Category Archives: Field Trips

A Final Excursion: Essex and Hertfordshire

Kingfisher3We watched the kingfisher for fifteen, twenty minutes. It sat on the very tip of a long branch, focused on the water, it’s face a little grumpy, I thought, from all the concentration.  Then it dove, pierced the surface, crossed the river to another branch.  Then it went to water, back to the foliage, back to the water, and to the concrete ledge where we sat, over the moon at this lately-long-sought bird sitting within reach of an outstretched arm. It was not the electric iridescence one normally thinks of, more light blue and green, fluffy rather than shiny. It seemed as much non-plussed by us as by the squabbling ducks. Z and I had stomped the River Lea for years, but today were on its curved tributary arm, the River Stort, and, having travelled to Rye Meads three weeks before on a website promise that the kingfishers were out and about, and seen none, this was not so much a delightful surprise as a genuine shock: on the towpath on the edge of Bishop’s Stortford, with the traffic belting overhead and loud groups of cyclists gliding past, a perfectly contented kingfisher, up and down to the river, branch to water to branch, before disappearing upstream towards the town centre.

The real reason for our trip was to find some Hertfordshire Puddingstone, a conglomerate of flint pebbles in a matrix of fine pale sand all cemented together by silica, and the final piece of the Written in the Rocks puzzle. But we were also along for the ride. After Bishop’s Stortford, the canalized river widened and was flush with boats and Sunday walkers. The river meanders along the Essex-Herts border, and is less managed or industrial than the Lea, its banks thick with reeds and other foliage, its towpath scuffed and narrow, its waist curled and waters clear. If it wasn’t for the locks, you would not imagine it a canal river at all, and though at one point it would have served for trade, it seemed pleasantly impractical for such endeavours. We walked onStort1 under the wings of willow trees. With the aid of a wildflower book we found Hedge Bindweed and Himalayan Balsam, Willowherb and Yellow Waterlilies. The fields and meadows revealed Common Ragwort, Goat Rue and Agrimony. With much deliberation we identified Common Comfrey (it comes in yellow and pink – today’s was pink).

At some point we realised we were passing Wallbury, an iron age sixteen hectare enclosure withinStort2 an earthwork; but we wouldn’t really have known it was there without the OS map telling us so: our attempted digression to see it was thwarted by an overgrown and marshy footpath. We’d not given up our quest for puddingstone, but realised that our notion of finding it in the fields was wishful thinking, so after a good pub lunch in Spellbrook, we pressed on for Sawbridgeworth, knowing there was definitely some of the stone there in  the foundations of Great St. Mary church. The stretch of the Stort from Spellbrook to Sawbridgeworth was exquisite, with flood meadows awash with purple willowherb, and ochre hay fields stretched out like humungous bales between the trees.

It is in fields such as these that a farmer might crack his combine on a chunk of puddingstone. The stones seemed to appear from nowhere, so the superstition amongst farmers was that they grew in the fields to damage crops and machinery, and many examples were destroyed. It was also used for grinding corn. I suspect the many mills on the Stort had used it, but can’t find a reference anywhere.  Nowadays, it is decorative when highly polished, and is found in towns around Hertfordshire as memorials or natural sculptures.  A recent find has caused some excitement in Bishop’s Stortford.  I knGreat St. Maryow of it through Bryan Lovell, who has posited a link between the formation of puddingstone and the period of global warming 55 million years ago (the 55Ma Event). The Event – and the puddingstone – has been an important part of the ideas behind this year’s project. I’ve even got a puddingstone poem, of sorts.

It was hot now, as we approached Sawbridgeworth. The day had unexpectedly brightened, casting long shadows as we climbed the hill towards Great St. Mary. We circled its flint walls eagerly, and there, at the base of the tower, built into its foundations, was the puddingstone. It was dark brown, muddy, but unmistakeable, with orange nuggets and fPuddingstone2ine white pebbles. Not a cracking specimen, but a result nonetheless. It is thought that puddingstone built into churches meant it was originally a site of pagan worship. But it may also have simply been used as a solid foundation. We took some pictures then looked round the churchyard.  Through the trees the rolling hay fields hit the horizon while the valley dipped towards the Stort and our train back to London.


