Fairy Cave Quarry

The following is reproduced from the Cerberus Spelaeological Society publication "Fairy Cave Quarry - A Study of the Caves".  It serves as an introduction to that publication and outlines the history of the quarry and club involvement up to 1977.  Since then many things have happened and an updated history will be available in due course.


Fairy Cave Quarry is located in the Mendip Hills of Somerset some 2km (1.5 miles) due east of Oakhill and the main A367 Shepton Mallet to Bath road. It can easily be found by referring to the Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 sheet no. 183 or 1:25,000 sheet ST64 at N.G.R. ST657477.

Generally limestone quarries tend to be on a large scale in order to be financially viable. In addition planning restrictions tend to restrict the number of small units spread about the landscape and having a more obvious impact on the environment and water resources. Small units do exist, however, where planning permission dates back some way and these are likely to continue to operate until completely worked out. Fairy Cave Quarry is one such unit covering an area of approximately 29 acres. It opens into the hillside on the east side of Fairy Lane. On the west side are to be found the administration offices and other ancillary buildings. Generally the workings throughout are no more than 30m in depth with stone being extracted in two lifts of approximately 15m each.

Quarrying was first started on the site in the early 1920s, but it was not until after 1947, when planning permission was granted, that production on a truly commercial scale was started by the Mendip Stone Company. In 1963 the quarry was acquired by Hobbs (Quarries) Ltd., a much larger concern well established in limestone quarrying, and it was then that production on a much larger scale began.

As the quarry cut back into the hillside above St Dunstan's Well Rising, a Bristol Waterworks abstraction point, various caves were intercepted. With the discovery of these and the consequential interference with the water resources in the area, which has since been designated a water conservation area by the Wessex Water Authority, it was manifest that no further extensions to planning permission would be granted. The quarry has since continued working and operations are finally coming to a halt at the beginning of 1977.

The Cerberus Spelaeological Society was originally formed in 1956 as the Cerberus Caving Club, but the following year changed its name to the present one which was felt more suited to the scientific objectives of the club. From the early days the club had an intrinsic interest in the caves of East Mendip. The manager of the quarry at this time, and indeed until his retirement in 1972, was Ted Garlick. He joined the club soon after its formation and, without his assistance and continued interest in the caves, it is by no means certain that cavers would have ever been allowed such freedom as they have had to explore new finds. It is also thanks to Mr Garlick that the club was given use of one cottage in a rank of three on quarry property in 1958. At this time one of the others was still in residential use, but when vacated in 1962 full use of all three was granted.

The use of the cottage meant that the club was always on hand and able to keep an eye on things. As a matter of course the club was soon asked to take on the control of access to the caves. This arrangement has since worked well with very little inconvenience being caused to the owners.

The location of the quarry is most unfortunate. It was realised, as soon as the first cave passage was intercepted, that the possibility of much more being found and destroyed should be seriously considered. It was for this reason that a close watch was kept at all times and the working face regularly investigated. As discoveries were made these were investigated with details being recorded and published in the club newsletter or elsewhere. Over the years many caves have been found and several later destroyed. Despite this and the occasional long periods when there were no new discoveries, a continued interest in the site was always maintained. Over the years approximately 4575m of cave passage have been entered, all the finds with the exception of Fairy Cave being due to quarrying activities. Out of this total, quarrying has also resulted in the complete destruction of around 840m of cave passages.

At a first glance the 840m mentioned above, in comparison with the total length of passage found, does not seem much, especially considering that practically all of that remaining is still accessible today. However, a closer look gives a more unfortunate picture. Originally all the major caves, along with a number of the smaller ones, were linked together forming one complete system with two branch passages confluent at the Upper Grotto in Hilliers. Both these branches have since been intercepted by quarrying, isolating the upstream sections from the remainder. The breaching of the Withyhill/ Hillwithy passage has fortunately resulted in the destruction of only 80 m of cave. This might not be considered a major loss since the passage contained few formations of note, many being mud-covered and broken (probably due to natural agencies). These comments of course by no means justify this destruction. Most of the destruction in the quarry has taken place on the other branch and this is a much more serious matter. The area affected is that between Shatter and Fernhill Caves. At the entrance to the east working, a number of small caves which originally linked Fernhill to Balch have disappeared without trace. These include Christmas Hole and Plummers Hole. Balch Cave was also to suffer. A number of the large chambers that constituted part of one of the most beautiful caves in the country were destroyed. Although the cave was not much reduced in length, all of that remaining was close to the new face and suffered immeasurable damage due to blasting effects. Blasting damage to varying extents is also apparent in all other cave passage in close proximity to the quarry face.

