The Heavitree quarries are where our stories begin, in the Permian geological time period. Between 250 and 300 million years ago, Devon was a tropical desert. Occasional storms caused flash floods, which dumped large amounts of loose rock, sand and mud. Over time this gravelly sediment built up and was compacted together. Over the next 50 million years, the Permian rocks were themselves overlain by smoother sandstones formed from smaller sand grains.
Our Heavitree Stone was first referred to by Sir Henry De La Beche in 1839, as the ‘Conglomerates of Heavitree’. It is Permian breccia. ‘Breccia’ means rubble, coming from the angular gravel embedded in the red stone, while ‘conglomerate’ has smoother rounder gravel embedded. Breccia, conglomerate and sandstone together are known as the New Red Sandstone. It is found from Torbay to Exeter and north into Somerset, and you can see the sequence of breccia and sandstone along the Dawlish railway line.
The old quarry faces on Quarry Lane are the easiest to see. They form the ‘garden fence’ of some of the nearby houses! You can make out the layers of sediment. This helps with quarrying. The technique was to cut the sides of the block from the top down to the next bed, slice horizontally, and lift the block out. Just like cutting a cake!
Quarry Lane is marked as “Old Quarry” on the 1887-89 Ordnance Survey map. On the other side of the lane, at the back of Britten Drive playing field, there is another quarry mostly hidden behind trees and brambles. But the Britten Drive one is labelled as “Heavitree Quarry”, so it was probably still in operation then. The quarry face is about 6m high, and the individual beds are parallel and range from 20cm to 1m in thickness. It has been designated a Regionally Important Geological / Geomorphological Site.
There is one more “Old Quarry” on the map, close by off Woodwater Lane. This is now a playground.
The heyday of the Heavitree quarries started around 1350, although a small amount of Heavitree Stone was used earlier. There were more quarries at Exminster and Peamore, which produced large quantities of ‘Heavitree’ Stone from the 15th and 16th centuries. Exminster was conveniently close to the river. It costs more to transport the stone than to quarry and dress it! The quarries operated until the 19th century, with a brief reopening after the Blitz to source stone for repair.
- Deryck Laming & David Roche “Permian Breccias, Sandstones and Volcanics” – https://new.devon.gov.uk/geology/devons-rocks-a-geological-guide/
- “Educational register of geological sites in Devon” – https://new.devon.gov.uk/geology/educational-register-of-geological-sites-in-devon/
- Devon County Geological Site – http://www.seddepseq.co.uk/devon_geology/RIGS_Website/PDF/XSX99SW1.pdf
- Heavitree Local History Society, Newsletter 73, report of John Allan talk – http://www.heavitreelocalhistorysociety.co.uk/archive.html
- Devon County Council Geology – https://new.devon.gov.uk/geology/
- Devon Regionally Important Geological and Geomorphological Sites Group – http://www.seddepseq.co.uk/devon_geology/RIGS_Website/