During lockdown, I’ve been exploring the country north of Hadrian’s Wall, hopping back and forward across the border between Northumberland and Cumbria. Truth be told, geology and wildlife don’t recognise such man-made constructs. The rock sequences and bogs flow seamlessly and literally across the county line, the River Irthing, and wildlife sees no boundary either.
Despite (some hardened foresters would say because of) the dominance of Sitka plantations, it’s wonderful country; you can walk all day and not see another soul. But you are virtually guaranteed to see roe deer and members of the tit family, and other small brown birds I’m too slow to identify, not to mention ubiquitous field voles and frogs. Everyone tells me this is goshawk country par excellence, and I travel in hope each time, but I’ve yet to see one.
I can hear you asking, “So where is he exactly?” Well on this one, we parked at the tarmac road end between Scotchcoulthard and the Hopealone transmitter and walked east past Robinrock Flothers (wonderful name) into Henshaw Common. Around 5km in we reach a plexus of forest tracks at Green Carts and several piles of overgrown rocks. Can you sense me smiling?
It’s an old quarry in the Fourlaws Limestone and its fauna includes not only plentiful examples of the largest carboniferous brachiopod, a genus called Gigantoproductus, but also several species of a colonial, rugose coral, Lithostrotion. Ok we’ll do that again - it’s full of 320-million-year-old, very big, fossil seashells and corals. Apart from the sheer delight in seeing and touching animals that became extinct millions of years ago, what do these fossils tell us? That when they were alive the environment here was a warm, sub-tropical, shallow, clear sea.
A somewhat different world to the cold, ‘temperate’ rain shower that, despite my erudite monologue on climate change in the geological past, is now encouraging my friend to encourage me to move on. We have a long way to go in our loop via Why gate, that will take us across skies and over riggs and past a mire or two with bog asphodel and damselflies. While we are mentioning mires and bogs, I need to stake a claim; they may start as living organisms and be assumed to be the preserve of biologists, but after a few thousand years, bogs become peat and you’re into geologist-time-territory. Only joking, birds and bees and rock people get on well really...
Even Gore-Tex boots can’t cope with sphagnum-saturated forest rides, so it’s probably as well we are nearing the end of the walk. Luckily (?) we encounter more old quarries at Hindley steel; not only rich in corals and seashells, but also ‘trace’ fossils - trails and squiggles in the rock surface, the casts and moulds of long dead animals that left no other trace of their anatomy.
Well, another promise broken. I was going to tell you about a second walk just on the Cumbrian side, but that tale of malodorous, health-giving groundwater, popping stones is going to have to wait another day.
But not before I tell you a story about wet feet. When I was a first year geology undergraduate in Newcastle, we were taken into the Pennines on our first field trip. The lecturer, a wonderful man called Mick Jones, resplendent in his standard attire of tweed sports jacket with a white shirt splayed over the collar, got out of the bus and walked straight into the middle of the River Gilt. Was this some sort of geologist’s initiation rite? No it was just pragmatism. "You" he said, "will spend your day worrying about keeping your feet dry, I on the other hand, don’t have to." Told you geologists were weird people.