Beer Quarry Caves

Quarry Caves

For 2000 years men, women, and children trod the path to and from the Quarry. 

"Master mason, you built your cathedral towards heaven with stone that was quarried from hell."

We donned our hard hats with curiosity and entered the Beer Quarry Caves. I was swept away by the wooded path into the caverns—the gated entrance drips with green vitality and allure. But, the Beer Quarry Caves have a very different story to tell, one of hard labor and the might of injustice. Laborers—men, women, and children—died here, in the underbelly of England.

When underground, Beer Limestone is so moist and saturated with water that carving intricate detail is possible. Once above ground, however, the stone dries, becoming five times harder and ideally suited to withstand centuries of blustering English weather. Due to the proximity of the coast, Beer stone was often transported hundreds of miles to be used throughout England, including the Exeter Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and the Tower of London. These conditions put Beer limestone in high demand, which begs a 2000-year history of low-paid workers and exploitation.

As the gated metal entrance to the Quarry creaks closed and one’s eyes adjust to the dim light, guided tours find themselves in the Roman cavern. Roman archways, caved into the limestone ceiling for support, typify this space. Moisture drips and clings to the grimy cave walls, so one can only imagine—or visit the Exeter Cathedral—the creamy white beauty of the carved, dried, and finished stone. But, one does not need to imagine the instruments the Romans used to quarry the stone for their villas—Roman tool-marks, an array of chips and divots in the limestone, are still visible on the walls.

As the tour continues, Roman archways are replaced with square vaults that characterize the Saxon portion of the Quarry, which dates back to 530 AD. In one alcove, the walls are peppered with dozens of scorch marks. These ashen smudges are all that remain of a mason’s workshop. Unlike Quarry laborers—who had to buy their only source light, tallow candles, out of pocket—stonemasons were allotted unlimited, free candles for their workstation. The singed walls are testament to the superior conditions (and pay) of stonemasons and the brutal hierarchy within the Quarry. Except, while stonemasons did escape the terror of the dark, the smell of the caves was an equalizer, something every one stomached. The reek of the tallow candles (made from animal fat) was nothing, our guide notes with a grim chuckle, compared to the smell of hundreds of defecating livestock used to haul the stone from the quarry depths.


Quarry Caves

The Quarry awaits.

Quarry Caves

A stonemason's worshop. 

Greater and Lesser Horseshoe bats, a relatively recent addition to the caves, are not the only bodies to have sought refuge in the Quarry. The dark chambers have secured both smugglers and persecuted Catholics. However, little evidence of Catholic resilience remains - intricate decorations that once adorned an underground, illicit Catholic sanctuary were stolen from the cavern in the twentieth century. These artifacts are now rumored to decorate the private chapel in the Houses of Parliament. 

Quarry Caves

A Saxon alcove. 

Quarry Caves

Laborers worked by the light of a single tallow candle fixed to mud "helmets" with a hunk of clay

The Seacoast authors are grateful to the managers of The Beer Quarry Caves. We are especially indebted to our Quarry tour guide and storyteller, who works to share the history of the Quarry with poignant remembrance for those who died within its depths. For more information, and to plan a visit to the caves, please visit their website,

Works Consulted:

Reflective of high demand for Beer stone during the time, the Norman area is the Quarry’s largest. In this section—which is often described as an underground cathedral for its echoing expanse—our guide detailed the process Quarry workers would have endured to excavate a single four-ton block of limestone by hand. The Norman process, he notes, hardly changed since Roman times. Working in teams of 5-6 young men, one brave young soul, crawling on his stomach, would wield his pickaxe to remove just enough stone on the top and sides of the block. After the top and sides of the block were freed, steel wedges were hammered into the base of the stone, effectively loosening the prize. At this point, a stonemason would come to inspect the quality of the stone. Since quarrymen were only paid if the stone was of sound quality (literally, the mason would tap the stone to hear if it “rang true”), men would wait with bated breath for the stonemason’s approval. If received, the stone was loaded onto a cart to be pulled away by horses and mules. If, however, the stone was not of superior quality, workers would smash the stone into rubble—in this case, the quarry men were not paid. Typically, quarry laborers worked 15 hours each day for six days each week. And, even as laborers stumbled from the mouth of the Quarry at the end of the day, many would walk three to four miles home, through the woods.

With a sliver of light visible at the end of the passage, our guide shared one last story. We would have missed the mass grave without a directive to look to our right. Visible through a small passageway, a pile of rubble indicates the final resting place of dozens of men, women, and one eight year old boy who died in a collapse caused by a surface explosion in 1758. The site has never been excavated, but our guide enumerated the injustice of the collapse. The Quarry owner, eager to expedite the process of excavation by using dynamite, sent an eight-year old boy to warn the underground laborers of the explosion and the inevitable collapse of the caves. But, growing impatient, the owner ordered the explosion before the young boy could be heard above the din. The owner’s only reply to the death of these unsuspecting laborers was: “have we lost any horses?”

Leaving the caves, our guide stopped to gesture towards the only place in England where one can see, and indeed touch, two tectonic plates, slowly merging. These plates, colliding into one another, are a wonderful metaphor for the collision of narratives among the cavern - our guide works daily to cast light on those whose history and story has been left, too long, buried underground.


Text © Abbie Titcomb 
Photos © Megan Otto


Quarry Caves, Beer