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Meldon Quarry

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Today the old Meldon Quarry plays host to many visitors, some come to walk or cycle, others to swim, a few come for some extreme sports such a bungee jumping whilst others visit the remains of the redundant railway. For whatever reason what they see today is normally a peaceful landscape, albeit an industrial one, however not that long ago it would have been a hive of activity. It’s believed that the first quarrying began around the late 1700s when the local limestone was extracted. Over the years this gradually gave over to aggregate quarrying and apelite quarrying until it final closure. The original owners of the quarry was the London and South Western Railway and then came Britsh Rail and finally EEC Aggregates.

MELDON LIMESTONE QUARRIES.
From around 1790 the first stone to be quarried at Meldon was limestone which was used for both building and lime burning for agricultural purposes. There are numerous features of the quarrying centred around OS grid reference 965 921, these consist of five quarries of differing sizes, two lime kilns , ancillary buildings, spoil heaps and tram-roads. Field evidence suggests that the earliest workings were on the east side of the West Okement river with extraction moving to the west side once these deposits became exhausted. The eastern quarry was worked to a depth of around forty metres but by the end of the nineteenth century production had stopped and the old workings became flooded thus forming Meldon Pool. During the extraction of the limestone a vast amount of over-lying rock had to be removed thus creating large amounts of waste which at the time had very little value. however in later years this waste was utilised as railway ballast.
Once quarried the limestone would be taken to a charging platform located at the top of the kiln and then tipped down the circular shaft. Then a layer of charcoal would be added on top of which went another layer of limestone, this process would be repeated until the kiln was full. A fire would then be lit at the bottom of the kiln and the mixture of limestone and charcoal would be left to slowly burn at a high temperature. When cooled the contents of the kiln would have turned to lumps of quick lime, this would then be shovelled out through its fire grate onto wagons when farmers would then transport it back to their farms.
Map evidence of the smaller quarry on the western side  suggests that buildings which included several more lime kilns and a house were located around its northern edge. As the quarry expanded these structures were destroyed and replaced by buildings further to the north. The growing amounts of waste material produced gradually encroached and destroyed some of these later 19th century buildings. Today only three structures have survived one is the lime kiln which is located under the western embankment of the viaduct which is thought to have been built sometime between 1874 and 1875. Along with the kiln itself the iron anchoring point and its chains can still be seen, these were part of a one hundred metre winching system used to haul the stone along the tramway to the charging platform. The other two structures are are the ruins of the building which was the old weigh-house building that would have been fronted by its weighbridge. Here a cast iron bedplate can be found which shows its maker’s name – Bartlett and Son of Bristol. Finally the footings of a larger building sit to the south of the weigh-house.
Due to the location of the West Okement river and the steep ground opposite there was always the problem of where to dispose of the large amounts of waste created by the quarrying. This was overcome by depositing the material in linear waste dumps on either side of the river. On the western side the waste the embankments were revetted and the stone abutments visible today are evidence of two bridges which carried a trackway running on temporary rails across the river.
Another problem posed to the quarry was that of keeping them dry and this was overcome by using pumps driven by two waterwheels located on the eastern side of the river. These were driven by water delivered by a series of leats and reservoirs. The water was extracted from the West Okement river and the Red-a-Ven Brook and delivered by a series of water channels which ran across the south western part of the area. The southern-most water wheel took its water straight from a leat whilst the northern wheel was originally supplied with water from a reservoir and a launder bank. In later years an additional reservoir was brought into service. It has been suggested that the northern waterwheel had a diameter of five and a half metres and was an impressive sight. Today the old wheel pits which held the wheels can be seen and can be identified by partially filled rectangular depressions which are stone lined along with then holes which housed the weights used to tension the flat rods which were powered by the wheels. It’s not clear when the extraction of limestone ended at Meldon but by 1885 the main activity was that of aggregate quarrying.

