Combe Down’s freestone is, of course, why the village exists. Combe Down’s quarries were heavily worked between 1730 and 1840 and did not cease operations until the early years of the 20th century. Over 40 quarries have been listed on Combe Down. In 1895 The Builder listed 10 open quarries and one mine on Combe Down. Upper Lawn Quarry, across the fields from Gladstone Road, continues to operate today, the last quarry on Combe Down.
According to The British Geological Survey: “The best freestones in the Chalfield Oolite are found in the upper part of the Combe Down Oolite Member and within the Bath Oolite Member, where the rocks are composed of fine- to coarse-grained ooid-limestone with a sparry cement and little matrix.”
When quarrying stone needs to be carefully removed and prepared for use without causing damage to or weakening of the stone and quarrying is hard work. When the Combe Down stone mines stabilisation was taking place, lots of graffiti was found and it provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the miners, throwing light on such matters as the price of beer in 19th century pubs and the miner’s often uncomplimentary attitude to their employers.
Two centuries of excavation of Bath stone left a huge void under the original parts of Combe Down village and so an infilling project was started. It lasted for 10 years from 1999 until 2009, covered 25.608 hectares, and affected 649 properties. The total volume of infill placed was 620,894 cubic metres, enough to cover a football pitch to a depth of nearly 90m.
A small point first. Despite some people’s insistence, and my own preference, that stone is quarried, in the UK a ‘mine’ is defined, legally, as an underground working and a ‘quarry’ as a site of mineral extraction without a roof. In other parts of the world, the world, ‘mining’ is used interchangeably with ‘quarrying’.
Brief history of quarrying Combe Down stone
Bath stone was used by the Romans, who were probably the first to quarry on Combe Down from the 1st to 5th centuries, but, with hundreds of years of quarrying at the same sites, all evidence of earlier workings has been lost and there are no written accounts.
The Anglo-Saxons built mostly in wood though in the 7th century Osric founded the first Abbey in Bath. The Saxons had a ready supply of material left from the Roman era and even today some Roman stone is still visible in Bath Abbey. A later Abbey was built and used for the coronation of Edgar in 973, but this was demolished in 1088. Whether any of these buildings used Combe Down stone is unknown.
It was, of course, Ralph Allen who transformed the landscape of Combe Down and started the village with his quarrying activities. He had begun to purchase land on Combe Down in 1726 and by 1731, he held a monopoly over the quarries. By 1744 he owned the entire area and, with architect John Wood, had planned and put into effect a complete rebuilding of Bath using Bath stone, the best source of which was on Combe Down. Together they were responsible for Prior Park, Queen Square, The Circus and the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases.
Ralph Allen died in 1764 and his estate eventually passed to the Viscount Hawarden who took no active interest in the stone mines and quarries, but was happy to rent them out. The first Viscount Hawarden died indebted in 1803 and his son began to sell of the estate to pay his debts. Individual quarry masters were now able to purchase land to quarry. There was a steady influx of skilled migrants from the Corsham / Melksham area as stone production expanded and thus began probably the most productive period of quarrying on Combe Down.
The ‘boom’ was relatively short lived. Underground evidence suggests that by 1840 most of the stone had been quarried and the coming of the railways led to newly discovered workings at Box and Corsham to provide an alternative source of supply. But, though less was quarried, Combe Down stone was still recognised as of superior quality. According to Horace Bolingbroke Woodward in 1876: “In regard to the qualities of the Great Oolite, the best stone for weathering is considered to be that at Combe Down;…”
Although quarrying fell into decline after 1840, it continued in some parts of Combe Down, particularly on the north side of Bradford Road, until well into the 20th century. Combe Down has had both quarries and mines though only one, Upper Lawn Quarry continues to operate today, the last quarry on Combe Down.
All this activity in the the stone mines and quarries left a legacy – underground workings. By the 1980s, roof collapses at Firs Quarry led to housing subsidence and an underground survey of the Firs and Byfield quarries was carried out in 1994. It found that approximately 80% of the underground quarries had less than 6m cover and as little as 2m in some places. Irregular quarrying and robbing stone from supporting pillars had left the quarries unstable.
A stabilisation program was started. By 2009 the project was complete. The result was that 649 properties were stabilised, most domestic homes. The total volume of infill placed was 620,894 cubic metres, enough to cover a football pitch to a depth of nearly 90m. 590,894 cubic metres of foamed concrete, plus 30,000 cubic metres of stone were placed into the quarries.