We very rarely think about how some things got to be the way they are, because for some of us they have always been there. However, some things we today take completely for granted are only there through the work and sacrifice of hundreds of unknown men and women in the past, and sometimes it is good to be reminded of that – if only to marvel at their cumulative achievements.
For example, the Lovely Wife and I were on one of our regular rambles through the Hertfordshire countryside and were crossing a bridge over the railway line that leads from London to the East Midlands. It is a huge thing, not so much the number of tracks, rather the embankments or cuttings through which it runs. These are massive constructions that run for miles, through all sorts of different terrain and cutting through hat must have seemed impenetrable obstacles. Today of course, this would have all been assisted by machine, but this construction was for the much part by hand, assisted only by horses. Hundreds of men, leaving homes, working long hours, throwing up the Nation’s railways. Cutting tunnels, building bridges. I find it quite mindboggling and just a little humbling, as many of these men died during the construction due to the poor conditions and lack of anything that approaches Health & Safety. And largely, we have forgotten them and what they did (certainly the only tribute I have found is the wonderful ‘Driving the Last Spike’, all 10 minutes of so of it, on the 1989 Genesis album ‘We can’t Dance’).
The Lovely Wife and I were reminded again of the people who did the work that today we use and admire when visiting Beer Quarry Caves in Devon this last week. Just outside the village of Beer (I’m putting that in for my International friends as a clarification that this is not some strange subterranean brewery) they are not caves but the underground workings where over about a thousand years people have been digging out Beer Stone. The Stone has the advantage of being relatively easy to carve when first dug out, but when weathered it turns very hard and pales in colour, making it ideal for decorative detailing on high status buildings, especially churches and cathedrals and large public buildings. The Romans started the mining in earnest and the work continued well into this century. Through that period thousands of quarry men worked mostly in darkness to dig out the stuff, and many of them died in the process through accidents or later respiratory problems from the dust – and were paid a pittance for their pains. While the conditions were equally unpleasant and dangerous, coal miners at the same period were at least paid well for what they dug out. In later medieval times onwards the otherwise mostly illiterate quarry men signed their names in charcoal and many examples survive, so, unlike the men that dug the railways we still know who some of them were and even some of their stories. It is a sober reminder for me when I feel moved to complain about something in my life what a contrast it is to these people. Also, next time you look at some fine window tracery and admire the work of the master masons, we should also think about the men who hacked the stuff out with a pick in order to feed their family.
Do visit the caves if you are in the area – they are massive in scale and impressive and interesting in what they represent and the stories they tell.