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.
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 This allows the entire depth of gravel to be extracted, resulting in easier processing, though the large pumps have been replaced by smaller mobile pumps.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 Raised’ 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.
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. It is now known as Aggregate Industries.
The economic recession that started in 2008 led to a reduction in business and the subsequent mothballing of the site until the beginning of 2016. Much of the restoration work necessary before the handover of parts of the quarry to the Nature Reserve has now been completed and the remaining parts of Phases 1 & 2 will start shortly. The remaining phases, 3-5, are scheduled for completion by 2026.
Paxton Quarry (Ian Dawson)
Map showing the quarrying operations at Paxton Pits
Further reading on the Holcim website (Aggregate Industries)