Oolite Now – part III

Fragment of Cotswold Way

So, having become a little obsessed with this strip of limestone which extends across the country I naturally engaged in a little internet research. I found that the Cotswold Way largely follows the scarp along the edge of the limestone. (The chapter in Paddy Dillon’s guide to the National Trails on the Cotswold Way is available on Google Books.)

I found that some people believe that an ancient route, predating the Fosse Way, followed the limestone scarp across the country.

Also that there is an LDP called ‘The Jurassic Way’, mostly in Northamptonshire, running from Banbury in Oxfordshire to Stamford in Lincolnshire. Like the Cotswold Way it’s around 100 miles in length.

I was busy looking at maps of the Cotswold Way when A came to peek over my shoulder.

“What’s that Dad?”

And when I told her…

“I’ll walk it with you.”

She really is very keen.

So then I had a new mission: to find a walk which we could do together over a few days. Not too strenuous and with plenty of interest along the way. I chatted to CJ about it and he had what I thought was an excellent suggestion – in fact something he had walked with his son last year.

So, I have a plan! Not the Cotswold Way – we’ll leave that for another time, but something closer to home, with striking scenery and oodles of history.

Oolite Now – part III

Oolite Now – part II

With my interest in all things geological, and maps in particular, sparked by Garry Hogg’s idea of following the oolitic limestone across England, I remembered that amongst my legions of as yet unread books I had a copy of Simon Winchester’s biography of William Smith – ‘The Map That Changed The World’.

Smith – ‘the father of geology’ –  produced what is widely accepted to be the world’s first geological maps. Most notably this map of England and Wales, published in 1815.


The oolitic limestone, it transpires, was important to ‘Strata’ Smith – he grew up in Oxfordshire, on the oolite, and his interest in geology began with the fossils he found there as a boy. As a young surveyor he moved to work in the Somerset coal-fields, and to plan a canal to link those coal mines with Bristol. Travelling down mine-shafts and cutting the canal gave him an insight into the complex ways the strata, including oolitic limestone, were folded together in that area. Later he lived in Bath where the iconic buildings are clad in oolitic limestone and the hills to the east of the city are of the same rock.

In the middle of ‘The Map That Changed The World’, Winchester breaks off from telling the story of Smith’s life and discoveries to recount his own journey along the limestone, starting, like Hogg did, at Burton Bradstock.

Small wonder that William Smith found the area around Bath the most congenial for his studies. Not only was it an attractive town, jammed with interesting personalities and lively minds; it was also happily sited at a place in the country’s immense geological mosaic in which the Middle Jurassic rocks outcrop in a blindingly obvious way. The general line of their outcrop, which extends all the way north from Dorset to the Humber in Yorkshire, some 200 miles, is one of the great dividing lines of world geology, once seen, never forgotten. Around Bath, close to where a northbound traveller like me today, Smith two centuries before, first comes across it, it is stupendously memorable.

On the western side of the line are the timid, milquetoast Clays and weakling Shales of the Lias, of the lower Jurassic; on the eastern side are the tough, thick Oolitic Limestones of the Middle Jurassic. On the western side the consequential scenery all is valley and marsh, river course and water meadow, lowing cattle and in high summer, a sticky, sultry heat; on the eastern side, underpinned by the Limestone, everything has changed – there is upland plain and moor, high hills, high wind and flocks of sheep, and in the winters fine white snows blowing on what can seem an endless and treeless expanse.

And on the very line itself, at the point where England has tipped herself up gracefully to expose the Limestones at her core and to reveal the huge physical contrast between their hardness and the silky softness of the Lias Clays below, is a long, high range of hills and cliffs. This line is, for the most part, an escarpment edge that rolls far to the horizon, separating vales and downlands from high plains and uplands.