Excursion Seven: Flamborough Head Revisited









Excursion Six: Flamborough Head

I was back in Bridlington last weekend to stay with the artist Anna Kirk-Smith, who I met on my Barmston field trip in the summer, and to meet the artists Carlo Verda, Cath Keay and Jo Ray.  We’re working on an exhibition, based on the geology of Flamborough Head, which will take place next January in the Studio Eleven gallery in Hull.

2013-02-10 10.46.08The weather outlook was not good, and we heard on Sunday morning that the geologists from the Hull Geological Society would not be joining us, which was a shame. But, with plenty of resources and Anna’s impressive knowledge, not to mention as many layers as we could possibly wear, we weren’t to be put off. Our first stop was Selwicks Bay on the eastern tip of the headland, an area of tectonic disturbance that has left major faults cutting wildly down the cliffs and daggering across the huge chalk platform, which is visible here but stretches for miles out into the North Sea.

2013-02-10 11.34.08In the end we were joined by two members of the Flamborough Quaternary Research Group – whose names I did not catch – who had not heard about the cancellation. What I’ve learned to love about geologists is how, despite having clearly visited an area many times, they always find something they’ve not seen before and which they can’t always explain. In this case it was a heavy concentration of calcite which seemed unusual to them, and then later a slump in the fault-line, a tiny irregular dip. They planned to show it to the other geologists when they return in April.

At the beginning of the year, Anna had sent each of us a parcel, containing the Ultimate Flamborough Geology Field Kit, complete with essentials such as a waterproof notebook, a hand lens, hand warmers and, of course, the obligatory geologist’s beard! I made good use of the hand-warmers to thaw my fingers as we drove round the coast to our next area of interest, Danes Dyke. Research is being done here on the glacial deposits, with implications for further understanding of the last ice sheet in eastern England. We searched for erratics and fossils, finding belemnites, fossilised oysters, fan corals and inoceramids, amongst many others. The cliffs towered above us, seagulls struggled to land in the fierce wind, and the tide was coming in fast, so after about an hour we headed for the warmth of the pub.

2013-01-07 19.05.10Things from this trip that interested me: the chalk shelf which stretches far out to sea and is an important marine habitat, with an abundance of plants and animals, including a vast kelp forest; fault-lines and the general idea of faults; the creation of flints; evidence for climatic cycles in the chalk; horizontal boreholes; how amber is manipulated for jewellery; snails evolving differently on one side of Flamborough Head to the other; ‘getting your eye in’ as a fossil hunter. I look forward to working towards the exhibition – will put updates on here.

Excursion Five: The Giant’s Causeway Revisited

River Bush, Runkerry Beach, December 2012

River Bush, Runkerry Beach, December 2012

I was recently asked why, having lived so long in England, I still write so much about Ireland. It’s a question I’ve been thinking over for a while, and one I might turn on its head slightly – why do I find that when writing ‘about’ Ireland, by which I mean the north Antrim coast, do poems come together much more easily and satisfactorily? There’s probably a psychologist who will tell me there’s an obvious scientific answer, bound up in childhood and memory. Something to do with word association, perhaps, in the way that when I think ‘coast’ I think of the black basalt rocks and the waves at Runkerry, less than a mile from where I grew up. When I think words like farm and field, cow and sheep – no matter where I am – these words bring to mind this place, Carnkirk, where I am writing today. The word lane conjures a particular image, of a lane which runs straight towards the cliff at the end of our road, with a dark green mohican down its centre. In an undergraduate essay on Seamus Heaney I likened it to a centrifugal force, in that no matter how far Heaney travelled in life and in verse, all his poems were spun from and constantly pulled by the force of his childhood farm in Co. Derry, the heart of his ‘word hoard’.

