This article contains reflections by several of us at the Herefordshire and Worcestershire Earth Heritage Trust on our experiences checking the condition of some of the fabulous geology in our area. This arose from a welcome engagement with Natural England, stimulated by a new focus of government on the health of the natural environment.
Over the winter 2020-2021, geologists associated with the Trust carried out fieldwork under contract to Natural England to monitor the condition of geological Sites of SpeciaI Scientific Interest (SSSIs). These are designated as nationally important sites complementing the regionally important Local Geological Sites of which EHT keeps a register. Nine SSSIs were selected by Natural England across Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire, some with dozens of individual locations, and others with only a handful. The ones selected had not been monitored for a long time or their condition was thought to be under threat.
The Trust is grateful to Julie Harrald for coordinating the national bid and contributing background material to our article. Sue Hay led the coordination of the EHT work and fieldwork was carried out by her, Kate Andrew, John Payne, Moira Jenkins, Ian Fairchild, Dick Bryant, Brian and Kay Hughes and Alysoun Fenn.
Below Julie Harrald gives the background to how the opportunity to do this work came about:
In January 2018 the Government published A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, which it says sets out ‘what we will do to improve the environment, within a generation’. Amongst 10 themes there are 66 indicators of environmental health including the one most relevant to our work: ‘Condition of heritage features including designated geological sites and scheduled monuments’.
The most important designated sites, those termed Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), are of national significance and have legal protection. There are 1,150 SSSIs across England designated wholly or in part for their geological and geomorphological features. Natural England has oversight of SSSIs, but after a decade of austerity with deep cuts to Natural England’s budget and capacity, and a streamlining of its activities, monitoring of SSSIs has diminished so that for many sites, the baseline data against which to assess progress on the 25-year plan is not available. Natural England has received new and ongoing funding to re-establish a programme of SSSI monitoring and evaluation.
The Geology Trusts (of which EHT is a member) successfully tendered for work at over 110 sites across sixteen counties. Local geology groups have some of the best-placed personnel to do this work and all are pleased that Natural England has engaged them to report on the most important geological sites within their counties.
Natural England’s stated aim is to ‘update, improve and fill gaps in the evidence base regarding the current condition of geological SSSIs and their associated management needs’. It is intended that the data will not only provide evidence for the 25YEP but also contribute information to local nature recovery strategies and support the targeting of resources to manage and maintain the condition of geological SSSIs, for example, through the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), the Government’s new agricultural policy replacing EU payment schemes. ELMS will pay landowners for good practice and positive outcomes for the environment on the basis of ‘public money for public goods’. It will be gratifying to geology groups, including EHT, if improved management of sites takes place as a result of this monitoring exercise.
Ian Fairchild writes of the relationship between landowners and their on-site SSSI:
“This property contains an SSSI which is legally protected”. This statement could send a chill down the spine of a potential purchaser of land, but how much difference does it make in practice?
The location, overall condition, and reasons for designation of SSSIs is public information that can be accessed at:
Landowner information is not included, this information being subject to General Data Protection Regulations. Whilst offering protection to landowners, it also means that potential visitors may be reduced to turning up on spec rather than contacting in advance. Some nice exposures are actually hardly ever visited to the knowledge of the landowner (e.g. the contact illustrated below) whilst the precise location of some fossiliferous outcrops has to be carefully guarded because of the danger of illegal collecting and associated damage.
Rare exposure of the unconformable contact of the Triassic Kidderminster Conglomerate on the Permian Clent Breccia in the Clent Hills.
Many SSSIs are located on publicly accessible land that is managed by organizations such as The National Trust, The Malvern Hills Trust or other public bodies, or local charities. Here there is the potential for teams of rangers to monitor activity by the public and carry our remedial work. For individual landowners the situation is likely to be very different. Some recent purchasers, surprisingly, are not even aware of the existence of a protected site. An individual will understandably not be an expert on what is being protected and how best to conserve it. During our fieldwork this winter, several landowners or their agents asked what they should be doing. There is clearly scope for Natural England to engage more with landowners about this, which hopefully their increased funding will allow them to facilitate. On the other hand, there are rare cases of landowner hostility even to serious visitors, stimulated by unauthorized access and vandalism by “pleasure-seekers” of various sorts. The owner of an abandoned quarry no longer has the possibility of landfill to generate income and recontour the land. This makes such sites a burden and at EHT we have been careful to remove photographs of such sites from our website on request. Nevertheless, whether or not an SSSI is present shouldn’t make any difference unless requests to visit are excessive.
Finally, there are special issues about conserving soft sediment sites, which in our area, means Quaternary deposits. In some cases, Natural England has accepted that the practicalities are such that the site needs to be buried and only exhumed when access by serious researchers is needed. Such was the case for the interglacial site at Eckington to which EHT geologists facilitated access, under the auspices of Natural England, for an international field trip in summer 2019. The slope gravels at Beckford (see below) are a rare example of a well-exposed face, but longer-term the exposures, which are finite, will inevitably degrade. Thankfully this site is in the care of a local charity with active volunteer engagement.
Quaternary exposure of slope-deposited gravel at Beckford local nature reserve.
Geoconservation hazards here include tree roots, solitary bees, rabbits and child cyclists!
Kate Andrew writes of the fascinating architectural context of the geology in Downton Gorge:
The Downton Gorge SSSIs are located within a working sporting estate that includes a National Nature Reserve, access requires permission from both the Estate Manager and the Warden. Only one footpath crosses the gorge, so we were fortunate to be able to encounter areas that can only usually be visited with the warden or as part of a shoot.