The existence of the quarry has also had other effects on the caves. The deposition of quarry sludge in the main stream passage of Hilliers has resulted in the complete blocking of the entrance in both up- and downstream directions. The sediment has been carried in by a small stream originating as surface run-off and stone washings. The entrance to the cave was a convenient way of disposing of the water, unfortunately with disastrous results. In places these deposits now reach 2m in depth. The only other effect which is noticeable is pollution, mainly due to diesel oil. This is apparent in many places, usually the downstream sections, especially where any water originating within the quarry has been able to reach.

Despite the inherently conflicting interests between cavers and quarry companies, the C.S.S. has always remained on very good terms with the owners. The club has had to resign itself to the fact that little could be done about the inevitable destruction in a working quarry with valid planning permission, and consequently has never actively opposed quarrying operations. This has probably done a great deal to maintain both freedom of access to the caves and amicable relations with the quarry owners. Indeed the Hobbs family in general and Jack Hobbs in particular have always taken a more than passing interest in the caves and club, and the assistance they have given over the years has been appreciable.

Of all the cave passages remaining today there is little still at risk. The initial chambers of Shatter along with part of W/L and the remains of Balch have in the past been in danger. When Shatter and W/L were discovered, it was thanks to R. Whittaker of the C.S.S. that an inspection was arranged with Hobbs and further destruction in this area averted. Subsequently it was realised that some of the caves might be considered an asset. It is believed that preliminary proposals for turning Shatter and possibly Withyhill into showcaves have been considered. Whether this will ever happen in the present economic climate is by no means certain.

Prior to the discovery of Balch Cave the quarry had attracted little attention outside the club. This was soon to change as Balch was profusely decorated with many fine and diverse formations. In fact the cave could easily have been considered one of the most beautiful in the country. It was a great blow to the caving fraternity when it was destroyed. Soon afterwards Shatter was discovered, again a cave with many large chambers containing an excellent array of formations. Thankfully this cave was to be spared further destruction, as was Withyhill itself, discovered three years later. Again, Withyhill is superbly decorated whilst being different in character to Shatter in that its formations are confined within a smaller passage. Both Shatter and Withyhill are today considered amongst the most well-decorated caves in the country. This view is reflected rather well in that there are few caving-based photographic books that do not include pictures from at least one and quite often both of these caves.

The quarry caves are not only important because of the formations, but also from geological, hydrological and geomorphological viewpoints. For these reasons the caves are in the process of being scheduled as a Site of Special Scientific Interest by the Nature Conservancy Council. This should be completed before the end of 1977.

In the past many people have questioned whether most of the caves would have been entered had the quarry not existed. Most seem to believe that they would not. However, surely such destruction and damage that has occurred cannot be justified under any circumstances. At any rate it seems likely that had the quarry not existed it would not have taken long to push to the present upstream limits of Withyhill, once the Fairy/Hilliers link had been established. On the other hand, a route through Fernhill, Christmas and Balch into Shatter may have taken considerably longer, as the passageway would have been blocked with boulder chokes due to the caves being on a fault line. Nevertheless with probable future developments in geophysical methods of cave location, enabling the underground course to be established, and modern digging techniques using explosives, it seems almost certain they would have been found eventually.

Over the 25 years since caves were first discovered in the quarry, very little scientific research on them has been done. Of course, basic details of all have been recorded and surveys made of most. All the material produced has been published, but this has been mainly in club newsletters which have a limited circulation. This information is summarised in this volume along with a quantity of original scientific work undertaken by the authors.

All contributions have been made by members of the C.S.S. with the exception of the section on Sedimentology, which was kindly undertaken by Pete Bull, one of the foremost authorities in this field. As it has been possible to cover most aspects of spelaeology it is with regret that mention of flora and fauna has been excluded. A small amount of work was done in this field during the early days, but unfortunately a detailed study could not have been completed in the time available. Anyone interested is advised to refer to one or more of the many published papers on the subject, from which an adequate knowledge of the many species likely to be found in the caves may be obtained. Whilst an attempt has been made to be as comprehensive as possible, certain subjects warrant many years of detailed research. The resulting material for any one of these could well fill a volume of this size in its own right. Nevertheless, it is hoped that this volume covers a great deal of the basic groundwork and will be acceptable to both layman and specialist alike.

Finally, thanks should be expressed to those few people who have maintained an interest during the preparation of this publication despite numerous seemingly never-ending delays, and who have given a great deal of their own time towards this end.

G. Price
January 1977

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