“Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the property of spaces and the possibilities of time.”
Jacques Rancière (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum: London, p. 13.
You’re standing in the vast nave of Exeter Cathedral, staring up at the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England.
“When visiting such places most of us have gazed in awe at lofty stone arches and intricately carved tracery, each paying tribute to the masons who have fashioned them with loving care. Few amongst us, however, have given a passing thought to the men who provided them with their raw materials by working deep underground, enduring conditions of extreme hardship and danger, to wrest the stone from its natural bed” (Scott & Gray n.d.: 1)
In a previous post I’ve written about the after-life of stone fragments released (or prised) from crumbling ruins [here]. In contrast, in this post I will wander Beer Quarry Caves – the origin point of stone blocks that went into many of the grandest Medieval English cathedrals – in the company of a tour guide, walking through the vast underground spaces from which the cathedral’s rock was hewn and thinking about the possibilities of animating absent quarrymen, their toil and their stone prize.
Beer Quarry Caves, in East Devon were founded by the Romans in AD50 and then worked continuously for nearly two thousand years. The Roman entrance sits beside the Norman one, slightly apart – a few feet – and yet a thousand years too, the intruding rays of sunlight revealing thousands of pick marks on each threshold, in each case the ancient scrapes of very long ago. The Roman’s quarried into the cliffs from landward, at first in open workings and then following the ¼ mile wide seam of this 65 million year old chalk limestone underground, beneath the burden of 100 feet of overlying rock. In doing so, generation by generation, they and their successors inched forward a trail of Cathedral-like voids of excavated space: the pitch-black darkness now the spent inverse of the evacuated beautiful creamy-white, fine textured limestone won from this strata’s 13 foot seam of desire.
The Bishops of Exeter leased the quarries for centuries – but the reformation in 1540 saw the collapse of ecclesiastical demand for Beer Stone, and for a while the mine fell silent, then finding more modest secular (and local) uses for it, with some resurgence in the Victorian thirst for urban church building. Production finally ceased in 1920, leaving a 75 acre underground labyrinth comprised of sturdy stone pillars and the void spaces between: the extracted stone now elsewhere: dried, hardened and discoloured by centuries of exposure to sky.
What is there to see in the dark?
As Strangleman (2013) notes, a mine erases itself, though fulfilment (and exhaustion) of its purpose. It is a place at which there is nothing to see as such. The extracted stone is normally the story – and the places created with it – as Knoop & Jones noted back in 1938 the histories of stone are of their use, not their production.
The recorded story of Beer Stone is of its diffusion, its mobility (by sea) – Beer stone recorded on masons’ stock rolls at London Bridge (1350), Rochester Castle (1368) and Westminster Abbey (early 1400s), the result of impressive networks of supply. Tracing these networks is a challenge in itself, a trail only partially satisfied by ancient archives, as Edensor has argued. Seeking to explicate the networks by which metropolitan Manchester’s stone found its way into (being) the heart of that Victorian city, Edensor set out to trace stone’s urban materiality: seeking out the relations and the consequences of the mineral ‘stuff-ness’ of cities and their buildings, and adopting multiple methods to find the “multiple traces of other time-spaces … [amidst]… an affective and sensual encounter with materiality that promotes empathy with other times, people, events and non-human agents.” (450) This tracing takes Edensor (and us) to the stone-source, the quarry: a former ‘workspace’ (literally worked-space) – a space made by work.
At Beer Quarry Caves the remains of quarrying tools from Roman era onwards, found within spoil filled chambers, testify to a day in day out playing out of working lives, alongside the working marks, scrapes, scratches, spoil, candle burns and graffiti. Walking into the workings is to walk amongst eras of excavation within paces of each other – but out striding as spectator the inch by inch creep of the working faces: Roman arches, then the more rudimentary square openings of the Saxons, then a turn into the expanded halls of the Normans, all adjacent to hundreds of subsequent years of steady workings up to 1920, and connected up by the mine’s poly-era workways, and their ‘robbed pillars’ showing the scars of subsequent trimming of stone from these ancient bulwarks, the quick winning of stone by shaving it from the pillar by sawing the one remaining connecting face, rather than an arduous six (as entailed in cutting a block free from virgin rockbed).
Here – in this gloom – is human/matter relationality: the pragmatism of ‘corner cutting’, the working lives and family fortunes entwined in the prising out of this stone. These traces speak to the toil at this place, as does the following scrawl, scratched into a pillar in angry Norman French deep within the workings:
“Master mason, you built your cathedral towards heaven
With stone that was quarried from hell.”
But in what sense can we know this toil? What illuminates these voids? What creates the experience of being there? How much hangs on the interlocutor and the narration of this place? Without lighting, without a pathway through the cave complex this would be meaningless unilluminated space – truly dark void. This place becomes animated by our guide’s (re)performance of the lives of this quarry, his eloquent foregrounding of background, of revealing the worked – made – space of this subterranean honeycomb: the incidental cathedral-like spaces of this evacuated rock mass.
Our guide’s incantations make us think of the 15 hours a day, 6 days a week toil, and of a quarryman presenting a four tonne quarried block to the foreman – the ‘touchstone’ – at the end of the lightless day – only to be paid if the rock ‘rang true’ in retort to his expert strike upon it. Our guide also emotes, narrating centuries of local antagonism, speaking a bitterness towards the productive focus of the Bishopric, and its driving of production at this site in the Middle Ages, of the collapse of a piece of the quarry roof in 1758 response to a surface explosion – 48 men and one boy killed, the owner’s only question in response to that news: “Have we lost any horses?”