We see this line in scores of places. Down at the southern end of the country – the Bath end – we see it where Crickley Hill and Birdlip Hill rise hundreds of feet above the town of Cheltenham. We see it where Wooton-under-Edge (a village set on Lias Clay) nestles below the village of Oldbury-on-the-Hill (on Middle Jurassic Limestone). We notice, we feel it, when we drop sharply down from it via a dangerously twisting switchback road as we descend westward from the high plains of Snowshill (on the Middle Jurassic) to the antique shops of the clay-valley town Broadway (on the Lower). We can see it unroll over a dozen miles if we drive along the traffic-clogged roadway of the A46, on the stretch between Bath and Stroud: on going north, everything visible to the left is Lower Jurassic Clay, and hunches low to the horizon; everything to the right is Middle Jurassic Limestone and rises high, its edge topped with oaks from which big black crows take in the view of the grassy fields below.

We see the phenomenon exhibit itself over and over as we rumble northwards across the land – we see it through central Gloucestershire and Warwickshire, through Rutland and Leicestershire, across Nottingham and Lincolnshire – such that when, a day or two after I had left the warmth of Dorset, I found myself in the cold of Lincolnshire coasting along the A15 northbound from Lincoln (where there stands a fine Jurassic cathedral, made of just the same age limestone as that at Wells, down at the far southern end of the outcrop) to Scunthorpe, almost exactly the same held true. To my right rose high limestone plains, buffeted by North Sea winds, dotted with sheep, flat enough and suitably exposed for the building of great Air Force runways and training schools and hangars, To my left, lay a long low valley, thick with farms, populated and cosy. The Middle Jurassic formed the upland landscape to my right; the Lower Jurassic the lowlands to my left.

Better and better. A walker following the western edge of that ‘buttercup-yellow line’ would be teetering along an escarpment edge. High drama!

Now I know the A15 from Lincoln north to Scunthorpe well. I drive it quite often on the way to and from my parent’s house – they live about a mile from that road and from RAF Scampton where the Red Arrows practise. You may feel sceptical about Lincolnshire’s ‘high limestone plains’ and perhaps this should be taken with a sizeable pinch of salt – but I do recognise the description, up to a point. The A15 is another Roman road – Ermine Street – arrow straight. Sensibly it follows a ridge of higher ground (about 60m above sea level so not that high!) ; to the east the land falls away gently but a little way to the west is the Lincoln Edge – two or three closely parallel contours dropping down to a valley which, on the Landranger map, has many adjacent grid squares completely devoid of any contours. Lincoln itself sits on the edge, the Castle and Cathedral atop the edge and the more touristy shopping streets dropping down to newer parts of the city below.

Walking the Lincoln Edge would mainly involve walking along a B-road so perhaps not ideal. But I must admit that Hogg’s idea has certainly kept me happily occupied in spare moments whilst my dodgy ankle, now thankfully on the mend, has precluded the making of more immediate concrete plans.

Oolite Now – part II

Oolite Now – part I

A Limestone Pilgrimage

The third section of Gary Hogg’s ‘And Far Away’ concerns a walk from the Dorset Coast to the Cotswolds which is actually just the first section of an envisaged longer route. Mooching about on the beach near Burton Bradstock he recalls the genesis of the idea for the route:

I remembered how I had first conceived the idea, looking up by chance one morning at the geological map hanging on the wall a yard away from the table in the window at which I write. There it was, that butter-cup yellow streak, slanting away across England from the Dorset coast, north-east-by-east, to vanish at the Humber and reappear again for the last few miles on Pickering Moor in Yorkshire.

Geological map of England

Here the oolitic limestone is 12 (in pale, rather than buttercup, yellow) Follow this link for another lovely old map in which the oolitic limestone is divided into 2, of which one, the lower oolite, is buttercup-yellow.

When I became sufficiently curious to superimpose another map on the geological map that had attracted me I made the interesting discovery that the old Foss Way, the original Roman road from the Dorset coast to the North Sea Lincolnshire coast, followed this line of buttercup-yellow for a very considerable portion of its 180-odd miles. The legend on the map showed me that the colour in question stood for oolitic limestone. If then I mapped out a walk that used the Foss Way as a line for my left flank to rest on I could follow this limestone across England for as far as I liked to walk.

Fosse way map

In fact, the Fosse Way ran from Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) to Lincoln (Lindum). And 180 miles seems like a hopelessly inadequate under-estimate. But, let’s not quibble – it’s a lovely idea, which has quite captured my imagination.