MELDON AGGREGATE QUARRY
During the 19th century the British rail network was rapidly expanding with many railway companies competing to provide passenger services and such was the case in the South-West of England. It was the London and South Western Railway who were tasked with constructing a northerly track across Devon which meant it crossing the West Okement river at Meldon. The  answer to the problem came in the form of the Meldon Viaduct but before this could be built a rock cutting needed driven to the east of the river gorge. During this operation it was discovered that the material which was being excavated was the hard metamorphic rock called Hornfels. One of the properties of hornfel is that it has a very high crushing point of about 75 – 80,000 pounds per square inch, Dartmoor granite has a crushing point of 35 – 40,000 pounds per square inch. The railway engineers considered that this rock would be ideal for using as ballast on railway  track construction and maintenance. In addition the Meldon deposits were conveniently situated near to the proposed railway line which could be used for transporting the rock around the country. In light of this a new quarry was established to provide ballast and began production on 1897. Today the ‘Railway Quarry’ as it is known locally covers some ninety three hectares and over its lifetime has seen a great deal of activity. During the quarry’s early period the quarry was one of the largest employer in the area with workers coming from Okehampton and the surrounding villages. Sometime between 1895 and 1906 a terrace of cottages was built for some of the workers to live in but these were demolished in 1994. Along with the cottages there were numerous other building and features constructed at the quarry. These included railway sidings, weighbridges, and various other ancillary buildings along with tracks and roads the remains of many of these can still be seen today.

In the June of 1932 the Southern railway Magazine reported that some 100,00 tone of ballast was taken from Meldon Quarry. It also stated how most of the work was carried out during the night and that four times a week a train leaves the quarry consisting of ten special trucks that each holds forty tons of ballast. These special trucks called ‘hopper’ are specifically designed to allow the ballast to be directly tipped onto the tracks as the train slowly moves along (see photo above).  But how was the stone actually quarried? In 1947 a local newspaper reporter visited the quarry to see how the stone was quarried and this is what he saw:

The quarrying begins with the primary blasting. A tunnel is driven some 50 or 60 feet into the rock face, and then branches off in T-form to chambers at either end of the crossbar. The chambers vary in size according to the amount of explosive to be used. One used in the last tunnel blast was 3ft 6in. wide, 7ft long and 5ft. high. The amount of explosive used in a tunnel blast may be anything from one to five tons, and it is electrically detonated. The greatest fall of rock one blast ever known at Meldon Quarry was in the region of 80,000 tons.
The tunnels which was used in the blast I saw was prepared by Mr. H. Wright, assisted by Mr. W. Hearn and made record speed. Starting on October the 13th Mr. Wright drove 92ft. 6in. through solid rock and finished on December the 3rd. Mr. Wright told me the procedure used in tunnelling. Eight holes are drilled in the rock, two to three feet deep. Charges are then inserted two roof, two middle, two cut off, and two floor charges. Mr. Wright times the fuses of his eight charges to fire one after the other. Then, clear of the tunnel, he counts the explosions. One predecessor did not. He returned to the tunnel and began to drill a boulder in which there was an unfired charge. He died. His assistant is blind for life. Quarrying is no sinecure – see 1938 below.
Boulders left after the tunnel blast which are too big to be broken by sledge hammer are dealt with by secondary blasting. Small charges are packed against the rocks with clay and are fired with 90 second fuses. Each blastman lights seven or eight fuses, and has ample time to reach cover before the barrage begins. And there is no closer parallel to this than an artillery barrage. The noise is terrific. Smoke and dust fill the air and chips of stone are hurled across the floor of the quarry. One fairly large piece struck our shelter.
After the spectacular start the rest is just hard, slogging work – breaking the stones to a size that the crushing plant can handle; loading them in pans, which are swung up and tipped into waiting lorries by crane; or, even more back-breaking, shovelling into small-gauge wagons. The crushing plant is 80ft. high and seems an endless succession of vibrating grids and conveyor belts. The screens sort the different sizes of rock and the over-large pieces are automatically returned to the crushers. The noise is deafening.
As the stone is sorted it is fed into bunkers, which in turn pour it into the hopper wagons which run beneath. The average daily output is from 700 to 1,000 tons, depending on weather conditions and working space available in the quarry… The average rate of loading stone per man by pans is from 20 to 30 tons a day, and per man by wagon from 15 to 20 tons a day. Even here the quarry has records. Recently Mr. W. J. Cook of Okehampton loaded 54 tons by pan in one day. But this was broken by the 61 tons of stone broken and loaded into pans in one day by Mr. C. Bauwens of Okehampton. The highest weekly output record was put up by Mr. R. Found of Bridestowe, who pan loaded 183 tons. Mr. W. J. G. J. Reynolds of Okehampton, holds the wagon loading record with 136 tone in one week.” – The Western Morning News, 22nd December, 1947.

