Walking the Bones of Britain
On long walks in the UK countryside, you meet people, learn of local history, and experience geology first hand; it seems natural that a written walking journey incorporates all three elements. Somerville doesn’t avoid the scrabbling required on some walks, which gives him a hands-on, close-up view of the geology and adds to the lived experience of the walk that you don’t get from a standard guidebook.
Somerville’s diagonal transect across the UK, from the Outer Hebrides in the northwest to the Thames Estuary in the southeast, takes him on a three-billion-year journey. This transect allows him to explore a rich geological story in a logical stratigraphic order from oldest to youngest that is easily readable. What is interesting, to this reviewer, is that Somerville was switched off from geology at school and only relatively late in life switched on (during the pandemic) and tuned in to it. Better late than never because the topography, plants, and industrial heritage of the UK all link back to the underlying geology. Somerville passes through oil shale bings when traversing Lothian and describes the Whin Sill and its link to Roman history and impact on sugar limestone flora. A large part of the book focusses on The Pennines, the dramatic backbone of the UK, and its Carboniferous geology and industrial heritage.
The maps could have done with the addition of the geology and possibly some cross sections. Only the syn-depositional Craven Faults are shown on any of the maps; a missed opportunity for a more useful guidebook, which this volume was perhaps not intended to be. The colourful cover image depicts layers in an inverted stratigraphic order, which rather clashes with geological convention.
Somerville plumbs into the angst of the Anthropocene – with geologists generally agreeing on the principal but working to define its ‘golden spike’ beginning – and can see that expanding London down the Thames has to be folly with rising sea levels and his new-found Huttonian view. In the final chapter, the walk ends on Wallasea Island, where the benefits of managed retreat in the battle against rising tides provides a ray of hope that nature will fight back if given the chance. Can books like this help others tune in to geology? The author, presumably, and this reviewer hope so. The book is an ideal gift for any walking enthusiast who wants to know more.
Reviewed by Patrick Corbett
BY: Christopher Somerville (2023), Doubleday, 432 pp. (hbk)
PRICE: £25.00 www.waterstones.com