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Roger's blog appears regularly in the Scarborough Review. Read his archive of posts here

Is it all for us?   February 2017

A touch of frost can reveal all kinds of hidden delights. A couple of weeks ago I spotted a spider’s web stretched across the outside of our kitchen window. Reaching from the top middle to the bottom corner of the frame, it measured around a metre in each direction. The moisture in the air had stuck to the web and frozen, and now the morning sunlight was turning it into a dazzling open tapestry of extraordinary delicacy.

My immediate thought: such an amazing piece of work was surely not made just to catch flies. Or was it? Are the drifts of mayflower that cover our hedges just there to attract bees? Is the thrill we get from seeing a humpback whale breaking surface, or a cloud of starlings making patterns in the sky just an accident of nature, a piece of human self-indulgence?

Our ancestors thought not. They believed that the world and all its creatures had been made for the pleasure and delight (as well as the cooking pots) of human beings. And it was this belief that caused a major crisis in human thought, brought on by the discovery of some extraordinary fossils.

In the early 1800s bones of enormous reptiles were being discovered all across Europe. A Frenchman called Georges Cuvier became famous for his skill in putting the bones together, and soon these giants were given the name ‘dinosaurs’. However, by this time Captain Cook and others had sailed to most corners of the world and they weren’t seeing dinosaurs anywhere! Nor were they seeing giant plesiosaurs, like the fossils from the alum quarries of the Yorkshire coast. And authoritative classical authors like Aristotle and Pliny didn’t mention these animals at all.

The logical conclusion was that these giants had lived on the earth in the distant past but had died out before humans (or at least educated humans) had appeared. This was hard to swallow and a movement called Scriptural Geology was formed to combat the idea. Things came to a head at the inaugural British Association meeting in York in 1831. The mayor George Hudson, the famous railway king, was asked by the Dean of York Minster to bar geologists from the meeting, prompting Hudson to declare that, after much thought ‘We’ve decided for Moses and the Dean!’ It was a short-lived victory for the scripturalists, and once Darwin showed that extinction was an essential part of evolution they melted away.

So, it seems that the world was not created for the delight of humans, and is quite able to rumble along without us being there to see it. But in another way the Scriptural Geologists have proved correct. It is, after all, human ingenuity that has unearthed the fossils of extinct creatures and re-imagined the worlds in which they flourished.

And all this we have done so that extinct creatures that died out millions of years before we existed can, after all this time, bring us pleasure and delight.

Experience the Joy   January 2017

Hot-foot this month from a tourism seminar. You probably know the kind of thing: arrive for coffee at 9:30 and spend the day feeling your backside going numb while a series of people try to keep awake with Powerpoint. Except this was quite different. A fascinating look at how people these days are more interested in experiences than possessions [OK not everyone] and want the same on their holidays.

So the trend-setting tourist of today and tomorrow wants stuff to do and to remember. And so do we all. Try this test: Do you want to lie on a sunbed reading Jeffrey Archer and turning into a cooked lobster, or would you rather go out on a boat from Staithes and catch a lobster to bring back for your tea? Do you fancy a pub where the staff wear uniforms and name badges and the beer is OK; or one where the landlady owns the place, greets you by name, serves fantastic beer brewed in Scarborough, and wants to know what you think of it?

What’s all this got to do with rocks and fossils? Well it so happens that the Yorkshire coast is teeming with ready-made experiences thanks to our landscape, which means our geology, plus we have the best fossils. If you want things to remember on holiday then finding your own fossils is right up there – it doesn’t get much more real than holding a Jurassic creature in the palm of your hand, after all this guy was alive around 180 million years ago. As one of the speakers pointed out: put a photo of your new sofa on Facebook and no-one’s impressed, but post a pic of little Louise with a socking great ammonite she’s just found at Cayton Bay and world flips over.

Thankfully the world is beginning to take notice and more and more people are coming to our coast in search of real experiences – those of us who live here can have them all year round.

