The Old Quarry ~ Thursday’s Special

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I’ve always found quarries disturbing places – the wholesale delving into the earth, the ravaged landscapes left behind. And yes, I know we need the resources. (Our own house is built of this fossilized Silurian Sea, although actually I’d be just as happy with brick or timber).

Shadwell Quarry behind Much Wenlock’s Windmill Hill is only one of the many old limestone quarries along Wenlock Edge. These days they are no longer worked but host various business enterprises that simply need a large amount of storage space. Quarry owners are supposed to do some restoration after the blasting has stopped, but I’ve not noticed much of this actually happening.

These photos show how slowly recolonization of quarried land takes place. (For an aerial view go HERE.) It has been twenty years since Shadwell was decommissioned.

The water in the quarry bottom is also a strange blue, almost turquoise at times, coloured by the limestone deposits. At over seventy feet deep, it lures tipsy young men to prove their manliness by diving in from one of the man-made cliffs while their mates film the act and post the videos on You Tube. Last summer I spotted gangs of school leavers heading off behind Windmill Hill. They were armed with ghetto blasters and towels and I overheard them saying they were ‘going to the beach’.

It’s interesting how people’s perceptions of places differ. One sees ‘exciting resort’; another oppressive dereliction – albeit with strains of desolate grandeur.

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I’ve written more about the history of Wenlock’s limestone quarrying  at Hidden Wenlock #4

This week at Lost in Translation Paula’s theme is ‘forbidding’. Please call in there if you want to take part in the challenge. She suggests many possibilities for interpretation.

5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #4

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As I’ve been writing these pieces about the less obviously seen quarters of my home town, I’ve been aware that there is a danger of casting all in a glow of antique glamour.

It’s true that these days Much Wenlock is a very attractive place to visit. For a small town, the range of architecture (representing as it does a thousand years of continuous human habitation), is fascinating. There are grand medieval mansions, and  small stone cottages, and many quirky vernacular details. The magnificent timbered Guild Hall glimpsed below, and dating from 1540, is still the town’s council chamber, and with seats that feel like the rock of ages to those of us who have sat through many a council meeting.

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But this is all very well. For centuries, life for the labouring people of Wenlock must have been pretty grim, and one of the grimmest places to work must surely have been in the town’s many quarries, known locally as ‘the Rocks’, which I think says it all.

I’ve explained elsewhere how the town sits beneath the twenty-mile limestone scarp of Wenlock Edge, an up-thrust fossilised, tropical seabed. I’ve written, too, of how the limestone has been exploited for centuries, and at least since Roman times. Milburga’s Saxon monastery, parts of which survive beneath the parish church, was built of local stone, as was the grand Norman priory that superseded it. Later, after the Dissolution, much of the stone was re-purposed in many of the town’s buildings, and often used to clad earlier  timber-framed buildings. So it is that many of the town’s oldest surviving dwellings, including a medieval hall or two, are quite hidden from view behind much later stone facades.

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Other key uses for the quarried limestone were as a flux in the growing iron industry (i.e. from at least the late 17th century) and for lime burning to make fertiliser and building mortar.

For centuries quarrying would have been a manual task with heavy hammers, rammer bars, stone rakes and barrows as the quarrymen’s main tools. The use of black powder explosives, and then gelignite for blasting, was a much more recent practice, and not without its own serious hazards.

Lime-burners also had their kilns near the quarries, but operations were seasonal, and lime-burners did not appear to make much of a living despite the demand for their products.

The quarry featured in this post is Shadwell or Shady Well Quarry. It lies directly behind Windmill Hill, and is the nearest one to our house.

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Workings here seem to have begun only in 1849 when Francis and John Yates of Ironbridge took a 14-year lease of a new quarry in Windmill Hill field, later called Shadwell Rock. They expected to dig 9,000 tons a year ( Glyn Williams Much Wenlock’s Limestone Quarries). In the 1860s the arrival of the railway plus the provision of a dedicated siding, saw Shadwell develop into an industrial operation. The South Wales & Cannock Chase Coal & Coke Company took over the lease, and in 1873 despatched 22,500 tons of iron fluxing stone to the Black Country in England’s industrial Midlands.

