In 1532 the journey into Bath from Midford was described by antiquarian John Leland as "all by mountains and quarre, littel woods in site". This treeless landscape was indeed barren: grazing sheep, an isolated farm building or two and perhaps the chink of hammers in some small nearby quarry being the only signs of life.
Little changed for the next two hundred years until Ralph Allen began to purchase land on the 'Down' in 1726. Ralph Allen had moved to Bath in 1710, and after making profits working as postmaster, began to acquire land in Combe Down. By 1731, he held a monopoly over the quarries and set to increase the output of Bath stone. By 1744 he owned the entire area and, with architect John Wood, had planned and was under way with a complete rebuilding of Bath using Bath stone, the best source of which was here on the Down. His legacy has had a tremendous impact on the character of Combe Down as well as contributing to the development of Bath and the use of Bath stone for building all over England.
Ralph Allen transformed the landscape not only with his quarrying activities, but also by planting as many as 55,000 fir trees and other species on his estates. Firs Field, in the centre of the village, was part of this plantation and the trees remained a feature until they were felled for construction in the early 1800s.Back to Top
Ralph Allen died in 1764 and, lacking a direct successor, his Estates were eventually passed on to the Earl de Montalt who took no active interest in the quarries, but was happy to rent them out. The tramway was broken up and sold off for scrap in the same year. Quarrymen now had to lease the mining rights for the relatively small plots of land that they worked. The stone was transported by horse and cart, a slow process, until 1773 when The Turnpike Act encouraged the building of new, surfaced roads. Tollgates were installed at both ends of Combe Down: at the top of Brassknocker Hill, and at the Bradford Road junction with Combe Road when the Bradford Road was improved, at which time all users were required to pay a fee towards the cost of construction and maintenance, often based on weight of load. Unlike the shepherds who circumvented the toll-gates by leading their flocks along Shepherds Walk to the south of the village, the quarry-masters had no choice but to pay to transport their stone along the Turnpike.
By the end of the 18th century the south facing slopes of the Down were seen as an ideal spot for convalescing after taking the waters in Bath. The Earl de Montalt converted Ralph Allen's former quarrymen's cottages into lodgings for this purpose, and nearby Isabella Place was built in the 1770s for a similar clientele.Back to Top
The Earl de Montalt died in 1803 and individual quarry-masters were at last able to purchase the land which had been continuously quarried since Ralph Allen's time. There was a steady influx of skilled migrants from the Corsham/Melksham area as stone production expanded and thus began probably the most productive period of quarrying on Combe Down. A new phase of construction began in the village resulting in many of the older cottages that we see today. The earliest buildings in Combe Road were built between 1810 and 1820; many such as Brunswick Place were the homes of the quarrymasters themselves. The land to the east of Combe Road was developed much later because it had been given over to allotments in 1852, for 'promoting the comfort and resources of industrious Labourers'.Back to Top
Rock Hall Lane dips through the former quarry face, and entrances to the third and most important of Ralph Allen's underground quarries were situated just to the left. These mines were divided and sold to a number of quarrymasters and operations continued until about 1850. Later a malthouse was built over the entrances. The whole site has since been renamed, appropriately, as Ralph Allen's Yard. Further down the Lane, on the right, is Rock Hall itself. The original structure was built by the Nowell family who were also quarrymasters. They took their stone from a surface quarry into the rock outcrop itself, following the line above Shepherds Walk. Their fame and fortune became assured not by quarrying as such, but by one of the younger sons, Philip, who became a master mason. By the time he died, in 1853, his legacy included the building of not only the older part of Rock Hall we see today, but also major extensions to Longleat, seat of the Marquess of Bath, Windsor Castle then home to King William IV and Apsley House, the official residence in London to the Duke of Wellington. In short, he had become one of the best known and possibly most trusted builders in the land. Being responsible for purchasing the Bath stone required for these and many other projects, he naturally turned to his family quarry and those of his neighbours for supply. Meanwhile transportation of the stone had been made easier by the opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810.
Apart from a few scattered stone-built farmsteads the first buildings in Combe Down were the cottages now known as De Montalt Place, on Church Road, that Ralph Allen constructed for his quarry workers in 1729. In the middle of this row is Dial House which was initially the home of Richard Jones, Ralph Allen's clerk of works. Avenue Place was built around the same time, incorporating "The Carriage Inn," in the part of the building that is now occupied by the village newsagents.Back to Top
From about 1835 the tradition of coming to Combe Down to convalesce after illness was revived, and a construction boom began for building large detached villas for the upper middle classes. Fine early examples include the Old Vicarage and Combe Lodge (1830s), followed by Belmont House in 1854. By the 1860s most of the prime sites had been built upon and the fashionable east end of Church Road was renamed South Parade for a time.
Underground evidence suggests that by 1840 most of the stone had been quarried and the newly discovered workings at Box and Corsham provided an alternative supply. Although quarrying fell into decline after 1840, stone mining continued in some parts of the Down, particularly on the north side of Bradford Road, until well into the 20th century. Upper Lawn Quarry, across the fields from Gladstone Road, continues to operate today. The people of Combe Down who lived in the workers' cottages near the former quarry workings could no longer depend on stone mining and had to look for alternative livelihoods.Back to Top
Quarry Vale Cottages, which lie along the foot of the face of one of three original Ralph Allen quarries, were built in the early 1800s. Although it is likely masons and other quarry workers occupied them, it is clear that they were built after this part of the quarry had been abandoned. After carving out an area where stone could be shaped and waste material stored, it was often more practical and economic to quarry the stone under the surface cap. In effect, many of the Combe Down stone mines were really underground quarries. The surface rock face here extends away to the west to Rock Hall Lane and beyond. Three mine entrances were excavated by Allen at various points into this rock face, and stone cut into large blocks was extracted from them. Grapple cranes lifted these blocks to the top of the quarry, where they were loaded on to innovatively designed trolleys, or "carriages", for transport via a special railway. Horses pulled the carriages along the route of The Avenue and then they travelled down what is now Ralph Allen Drive with a man on the back operating a newly designed braking system. Thus the stone from Combe Down was efficiently taken down to Dolemeads (Widcombe) where it was dressed before being dispatched by barge, either across the river to Bath itself, or further afield.
A second quarry was situated at the end of Rock Lane (also known as Davidge's Bottom, or Sheep's House) where another crane was in operation. Here the bricked up entrances of passageways into the face can still be seen, and former labourer and quarrymen's cottages were situated at the foot of the face, just as at Quarry Vale.Back to Top
Bath stone has been extracted by open quarrying and mining techniques. Combe Down and Bathampton Down mines date from the 17th and 18th century when stone was extracted by the "room and pillar" method, by which chambers were mined, leaving pillars of stone between them to support the roof. The mine contained a range of mine features including well preserved tramways, cart-roads and crane bases. The walls and pillars of the mine are studded with pick and tool marks and showed evidence of the use of huge stone saws, all of which bear testimony to the variety of techniques used to extract the stone over the mine's three hundred year history.Back to Top