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History — West Mendip quarries

Dulcote Quarry

The railway line along the southern foot of the Mendip Hills extended from Shepton Mallet to Wells in 1862. It was taken into the Great Western Railway system in 1874; the previous year, GWR took a lease from CC Tudway of Wells to open up a quarry to provide ballast. Serious quarrying apparently began here in about 1890. By the turn of the century, Dulcote Hill supported two quarries — Dulcote Hill to the west and GWR's Dulcote Quarry to the east. Between lay another small quarry by this time, abandoned. As well as ballast, GWR were also supplying to the general market at large during World War II.

In 1923 Foster Yeoman signed a lease from Charles Clement Tudway for the land just to the west of GWR quarry. Next year he came to an agreement with the railway to create a new siding and shortly after he purchased 150 rail wagons. In addition to bituminous tarred limestone and macadam, the company also produced lump stone and decorative spar (calcite). By 1926–7, output had increased to over 75 000 tonnes; in the 1930s annual rail dispatches were 30–80 000 tonnes. Production having increased to supply military defences and particularly airfields in the War, fell back dramatically to 33,000 tonnes in 1948–9, the period in which, following Foster's death, his 21 year old son John took over the apparently failing business. One of his first acts was to move over to road transport (selling the wagon fleet in 1949). A major investment programme followed at the quarry with new plant being introduced from 1954. This replaced the previous practice of hand breaking and hand loading of tubs in the quarry.

By 1959, the whole plant had been upgraded and attention was turned to developing Merehead, acquired by Yeomans the previous year. Rail deliveries were resumed at Dulcote in 1969 at a significant level in the run up to the opening of the extensive new rail loading facilities at Merehead inaugurated in 1970. Dulcote continues to produce mainly to serve local needs (or as back up to Merehead) with annual output running at around 75 000 tonnes.

The Tudways also owned other small quarries at the east of Wells, notably Tor Hill Quarry. In 1899 that quarry was the subject of a disagreement with Wells Borough Council which was then being supplied from the site by a Mr Plenty, a lessee. Alarmed at the change of lease and a possible price increase, the Council threatened to take over the quarry. In the event John Wainwright acquired the lease and continued to work it for about a decade.

Westbury-Sub-Mendip (Broadmead Quarry).

Westbury Quarry began as a parish quarry in the 19th century and was worked manually and intermittently mainly for building stone until 1949. Lime-burning here had ceased by then. Westbury Quarries Ltd. based in Yeovil operated the unit in the 1950s and until 1966, when the company was purchased by William Griffith & Co., a hard rock quarry concern from Nuneaton, Warwickshire. Trading as Mixconcrete Holdings Ltd., they set about introducing new crushing, screening and asphalt plant. Most of the output was used for roadstone, half in coated form. These companies were acquired by the Australian based group, Pioneer Aggregates (UK) Ltd. which was in turn purchased by Hanson in 1999/2000. The site has closed very recently.

Batts Coombe, Cheddar

Quarrying operations at Batts Coombe, Cheddar probably began about 1890 with open lime kilns, although there was probably small scale quarrying and lime burning for many years prior to this.

The present operations can be traced back to around 1924 or 1926 when two local men, Charles Bernard Butcher and Frederick Ford formed the Batts Coombe Quarry Co. Butcher, a local entrepreneur had previously worked a quarry at Chipping Sodbury in Gloucestershire. The company was not involved in the major rationalisation of the industry in 1934 but was purchased the following year by Thomas Roberts. The quarry was re-equipped in the 1950s to supply an increasing demand for road and concrete aggregate. In 1959, Batts Coombe Quarry was incorporated into Roads Reconstruction (1934) Ltd. when owner, John Roberts took over the company.

Following the merger of Roads Reconstruction and Amy Roadstone Corporation in 1967, their quarry operations were reappraised. The stone at Batts Coombe, mostly the Burrington Oolite, had long been recognised for its high purity (approaching 99% calcium carbonate) with reserves amounting to 50 million tonnes. This enabled the company to successfully bid for a contract to supply high purity limestone to British Steel in South Wales to be used as a flux in the steel industry.

In 1974, the Krauss Maffei rotary lime kiln was commissioned. This was capable of producing 180 000 tonnes of lime per year, then one of the largest of its kind in Europe. The kiln, fired by liquid butane (a 'clean gas') heats the limestone up to 1500ºC, converting it from calcium carbonate to lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide. Full production started in 1976 when the Llanwern steel plant came on stream.

