Building unearthed at Vale Mill quarry could be a pump house

BUILDINGS unearthed during work around the Vale Mill quarry may have nothing to do with quarrying, which stopped there at the end of the 19th century.

Before the second lockdown, States archaeologist Dr Philip de Jersey had completed his careful excavation of the northern end of the quarry, where two very dilapidated buildings were found deep beneath undergrowth.

‘We are still uncertain about the purpose of this building,’ admits Dr de Jersey.

‘There is a fine granite floor in the outer [eastern] room, with large slabs in the middle and smaller granite setts in the northern section of the room; the part of the floor towards the entrance, i.e. nearer the quarry edge, has been disturbed and that’s the bit we still need to excavate.

The excavation carried out in January of one of the buildings at Vale Mill quarry as part of the area’s redevelopment.

‘It’s possible that the larger granite slabs formed the base for some sort of machinery, although there are no obvious marks on it where you might expect there to have been anchoring points.

‘It’s also a little odd that it is not on the same orientation as the walls.’

All of which has led Dr de Jersey to think: ‘One possibility we have been considering is that the building is not actually associated with the quarrying, but with the later use of the quarry for water storage’.

He added: ‘The main reason for thinking this is that on the 1898 Ordnance Survey map there are two small buildings in this location, neither of which are a match for the plan of the building we can see now.

‘That suggests that those two small buildings were demolished sometime after 1898 and replaced by the structure that is present now. As we know that quarrying stopped some time around the mid-1890s, then it seems more likely that the new building was related to the use of the quarry by the Water Board – perhaps a pump house?

‘One of our visitors to the site recently identified some of the large pieces of ironwork lying around as pumping equipment and we know that Mowlem’s were pumping out the quarry for the Water Board in the late 1890s and possibly until they actually sold the quarry to the Water Board in 1914.’

(Picture by Sophie Rabey, 29213217)

The archaeologist concludes that his best guess is this building was constructed in the first decade of the 20th century, perhaps to house pumping equipment.

‘I find it fascinating that although it’s barely more than a century old, we have nearly as much difficulty understanding it as something that is thousands of years old.’

As for the ‘Grand Design’ element of the quarry clearance, owner James Ridout said that phase one of the clearance to the north end of the quarry is now complete, which includes tree clearance to the eastern side of the quarry face to try to expose the rock face for the geotechnical surveys. ‘We have obtained some pontoons that have been dropped off at the side of the quarry, ready to go in the water,’ he said.

Once lockdown easing allows, the next phases are to crane the pontoons into the quarry to provide a safe working platform for the investigations and to begin to tidy the north end of the quarry now that it has been cleared.

They also plan to remove the undergrowth from the east face of the quarry, because although the trees and bushes have gone it has revealed more plants that will prevent an accurate survey being carried out.

Only then will they be able to decide what type of survey is required and how to carry it out.

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