At times the work could be dangerous work at worst fatal.  Look at any of the local newspapers of the time and you will see numerous reports of accidents and fatalities occurring at the quarry. Here are but a few examples:
1902 – One man killed and another seriously injured when a heap of earth weighing about a ton fell on them
1906 – A 25 year old man died when working with a boring machine caused a large slip of rock which completely buried him.
1907 – A man was seriously injured whilst working on a rock face when he fell off and dropped some thirty feet sustaining severe cuts and bruises and a broken ankle.
1930 – Two men injured whilst building a new crusher shed, the scaffolding on which they were working collapsed and they fell some thirty feet to the concrete floor below.
1938 – One man killed and two injured in an explosion whilst drilling.
1942 – One man injured whilst inspecting a quarry face prior to blasting when some rocks came loose and he fell some 18 feet to the quarry floor.
1943 – One man died whilst cleaning a rock face after blasting when part of the quarry face gave way and he fell to his death.
In the January of 1911 a major explosion completely demolished the pay office which caught fire and burned to the ground, fortunately there was nobody inside it at the time. It is thought the cause of the explosion was that the high winds of the day blew a spark from the fireplace into between 800 and 900 detonators which were in the office awaiting to be taken to the underground store situated a quarter of a mile away.

One of the biggest problems faced at the quarry was the infamous Dartmoor winter weather which being situated at some exposed 300m. above sea level was harsh to say the least. As much of the work was outdoors such conditions posed serious safety concerns it meant work simply stopped. The other thing which could cause a work stopped was if for various reasons the trains could not run. This simply meant that the loads of ballast could not be moved and so there was little point in loading the wagons. Such an event took place in the March of 1912 These stoppages could last for considerable periods and during such times the workers would simply be laid off. In many cases the employees had left fairly secure jobs working on the surrounding farms for the lure of higher wages at the quarry which when laid off meant times of hardship. In the October of 1929 it was reported that 84 employees out of a total work force of 200 received a week’s notice with another 40 expected to follow suit. This was but one of many such lay-offs which occurred over time. Not only did it mean lean times for the workers but also had a huge effect on the local businesses in the area as their trade dropped off. In order to overcome this problem and ingenious scheme was implemented to construct an underground hopper which could store large amounts of quarried rock. This would then be linked by a two hundred foot long tunnel which housed a conveyor belt that would then carry the stone to the crushing plant. This meant that during times when production would normally have to stop there would be a supply of material sitting in the hopper thus allowing work to continue and avoid the lay-offs. In 1949 a local newspaper reported visited the quarry and inspected the new delivery system, his report is below:

