This Sedimental was written by one of our Jurassic Coast Ambassadors, Norah Jaggers. Her ideas led to the development of a new display in the Self Shelter on Beer seafront, telling the story of how a bedrock of Chalk has helped to nurture the community Beer for thousands of years.
Rocks and Humans.
Beer is an unconformity in the Walk Through Time along the World Heritage Site, where the greensands and chalks of the Cretaceous period come out to the sea at Beer Head and sit next to the Triassic sandstones at Seaton Hole. So what opportunities has this presented to people throughout history?
Neolithic man discovered, 6000 years ago, that black flint can be shaped and sharpened to make cutting tools and axes. He may have realised that flints are often associated with chalk, and noticed that Beer Head has the most westerly white cliffs. The cliffs themselves may have been a good source of flint, although he will have discovered that flints which have been rolled around on the beach are difficult to knap. We know that Stone-Age man made tools from Beer flint and took, or traded, it over a wide area indicating that the people in Beer were in contact with other groups. Neolithic man also used chert for scrapers, which have been found locally. New Stone Age (4000 -2000 BC) tools made in Beer have been found at Hembury, Haldon and as far away as Carn Brea in Cornwall. In 1645 Beer flint was used in flintlock guns for the New Model Army, and black flint is apparently still used today for scalpels for eye surgery.
The next recorded inhabitants of Beer were the Romans who quarried stone, creating the first of the underground caves for which Beer is famous. They realised that the Beer freestone has such a fine grain that it can be carved as well as being used as a building material. They found the other ingredients for buildings locally – sand from greensand, chert, chalk for lime wash and mortar, as well as gypsum from Weston. We know that the Romans built a villa at Honey Ditches in Seaton, and possibly one in Beer, and they also used Beer stone to make small items like lamps. The Saxon church of St. George’s in Exeter is partly built with Beer stone that was recycled, having been used originally in a Roman building.
We know that the Romans settled in Beer for at least three hundred years because coins for each of the 3 centuries have been found at the caves. What we don’t know is where they used all of the stone which they quarried. While they sought Beer stone below ground the Romans also realised that the south-west facing slopes of thin limestone soil were ideal for grapes, and so they brought Vines to grow. We know they were a success because much later, around 1200, Beer provided wine for Sherborne Abbey.
Beer Head stands out because the late Cretaceous chalks have not eroded as much as the Triassic sandstones to the east. It provides a natural shelter from the prevailing winds, which means that fishermen can launch and recover their boats at most states of the tide. We know that this is an ancient occupation as in 1145 Beer fisheries and salt pits were ceded to Sherborne Abbey.
Today, local stone in Beer is still making history. Small pieces of greensand from the village have recently returned after 18 months in space. Scientists have ascertained that the microbes in the greensand have survived their epic journey. So, when your great-grand children blast off on a journey to Mars or Venus, where they will have to grow their own food, you will know that Beer provided the evidence that organisms can survive and grow in space.
Writtain by Norah Jaggers
Ambassador for the East Devon and Dorset World Heritage Site. Beer Village Heritage.
First published in J-Post edition 32, January 2014