Oolite Now – part I

The Art of Loitering*

Old map england

In the morning I awake / My arms, my legs, my body aches / The sky outside is wet and grey / So begins another weary day.

The nutty boys in surprisingly serious mood. Except, of course, that there was always more to Madness than novelty party tunes. (The video for Grey Day is however, reliably nutty.)

We’ve had a long run of grey days here. It’s dreich. We’ve managed to get out a couple of times none-the-less. We dragged the kids down to the Cove and across the Lots on Christmas Day. On Boxing Day, with my in-laws minding the fort, TBH and I had an afternoon turn around Eaves Wood. The following day we walked to Arnside for a very late breakfast. At lunchtime. That was a particularly grey day, with Arnside Knott hidden by cloud and not visible even from Arnside Tower Farm (i.e. very close by).

It was good to get out though and for our return to Silverdale it had even stopped raining.

Having a walk together without the kids gave us a really good opportunity to talk, and, it being this time of year, to start making some plans for the year ahead. I recently picked up ‘In Your Stride’ a book by A.B. Austin, published in 1931. I’ve only read the first chapter so far, but it has really had me thinking. It’s called ‘The Art of Loitering’ . (As luck would have it, you can read it here.) In it Austin advocates exploring Britain over the course of a year, dedicating one month to exploring, divided between eleven monthly weekends and one week’s holiday. It’s hard to find a passage to quote, but he makes an excellent case – I recommend that you read it. In a similar vein, TBH had been chatting to a friend who ‘does’ one city each year. With those ideas in mind we began to think about our year ahead.

Old map Britain

The first thing that struck me – considering the year ahead in this way – is that I don’t do too badly as it is. Put in our regular annual get-togethers: the highlands in March, Nether Wasdale in May, a week at Towyn Farm in the summer, the ‘Adults’ weekend in the Autumn and our pre-Christmas bash in a Youth Hostel and we’re almost halfway there already.

One section of Austin’s ‘The Art of Loitering’  covers the potential cost of his suggestion:

That, you may protest, is rather a tall order, for who has leisure to go exploring all the solitariness that is left in England while he has to find the means to spread butter on his daily bread ? The question may be answered by asking another. How much do we spend on holiday comings and goings every year, including not only our annual exodus to sea or countryside, but all our odd motoring, sporting, walking, climbing, butterfly-catching escapades ? How much, in other words, does our leisure cost us ?

He goes on to make some suggestions as to how to make savings: travel over-night to save on one night’s lodgings; sleep out or in barns (this was 1931); visit popular places out of season. I’m surprised that he doesn’t advocate camping, which is our favourite for many reasons, one of which is cost. Most of our regular trips work out pretty reasonably. We’ve added a couple more weekends to that list, booking cheap accommodation via a source which Austin might not recognise: Travelodge’s winter rooms sale. I know – not an obvious choice for getting away from it all, but functional, and in the sale potentially very well priced. So far we’ve booked a weekend in Tadcaster and another in Wakefield. Again – perhaps not places which immediately spring to mind, but there is method in our madness. Tadcaster was cheaper than York and is only a few miles down the road. York will be this year’s city. Lots to see: the city walls, Jorvik, the National Rail Museum, York Minster (if you have other suggestions please pass them on). Wakefield, meanwhile, has the new Hepworth gallery and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park on the doorstep.

Ruskin's drawing of York Minster

So where else should we go? I fancy a look at the Shropshire Hills, TBH wants to go back to the Forest of Dean. I have some other vague plans and wild aspirations, about which, perhaps, more later.

Aside from the obvious places where would you recommend?

The old maps and Ruskin’s drawing of York Minster are here because I don’t have any photos from our walks and I don’t like my posts if they don’t include any pictures. Yes – I really am that shallow. Oh – and because I like maps and drawings.

Which brings me to another point, a guilty pleasure I suppose, does anybody else find themselves looking back over their old posts when they really ought to be doing something more constructive, or is that just me?

* Another title might have been ‘Making Plans’ which instantly puts the tune ‘Making Plans For Nigel’  into my head. An alternative to the Madness to leave you with.

The Art of Loitering*