Last edited 01 May 2022

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Sourcing stone to repair Exeter Cathedral

Exeter-Cathedral 640.jpg
Even within environmentally sensitive areas it has been possible to achieve planning permission to reopen two historic building stone quarries for the repair of Exeter Cathedral.



Like most historic cathedrals, Exeter Cathedral was built, altered and repaired over many centuries using many different types of stone, often dictated by fashion and availability. It is estimated that nearly 30 different types of stone are present in the fabric of the cathedral. The predominant material for the inner and outer walls is Salcombe stone, a fawn, grey-weathering, medium-to-coarse calcareous limestone from the Lower Cretaceous period [1], which was historically quarried from the Salcombe Regis area in East Devon. This stone, particularly valued for external facing work due to its durability, is found in many church buildings across East Devon.

Dunscombe Manor Quarry

Dunscombe Manor Quarry, on the Salcombe Regis headland in East Devon, is known to have supplied sandstone to Exeter Cathedral in the medieval period, and perhaps from as early as the 12th century. Exeter Cathedral’s unique series of medieval fabric rolls record the quarrying of much stone from the parishes of Salcombe and Branscombe, and its transport to Exeter by sea-barge and land transport. Historically, stone was obtained from the whole headland area. In more recent times the cathedral itself operated Dunscombe Manor Quarry until the early 1990s. The planning permission lapsed in 1994 and operations ceased.

The quarry was then closed and gated, becoming overgrown, and there were no other sources of new material in the area. The need to restore and repair the cathedral continued, however, and by the early 2000s it was clear that the aesthetic appearance and the historic integrity of the cathedral would be affected should Salcombe stone remain unavailable. The cathedral authorities approached Devon County Council in 2013 for advice on the possibility of reopening Dunscombe Manor Quarry to source stone for repairs to the cathedral.

In planning policy terms, there is clear support for the small-scale extraction of locally distinctive building stone of this nature, both locally through the then Devon County Minerals Local Plan [2], and nationally through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the Minerals Practice Guidance [3]. However, the site is located within a particularly sensitive area. It is within the East Devon area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) and a coastal preservation area; less than 100m to the south is the Sidmouth to Beer Coast site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and the Sidmouth to West Bay special area of conservation (SAC), which is an international designation. There is a presumption against new minerals development within these designations, so the planning balance would rest on the actual impacts on these natural designations. A further consideration was the impact on the amenity and the business of the holiday caravan park within which the quarry is situated and by whom the access to the site is controlled.

Before any application was made it was necessary to discuss the principle of the proposal with the main stakeholders. In relation to site access, the cathedral authorities had already discussed the proposal with the caravan site owners who controlled the access. They were supportive of the project, so long as the extraction periods did not adversely affect their holiday business. This meant that the subsequent application restricted the working periods to outside the main tourist season.

The county council approached the AONB team, the district council conservation adviser, English Heritage and Natural England to assess the levels of information that needed to be in any planning application and whether there would be support for the proposal in principle. These discussions were positive. The proposal was also screened for the likelihood of requiring environmental impact assessment, given its location within a sensitive area.

The application, submitted in 2013, was based on a limited extraction area within the quarry to reduce the need for clearance, and an extraction limited to five cubic metres a year, which was the amount the cathedral judged to be sufficient and which could be extracted using hand-held tools. The main impacts of the proposal were the limited clearance of vegetation needed to access the chosen working face and the potential impact on the adjacent caravan park business. It was necessary to condition access and clearance to times when there would be minimal disturbance to bats and breeding birds, all of which had colonised the site during the years it was unused, and to protect the amenity of the holiday park during the main season. The planning application received no objections, and planning permission was granted for a 10-year period within six weeks of the planning application being made.

Unfortunately, because there had been very little access to the quarry during the preparation and submission of the 2013 application, it became apparent when the vegetation was cleared that the approved working plans constrained the extraction to take place from a sheer face, and not from the historic working benches. The red line of the original application, which had been drawn very tightly to reduce the application fee, was not flexible enough to encompass the area that the cathedral wished to work. It was therefore necessary to make a new planning application to ensure that the correct working area was covered by the planning permission.

