Coombe Down and the story of Bath Stone

Last week Steve the leader of our walk in the past  walking group asked us to meet at the Museum of Bath Stone. in Coombe Down to the east of Bath.  I have to admit my heart sank.  After all quarries are not the most exciting subject. When I was growing up much of Bath was covered in soot from coal fires and steam trains and I always thought that Bath stone made the buildings look dreary. However when Bath was in its heyday in the late 18th century the honey coloured stone must have gleamed in the sunshine. Nowadays planning officials still insist that all building in the centre of town is made from the local stone.

The Coombe Down museum of Bath Stone 

I arrived early and  was able to take the time to look round the small free museum.  Visitors were watching a short film about the Coombe Down stabilization project.   Bath Stone is an oolitic limestone that formed the bed of a shallow sea in the Jurassic period. Surface stone can be used for dry stone walls but building material is found at a depth of a few feet. It has probably been used for local buildings since Roman times as it can be easily worked.

Ralph Allen who built the nearby Prior Park was one of the early quarry owners in Coombe Down. He developed the idea of quarrying stone and then using the flat bed of the quarry to build cottages for his workers. This was fine and some of his early cottages were built by John Wood who also designed the Royal Crescent.  He built rails to send carts laden with stone down the hill now known as Ralph Allen Drive where they could be unloaded onto barges and the stone taken into the centre of Bath.

However later quarry owners decided to extract stone from underground tunnels and build the houses on top. In the 1980’s people living in the expensive houses with views over the Bath sky line found cracks starting to appear in their homes and they were unable to sell them. A survey was carried out and found that many of the pillars that were supporting the roof of the quarries were unsafe. Surveyors estimated that about 500 houses were at risk.

Eventually it was decided to fill the quarries with concrete at a cost of over £150 million . A colony of rare horseshoe bats were found to be living in one of the quarries and an extra six million pounds was provided to save their cave and now they are even provided with heating.  The concrete foam used would have covered a football pitch to a depth of ninety metres.

Walking through the woods
Our walking group. I am fifth from the left.

We  walked round Coombe Down and admired the houses that had been saved. Our group also  rambled through the fields and bluebell woods enjoying the bird song and spring flowers.

We were able to find the cottage where Harry Patch was born in in 1898. His father and grandfather were stone masons in Coombe Down and when he died in 2009 at the age of 111 he was the last fighting Tommy from world war one. We walked down to the nearby village of Monkton Coombe to find his grave in the churchyard.

The grave of Harry Patch with poppy wreath
The grave of Harry Patch in Monkton Combe churchyard.

William Smith and the first geological map.

One of the early quarry owners was a man named William Smith. He was a blacksmith’s son from Churchill in  Oxfordshire who had spent time surveying the route of the local canal and also helping the local coal mine owners find good places to sink mine shafts. He noticed that the rock was in different strata and that fossils appeared in different layers. His work took him all over England and he used the information he had obtained to produce the first geological map of England which is remarkably similar to a modern map.

A plaque marking the cottage where William Smith lived.
Memorial on William Smith’s cottage.

Unfortunately his quarry was not a success and he spent some time in prison for debt His life has been commemorated by Simon Winchester in his book  “the map that changed the world” and by a museum which he designed himself the rotunda in Scarborough.

If you have enjoyed this post please leave a comment.

Author: Anne Fraser

Hi, I am Anne, I am a retired nurse from Bristol in South West England. I am married with five grown up children, four boys and a girl , a grandson and a cat. I like History, travel and reading. I hope to connect with other people with similar interests.

26 thoughts on “Coombe Down and the story of Bath Stone”

  1. So glad that James & Terr of shared this post. What an interesting story about the bats and their good fortune. But also very good photos of Bath and what your walking group has discovered. It’s great to read your posts and learn more about the world. Wishing you all the best!

  2. Fascinating, Anne, on so many levels. Your walking group definitely sounds like my kind of fun. We were just back in Bath last fall, admiring the beautiful stone work. Your quarry story makes it even more interesting. And talk about some pampered bats! I did know about William Smith’s accomplishments since James (the geologist) is one of his admirers. Thanks for taking us along on your walk. All the best, Terri

  3. In retrospect it seems very foolhardy to build your house over a quarry, but you unearthed some fascinating history here, Anne. Not what I was expecting at all 🙂 🙂

  4. Hi Anne, Learning about the history in an area always makes it more interesting. This is the first time I have heard of horseshoe bats. A very educational post! 🙂 Erica

  5. What an interesting walk! I’m a little bit of a geology enthusiast, so that would have been a very interesting place to visit for me! Found you on the Member of the Day Series!

  6. Very interesting and educational as I know very little about quarries. And it seems like a walk that you thought might be a bit disappointing turned about to be quite interesting!

  7. ANother great post! You are making me add another place to my Bucket List but before I get there I will need to read all your posts. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I love this post I have learned so much, my heart would sink if I was told I was having a walk in a quarry – but look at those historical gems that were discovered. Thanks for a really interesting post.

  9. Wow it’s very expensive to fill a quarry – I’m not surprised he ended up in debt! What an interesting walk to go on 🙂

  10. Yikes, £150million+ to fill the queries with concrete?! Fascinating about the horseshoe bats (hadn’t even heard of those before) so I’m glad they were cared for, mind you £6mill for that alone is eye-watering. It’s quite sad that he spent time in prison for debt as the quarry wasn’t a success. I knew nothing about, well, any of this really so it made for interesting reading!
    Caz xx

    1. Some of the Coombe Down locals are envious of the free heating for the bats. It is ironic that the quarry cost more to fill than the stone was worth.

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