On Saturday, an unseasonably mild day, with the rain holding off but the world a numb grey bleed of ocean and sky, we came at the Causeway from the west round Runkerry Point. This is true basalt country, rocks tumbling black and slick towards the sea as if just forged. Bulbous in places, jagged in others, they sit on the beach like the Grand Causeway’s truant cousins, un-uniformed, laid back, really more fun. They are to me more believable as lava. I always loved the way the heat ran through them on a summer’s day and you could believe they might just pop like bubbled tarmac. We walked around the blustery headland, where I noticed what I never had before: large erratics on the edge of the cliff or in the fields, where sheep spread themselves out in the fields, their rumps inked red. The headlands lay before us, four or five, each reaching further out in the still water: Portnaboe, the humped Stookans, the Grand Causeway low in the water, then the Organ, and finally the Chimney Tops. It’s well worth it, if you visit the Causeway, to take these coastal paths and get a proper look at the place.

Looking west from Runkerry Point

Looking west from Runkerry Point

I officially started this project – to write new poems addressing the geology of climate change – in June, but really my thinking around it dates back over a year, to a talk given by Dr Bryan Lovell of Cambridge University, then President of the Geological Society. Bryan has been my advisor and supporter throughout the project, and if it was not for his enthusiasm and belief I doubt I would ever have got started. He spoke that day about an event which happened 55 million years ago, when over a billion tonnes of carbon was dumped into the atmosphere. The temperature of water at the bottom of the ocean increased rapidly from 11 to 15 degrees centigrade, oceans became more acidic, with less oxygen, and the extinction of life that followed in the oceans and on land marked the beginning of a new geological epoch (the Eocene). The message is a simple one: we humans are now repeating that carbon dump, but on a larger scale. For all the climate change deniers, here is evidence in the geological record about the effects of carbon on the atmosphere and the planet. What’s happening now has happened before, but this time we’re responsible.

This is the piece of scientific fact – the real geology of climate change – that I’ve been worrying away at for most of this year. This is what, when I set out on this project, I really wanted to recast in poetic form, to try and get this message across in a new way. But it’s been nothing but stops-and-barely-starts, failed sonnets, some terrible haiku. I’ve tried to make it work, but it won’t. The problem was how to write a poem (another question might be why write such a poem, for which I’d begin by referring you to this post) that worked all of this science and scientific omen into it while retaining the subtlety and condensed-ness of the poetry I like to read and write. Maybe the science of it was just too big for poetry. Maybe there’s no way to do away with the scientific words without losing the science.  I just couldn’t find a way in.

Causeway Headlands, December 2012

Causeway Headlands, December 2012

But then a few weeks ago I was looking in the new issue of Earth Science Ireland and came across an article on climate change by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, in which they refer to the event 55 million years ago.  They mention, however, something I had not been aware of before: that the influx of carbon “may have been triggered by massive volcanism associated with the opening of the North Atlantic (and so, locally, the Giant’s Causeway).” I wouldn’t say this was a eureka moment, but it was certainly one of those exciting ones that I think most writers of poetry must feel: a way into a poem that comes from an area you know and know well.  I’ll just have to see what happens.

Excursion 3: Dorset

How do you go about looking for oil?  This was the question posed to a group of PhD students from the BP Institute at Cambridge University this weekend, on a field trip in Dorset led by Dr Bryan Lovell, Dr Andrew Leonard and BPI’s Dr Andy Woods. Bryan had invited me to join them and it was a fascinating, inspiring trip, taking in Kimmeridge Bay, Lulworth Cove, the Wytch Farm Oil Field and Bridport Sands. It was great to be given such an insight into the complexities of reservoir access and production – the scientific, social and environmental factors – as well as to meet such a wide range of researchers. I’ll post a full report at some point – but for now here is a selection of pictures from the weekend.

