400 million years in the making

What was life like at Berry Head 400 million years ago?

You would have been in the midst of a warm, tropical sea south of the equator. All around you the waters would be teeming with strange and otherworldly life forms. Huge lumps and bumps of coral rise up from the seabed, creating a strange, almost lunar scene. Woodlouse-like creatures called trilobites dart to and fro over the seabed in search of food. Towering above them are the tall, elegant stems and feathery fronds of crinoids - distant relatives of modern day brittle stars.

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Over the course of millions of years layer upon layer of these corals and the shell fragments and skeletons of other creatures formed into thick layers of limestone. Take a close look at the stonework of the Napoleonic buildings and the walls of the fort and you will see fossilised fragments of crinoid stems and other ancient sea creatures. Move the geological clock forward 100 million years and the coral reef is now high and dry having been thrust up out of the ocean following a monumental collision of continents. The result is a giant mountain chain rivalling the modern day Alps.

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By 280 million years ago, the English Riviera is being scoured and scorched by the sand and heat of a vast red desert. Dinosaurs come and go, global climates change, seas rise and fall and the English Riviera charts a steady northerly course, riding piggy back on the ever-shifting tectonic plates of the earth's crust.

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Just 1.8 million years ago Berry Head is close to its present position. In the wet climate, freshwater streams carve out an elaborate system of caves that will eventually become home to the earliest human settlers in Britain. Long before the construction of wartime observation posts and anti-aircraft guns, lighthouses, Napoleonic forts and naval signalling stations, our earliest ancestors found protection from wild animals and the weather in a network of caves beneath Berry Head.

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The earliest fortifications on Berry Head date to the Iron Age, when a large promontory fort occupied the same site as the Napoleonic North Fort.

Discoveries of Bronze Age and Roman artefacts in the area, and evidence of medieval strip field patterns, indicate a long continuity of human use of Berry Head, even if there is no surviving evidence of settlement. The two large Napoleonic fortifications so evident today were built to protect the important naval anchorage of Torbay when England was at war with France. . An extract of a soldier's letter from this time, written on Berry Head, gives us an insight:

31st November 1811

I write this from the Guard House fronting the wide ocean, where I am today on duty...I am surrounded by fortifications and cannon, and the ramparts are on the edge of the rocks, from which it would turn you giddy to look down on the foaming deep ‘where the choughs and crows, that wing the midway air seem scarce as large as beetles'.

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Lying abandoned on the northern flank of Berry Head is a vast limestone quarry - the result of over 300 years of quarrying. The quarry was in its heyday during the 1930s, 40s and 50s with production in some years exceeding 200,000 tons. The great purity of the limestone (nearly 99% calcium carbonate) has long made Berry Head important to agriculture, industry and construction. The most obvious products of the quarry can be seen in the ramparts of the two Napoleonic forts. However, during its working life it provided limestone for many more significant uses.

Extracted lime was used to make fertiliser, mortar and cement and was exported as smelting lime for use in the iron-making industry. Block cut and chipped stone was used for road building, including supporting the D-Day campaign, and in the construction of notable buildings in South Devon and further afield.

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