Combe Martin Culm - Vegetable or Mineral ?


At the side of the lime kiln that once stood above Combe Martin’s main beach, was a Culm Hay or in Old English a haeg or enclosure.

This article discusses what Combe Martin's Culm Hay might have been.


Combe Martin's Culm Hay

At the side of the lime kiln that once stood above Combe Martin’s beach, was a Culm Hay or in Old English a haeg or enclosure (Adams Hay is up at Combe Martin’s High Cross).

Culm is a naturally occurring mineral, and Culm deposits run alongside seams of high quality anthracite, a high-ranking coal. Anthracite is a hard, brittle, and black lustrous coal, often referred to as hard coal.

Culm was mined in Bideford during the 1850s to 1860s, thus it is likely that Bideford Culm was shipped into Combe Martin (, 2023).

Anthracite Mining in North Devon

Bideford Black is a unique, naturally occurring carbon based mineral, or Culm deposit, running alongside seams of high quality anthracite (coal) across North Devon.

The Northern Mine Research Society states that a small area of anthracite, or culm, was worked in the Bideford area until the early 1960s. Besides being used as a fuel, this product supported a local paint works.

Culm was mined in North Devon at least as early as the mid-17th century. Inclined shafts and adits in Torrridge Cleave Wood have been recorded, extending east for 400 to 800 metres .

Cost-Effective Anthracite Culm

Anthracite burns hotter and longer than bituminous coal, therefore in the long term it's arguably a more cost-effective solution. When anthracite dust was mixed with water and clay and formed into balls: it offered a cost-effective fuel solution.

Was Combmartin Culm Both Mineral and Vegetable?

There might have been two types of culm in Combmartin. The site of Combmartin seaside Culm Hay was flattened for coastguard cottages - still on Borough Rd - in about 1900. Here’s a theory - the culm kept on Combmartin beach might have been coal anthracite and dried plant stems for local use.

Culm Burned in Lime Kilns and Steam Engines

Fuel was necessary for burning limestone for quicklime, and sometimes clay, in Combmartin's 18 kilns, and for steam engines in mining. Burnt anthracite was spread on local fields as a soil conditioner, and culm was used for domestic fuel.

Combe Martin's Communications with Wales

Combe Martin had a lot of industrial and coal connections with Wales, and this subject is discussed in Combe Martin Local History Group's Combe Martin Yesterday  (1997, p. 38). Find the book in Combe Martin's High Street Library, or at Combe Martin Museum and Information Point.

Culm Balls of Clay and Anthracite

Coal was costly to buy even directly from the mines, and culm made an economical homemade fuel. Smokeless and cheap, culm fuel would have cut down on smog, and cut costs for local limeburners and other industries.

Coal was integral to industry, certainly in Wales during 1833 and probably in Combe Martin too. Coal slack was mixed with wet clay to make culm, and formed into balls, before it was dried.

Culm Was Also Vegetable

However, the University of Exeter (2023) states that Culm grassland (or Rhos pasture) is a species-rich unimproved grassland, found on the Culm measures in North Devon and Cornwall. Here’s the thing, culm also means grass stems, sedges, rushes &c. bearing flowers.

Culm Cereal was Used for Food and Drink

Culms are removed after kilning in barley malt production (‘deculming’). Culms also form an important part of the product when making sorghum or cereals for humans. Millet malt, a dry land crop, is nutritious for humans and it's a staple ingredient in ales.

This theory chimes with the maltsters recorded in Combmartin, yet whatever this culm was and whatever its purpose, plant culms are very nutritious and still sold off as animal feed.

Other Uses for Culm Cereal 

There are other uses for culm plant stemsleaves, and seeds. The fibres have been used for textiles, the plants for food, and the dried vegetation for firelighters. These culm plants are a versatile and profitable resource even now.

Old Combmartin Trade With Wales

Swansea is about 30 naut. miles from Combe Martin by sea, and trade and lime-working continued from the 16th to the 19th centuries on both sides of the Bristol Channel. Combmartin's histories reveal a long tradition in communications with Swansea and Cardiff.

Trade Expansion in the Industrial Evolution 1760 - c1840

Whole settlements on the south coast of Wales and on the Heritage Coast of Exmoor, were involved in some sort of maritime trade or mineral working. The two cultures could in theory have been twins. Centuries-old trade in fish, timber, ores, metals and minerals, expanded after the Industrial Revolution 1760-1840.

Medieval Trade and Industry

Between 1540-1640 in Great Britain there was progress in technology, and growth in large-scale industry. Economic and cultural historian John Ulric Nef Jr pointed to evidence for British mining and manufacturing, on a large-scale, long before the middle of the 18th century.

Transit trade, and human migrations during the expansion of the south Wales coalfields in the 18th and 19th centuries, saw Exmoor silver miners crossing the Bristol Channel for mine work. And vice versa when Welsh workers were required in Combmartin. 

Quicklime for Soil Improvement

Quicklime was used by farmers, also for dyes, by housebuilders and painters, and for cleaning. Quicklime is limestone, rich in calcium carbonate and burned in a kiln to destroy its carbon and water content. The derivative calcium oxide is unstable and needs to hydrate.


Combmartin’s Culm Hay site could well have stored grass stems for maltsters or animal feed. Yet more likely it was an enclosure for culm coal slack, supplied from Wales and from Bideford in North Devon .

If you wish to read more about this subject and many other Combe Martin industries and histories, visit Combe Martin Museum and Information Point or Combe Martin Library.

Sources accessed May 2023:

A Dictionary of the Welsh Language. (2023). 

Anthracite Pit, Bideford, North Devon. August 2023. (2023).

Combe Martin Local History Group (1997), Combe Martin Yesterday. Rotapress Combe Martin. (2023).

Lewis, Samuel (1833). A Topographical Dictionary of Wales.  (2023).

The John Ulric Nef, Jr. Papers 1840-2008. University of Chicago Library (2023).