Quarrying in south Purbeck
Purbeck stone has long been prized by builders and masons, and the history of quarrying it goes back at least as far as the Roman occupation.
In the Middle Ages it was used in some of the nation’s most important buildings and by the 18th and 19th centuries Purbeck quarries were major employers.
Today quarrying on the land we look after in south Purbeck continues on a scale designed to maintain an important tradition while being sustainable in the long term.
Purbeck marble was a particular favourite of the Romans who used it for decorative items such as stone sarcophagi in which important people were buried.
Though it is not a true marble but a form of hard limestone, it could be polished like the Mediterranean marble the Romans loved for their statues and monuments.
Its use continued into the medieval era but the seams have long since been worked out and the Purbeck marble trade no longer exists.
Purbeck stone as we think of it today is a high quality limestone laid down in series of beds between 155 and 45 million years ago in what was then a landscape of shallow seas and brackish lagoons.
Limestone is a sedimentary rock formed as the remains of billions of tiny sea creatures are compressed together over time.
Medieval builders loved Purbeck stone for its strength and durability. Not surprisingly, it provided the stone for Corfe Castle as it developed from the 11th century onwards, as well as many nearby buildings from cottages to churches.
But its fame extended well beyond the local area and Purbeck stone was used in some of the grandest building projects of the Middle Ages.
Westminster Abbey, Salisbury Cathedral and many churches built in the Gothic and Early English styles owe a debt to Purbeck.
When Sir Christopher Wren was given the task of rebuilding London following the great fire of 1666 it was a material he turned to for some of his most prestigious works, notably St Paul’s Cathedral.
The earliest quarries were no more than shallow scrapes in the ground, but as the industry developed quarrymen needed to delve deeper.
Underground quarries or quarrs were dug, usually in the form of a series of tunnels or ‘lanes’ leading from a central shaft where a horse hauled the stone to the surface using a pulley system.
Most were small family businesses and life for the quarrymen was hard and often dangerous – collapsing tunnels claimed many lives.
Norman’s Quarry near Spyway shows how a quarry of this type would have looked on the surface.
As demand grew between the 17th and 19th centuries, sea quarries like Dancing Ledge, Seacombe and Winspit developed.
Here, stone taken from the cliffs would be lowered onto platforms cut into the rock at sea level from where it could be loaded onto barges and eventually transferred onto larger vessels waiting offshore.
Large scale quarrying in Purbeck reached its peak in the late 19th century before decline set in.
Dancing Ledge was worked until 1914 and production ceased at Winspit in 1953. Today they are places for picnickers, bird watchers and lovers of adventure sports like climbing and coasteering.
The family quarrying tradition continues on National Trust land near Acton however. Here we work with stone producers to ensure a sustainable cycle of small scale production followed by restoration for agriculture and nature conservation.