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The Historic Limekilns of Ceredigion

Lime has been used for building since 7000 BC ( South Galilee, Israel). It was widely used by the Egyptians and later by the Romans who invented various mixes including a waterproof lime mortar for use in aqueducts by including volcanic dust in the mix. In Ceredigion, lime was not always available and some early builders used earth and clay between the stones. However, with the advent of a busy coastal shipping industry in West Wales, Limestone, and culm - the fuel needed to convert Limestone into quicklime  became two of the more important imports to the area. 

The Lime Kiln at Cwmtydu

The restored Lime Kiln at Cwmtydu beach.

The soil of much of inland and upland Ceredigion tends to be thin and acidic -not at all conducive to arable farming. As a result lime was needed for application to the soil to reduce acidity and thereby increase fertility. Lime was also very much in demand as lime mortar for building - lime mortar was used in Ceredigion before Portland cement was available. It was also needed for Lime wash - the original whitewash used to paint stone cottages white.

Before the coming of the railways, the only way to get lime to the west coast of Wales was by ship. The limestone was brought from Gower and Pembrokeshire by boat. Often, it was offloaded into the water at high tide and then collected from the beach when the tide went down.

To make lime, limestone - or calcium carbonate must be heated to 800 - 900 degrees to drive off carbon dioxide and leave calcium oxide or quicklime. This process was achieved in huge masonry kilns with a tapering internal furnace or 'crucible' where alternate layers of limestone and culm were introduced through the opening at the top. It is said that during the day they burned with a  transparent blue waving flame while giving off thick acrid yellow smoke. At night they glowed and may have been useful landmarks for travelers both on sea and land. Some of the kilns are round (Llangrannog, Cwmtydu and Mwnt) while others are square (Llanrhystud and Wallog north of Aberystwyth). I have found no record of the shape of the Cei Bach kilns. The shapes drawn on the 1840 Tithe map (below)  are indeterminate.

This part of the 1840 Tithe map clearly shows a group of 4 Lime kilns where the present beach path enters the beach (top left) and a group of 2 near Troedyrhiew Farm (right) to the east. Click on the map for a larger version.

Remains of a kiln at Cei Bach - New Quay can be seen in the background beyond Llanina reef.

This is the remains of a wall or possibly part of one of the lime kilns at the eastern end of Cei Bach Beach. It was certainly an internal part of a massive structure

At the base of the kiln is one or more triangular or arch shaped openings leading to a small aperture or draw hole where the fire could be lit and the finished lime drawn off. The well preserved lime kiln complex between Llanon and Llanrhystud was one of the major lime producer in the area with four kilns, each of which has three draw holes. There were also several kilns at Cei Bach close to New Quay - the 1840 Tithe map clearly shows at least six kilns. Unfortunately, coastal erosion has destroyed the  kilns at Cei Bach. All that remains is the central portion of a single wall - which may or may not be part of one of the eastern group of lime kilns, stripped of its protective stone (see photo above).

Examination of the Llanrhystud kilns shows that both interior and exterior walls were of dressed stone, while the cavity between was filled with rubble - all that is  remaining at Cei Bach.

Quicklime drawn from the kilns was sold to farmers who would leave it in small heaps on the fields to be 'slaked' -  to take in water and to be converted to calcium hydroxide before it could be applied to the land. Without slaking, the quick lime would have killed anything growing! The slaked lime was spread at some four tons to the acre.

The remains of the circular limekiln at Mwnt near Cardigan

One of the square kilns at Llanrhystud

At Llanrhystud below the lime kilns there are the remains of piers constructed in the same manner as the original pier 'Penpolion' at New Quay with stakes driven into the beach with stones between them. The stones have long gone though but the stakes remain.

Draw hole at Llanrhystud. The four kilns here are built into the hill so that only three sides needed to be built. As the top of the kiln is level with the field above, it was then an easy matter to drop lime and culm into the top opening.

The lime industry in Ceredigion started in the eighteenth century. However it died out towards the end of the nineteenth century as the railways proved to be more cost effective than the coastal shipping trade and as other fertilizers such as guano became more widely used. By 1900 almost all the coastal kilns had stopped work. 

Storms and erosion have removed all traces of many kilns including most of those at Cei Bach. Others such as those at Cwmtydu, Llangrannog and Mwnt are built well away from the edge of the sea and remain more or less intact. However, the best un-restored examples remain between Llanon and Llanrhystud. Presently the kilns are well away from the edge of the soft clay/rubble cliff. However these cliffs are very vulnerable to storms and without coastal protection the Llanrhystud kilns could well be lost within just a few generations. See them while you can.

Rod Attrill 2003