds are around 20 feet deep and lie beneath a bed of unconsolidated clay with flints from the Eocene era. As a result, some solution-weathered cavities have been in-filled with pipes of clay. When first extracted, the stone is relatively soft and easily cut, but it hardens with exposure to the air, and becomes about as hard as Portland stone. It has relatively few fossils which made it ideal for complex carvings on churches and cathedrals.
The earliest workings at the quarry were in the Roman period, initially in open quarries, after which it was necessary to quarry into the side of the hill because of other rock strata above. At this time the estuary of the river Axe provided a safe harbour for the removal of the stone by boat. The Roman section is typified by large arches which support the roof and was hand excavated using picks and wooden wedges. Beer stone was used in the Roman villa of Honeyditches, near Seaton.
The Norman workings join directly onto the earlier Roman quarry, working deeper into the hillside. These have large rectangular columns which support the roof and include several smaller side galleries. In the Medieval period, quarry men worked long hours by candlelight with hand tools such as picks and saws. The quarrymen were also often supported by child labour. Skilled stonemasons would then work on the stone in the caves because it became harder to carve when exposed to the air. In addition, there was a risk of fracturing if exposed to air, because of the initial high water content. After weathering, the stone blocks would then be lifted by hand operated cranes using Lewis lifting pins and loaded onto horsedrawn wagons. They would then usually be taken to barges which would sail from Beer beach. After 1540 stone was only quarried for secular building.
After the Reformation, one of the uses of the caves was allegedly as a secret Catholic Church. In the nineteenth century, the caves were also used to store contraband. Quarrying at the site ceased in the early 20th century when a new quarry was opened nearby. Some of the caves were then used to cultivate mushrooms and others were used to dump waste from the new quarry. Guided tours of the caves are now run from spring to autumn and they provide a haven for hibernating bats in winter. The presence of the bats, along with the opportunities to see the geological profiles that quarry faces allow, caused the old and new quarries to be declared an SSSI. The quarry is also part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage site.
Buildings which use Beer stone include Exeter Cathedral, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Winchester Cathedral and Windsor Castle.