In 1758 the owner of the Beer stone quarry tried to ‘blast’ chalk out of the frozen ground above the quarry to make lime. The explosion caused some of the quarry roof to collapse killing 48 men including a boy who had been sent down to warn them.
We all came bawling out of our mothers
into small dark rooms with nothing for light
but a tiny window, a weak fire in the grate.
The dark was what we knew – from when we stepped
into the black dawn, down the moony lane
towards the quarry, into its gaping mouth.
Hey little boy, what you doing here
with your thin little face and your eyes bright and black,
why you stood like a ghost in the lane?
Mid-winter. A hard lid of a winter.
The Axe a sheet of ice. Birds tip-toeing across.
And the earth not giving a thing.
Above the quarry the chalk’s frozen deep
in the ground – like trying to dig metal, they say.
No chalk, no lime – can’t build without lime.
Hey little boy, got something to tell us
about chalk and lime and time passing
and Master grim-faced in the lane?
But down in the quarry we keep cutting the stone,
down in the dark where we’ve nothing for light
but a taper’s thin twist of a tongue.
Down in the dark you could almost believe the sun
had gone out and the earth a hunk of rock
and us here picking and hacking away at it.
Hey little boy – got something to say
about lime and work and money not flowing
and Master pacing the lane?
What does it do to a man’s heart
when all he sees of the sun is the moon?
But this stone can light up a room!
Lights up a quarryman’s lungs too – sows them
with sickness, a bright galaxy of dust.
God’s light, they say, the way it glows.
Run, little boy, with your something to say
about men up top hammering holes
in the ground above the lane
What are they doing up there to the earth,
what does the Master think we’re worth,
’cause we’re here in our hundreds hunched on the scaffold,
crouched in the shadows, pressed to the stone,
axing and sawing with hours to go yet,
soot-smeared, exhausted and freezing with sweat
Come, little boy, with your word to get out
about holes filling up with powder and black
and Master no more in the lane
But none can hear for the clanging din
and none can see ’cause we’ve nothing for light,
we’ve nothing for light, we’ve nothing but –
this bright blinding ringing light – brighter
than any thing – heaven blasting hell
from this place to let us, darkly, in.