Old lime kiln discovered in overgrown patch of Brixham garden

Torbay Weekly

Right, when you’ve finished reading this, I want you to nip out into your garden and check to see if you have an undiscovered lime kiln you haven’t noticed.

I can hear you saying, ‘what utter rubbish, don’t be ridiculous, how could anybody fail to spot a lime kiln in their garden?’

However, that is exactly what happened to me.

When I bought my Victorian house in Brixham in 2020, the top, third level of the garden was extremely overgrown with a rundown vegetable patch, huge, derelict wreck of a henhouse, enormous stumps of felled oak trees, piles of rocks and stacks of welsh roofing slates.

Not to mention the tens of neglected plant containers in varying shapes, sizes, and colours.

I assumed that what appeared to be a storage space hidden behind a curtain of hanging brambles and ivy was simply a makeshift, small stone garden shed cut into the bottom of the six-metre high, back wall.

When I systematically started digging, clearing, and cutting back, it became apparent that the tall, arched, dome-shaped creation, some two metres wide and three metres deep, was the remains of what was once a working lime kiln.

It is built into the hillside and constructed from rough courses of rock with a floor of stones like those which form breakwater beach.

I am not talking about the 19th century industrial production of quicklime in places such as Annery in North Devon, near Great Torrington, where three large kilns were grouped together but rather kilns which operated, almost on a localised, domestic level.

Given the fact that quicklime is highly inflammable and corrosive it would make sense to produce the material as near as possible to the place where it was to be deployed thus avoiding transportation.

Layers of broken limestone would have been laid with alternative layers of coal and the contents of the kiln fired continuously for three to four days at a temperature between 800C and 1,100C. It was dangerous work. Touching the quicklime or breathing it in resulted in burning tissue.

This process burned off the carbon dioxide contained in the limestone to produce quicklime, a staple substance in the construction and building trade.

When it is slaked, mixed with water, it can be used as mortar, render, combined with aggregates and formed into blacks or slabs. It can take any shape. When exposed to the carbon dioxide in the air it regains the normal characteristics of limestone. Almost like magic.

Quicklime boasts an extremely adhesive quality. It was used to make whitewash for painting. It is also a valuable tool in the agricultural business. It was employed  as a ‘soil sweetener’ which enabled acidic water-logged land to be converted into arable land for crops.

Hydrated lime was also rubbed into livestock’s feet as an antiseptic, painted onto fruit trees to prevent fungal disease, used as a disinfectant in wells.

Gardeners used it to repel slugs and snails. Tanners used it to remove hairs from hides and printers to bleach paper. A bowl of it placed in a pantry or storeroom would keep the area dry by reducing the humidity as it sucked moisture from the air.

I soon discovered that my lime kiln was by no means the only one in the Brixham area.

There is one at the Berry Head Hotel, which was originally used by the military hospital during the Napoleonic wars. I have seen a photograph and mine appears to be slightly larger.

There is one on New Road, Brixham, another at Mann Cove and two in Churston Wood. There is no doubt many more.

The lime kiln is now destined to be a cosy place to sit with a glass of wine on summer evenings. So, go on, pop out into the garden, and make sure you are not the proud possessor of a lime kiln you have overlooked.