Kimmeridge Clay Formation at Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset – a major source rock for hydrocarbons

On the cliffs to the left of this picture are Wealden Oil Sands

Bridport Sands.

A member of BPI makes calculations for a fantasy oil reservoir.

The nodding donkey at Kimmeridge Bay. The UK’s oldest working oil pump, it produces around 80 barrels of oil a day













The Crumple, Lulworth Cove – layered Purbeck rock strata folded by the collision of two continental plates










A Walk in the Woods

“Geopoetics is concerned, fundamentally, with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world.”

There was a good turnout on Sunday morning for the inaugural gathering of the London branch of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics. This first meeting took the form of walk from Muswell Hill to Gillespie Park Local Nature Reserve just south of Finsbury Park, and was excellently guided by Gordon Peters and Richard Meyers, whose knowledge of the history of the area, as well as the local flora and fauna, was at times staggering.

Parkland Walk 2nd September 2012

We started at the top end of Parkland Walk, a park which follows the route of a railway line which used to run between Alexandra Palace and Finsbury Park. Almost immediately we had wide views across London, then entered the canopy of trees that would accompany us for most of the day: sycamore and oak, rowan and hazel, birch and beech. We left the Walk and entered Highgate Wood, where Richard pulled a sprig from an alder to show how, perhaps unusually, you can see last year’s female flowers, this year’s female flowers and this year’s male flowers all at the same time.

In the shade of ancient woodland we looked at remains of kilns, where jobbing potters – Ancient Britons – fired clay for Roman households. We spied blue tits and nuthatch and lesser-spotted woodpeckers. With our hands we gauged the age of coppiced hornbeam. I remembered Andrew Waterman’s poem, ‘In Highgate Wood’: “I lean against//a hornbeam’s fluted trunk to follow up/the frail slant of a silver birch bole hung/with tatters of bark like peeling paint.”

Back on Parkland Walk, we could see more clearly now its previous incarnation as the railway track, including two cavernous archways. Different species of bat have been found in the park, and roosting in the tunnels. When they were excavating the tunnels they found ostracods and gastropods, shark and crocodile teeth, remnants of the tropical sea that covered southern England during the Eocene.

The park has fought development into both a stretch of motorway and a housing estate, and now has Local Nature Reserve status. It is a place to be shared by the local community, mostly joggers and cyclists judging by today (they clearly take exercise much more seriously here than in my usual East End haunts), but also as a shortcut to work, and a treat for those midnight bat-hunters.

The Spriggan – a sculpture by Marilyn Collins. 2nd September 2012

I like what Gordon says, about the fact that this shared space is therefore a negotiated space: one has to accept different interventions into nature, and our group’s interest has as much a place as the youth with his spray-can, graffiti-ing the bridges.

At one point we hit blue-and-white police tape, forensics in their plastic jumpsuits. A different intervention, a reminder. We curved off, a little more silent now, rejoining the path at Finsbury Park before entering Gillespie Park, another Local Nature Reserve, with ponds and meadows, and the Islington Ecology Centre that opened in 1990 (early, I believe, for this sort of urban thinking to take root) and which had laid on a cracking lunch.

After lunch, Norman Bissell, down from the Isle of Luing where he is the Director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, gave a very interesting talk, introducing the ideas behind geopoetics and the work of the centre (its meetings, talks and publications), before leading a discussion on people’s experiences of the day and future possibilities.

Perhaps unsurprising for a group based in London there was a lot of talk about the Lea Valley, and the loss of public land, or the changing of the natural into the utilitarian, particularly along those stretches near the Olympic Park. While it was agreed that the Lea Valley is currently intelligently and subtly managed to suit the needs of both human and wildlife, there was a consensus at how easily it is for governments or local authorities to reverse environmental decisions and that the need to defend our public green spaces was a constant one.

