The Village of Beer: East Devon

Flint Mining in Beer

Beer’s economy has for thousands of years centered around the four main primary industries, forestry, farming, fishing and mining, all of which still play a part, though these are now supplemented by light industry and tourism.

Beer’s geology has determined much of its history and contributed to its early success. The white cliffs, that so dominate Beer’s geography, show lines of dark flint that early man was after. These white cliffs are part of the formation that starts at Flamborough Head and includes the famous white cliffs of Dover. Beer is the only outcrop on the South Coast of Devon where this chalk formation is exposed, and apart from beach flints, which are little good for tool making, Beer is the last point going west where Stone Age man could mine good quality black unpatinated flint. There is tentative evidence to suggest man was here in Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) times, but it is in the Neolithic that Beer really makes its mark. There is an abundance of evidence in the form of tools, flakes and cores within the Parish boundary to confirm this presence. By New Stone Age times, 4,000 – 2,000 BC, Beer was trading this vital raw material all over the West Country. Beer flint has been found at many sites including Hembury, Haldon and as far west as Carn Brea in Cornwall. The exact method used to mine flint in Beer is not known. There are places where t he surface is pock marked similar to the mines at Grimes Graves, Norfolk. There are many cliff faces in Beer, besides the sea cliffs, where it would have been possible to obtain flint without the need for subterranean workings. Small caves do occur, but are probably natural and not man made. Underground workings would have been restricted by the need to support the roofs and light the tunnels. However, the Roman mines mentioned below are man made, extend over seventy acres below ground and were worked right up until this century by candle-light.

With the coming of the Bronze Age (a barb and tanged flint arrow head has been found) and later the Iron Age, the importance of flint declined, but the earth had more to offer. It was the Romans this time that exploited the next product to be mined here, Beer Free Stone. Known for its quality and ease of carving, it has been used not only in local buildings (Starre House), but in many famous ones further afield, such as Exeter and Winchester Cathedrals. With few interruptions, Beer Stone has been mined right up to the present day.

After flint and stone came sand for building, and lime for spreading on arable farm land, a cheaper and, in many cases, a more environmentally friendly product than modern fertilisers. However, flint was not totally forgotten, it made its re-emergence with the advent of fire arms and it is said that Beer supplied over half of the Model Army’s needs for their flintlocks during the English Civil War. Flint has also been used, over the past several hundred years, as a building material, of which there are many fine examples in Beer. One of the most notable being the Dolphin Hotel, where all the flint was hand picked for its shape face and prominent black colour. There are also buildings in Beer (Sunny Nook) which feature brown flint. In recent times it was collected from local beaches (pebble picking) for use in industry.

For those of you who wish to know more about the history of mining and Beer, I suggest a visit to the Roman Mines in Quarry lane and books by authors John Scott and Arthur Chapple, both natives of this village.


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