In the words of that Bob Dylan song, times they…
Lime Kilns were once an important part of the everyday Devon scene, they were scattered around the coast and although most of them could be found near river mouths and estuaries, some were set up inland, near farms. They were used to produce quick-lime through the calcination of limestone (calcium carbonate).
Their remains are features of Lympstone, Countess Wear and they have given their name to a car park at Budleigh Salterton – experts have identified no fewer than 374, and for hundreds of years the lime was spread to sweeten soil. It was also used for cement in many buildings and lime wash was used as a form of paint. From the emptied kilns, lime ash was bought by the poor for making a hard flooring to their cottages. Another use of lime wash in the West Country sometimes mixed with cow dung, was for painting a strip on the outside of unlit railway platforms, an early form of health and safety.
Mentions of lime appear in the Devonshire medieval records and Risdon Tristram in his “The Choreographical Description or Survey of the County of Devon” written before 1630 but not published until 1811 says, “Of late a new invention has sprung up and been practised by burning lime and incorporating it for a season with earth and then spread upon arable land hath produced a plentiful increase of all sorts of grain among us where formerly such never grew in all mean’s memory”. Thomas Westcute writing about the same time from his home which was not far from Risdon in the parish of “St. Giles in the Wood” near Great Torrington agreed with him.
William Marshall, one of the best known writers on farming in the West Country gave a full account of the lime burning industry and described how the stone was taken to the kiln on horse back in his book “Rural Economy of the West of England”, published in 1796.
Limestone, which is mostly calcium carbonate, was transported long distances to places lacking in limestone, it was brought from quarries by ship and barge in the absence of good roads, water was the cheapest and most reliable form of transport.
From the earliest period onwards, supplies of limestone were carried by sea from Torquay or Plymouth along the south coast and up the estuaries on which numerous lime kilns were built. Lime Kiln Lane can be found in Higher Countess Wear and was named after a kiln dug into a low cliff, the lime produced was used on the fields of St David’s north of Exeter. Exminster had four kilns and the name survives in Lympstone, in Lime Kiln House. A blue plaque was placed on the Budleigh Salterton Kiln which was built in 1801 to replace earlier kilns.
From the 17th Century onwards, cargoes of limestone from the Gower Peninsula in South Wales were shipped across the Bristol Channel to north Devon and many kilns were built along this coast to burn Welsh limestone. The vessels that carried the limestone were known as stone boats. Their design became standardised and they ranged from 550 to 705 tons and were often about 54 feet long.
Horse and donkey backs were used to carry the raw limestone and the culm from the beach or riverside up a ramp to the kiln platform where labourers cracked the chunks to size.
There were considerable sources of limestone in Devon, it came from quarries at Plymouth, Ashburton, Chudleigh, Torbay and South Tawton. In Drewsteignton all the quarry men and their families lived at Kiln Cottages which was marked on the 1841 census as Kiln village. The limestone which came from quarries was heated in the kilns and broken down into a powdery form so that it could be easily used.
Although wood was available, coal was the preferred fuel for use in the kilns, poor quality culm was used and hundreds of cargoes of coal and culm came into Bude harbour and canal between 1824-1900. Culm is coal dust or slack and a much cheaper fuel than coal.
To calcine lime, the quarry men or lime burners required a temperature of over 800oc, the process which required skill, could take days to complete.
If you visit Morwellham Quay on the Tamar, you can see an old kiln and go inside.
Feature image courtesy of Barry Mason