Current production from the quarry is about 1 million tonnes annually, of which a third is destined for lime-making, and the remainder for aggregates. In order to reduce waste, quarried material is now washed to remove fine particles and improve quality. In addition to lime making, this is also one of the few sites processing material for 'industrial' uses such as agriculture, animal feeds and industrial fillers. Large blocks are also used for sea and river defences.

Chelms Combe Quarry, Cheddar

Meanwhile George and Frederick Ford having relinquished Batts Coombe took up working at Chelmscombe Quarry in the 1930s just opposite Batts Coombe. This worked the less pure but harder parts of the Clifton Down Limestone Formation, particularly favoured for use as roadstone. It is understood that the quarry ceased working in the 1950s. By the mid 1960s the site had a new lease of life as a Tower Testing Station operated by the operated by the Central Electricity Generating Board and employing 100 or so people. In the 1980s the site was converted to test the strength of canisters to contain radioactive materials, but this also closed in about 1990.

As in the case of both Batts Coombe and Callow Hill, the Fords had a siding for loading material at Cheddar Station, but alas the line closed before quarry traffic increased significantly.

Landslip Quarry and Black Rock Quarry, Cheddar Gorge.

A small quarry, informally known as Landslip quarry was operated in Cheddar Gorge, opposite High Rock. John Wainwright & Co. was working limestone here in 1902. However, the newly formed National Trust was flexing its muscles, lobbying local authorities to press for the closure of these activities, in 1904 writing to Somerset County Council — 'for some years past the beauty of the cliffs had been marred by quarrying and that it was possible that the extent of the injury which would ensue if the present operations were allowed to continue'...'the spot where the work is carried on is at the finest part of the pass where the cliffs are, or were until the recent quarrying, precipitous on each side'.

Early quarrying probably comprised the removal of the scree slopes, but already there were objections to traffic and noise dust and nuisance from stone crushing machinery. By 1907 steam drilling machines were working the bedrock. The County Council acknowledged the damage and resolved to urge the land owners to close the operations; the Trust's cause was also backed by most local Councils in the area.

At Cheddar it was strongly argued that the Gorge was particularly iconic, being cited 'as one of the greatest ornaments in the west of England' and secondly there were very many alternative sources of stone locally in less sensitive areas. So environmental awareness is not a new phenomenon. The issues became even more pronounced when in February 1906, a major landslip occurred largely blocking the gorge. The claims that this event was triggered by quarrying appear to be borne out by earlier minor slippages from day to day as quarrying progressed. In 1909, the National Society for the Preservation of Places of Interest (National Trust) announced the purchase of a part of the Gorge from the Marquis of Bath and obtained assurances from the other landowners that they would not permit further quarrying on their land. The arrangement concluded in 1910 enabled Wainwright's to continue to meet contractual obligations but only from loose material lying fallen in the quarry; no further blasting was to take place. The contracts were to expire in March 1912. The Trust's statement indicated that 'the cliffs have been secured from all danger of further spoilation'.

However, quarrying also took place at Black Rock quarry where the Burrington Oolite was extracted. Very little is known of this working. Local accounts suggest that a small plant with a crusher and barrel screen (sieve) were operating here until about 1930. Black powder was used to break off large blocks which were then barred, wedged and dragged out. There was a limekiln but possibly not still operational at that stage. In about 1950 it appears to have come under the control of Batts Coombe Quarry Co. but had not resumed working. It should not be confused with the Black Rock Quarry Co. which was based at another Black Rock Quarry, near Portishead.

Callow Rock Quarry, and Shipham Gorge Quarries

The largest quarry in Shipham Gorge is Callow Rock, which is still operating. The Callow Rock Lime Co. Ltd. was incorporated in 1919 to manufacture high purity white lime and mainly exploited the Burrington Oolite. It was established by Herman (aka Henry) and Francis C. Tiarks, a well-known London banking family. Their aim was to create employment for troops returning from World War I. In the very early days the quarry and a small vertical kiln were both worked and loaded by hand. A small tramway carried stone to the kilntop. The company rapidly gained a good reputation for high grade lime, especially for the chemical industry, agriculture and building mortar (the latter sold under the name 'Calime').

Two further large kilns were added in 1922 and a larger, replacement plant to make hydrated lime. By 1926 it was selling 500 tonnes of lime a week. The kilns were fired by gas made on site from coal. A further more efficient kiln was erected in 1936. In the 1930s the lime was delivered to Cheddar Station sidings or the customer in Robey or Sentinel steam powered lorries, one (from 1933) of which is still in good working order and shown at steam rallies.

