Bearah Tor Quarry
The track from the road to the quarry is easily found and is bounded by mossy stone built hedge banks topped with outgrown multi-stemmed hawthorn, hazel and sycamore which form a shady canopy above.
You can see the gate ahead, a bright aperture through which you’ll pass onto the open moor. Centuries of over grazing on this upland have created a unique landscape which is slowly changing with a different management.
Farmers are no longer subsidized for the number of animals they produce but instead for the amount of acres they have. Hill farmers have been traditionally acre rich but production poor, given the harsh conditions in which they are raising animals. Now the pressure is off there is less need to go for maximum grazing and the moor is beginning to look a bit shaggier as a result.
I don’t think anyone would want to see the landscape change entirely as it has evolved alongside human habitation since the Neolithic period and has its own ecology – but a few more trees, areas of scrub and increased hillocks in the grassland can only be good for wildlife.
As you make your way up the hill there is a sign on the gate proclaiming with intrigue that this is a working quarry.
Pass through the gate and make your way upward along the track.
Possibly because the side of the hill is in the lee of the wind there is a gentle feel to this moorland scene. A dry stream bed snakes through long tufted grass pinpricked with heads of bracken which hides rocky knolls and dips.
Huge rounded boulders are fringed with trees; small oaks and twisted sycamore. The tell tale rags of lichen drape the branches, whispering about the clean wet air. Rarely seen, a fairly mature gnarled holly stands alone, leaves dark and glossy.
Holly – once probably nibbled by sheep, hence it’s multi-stem appearance. We lift granite from the quarry itself and cut and dress stone from different quarry's which is brought onto site from different places. As there are not many places doing this type of work, stone can come from quite far.
A lot of our work is for local projects but we do a fair amount for historic buildings all over the country. Today there are just three of us, but we also have an apprentice, putting things in place for the years ahead. We have worked here for 80 years.
Regarding the history of quarrying in general on Bodmin Moor, the Tors and hills have been quarried for granite for over 6000 years. Incredibly durable, it was used for major monuments and buildings throughout the centuries including Early Neolithic chambered tombs and long cairns.
Later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age standing stones, stone circles, stone rows and burial cists. Much later, granite-clad office blocks, 19th century lighthouses and 20th century war memorials are like the modern sisters to these ancient monuments.
The early medieval period saw inscribed stones and crosses and later medieval wayside crosses, bridges and churches. The granite was used extensively in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for bridges, dockyards and churches and other important monuments, toiled over by quarrymen to produce perfectly dressed stone.
It was also used after the two world wars for the headstones of the dead. Smaller pieces were used at least from Tudor times for lintels, jambs, mullions, thresholds and other principal stones in domestic buildings.
It was also an essential part of farming, being used for gateposts, field rollers, salting troughs, pig troughs, cider mills and presses. A miller would grind the flour with it, and others, including tinners (mining) and claymen (china clay) needed a stone which was strong and hard.
Granite of lesser quality with its densely packed vertical joints and dykes of elvan (quartz porphyry) which easily crumbled also started to be quarried in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for roadstone and ballast.
Industrial scale quarrying on remote Tors only became commercially viable with the advent of better road access and a more efficient method of splitting. Prior to this they were visited for centuries by stone splitters, laboriously
chiselling series of grooves and using metalwedges to cleave the granite.
Mostly these splitters and skilled stone-masons used surface stone, or ‘grass-rock’, the large weathered blocks which are scattered over the landscape.
From around 1800 the plug and-feather method for splitting stone was used, which meant hand drilling series of holes, then placing short iron chisels, the ‘plugs’, between pairs of thin iron feathers which reached the bottom of the holes.
Striking the plugs cleanly in turn brought percussive pressure to the sides of the holes and thence to the heart of the stone, making splitting more efficient. From the outset, deftly controlled blasting was also used to extract the stone before splitting, using gunpowder in hand drilled charge holes, lit by a safety fuse. The powder was stored in small secure powder houses or magazines, away from the main quarry.
The fortunes of the Bodmin Moor quarries were always unpredictable, even though some attempts were made to churn out the more stable products like headstones and setts. But in the end, competition from abroad forced many of these moor quarries to close. Our’s has survived as a going concern for specialist pieces. We used heat up, quench and re-temper tools in the forge.
Now the quality of tungsten is so good we don’t need to.
Hopefully this yard will survive into the future but one thing is for sure, what will remain forever are the plug-and feather and charge holes, the traces of cleaving etched indelibly into rock.
As already mentioned we continue to lift granite from our site, one such occasion was in fact of recent years. We were asked by H.R.H. Prince Charles if we could supply a suitably large piece of granite to be used as a monument for a top secret organization named COPP during World War 2 down on the South Coast of England, on Hayling Island.
We found a piece weighing around 12 tons and with our in house skills we transformed it into what is now a prominent landmark on the beach at Hayling Island.