Norrie reminded us that while we should be rightly concerned with these matters, standard activism was not what geopoetics was about, but nor could we just be a walking group interested in the natural world. The twin constructs of geopoetics – geo being of the earth, and poetic being creativity (not just poetry, but all types of creativity) – demanded a creative response to our relationship with the earth. And indeed, walking in a large group, catching and weaving through various conversations, watching other people point things out or ask questions, listening to informed guides as well as hearing different ideas and perceptions from others, meant that I came away with many more notions for writing than I would on a normal walk, those sparks that might well turn into poems.


There are plans to hold future meetings, perhaps on the South Downs and again in London. If you’re interested in attending, or would like more information about the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics visit or get in touch with me through this blog and I’ll pass your details on.


Excursion 2: Barmston

It’s a bright and breezy Sunday morning and there are plenty of people in the low cliff-top carpark at Barmston beach. Sand martins soar high on the winds and plummet into the cliff beneath us.  To the north are the chalk cliffs of Flamborough and the holiday town of Bridlington, while looking south the slight smooth curve of the Holderness coast is visible all the way to its tip.

I’m here with Mike Horne of the University of Hull, who has kindly let me tag along on one of the field trips for his summer Lifelong Learning class, a mixed group of absolute beginners and seasoned regulars. They’ve come to look at how the ice age created this area of land, and to look at the many different erratics brought by the glaciers, which came south primarily from Norway, the Lake District and Whitby. Some of the group are excellent scavengers, finding an impressive variety of rocks and fossils for identification: Frosterley Marble (Carboniferous age coral limestone from Weardale), red flints (perhaps from Denmark), Gryphaea or ‘Devil’s Toe Nail’ (Lower Jurassic Oyster), Arnioceras and Datylioceras (Lower Jurassic Ammonites), Black Flint, New Red Sandstone, garnet schist and jasper. Mike hands me a fist-sized greyish stone: ‘Rhomb Porphyry, from Norway’. It’s good fun, arriving at the beach and simply seeing what gems it has to offer, and then learning from that.

Image courtesy

Mike says it’s his favourite way to teach, and he is an excellent teacher, the beach his chalkboard. Drawing diagrams in the sand, he explains how at the beginning of the Quaternary the coastline was the 70 million year old chalk which now lies about fifteen miles west inland. The area was transformed during the last glaciation, 16 – 18,000 years ago, when the boulder clays (or glacial tills) were deposited and new land was created, extending out into the North Sea.

This is the land that is now being lost to the sea by up to two metres a year.  Two miles has been eroded since Roman times. The artist Anna Kirk-Smith, who is taking the class to inform her work, tells me of a map which shows all of the  villages lost to the sea. Attempts to stop the erosion seem futile, yet they do continue, often, I’m told, with little management or concern for the coast as a whole. Mounds of concrete boulders, planted on the beach by farmers, often simply make the tides worse further south. One of these defences now sits fifteen metres away from the current line of the cliff and will be covered at high tide. Mostly, though, I get a sense of stoicism from the people here: the cliff has been receding all their lives, it’s just something that happens. If climate change is a factor, it was climate change, non-manmade, that led to this situation in the first place. The caravans perched on the cliff are nick-named ‘Roll Backs’: each time part of the cliff falls they simply move them a little further inland.

Caravans at Barmston Sands, with beach in foreground showing range of glacial erratics

The erosion does make the area attractive for geologists, with new questions being thrown up with each landslip. Today, Mike spots a strange fault in the cliff which suggests a glacier which ran from the south to north, rather than the generally perceived north to south direction.  Or did it simply bend north at this stage? The direction of glacier flow can be measured by the direction rocks with a long axis are facing, because all objects will align themselves in water for the path of least resistance…There was a lot to take in and it was all fascinating stuff…. And yes, the best way of telling the difference between silt and clay is to taste it.


Please note: any inaccuracies are all mine!  For more information about Holderness coastal erosion, there is a good website here.

