Thursday, 23 September 2010


There are a number of limekilns fronting the Estuary. They produced lime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, primarily for local farmers. They are where they are for two reasons. First, such kilns needed to be built into the side of a hill or into a cliff because of the nature of the limeburning process. A very high temperature was required to heat the limestone. The soft red sandstone cliffs of the banks of the Exe were ideal for the purpose. Secondly the limestone had somehow to be delivered to the limekiln and this could best be done by sea. For centuries heavy ‘stone boats’ plied back and forth between Torbay and the Exe carrying suitable stone for burning.

These stone boats needed to be substantial vessels. One built for Lord Rolle in 1802 and called ‘the Bicton’ was of 74 tons. She was ‘a square sterned sloop’ over fifty feet long and carrying a square sail in addition to main, fore and jibs.

The best remaining lime kilns on the Exe are at Lympstone where there are two fine examples of such building. These were supplied with limestone by a stone boat that needed to lie off shore. The stone had then to be transferred to lighters and so brought ashore and offloaded again. Even by the best tides it must have been an arduous task. By 'dead' tides the stone was left beyond the tideline in piles and needed to be fetched in by cart.

The limekilns with their gracious barrelled arches have now a rather romantic look about them but in their time time they were the worst kind of polluting industrial intrusion. The noise of the furnaces was thundering. The gases were foulsmelling and poisonous. The warmth, however, of the area around limekilns attracted the homeless. It seemed a good place to sleep on a cold night. All too many vagabonds were found dead, poisoned by the carbon dioxide that spewed out of the top of the kilns.

The Lympstone kilns and those at Countess Weir and Topsham were for many years owned by the Topsham shipbuilder, Daniel Bishop Davy and his family. I don’t imagine he or his kin or his kilns were very popular with the neighbours.

More from Segal Books.


  1. Limekiln spotting is one of those geeky things to do on East Devon walks; they were quite ubiquitous. The folksy arches by the slipway at Ladram Bay are limekilns too. Old Maps finds there were some at Exmouth docks, Straight Point, and quite a lot - no surprise - on the site of Limekilns Car Park in Budleigh (corner of Salting Hill and Granary Lane).

  2. PS Thanks - highly thought-provoking. Their strange combination of being both a commonplace and a striking presence seems to have led to limekilns having a small but distinctive role in literature: see Literary limekilns.