As a part of the second application, the cathedral also updated the method of working. The original proposal had been to use a hand-held, diamond-tipped saw to remove individual blocks for specific projects. However, the use of a carbide-tipped chainsaw meant that the whole year’s extraction could take place in one day. The stone will be stored offsite until required by the cathedral masons. It was possible to grant this second consent for a further 10 years to 2027 within five weeks of the application being submitted. No new issues had arisen from the original consent being granted in 2013, and new planning policy and guidance continued to support proposals of this nature [4].

Beer Quarry Caves

Another local stone used in the cathedral is Beer stone, a fine, pale, hard chalk also found in East Devon. This has been used for some of the cathedral’s sculptures and window tracery. Beer stone is soft and easily shaped for fine carvings when freshly extracted, but once exposed to air it hardens, although it is still not as durable as Salcombe Stone for external uses.

When the cathedral authorities approached the county council in respect of the Salcombe Stone, they also submitted a planning application to source Beer stone. It might have been expected that the cathedral would approach the operator of the main commercial Beer stone quarry. This had been worked by a large aggregate supplier for crushed chalk but had ceased operation in the late 1990s. This was partly due the underground workings being a significant bat roost, which had led to its designation as a special area of conservation under the European Habitats Directive.

Close to the commercial quarry and within the historic underground working area are the historic Beer Quarry show caves, dating back to Roman times. These are now a successful local tourist attraction. The cathedral authorities had approached the landowners and the operator of the caves to see if they would support a stand-alone application to extract a small amount of stone each year from one of the more recent working areas close to the cave entrance.

The operators considered that this small-scale extraction could add interest to the tours, which regularly take in the Roman workings and graffiti dating from medieval times to the first and second world wars, when the caves were used for secure storage. These caves are also roosts for a number of protected bat species, including greater and lesser horseshoe bats. The show caves are a designated special area of conservation and legally protected due to their bat roosts. As a result, the council had to carry out a habitats regulations assessment to establish whether there would be a significant effect on the protected species using the caves if planning permission were to be granted.

The evidence for this was helpfully available because the bats are monitored on a regular basis by Exeter University, which advised the applicant on impact and mitigation. This advice was accepted by Natural England, which had been involved at pre-application stage and had given advice on the impacts that needed to be assessed.

In addition to the cave operators and the landowner, the proposal was strongly supported by the East Devon AONB service as an example of a small-scale operation with undoubted local benefits for the historic environment. The operators of the quarry caves and the cathedral considered that the extraction would be of reciprocal benefit: visitors to the cathedral should be encouraged to visit the quarry caves and vice versa.

Given the overall level of policy and consultee support, it was also possible to grant permission for this application within a six-week period. Unfortunately, the 2014 permission has lapsed unimplemented. The cathedral authorities have explained that this was primarily due to health-and-safety concerns, and the associated cost of complying with mining regulations for underground working, which are the same regardless of the volume of extraction. The cathedral came to the conclusion that a readily available French stone could provide a practical and comparable alternative.

The Dunscombe Manor Quarry permission enables the Exeter Cathedral authorities to repair the Grade I listed structure using appropriate local stone. The stone taken from the most recent extraction is currently being used in the cathedral’s restoration programme, including carving four new corbels: a poppy, the Exeter Chiefs Rugby Club emblem, an eagle owl and a crown. These have been added to the eastern end.

It is encouraging that it is possible to enable small-scale schemes in environmentally sensitive areas. The willingness of all the agencies to engage in the process and carry out careful pre-application discussions, recognising the scale of the proposal, and being proportionate in their approach to the likely impacts, has led to a successful outcome. It is disappointing that only one of the schemes has been implemented but noteworthy that the Beer Caves project was not hampered in any way by planning legislation.

The small scale of both proposals led to the conclusion through careful screening that an environmental impact assessment would not be required, which would have led to considerable additional expenditure on the part of the applicant and would probably have stopped both proposals from coming forward as applications.

It is hoped that other such small-scale proposals can be brought forward to ensure the availability of local stones appropriate for conservation projects.


This article originally appeared in IHBC’s Context 154, published in May 2018. It was written by Emily Harper, a senior planning officer and Sue Penaluna a principal planning officer, both at Devon County Council.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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