 

Experience the Joy   December 2016

Hot-foot this month from a tourism seminar. You probably know the kind of thing: arrive for coffee at 9:30 and spend the day feeling your backside going numb while a series of people try to keep awake with Powerpoint. Except this was quite different. A fascinating look at how people these days are more interested in experiences than possessions [OK not everyone] and want the same on their holidays.

So the trend-setting tourist of today and tomorrow wants stuff to do and to remember. And so do we all. Try this test: Do you want to lie on a sunbed reading Jeffrey Archer and turning into a cooked lobster, or would you rather go out on a boat from Staithes and catch a lobster to bring back for your tea? Do you fancy a pub where the staff wear uniforms and name badges and the beer is OK; or one where the landlady owns the place, greets you by name, serves fantastic beer brewed in Scarborough, and wants to know what you think of it?

What’s all this got to do with rocks and fossils? Well it so happens that the Yorkshire coast is teeming with ready-made experiences thanks to our landscape, which means our geology, plus we have the best fossils. If you want things to remember on holiday then finding your own fossils is right up there – it doesn’t get much more real than holding a Jurassic creature in the palm of your hand, after all this guy was alive around 180 million years ago. As one of the speakers pointed out: put a photo of your new sofa on Facebook and no-one’s impressed, but post a pic of little Louise with a socking great ammonite she’s just found at Cayton Bay and world flips over.

Thankfully the world is beginning to take notice and more and more people are coming to our coast in search of real experiences – those of us who live here can have them all year round.

 

The York Pineapple   November 2016

How would you celebrate making one of the most important discoveries in scientific history? Maybe you’d jump out of your bath shouting Eureka, or perhaps open a bottle of champagne, or quaff a few pints of Yorkshire ale. In 1794 William Smith – the man behind Scarborough’s famous Rotunda Museum – chose instead to eat a pineapple. And here’s why.

Smith was a surveyor working for a canal-building company in Somerset and the Midlands. He was in demand for his skills in recognizing different types of rock, including knowing where to dig for coal. In 1794 he travelled with two colleagues across the midlands and through Yorkshire to learn new surveying and engineering techniques. But Smith was also developing ideas about the types of rock he was seeing. Up until then it seemed that different rocks occurred across the country in more or less random fashion – to know what was under you feet you had to dig, and keep digging. This made finding coal or iron ore a haphazard business.

But in his travels Smith began to notice that rocks occurred in a regular pattern across England. To the north and west were old sandstones, then going south there were limestones and coal measures together, followed by red sandstones and marls, eventually succeeded by chalk. This, he realised, was because the beds were all dipping to the south and east bringing younger rocks to the surface in great arcs sweeping across the country.

Smith had seen this pattern in southern England but his trip to the north was a chance to see if it was universal. Arriving at York Smith climbed to the top of York Minster tower with his companions and looked southeastwards. There he saw the round green hills of the Yorkshire Wolds – an unmistakably chalk landscape. His theory was right – and from that day on the study of rocks stopped being guesswork and became a science.

Smith and his companions repaired to the Black Swan in Coney Street to mark the event. They chose an exotic fruit then grown in hothouses by English aristocrats – the birth of a new science celebrated with a pineapple!

 

Jurassic Messages  October 2016

About ten years ago a friend came to visit with her children. Her son, aged about ten, started to rummage through the pile of fossils outside our back door. He picked up a big piece of rock stuffed full of lovely rhynchonellids – fossil brachiopods common in Jurassic rocks. I told him I’d found it in a field nearby and prattled on for a while about the wonders of fossils. But I could see there was something bothering him. Eventually he came out with a question: ‘How come there are seashells in that rock when we’re nowhere near the sea?’ (You need to know that I live nine miles from the coast.) I pushed the question back at him: ‘What do you think?’ He turned the question over once in his mind and then said ‘Is it because this field used to be covered by the sea?’

