Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 09 May 1857 A visit to the whetstone pits of Blackdown

Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 09 May 1857 Page 3



A traveller by the Bristol and Exeter Railway on approaching Collumpton from the west may observe on his right hand a range of hills extending about three miles, along the entire face of which he will notice a white line of sand occupying the side of the hills; this is “Blackdown,” the locality of the celebrated Whetstone Pits, and is about five miles from the station. If he is inclined to visit them, he may obtain quarters at the Railway Inn, where mine host (LUXTON) will readily supply him with conveyance, or, if he is a pedestrian, he may enjoy a pleasant three-mile walk to Kentisbere, from whence the pits are about two miles more; he may enquire for Saint Hill (pronounced Sentle) or Moorgate, a village where the miners live, and where he will obtain every information required – he had better make for Blackborough Church, situate at the eastern end of Punchey Down, which is the only part of the Blackdown Hills now in work; from thence he will obtain a splendid panoramic view of the surrounding country, as well as the Duke of Wellington's obelisk on the extreme eastern point of Blackdown, 817 feet above the sea,. Now, walking south-west, towards Upcot Pen, he will follow the platform of sand, which has been raised in a series of years during which the pits have been in work. The method pursued is to make an opening in the side of the hill, large enough to admit the miner, who shores up the sides and top of the opening, until he gets in through the sand and masses of flints to more solid ground, which he then digs out in blocks and brings to the surface in his wheelbarrow; this latter part of the business is generally performed by the wife or boy; the blocks are stored in a shed, in which the man sits and chips them into shape with an iron chisel, of peculiar construction, termed a basing-hammer, to form the common whetstones for sharpening scythes; these are collected and sent to Mr. BOND, of Cullompton, who supplies the trade throughout the county. It is obvious that in the mode of digging there is great waste of labour, since the accumulation of sand in the workings would soon choke them up, and it is necessary to remove it, in barrows, which are tipped on the side of the hill; thus accounting for the white line previously alluded to. If the proprietors would expend sufficient funds to remove the sand and make an open quarry, whereby the sandstone might be got in larger blocks and sawn into shape, it is probable there would be more profit, less waste, and certainly less injury to the health of the miners, who suffer greatly from the humid condition of the workings; moreover, the profits to the workman are small, scarcely averaging above eight shillings a-week, so that there is a probability of the pits being soon closed altogether, as few of the rising generation feel inclined to remain where the means of subsistence are so limited and precarious. Black-down is still farther celebrated in a geological point of view as containing fossils, which display a more perfect condition than usual, in consequence of the calcareous matter of the shells being replaced by silex; this is derived from the abundance of flints existing in the formation, and which is considered as part of the upper green sand (though Mr. SHARPE refers it to the gault); it caps the hill to the extent of 200 feet, reposing on the New Sandstone Rocks below. Many of the high grounds in the vicinity are of a similar structure, such as Great and Little Haldon, from whence are derived many fossils of the green sand formation, and masses of calcedony often found on oursea beaches, formerly named “Beakites,” are derived from the same source. Some years since Dr. FITTON published an interesting account of the quarries, which may be seen in the 4

th vol., Geological Transactions; he gives a large catalogue of shells, amounting to above 180 species, besides a siphonia and spatangus; fragments of silicified wood are also sometimes found. Most of the shells (not all) are converted into calcedony, which appears to be derived from the chert and flints of the chalk formation, the solution from which may also account for the consolidation of the sandy strata, (about seven feet thick,) from which the whetstones are obtained. Further information may be obtained from Mr. BOND, in Cullompton, or from John RADFORD, John JAMES, Daniel ROOKLEY, John BAKER, and James GORING, workmen at the quarries.

The traveller, on returning from his visit, may, if a fisherman, enjoy that pleasing pastime on the banks of the fine river Culme, by application to the host of the Railway Inn, who is authorised by an association for preserving the fish to grant tickets for the season at one guinea, or 2s. 6d. for a day, and 5s. for a week.

Plymouth, April 28, 1857


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