Gravel has been extracted in the Little Paxton area for centuries. The first gravel was unprocessed and used to dress local roads; today, it is part of a multi-million pound industry.
Aggregate Industries’ Little Paxton Quarry has been recognised for its conservation work twice in recent years, winning awards in the BTO/Hanson Challenge in 2002, 2004 and 2006 and being showcased by the Quarry Products Association in 2004. This page recounts the history of quarrying at Paxton and explains the methods used today.
A potted history
During the 19th Century, gravel from Paxton Park was probably used for the construction and improvement of local housing, but in 1939, a 27 acre pit was opened at Oxcroft Furlong to meet the demand for aggregates to construct runways during the Second World War. During the 1930s and '40s the pit was owned and worked by Reg Fields and Frank Pateman, local garage owners in Huntingdon Street, St Neots. They named their aggregate business Gravel Products.
This deposit was worked for three years, draglines were used to dig, old lorries and a small light railway were used to convey the extracted material to the processing plant. On exhaustion of the reserves, workings moved to the present site at Little Paxton.
From the 1940s until 1958, gravel was extracted from the area that is now the nature reserve managed by Huntingdonshire District Council. Draglines and old lorries were initially used to extract the gravel, but a lack of suitable pumps (to remove water from the pits) meant that extraction was less efficient than it is today. Pits had to be shallow, peninsulas of land being left to hold back the water and protect the works. This resulted in what is now known as Heronry Lake, an unusually-shaped pit, which provides a haven for wildfowl.
Later, dredgers were used to suck gravel from the lake bed through a floating pipe line (made of old aircraft fuel tanks). However as the distance from the shore increased, blockages became more frequent and the quarry switched to a tug boat and barges. The remains of the old quay can be seen behind the pumphouse at the south end of Heronry Lake.
In 1961/62 Fields and Pateman sold Gravel Products to Sydney Greens of Henley-on-Thames. Sydney Greens were the main contractor building the dual carriageway from Little Paxton to Buckden.
In 1965 large dewatering pumps were employed to allow the dig to be worked 'dry', as it is today. This allows the entire depth of gravel to be extracted, resulting in easier processing, though the large pumps have been replaced by smaller mobile pumps.
In 1967 the present processing plant was commissioned. Around this time, ECC Quarries Ltd purchased Sydney Greens and the name Gravel Products disappeared. Between 1967 and 1972 extraction was by dredger, then by dragline onto dumpers. During this period a lot of material went out as 'As Dug' direct to the Eaton Socon by-pass. From 1972 extraction was by dragline onto field conveyors, as remains current practice.
Between 1972 and 1983 gravels were extracted in the area that is now leased to Boughton Water ski/sailing club (the ‘A1 Pits’). Extraction between 1983 and 1993 created the lake at Pumphouse Pit, which was landscaped, with islands as home for breeding lapwings and redshanks. Present excavation east of Diddington will link into the 1983/93 workings to create a large lake divided by a causeway. The current workings are being restored for recreation and conservation uses.
In 1994 ECC Quarries demerged from the parent company of English China Clays Limited and was renamed CAMAS Aggregates Ltd., part of CAMAS plc. It then merged with Bardon Aggregates in 1997, the quarrying division becoming Bardon Aggregates, under the parent company Aggregate Industries.
The current operation is scheduled to complete extraction in 2006. A planning application in January 2003 will seek permission to extract gravel from three further areas, which would extend the life of the quarry by a further 13 years (details of the extension proposals).
From the earth to roads and houses
The gravels are extracted by an 38 RB dragline, a long boomed excavator with a 2½ cubic yard (1.9 cubic metre) bucket, holding just under 3½ tonnes, which is filled by dropping and dragging a rope towards the machine. The face height worked varies with the deposit, a working face being typically 2–3 metres high. The gravel is fed into a 17 tonne feed hopper and onto an extensive field conveyor system, which transports the material to the plant for processing.
Eight field conveyors extend to over 3000 metres and are all approximately level until the “Elephant”, conveyor no 1. Power to the conveyors comes from two switch houses. The belt travels at 1.7 m per second and carries about 200 tonnes per hour. The “Elephant” deposits the 'As Dug' onto a surge pile with an underground recovery system, and it is fed into the processing plant from here.
The gravel is conveyed on to a Niagara double deck screen, where a water spray is used to separate sand from stone. The stone passes through a Pegson scrubber barrel and a Trommel screen, which divides stone according to size. Small gravel (<6 mm) is stockpiled by the conveyor, while larger stones are carried by conveyor to a Parker 1½-deck screen which grades the aggregate by size into bins. The largest stones are taken to the crusher, a 2ft Norberg cone, which sits astride the main feed conveyor to the plant. Crushed material is deposited on the belt for reprocessing. Aggregates are loaded from the bins, or direct from the blending conveyor, into lorries for deliveries or onto the dumper for stock piling.
Sand is processed through a Linatex S type classifier, where water is used to produce two grades of sand: sharp and soft. These are discharged to piles through the hydrocyclones mounted on the towers, which partially dewater the sand and remove the silt. Silt is piped from the plant into the settlement lagoon (Washout Pit).
The aggregates are produced to British Standards and are used predominantly in the manufacture of concrete. All aggregates are sold into the local market.
Paxton Quarry (Ian Dawson)
Map showing the quarrying operations at Paxton Pits