Standing just over 1,000 feet up in the heart of Dartmoor I looked down the sheer faces of a gigantic excavation in solid rock. It was the recently built stone storage hopper at Meldon Quarry, Okehampton.
One hundred feet below me, straight down through that solid rock, was the outlet from the hopper, a 200ft tunnel with an additional 1000ft long surface structure. The tunnel houses the conveyor belt, which carries the stored stone from the hopper to the crushing plant. This new hopper, cut out of solid rock is certainly the only one of its kind in the South-West and quite possibly in England.
Meldon quarry owned by British Railways, Southern region, supplies ballast stones and chippings for railway track maintenance to most of the Southern counties of England. Last year its output exceeded 275,000 tons. Unfortunately because the quarry is situated high on the moor, with North-West faces, curtailment of production in bad weather has been a serious problem. More than once maintenance programmes on the main lines has been dislocated when bad weather prevented the quarry from clearing a train-load of stone scheduled for a particular job. The new hopper which store 6,000 tons of stone, has overcome this drawback. The decision to undertake this engineering feat was made by the old Southern Railway and the design was prepared by Mr. W. Dinwoodie, Chief Civil Engineer’s Quarry Consultant.
All the work was undertaken by the local staff as a normal quarrying operation. It entailed blasting, drilling, and excavating over 12,000 tons of rock, which is incidentally, dolerite, and as hard as granite. A testimony to the accuracy of their work came in the final link-up between the tunnel team and the shaft sinkers. When the tunnel had been cut in horizontally 200ft and the excavation had been sunk 100ft, the shaft sinkers drilled through – dead centre at the end of the tunnel ceiling.
Now when bad weather stops work at the quarry faces, an operator in the crushing plant has only to press two buttons and the conveyor belt starts drawing the stone from the hopper and feeding it into the crushing plant on the main quarry floor. Without anyone having to go into the open and output can be maintained for four or five days. The belt feeds stone at a rate of 60 to 70 tons an hour.
With Mr. F. E. L. Weaver, the quarry manager, and Mr. Muscroft the Western Morning News staff photographer, I went into the conveyor tunnel. We walked to the hopper outlet where only the natural rock wall of the hopper separated us from several thousand tons of loose stone. This stone is checked from a wild cascade by a revolving drum, steel fingers, and heavy iron chains which regulate the falling stone to a steady, smooth flow. When the machinery was set in motion there was a deafening uproar. We could hear the stone grumbling in the hopper and thundering down the iron chute onto the conveyor belt, while the heavy chains writhed and jerked like some titanic reptile in death agony. Conversation was virtually impossible. Back in the main switch-room were the two small buttons. They looked so innocuous.” D. G. Sandercock, The Western Morning News, February 1st, 1949.

MELDON APELITE QUARRY.
In 1889 it was discovered that there were deposits of apalite, sometimes called ‘granulite’ located on two sides of the Red-a-Ven Brook.  The Meldon Aplite is said to have a chemical composition that is unique in all of Britain and occurs in several dykes around the area, the largest of which is an intrusion of about 60 – 70 ft thick. It is said to be of the highest quality and contains the ideal proportions of potassium, aluminium. sodium and silica to act as the main base requirement in glass making.  As this article is getting so long you can read all about the apalite quarry on my Legendary Dartmoor page – The Meldon Glass Factory.

By the 1980s it was cheaper to obtain equally good stone from Scotland which was transported by sea, this signalled the eventual demise of the quarry. In 1994 when Britsh Rail was privatised the quarry operations were bought by EEC Quarries. In 2001 the quarry was basically put into retirement with some of the machinery removed in 2012. The actual aggregate quarry is now designated as a geological SSSI and for safety reasons there is no public access.

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John Hayward writes: “…In this locality the result was a particularly hard rock, ideally suited, when broken up, to form the bed of a railway track. The quarrymen can tell the quality of their product by the sound made when two pieces are clinked together. Almost all the output from the quarry is transported along the old southern Railway line that still runs (for goods only) to Exeter.”, Dartmoor 365.  p.18. In his book he depicts a stone crusher at work and the aggregate quarry, as this book was published when the quarry was being worked there is no chance you will see such an operation today. Likewise, as mentioned above there is no access to the aggregate quarry.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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