Colyton is just six miles from Beer where much of the church’s stone was quarried. As the attraction’s name implies, this is not an open-cast quarry but an extensive underground complex. The quarry was begun by the Romans and did not stop producing stone until the 1920s. The stone is a crystalline limestone found in a thirteen foot seam that was deposited about 120,000,000 years ago. It is formed by a mixture of marine shells, gravel and sand.
The caves are just that: huge underground chambers from which massive stone blocks have been removed leaving roof-supporting pillars marooned behind them. As you progress through the caves you can trace the various phases of quarrying. You will be fascinated to see, for example, that the Normans elaborated on the huge round arches left by their Anglo-Saxon predecessors by adding crude capitals such as you will see on their church arcades. Remarkably, the quarrying methods hardly changed over two thousand years.
Beer stone is a wet stone. Decoration was often carved underground while it was still soft. Once outside the quarry it was left outside for months until it had dried and hardened sufficiently to be transported. The guides here make much here of the disparity between the treatment of these sculptors when compared with the humble quarrymen. The latter were paid a subsistence wage from which they had to pay for their own candles. The carvers were paid up to twenty times more and had as many candles as they needed provided free of charge! During your visit you can actually see walls where there are numerous trails of candle black close together. This is where the carvers would have worked.
The quarry reckons that almost every church East Devon has Beer stone incorporated into its structure. It is most famous, however, in its use at Exeter and Winchester Cathedrals. Do not imagine that these centres of Christianity had any interest in the conditions endured by the quarrymen. Sadly, all the evidence is that they were indifferent.
If you are interested in church architecture the caves are a very worthwhile visit. It is known now that the activities of the quarries and the stonemasons were not as separate as originally thought. Carving at the quarry became increasingly common from the fourteenth century and there hard evidence that some trainee masons were recruited from the quarries. If the working conditions in Beer Quarry are anything to go on then these men were lucky indeed. The guides here do put a lot of emphasis on the dreadfully hard and dangerous working lives of the quarrymen.
Beer is a pleasant little seaside town and also has the attraction of the Pecorama Model Railway exhibitions. Along with the quarries it makes a great day out.