Full article from edition 2. Includes photos not published in the hard-copy version. Photos and text by Ilay Cooper.
‘We walked … towards Kimmeridge… descended the cliffs at Calcium Ledge, in the mossy cave there was a thickish layer of calcium carbonate… along the beach… (there were) shells and other various rusty explosives.’
That is my diary entry for 30th March 1957. The war was not long over, munitions, dead and alive, were still widespread. The entrance of the cave was radiant, a tiny spring flowing through a mass of bright green moss, sunlit and jewel-like, its past generations of growth intricately encased in calcium. But the blackstone industry which created the cave was, even then, almost forgotten.
My ‘Calcium Ledge’ already had a perfectly good name, Clavell’s Hard, derived from a boat-haul and the generations of the Clavell family who had owned it. The hard was still accessible by a path from the cliff top, the only way down to the shore between Kimmeridge and Encombe. It crossed a man-made terrace formed, as is much of Purbeck’s landscape, by quarrying long before enforced homogenisation ironed out such naughty, if pretty, anomalies.
Industries based on Kimmeridge blackstone rose and fell. Prehistoric folk must have discovered it was inflammable. Famous for a sulphurous stink, from then onwards it was dug up and picked off the beach for use as domestic fuel.
Supplying this demand through the chill of winter could be dangerous, as Henry Rolls, a cobbler of Lulworth, demonstrates in his diary:
‘George Mawleing fell out of the Clift on the 11th January 1830 aged about 44 years Getting of Black Stone By Broad Bench he fell 150 Feet high The Clift fell against him as he worked and throwed him backwards a Boy Found him in a Senseless State Died on the 13 same month…’.
Blackstone supplemented coal during WWII but by 1970 its use was unusual enough for Eileen Newman, landlady of The Square and Compass, to sniff the air one evening and remark ‘Someone’s burning sea coal’.
Carved and polished to a jet-like finish, it was widely-exported as Iron Age and Romano-British ornaments, bowls and even furniture. The discoid cores of lathe-turned bracelets still turn up and, until their origin was explained in the mid 19th century, were referred to by puzzled finders as ‘Kimmeridge money’.
Yet each offshoot of the blackstone industry was doomed. The bracelets succumbed to fickle fashion. The 17th century alum and green glass industries, which relied on it for fuel, soon offended against real or imagined monopolies, dragging the enterprising Sir William Clavell into the Marshallsea Prison for debt. Inevitably, the acrid stink finally extinguished its household use.
The cave is the only adit left open from a series of mining projects launched by ambitious Victorian industrialists. Now almost totally blocked, it runs into the cliff a short way from the east end of that terrace.
In 1848, the Bituminous Shale Company moved in, setting up the first of three tramways. A stone jetty was built at Kimmeridge for shipping the blackstone to Weymouth. There oil, pitch, lubricating grease, dyes, fertiliser & naptha were extracted from it. Again, the sulphurous stench led to its demise. In 1858, Messrs Wanostracht & Co, financed by French capital, took over the mines. The French ambassador came down from London and gave an address (in French) at The Red Lion before opening a new shale-processing factory at Wareham.
At first, the company flourished, creating a railway to run from the mines in the cliff-face to a pier at Clavell’s Hard. This line followed the sloping blackstone bed in and out of tunnels, but probably never ran the whole way to the nick in the clifftop above Yellow Ledge. That nick was cut for the 1848 tramway, which carried waste from nearby diggings to a dump near the Kimmeridge slipway. A line of workers’ cottages (never in fact occupied by those workers) were built at Gaulter Gap and an iron jetty at Clavell’s Hard. Another stone pier remains obvious, running out to the open sea just east of the mouth of Kimmeridge Bay. That company shipped shale to France, where the gas extracted from it briefly, pungently, lit the streets of Paris, but the project faded and the lease passed to several other short-lived enterprises.
On the tide-washed surface of Clavell’s Hard, where a waterfall descends, you may find sockets sunk into the ledge, some still containing timber from the piles of long-vanished jetties. In order to bring barges closer to the shore, a shallow harbour was cut and beside it is a series of augured holes, one holding the stub of a metal upright – all that survives of that 90 metre iron jetty. Along the shore, further west, lie rusty rails amongst the rocks, remnants of the track that followed the blackstone bed. Some lengths of rail still grace the cliff.
The trucks were manually operated, but the miners may have been helped by ponies. Somewhere, images must exist of the functioning railway. At present, the best record we have comes from the sketchbook of a youthful ‘JBB’, signed with a little jay and two bees. Surely, the artist must have been a member of the neighbouring Bond family. Owned by Dr Philip Mansel, it contains two watercolour sketches dated 1880, showing some young Mansels playing on the cliff railway, supervised by ‘Dipper Tom’. (‘Dipper Tom’ – Thomas Whiterow – lies buried near the path beside Kimmeridge churchyard.)
In 1886, Burton Green wrote of ‘… a tram road leading to’ … the stone pier… ‘from the mines, but of this…., as an engineering work, perhaps the less said the better.’ What is he concealing?
Most of the tunnels that held the line fell in long ago, presumably in time to inspire Green’s comment. Every year, west of Clavells Hard, rails and sleepers appear on the shore along with the occasional drilling implement once used to place explosive charges. Fallen from the blackstone level, these are wreckage from the shale industry.
The Clavell’s Hard section of the railway was always doomed. Those cliffs are in constant retreat; when dry, the shale becomes friable and on a summer’s evening you can observe puffs of dust marking numerous minor cliff falls. Heavy rainfall causes large slips. However, mere damp actually slows erosion and it is no coincidence that there is a tiny spring where a wagon was preserved.
In 2006, a rock fall west of Clavell’s Hard uncovered ‘rusty rails projecting from the cliff… a wooden sleeper… and an iron structure of some sort…’. By the time the 2008 edition of Purbeck Revealed came out that ironwork was identifiable as ‘…perhaps part of a wagon’. Then the first wheel appeared and we watched the gradual emergence of a little tramway truck, still on its lines, until it was almost entirely free of the cliff. Soon it seemed doomed, perched precariously high above the beach.
On 4th September, that truck was saved by Jamie Hannant and Anthony Fielding (see above) who climbed down, attached ropes to it and dug out much of its load of fallen shale. With his tractor, the farmer, Rob Vearncombe dragged it gently up the cliff and lifted it over the fence. It survived this ordeal remarkably well, reaching the clifftop in one piece. The only surviving wagon from this once-busy line, it may well grace the new museum planned to house Steve Etches’ internationally renowned collection of Kimmeridgian fossils. Visit www.kimmeridgeproject.org for more information.
Visit the author himself at home – www.ilaycooper.com