There is ancestral bitterness directed at the masons too. An up-welling of the ages-old division between the local quarrymen and the far better paid stone masons who would often visit the site, sourcing blocks and working them underground in their softer – still moist – form. The secrecy of the masons kept the local quarrymen at bay, keeping to their brotherhood their valuable stone carving skills. It was not until 1856 that one – William Cawley – finally became a stone mason – entering the brotherhood using a community collection given to William’s grandmother after her husband was killed during a local smuggling accident in 1801.
And that smuggling – our guide told us – also still resonated within the culture of the local village and of its underground quarry. Brandy from France, Port from Spain and Portugal, hidden in the darkness sought out by customs men, deadly skirmishes and all. And to this day, the fisherman of the village chide our guide that he is the descendant of a customs man. There is then – via our evocative guide and his story-telling – a sense of a lingering symbiotic connection between the caves and the local village, and that there is much that is left behind in the caves, sedimented there: discarded tools, voids, relations, attitudes, grievances and their attendant affects. And quarrying phrases too, now hovering – decontextualized – in everyday speech: ‘To broach’ – to prick, indent or furrow the surface of stone with a narrow-pointed stone chisel. ‘Stone deaf’ – occupational deafness from the thunderous echo of constant blows, iron against stone. ‘Worth a candle’ – each quarryman having to buy five animal tallow candles per day, and decide whether an area of rock was worth the effort – and cost – of the meagre lighting to be brought to its working.
Visiting the past?
And so, we stand as an audience listening to these stories – but are we communing with stone, with the quarrymen or just with our narrator? Standing in the spot of the 1758 roof collapse we know – and feel – nothing of this incident until told of it. We walk Roman to Saxon to Norman in the space of a few strides. The arch work changes, that is our only sign, the stone is uniform throughout. This area’s substance is its void. This place is a curation of absence.
High and Lewis (2007) in their attack upon urban exploration, reject industrial experiential tourism, asserting that “Spelunking can be read as akin to dancing on a grave” (29). For them such spectatorship completes an insensitivity twice meted out by the non-working class, first in bringing about closure, second in the spectatorship of a “post-industrial necrology.” (29). But High and Lewis’ attack on urban explorers for a decontextualized appropriation, of generic – disconnected – fetishized images, assumes that no attempt is being made to connect with the specificity of a former workplace, its tasks and histories. Strangleman (2013), defends modern attempts to construct an engagement with sites of past labour – and sees in short-term engagement with them – each generation making its methods, finding its own way to take something from the past, and pursue (each generation for its own reasons) a ‘remembrance of lost work’ – there are indeed many ways of remembering.
A trip to Beer Quarry Caves shows that a good guide, using the time and space of passage through a place and a deft unfurling of its stories, can animate even the darkest, emptiest subterranean void.
But, in our journey back towards the mouth of this mine there is a spectre to meet, the (as Derrida styled it) ‘spectre of Marx’. Our guide frames this place in the conventional politico-materialist language of people actualising through work, through actions upon matter, socio-economic relations of production and the progressive movement of distinct historical epochs – all the raison d’etre of amateur industrial archaeology. As such this framing alludes to “concrete political forms” (Cheah, 2010: 89) flowing back to Marx’s dialectical materialism (that history is headed somewhere, that it embodies conflict between distinct social groupings, that history is driven by relations with matter and power). Edensor’s materialism is more vitalist, and in seeking to speak the alterity of urban stone (its flux over time, ungovernability of matter, its otherness and resistance to human dominion). Given that the human-labour-achievement-over-matter frame remains so dominant it is perhaps no surprise that ‘new’ materialists get accused of forgetting the toils of labouring people. New materialists would point out – perhaps – that human labour is not being denied, but rather shown alongside a much wider constellation of factors and forces. But that does result in a de-emphasis, the moral-political implications of which perhaps need working through more.
We leave our guide now, he’s back at the entrance, gathering the next tour group, getting them in the mood by passing around a Roman coin found recently near the entrance. Our guide knows both what he will say, and how to pace it for maximum effect. Whether in the bravura of performance or genuine ancestral angst, he will once again take the opportunity to colourfully re-assert the quarryman over the masons, the cathedral, the sky and the surface world. He will once again weave thing and story in a way that activates some slight – but compelling – sense of others’ (and our own) material relations.
Beer Quarry Caves Ltd (n.d.) Beer Quarry Caves – www.beerquarrycaves.co.uk
Cahill, K. (2008) Beer Quarry Caves – Global & Western Media Productions at: http://www.jurassiccoast.org/downloads/news/beer_quarry_caves.pdf
Cheah, P. (2010) ‘Non-Dialectical Materialism’ in Coole, D. & Frost, S.A. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics, Duke University Press: London.
Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Vital urban materiality and its multiple absences: the building stone of central Manchester’ Cultural Geographies, 20, 447-465.
High, S & Lewis, D.W. (2007) Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of De-Industrialisation, New York.
Knoop, D. & Jones, J.P. (1938) ‘The English Medieval Quarry’ The Economic History Review, 9 (1), 17-37.
Scott, J. & Gray, G. (n.d.) Out of the Darkness: A brief history and description of the Old Stone Quarry, Beer, Axminster Printing co. Ltd
Strangleman, T. (2013) ‘“Smokestack Nostalgia”, “Ruin Porn” or Working-Class Obituary: The role and meaning of deindustrialised representation’ International Labour and Working Class History, 84, 23-37.