A Visit to Beer

The Jurassic Coast stretches for some 95 miles from Studland Bay in Dorset to Exmouth in East Devon and is said to reveal 185 million years of the Earth’s history. It was awarded UNESCO status in 2001 and is well known as a site rich in prehistoric remains.

Many people have heard about Mary Anning and go there hoping to find a fossil on the beach. Mary was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis and often went fossil collecting with her father and brother. At the age of 12, Mary discovered the first complete Ichthyosaur skeleton, and it is showcased at the London Natural History Museum. My Great, Great, Grandfather, George Summerhays, was born in Lyme Regis in 1811; I wonder if he knew Mary, or ever went fossil hunting with her?

The village of Beer is situated on the Jurassic Coast. It faces Lyme Bay and is a little over a mile west of the town of Seaton. Beer has long been a favourite spot for my family and few years pass by without my husband and myself going there at least for the day. There is nothing better than enjoying a fresh crab sandwich and a cuppa on the beach. No polystyrene cups here – it is served in a china mug.

My husband, Bryan, originally came from Leicester and as a child, he was fortunate to holiday in Beer most years with his best friend. He was telling me recently that one year, his friend’s family stayed there for two weeks and took Bryan with them. Bryan’s family then spent the following fortnight there and his friend stayed with them. How lucky were those boys to get four weeks’ holiday!

Indeed, it was at Beer that Bryan and I first got to know each other. His friend’s family moved from Leicester to live next door to us, and Bryan came to stay with them in the summer. One day, my family joined them for our first trip to Beer. I was only fourteen, whilst the boys were about three years older. I don’t remember what I did to wind them up, but the result was me being thrown into the sea from a landing stage; hardly the start of a romance which has now lasted over fifty years! The photo opposite was taken in 1970 and shows the cliff path to Seaton.

Anyway, I digress! Bryan and I visited Beer recently and stayed the night in The Dolphin, which was very comfortable and served a lovely breakfast.

On the first day, we walked from Beer, along the cliffs to Branscombe, another pretty little village. Although it is only around two miles each way, the final half a mile is extremely steep, and a number of treacherous steps take the walker down to the beach. On the way back there is a choice of two routes, but both include a steep climb. We decided to get away from the busy beach café, and head into the village along a pleasant track. It was only a mile or so to the centre of the village, and we found a lovely old inn called The Mason’s Arms where we had lunch. This is a view from Beer Head towards Seaton.

The next day, we had planned to walk in the other direction along the coast path to Seaton. However, the sky was heavy with black clouds and we didn’t want to risk getting soaked, so we decided to visit Beer Caves instead. I’m so glad we did. Although the walk to Seaton is lovely, we had never been to the caves, and it was so interesting. Having donned our obligatory hard hats, we joined the guided tour.

The caves are not a natural phenomenon such as Cheddar Caves or Wookey Hole but were hewn out by man over many centuries. It is estimated that the caves have been quarried for over two thousand years, and Beer stone can be found in the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and Exeter Cathedral. Indeed, the caves have also been used for hiding smuggled goods, and as a place of worship for Catholics facing persecution. The photo is of a stone arch taken from Colyton Church when it was renovated; it has now been returned to Beer Caves where it originated.

For the men of Beer not fortunate enough to be employed in farming or fishing, there was little choice but to seek employment in the caves. It was a choice few wanted to make, for the conditions were appalling. On our tour, the guide told us a little about the lives of the miners. Much of the stone they produced was required by the church for building materials, and also for the carving of statues and effigies.

To make more money for the church, the miners were required to purchase their candles from the church, rather than produce their own more cheaply. The miners were expected to carve out a four-ton block of stone each day. This would take them some fourteen hours of constant sawing with a bib-bob saw. Unfortunately, their candle would only last for four hours, and so the miners would light their candles and start to saw. Then, when a groove would keep the saw true, they would blow out the candle, and work in the pitch dark until that side of the stone was complete. They would then repeat the process on the other sides.

At the end of a day of backbreaking work, mostly in total darkness, the miner would then wait for their stone to be tested with a tapstone hammer. If the stone rang true all was well and the miner would be paid for his day’s work. However, if there was a flaw in the stone, the resulting noise would be a dull thud, and not only would the miner not get paid anything for his hard day’s labour, but he would be out of pocket for having bought his candle. This is where the saying not worth the candle came from.

The quarryman’s working life was only expected to last ten to twelve years as being constantly bent over, breathing in the dust, and suffering lime burns to the skin, all took their toll. Although the mines are quiet and peaceful now, it was extremely noisy in the miners’ day with so many people hammering with their pickaxes. Most miners were soon deaf and this is where the saying stone deaf originated.

Once the miner had produced his four-ton block of stone, his work was complete, and the masons took over. Masons were highly respected, having paid for an apprenticeship which lasted many years. They looked down on the miners, and would not associate with them, and apparently, The Mason’s Arms, where we lunched the day before was a frequent haunt of the masons. The masons belonged to an association which protected their trade secrets and allowed them to refuse to sign contracts and this is where the saying freemasons comes from.

Before we left for home the next day, we had a final walk around the village. The main street which leads down to the pebbly beach is quaint with numerous small shops, including an art gallery and a couple of pubs. A small leat runs down the side of the street and about halfway down it crosses to the other side before reaching the sea. Despite the drought conditions in 2022, the hanging baskets and troughs of flowers were beautiful.

This is a plaque we discovered in one of the side streets of Beer. It shows a fragment of the Berlin Wall, retrieved in 1989.

One final look at the beautiful beach in this picturesque Devon village.


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