The cliffs of Downton Gorge in hoar frost, looking downstream. © Kate Andrew
The gorge cuts through the Ludlow to Pridoli stratigraphic sequence and was formed at the end of the Devensian glaciation. It provides a route for the waters of the River Teme to escape glacial lake Wigmore. The pre-glaciation route flowed into what is now the River Lugg but remained blocked with ice and moraine. The temperature on the day of our first visit didn’t rise above freezing all day, but it made for some spectacular effects.
In the late sixteenth century, the constant and rapid flow of the Teme, a plentiful supply of timber and charcoal from the surrounding woodlands and a source of iron ore fairly close by provided the ideal conditions for Richard Knight, an entrepreneurial iron master from Coalbrookdale, to rent and later buy the Downton and Bringewood estates and establish the Burrington Forges.
Iron ore, a hydrated iron oxide in Coal Measures sandstone was transported from Clee Hill by pack horse. The construction of weirs, leats and mill ponds fed water powered bellows that created sufficient and constant draft for charcoal to burn at a hot enough temperature for a spongy iron “bloom” to ooze out of the sandstone matrix. This was gathered up and then worked into pure iron billets with water powered forge hammers. The billets could then be processed further in forges, slitting and tinning mills located along the sides of the gorge. There were 11 mills within Downton Gorge.
By at least 1731, Richard Knight’s sons and son-in-law formed part of the consortium that set the price of iron and colliers and iron workers wages. The Knight family forges produced 190 tons of iron a year in the 1780s (compared to 80 tons a year from the whole of Shropshire, including Coalbrookdale in 1810). With the price of iron £10 a ton in 1810, the Knights were extremely wealthy.
Richard Payne Knight was heir to his grandfather’s fortune in the late eighteenth century and quickly set about improving his estate at Downton. He built Downton Castle and created the Downton Walks and carriage drives within the gorge from which to admire his idea of beauty and good taste in the form of a picturesque landscape. Visitors were able to marvel at and be slightly frightened by the contrast between the noise and fire of the forges and the iron processing industry, the rushing river Teme and the towering cliffs and (somewhat enhanced) rock formations. Whilst condition checking the SSSIs along the gorge, we also enjoyed many of the picturesque elements remaining in the gorge.
Bridge over a mill pond dam into an abandoned mill race, the leat that feeds the pond extends several hundred meters upstream. © Kate Andrew
Forge Rough weir and stabilised ruins of a former forge. © Kate Andrew
The elegant Forge Mill Bridge and semi-circular weir below. The side arches provide routes for leats. © Kate Andrew
Downton Castle with one of the carriage drive routes below. © Kate Andrew
The smaller of two artificial caves encountered. © Kate Andrew
Downton Castle Bridge with the start of the route of the Downton Walks on a ledge above the River Teme. © Kate Andrew
Brian and Kay Hughes share some thoughts on the geology of The Long Mynd in Shropshire:
The near vertical Precambrian beds of the Long Mynd make for some rugged hillsides, and ensure frequent changes of lithology as the steep-sided valleys are explored.
Some beds of volcanic tuff interrupt the sequences of mudstones, siltstones and sandstones. This one was displaying some fine lapilli a cm or more in width (centre and bottom left).
But most exciting was the discovery of fossils, initially described by Salter in 1856 and noted by Darwin in his “Origin of Species”: ‘Traces of life have been detected in the Longmynd beds beneath Barrande’s so-called primordial zone.’ (i.e. the Cambrian). Their status as ‘traces of life’ was disputed and they received little attention until the 21st century. The “elephant skin” texture on this bedding surface is described by recent research and is thought to be formed by a “microbial mat” that covered the rippled surface of an alluvial plain 555 million years ago.
John Payne and Moira Jenkins give us a glimpse of the geological wonders of the Malverns:
The Malvern Hills form a single large SSSI. The work here involved reporting on thirteen of the eighteen major quarries plus two hilltop areas. The project was useful in providing a good opportunity to inspect three of the quarries that are behind locked gates, in all cases for safety reasons. Striking changes have occurred since the previous survey in the 1990s, particularly in the density of trees now occupying several of the quarries and hiding important geological features but also in the much greater attention to safety for the public (the enclosed areas mentioned above and the extent of secure fencing now installed around many quarry rims). We were able to choose days of good weather for the field work, making them interesting and enjoyable.
Gullet Top Quarry
The Top Quarry at the Gullet shows the unconformity between the Precambrian Malverns Complex and overlying Silurian Llandovery. The photo above shows the pebble beach which was deposited on a rocky shore line in Silurian times. The pebbles are preserved in a hollow between what were sea stacks of the Precambrian rock.
The main Gullet Quarry is a dangerous site because of rockfall. Previous rockfalls have covered some interesting Malverns Complex outcrops, but much remains.
The barbed wire and locked gate installed to prevent access to Gullet Quarry, where conditions are dangerous.
A shear zone created by north-south earth movements.
A granitic vein offset by east-west earth movements.
Gneissose texture produced by high temperature and high-pressure metamorphism.
Schistose fabric of rocks subjected to great pressure.
Kate Andrew and Kay Hughes describe their privileged access to the Eymore Railway cutting:
This site was accessed with the support of the Severn Valley Railway (SVR) Permanent Way Administrator. Although Covid 19 and the closed season means that the public aren’t currently able to enjoy train rides along the line, the SVR gain valuable income from allowing access to the line to other rail industry users to test equipment and engines. Our visit therefore had to be carefully timetabled, risk assessed, and undertaken with supervision and wearing fetching orange P-Way hi-viz!
Eymore cutting is the only site within the Wyre Forest coalfields where marine deposits have been found. They mark a time when sea levels were at their highest, enabling correlation with Carboniferous deposits elsewhere in the Midlands.
The highlight of our visit was a small rock fall, and within it, this internal cast of Calamites showing the detail of its ridged stem structure.