In 1946 the company branched out to produce lime-based coloured textured wall rendering material under the brand name 'Stonite' and by 1951, 110,000 tons of limestone was being extracted annually. In addition to the markets already mentioned, these were expanded to include water treatment and gas purification, sand-lime brick-making and even included exports to places as far apart as the East and West Indies. Lime from here was supplied as plaster for the Royal Festival Hall (1951). In 1961 Callow Rock was taken over by ECC Quarries, who increased aggregate production using new plant. By 1969, declining reserves of high purity stone, coupled with the ageing kilns led to the cessation of lime-burning.

The lower part of the quarry now accommodates a large concrete product plant developed particularly from the late 1980s onwards and which consumes much of the quarry output which has a capacity of just under a million tonnes a year. Since then, following a series of name changes, the company has become part of Aggregate Industries, now a member of the Swiss-based Holcim Group.

At least three quarries were present on the east side of Shipham Gorge in the 1880s. Two of these developed further, immediately opposite the present Callow Rock Quarry. This was operated by L W Bryant Quarries Ltd. in the 1930s to supply road base fill for major improvements to the nearby A38. However, the material produced was generally of poor quality and the quarry was assigned by Crow Catchpole Ltd. in lieu of a debt. In the early 1950s, with output at about 80 000 tons per year, it was one of the larger operations in the area. Catchpole Ltd. were taken over by Tarmac in 1959 at about which time the quarry closed. The site is now held in conjunction with Callow Rock Quarry.

To the south, Shipham Hill Quarry was acquired by the County Council in the late 1920s. Certainly it was one of 18 quarries owned by Somerset County Council in 1931 and was one of the four most important to them, continuing until it closed in 1976. The plant was removed and has been partly landfilled by waste material from Callow Rock quarry block-works.

Sandford Quarry

This quarry occupies a prominent site at the western end of the pronounced limestone ridge running eastwards to Burrington and beyond and is also located midway between Sandford and Winscombe villages. Like Callow Hill and Batts Coombe, it exploited the very pure Burrington Oolite.

Commercial quarrying began on Sandford Hill in the mid 19th century, and was given a particular boost when the branch line to the mainline at Yatton reached here in 1869. Sandford stone was reputed to have been used in the construction of Avonmouth Docks opened in 1877 and in the expansion of Temple Meads Station, Bristol, in the same period (although the main walling stone was from Draycott near Cheddar). However, even in 1885, the quarry appears to have had no direct rail connection to the branch line, only 300m away. At least two banks of lime kilns were then located here. Although those along Quarry Lane are the most evident, they were only some of many in the parish. By 1895, Alfred Weeks was running Sandford Hill Quarry with five men.

In 1910, the Winscombe Stone and Lime Co. Ltd. was registered as a private company with a capital of £2 000 to carry on the quarry businesses of A G Weeks at Winscombe and Sandford Hill quarries as 'quarry master', stone and lime merchant haulier. By 1920 the company had been reformed as Sandford and Conygar Quarries Co., taking in Conygar sandstone quarry near Portishead.

In 1922 there was a debate over the boundary between this quarry holding and that known as the 'Award land', owned by the ecclesiastical parish, where from 1798, parishioners had a right to obtain stone to meet their duty to repair local roads. The matter was resolved by the company agreeing to pay £8 a year for the privilege of working the site. A steam driven processing plant was introduced.

Soon after it became one of the first Somerset quarries to be absorbed by Roads Reconstruction Ltd. During World War II, Italian prisoners of war worked in the quarries and kilns with local men, with production rising to 50 000 tonnes in 1951. By the time the rail link closed in 1964, the working area had extended eastward creating 'a hollow tooth' feature. In the 1970s a medium sized aggregates plant served an asphalt unit and a concrete works, the latter consuming about half the output, roadstone making up about 25%. In 1972, like Batts Coombe and Callow Rock, the site fell within the area designated nationally as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the next year it also came within the newly created County of Avon (now North Somerset).

In 1993 Sandford Hill Quarry ceased working on the parish land, and in the mid 1990s, the quarry closed as part of an arrangement to extend Whatley Quarry. The 'award land' reverted to the parish and was converted to a nature reserve. Parts of the site are now used by the local activity centre 'The Action Centre' for training in climbing and abseiling.