Excursion 1: The Giant’s Causeway

I have trouble with the Giant’s Causeway, aesthetically. Too famous perhaps. Not enough room for manoeuvre and nuance. Its myth already written. When dwelt on, its geology is rather unromantic, a tourism coup. As if 60 million years ago the earth somehow knew humans would arrive with a lust for the picturesque, the basalt columns less wonder than comedy. Growing up here, my family tended to avoid it, venturing down to the Grand Causeway only when we had visitors. We preferred the nearby beach at Runkerry, where the basalts are gnarled and unruly, or the cliff top walk further round. Lately though, somewhat a visitor myself, I always like to fit in a trip.

Today, soaked June, visibility nil, we walked with the other rain-coated pilgrims down under the relative shelter of the cliff. Martins spun and spiralled, a peregrine or kestrel – hard to tell through steamed-up glasses – rested on a twenty metre high ledge. And that’s the untold thrill of the Causeway: the cliff that towers above. On the ascent are the seeping red rocks of the Port Na Spaniagh laterite, then, at Windy Gap, oily bulbous boulders, tar-black. These, my guidebook told me, are basalt rocks that have been rotted by physical and chemical weathering: ‘onion weathering’ because of their concentric layering like the inside of an onion. Passing them, we turned the corner and could see right across the curving bay to the Chimney Stacks, the teeth of the Organ, and the red shock of the interbasaltic laterite that cuts through like a layer of jam, separating the Lower Basalts from the Causeway basalts above.

Tourists huddled in groups on the Grand Causeway, jumped from column to puddled column. They’ve been doing it since the sixteen hundreds. No one was able to tell them then what to us seems quite simple: intense volcanic activity caused molten lava to intrude through chalk beds and form a massive lava plateau, the lava cooled rapidly, contraction occurred, the rocks fractured in a similar way to drying mud, leaving the mostly hexagonal basalt columns.

Engraving (1743) of Susanna Drury’s watercolour ‘A view of the Giant’s Causway: East Prospect’ (1739)

As we climbed the Shepherd’s Steps we heard the familiar flint-grate sound of stonechats before we saw fledglings, little balls of fluff, taking tentative hops over the damp branches. Looking down from the top of the cliff, the Causeway stretching out into the sea, Scotland appeared as a murky smudge on the horizon: somewhere over there are the corresponding basalt columns at Fingal’s Cave, part of the same ancient lava flow, on the Isle of Staffa. According to legend, this is the end of the causeway built by Finn McCool in order to fight Benandonner.

To the west, the hills of Donegal appeared, and the reptilian Skerries, a slither of intrusive igneous, sitting about a mile out in the water.  There’s a scuttled U-Boat in the depths nearby. We followed the paths back inland towards the new car park and the main road. The visitor centre, smooth black basalts and grass roof, is due to open in a month’s time.

I suppose if there’s poetry to be written it’ll have to do more than describe the place, do more than transcribe geology or translate myth. As is so often the case, Seamus Heaney does just that, in a poem from ‘Squarings’, one of the sequences in Seeing Things (Faber, 1991). With intermittent phone signal we found the poem online and read it in the shelter of the hill-top pub. Outside the weather descended, and the fields, the beach, the cliffs and tourist train were shrouded in heavy ropes of horizontal rain.


‘XXXIX’ from ‘Squarings’ by Seamus Heaney:


When you sat, far-eyed and cold, in the basalt throne

Of “the wishing chair” at Giant’s Causeway,

The small of your back made very solid sense.


Like a papoose at sap-time strapped to a maple tree,

You gathered force out of the world-tree’s hardness.

If you stretched your hand forth, things might turn to stone.


But you were only goose-fleshed skin and bone,

The rocks and wonder of the world were only

Lava crystallized, salts of the earth


The wishing chair gave a savour to, its kelp

And ozone freshening your outlook

Beyond the range you thought you’d settled for.




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