The quarry continued to be worked until 1996. Since then it has been left amid growing desolation. A few years ago there were plans to open a diving school with fifty cabins in the woods below the windmiill, but nothing came of it. The water has a strange blue-green hue which makes me think of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris. The pool is said to be over 70 feet deep and, from time to time, daft young men who have had too much cider, film themselves diving off one of the cliffs. There have been a few near misses survival-wise.

But at least some life forms have been making good use of the cliff faces. Since the blasting stopped peregrine falcons have begun to nest here. The same is apparently true for the other abandoned quarries along the Edge. There are ravens there too, although not yet at Shadwell. Perhaps they will come. It’s a pleasing thought: a case of positive re-purposing.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Related:

Sun setting over Wenlock Edge: Or did the earth move?

Old stones of Wenlock: repurposing the Silurian Sea

 

5 Photos 5 Stories Challenge

Pauline at Memories Are Made of This nominated me to take up this challenge. The idea is to  “post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger for the challenge”.

So today I would like to nominate Hanne T Fisker. She takes stunning photographs. Her blog is called Simplicity of Being, but her compositions brim with textural drama, and the light-and-shade complexities of the natural world. Please take a look at her work.

Winterscapes on Wenlock Edge: Thursday’s Special

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I have said elsewhere (In the old stones of Wenlock) how our cottage in Much Wenlock is built from a recycled fossil sea bed – the stony remnants of the 400 million year old Silurian Sea that once lay in the tropics off East Africa. If you want to know more of this extraordinary geological phenomenon, please follow the link.

Here in the midst of northern hemisphere weather, a warm sea in Shropshire is a hard concept to grasp, but then Shropshire was south of the equator back then. All the same, I would give much at this moment to soak myself in clear tropical waters – as long as giant Silurian water scorpions are not included.

Anyway, this is the rear view from our cottage window. At the front we look at oversized passing heavy goods vehicles. In some ways I like the ambiguity of our position, poised between the rush and rumble of commercial imperative, and the monumental  immanence of Wenlock Edge – between the speeding trucks and a hard, quiet place. The Edge of course  is mostly made of limestone – the compressed remains dead sea creatures. At some point the sea bed was shunted upwards to make the long escarpment that is now a striking landmark across the south east of the county.

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From our house we look towards the back of the Edge. Some undulating ‘foothills’ obscure an actual view of it, but we see the big sky above the  escarpment, and have a sense of weather always moving behind the horizon. The cottage, then, is not only on the Edge and of the Edge, the Edge is the reason why it is here at all.

So far our researches have been rather patchy, but we think the house was built around 1830. It was probably a squatter cottage, meaning that  it was built on the local landowner’s property, and a rent or fine was paid to him by the inhabitants. The first occupants appear to have been lime burners, working at nearby limekilns. The limestone was burned to make quick lime that was used for fertilizer, for building mortar, and for lime wash for walls inside and out . It was an immensely important commodity.

It is hard to imagine, though, what the atmosphere of Much Wenlock would have been like in lime burning days. The town sits in a hollow, a frost pocket. On cold winter’s days one imagines a fog of fumes from roasted limestone shrouding the rooftops. Doubtless it would have been corrosive on the lungs too.

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This last shot was taken in January from the top of Wenlock Edge. Here we have the cooling towers of Ironbridge coal-fired Power Station (its days are numbered), and the Ironbridge Gorge beyond. Limestone once played a crucial role in that locality too, used as a flux in the iron masters’ blast furnaces in Coalbrookdale. Along the River Severn just south of these steaming towers, the Industrial Revolution began with the first casting of iron using coke as a fuel. It is hard to picture I know, much like a fossil tropical ocean in Shropshire, but the technological breakthroughs made in this English backwater spurred on the world’s drive to industrialisation.

It would seem that the Silurian Sea and its petrified molluscs and sea lilies have much to answer for.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Inspired by Paula’s Thursday’s Special: cold