He was right of course and our 30-second conversation effectively covered the first 3,000 years of human thinking about fossils. In fact his question was an echo of Leonardo da Vinci, writing in 1508: ‘Why do we find the bones of great fishes and oysters and corals and various other shells and sea-snails on the high summits of mountains?’

In ancient times Chinese sages wondered if fossils found in mountains were birds that had been trapped and turned to stone, while fossil bones and teeth were surely evidence of dragons. But some Chinese writers argued that every so often the world went through huge changes, in which areas of land became sea. European Renaissance scholars found this hard to believe and preferred the idea that fossils were some sort of practice creations or signs from God that we needed to interpret.

Now we accept the startling truth that the earth is continually changing, and that we live in what is just the latest in a succession of worlds. So the fossils that we find on the Yorkshire coast are messengers from those other worlds bringing news of events from 180 million years ago. It’s one way of keeping up to date.

 

Treasure from Europe  September 2016

We all love our visitors but for the good citizens of Scarborough autumn comes as a bit of a relief. No more traffic queues (we live in hope) and miles of lovely empty beaches. This summer we have been taking people of every age, size and type out to the beaches looking for fossils, now there’s space for everyone to have a look. Mooching through banks of pebbles soon brings bucket-loads of fossil corals, oysters, mussels, ammonites, gastropods and belemnites. They’re all there – you just need to know what to look for. Most of these fossils are from the Jurassic rocks of the coast. But the Yorkshire coast has other treasures to offer.

Yorkshire’s Jurassic rocks are from 200 to 150 million years old, but in the last couple of million years ice sheets have moved south over this area bringing mud, rocks and pebbles from across northern Europe. When the ice melted all this debris was left behind – a swathe of glacial mud covers the coast in a wide strip reaching from north of Staithes down to Flamborough.

The mud is regularly washed onto the beaches by rain from above and waves from below; the mud gets dissolved and the rocks and pebbles get left behind. So we end up with a dazzling variety of pebbles from all over northern Europe: granites and gneisses from the Lake District and Scotland; reef corals from the Pennines; porphyry and volcanics from Scandinavia, as well as semi-precious carnelians and garnets.

The ice sheets brought big boulders as well, known as glacial erratics. There’s one at the corner of Valley Road and Royal Avenue, and another at Crossgates. So next time you’re on the beach at Cayton Bay or Filey or Reighton Gap have a good look at the pebbles – you’ll find local fossils but also exotic stones from across northern Europe. For a guide to pebbles on this coast see our Beach Finds on the Yorkshire Coast, available from the Bookshelf on Victoria Road and from Woodend Workspace.

 

Lunch, interrupted August 2016

How would you feel if, around 150 million years from now, someone discovered your half-eaten dinner and put it on display in a museum? Keep hold of that thought while we found out how geology can capture moments as well as eons.

A couple of years ago Whitby Museum had a major reorganization that included a brand new store for its 6,000 or so fossils. (You should know that this collection, which began in the 1820s, is of world scientific importance – when geology was being created as a science Whitby and Scarborough were leading centres and their collections remain irreplaceable.) As the voluntary curator it fell to me to arrange the collection in its shiny new cabinets.

I soon realised that I needed some expert help. A few weeks later I sat down with Peter Robinson who has been collecting and cataloguing ammonites on the Yorkshire coast since the 1950s. Together with Alan Staniforth and Steve Livera we spent a several days working our way through the Whitby ammonite collection, with Peter putting species names to every specimen. On the morning of the second day he held up a beautiful ammonite and pointed to a curved section missing from its shell. ‘Evidence of predation’ he said. ‘What does that mean?’ said I. It turned out that this was a bite mark in the ammonite shell, probably from a passing ichthyosaur looking for a quick snack. This then was an event that lasted no more than a few seconds, and has preserved for around 160 million years – the fossilized leftovers of an ichthyosaur’s lunch.

A few weeks later at Cloughton Wyke, Steve Livera pointed out a bed of crevasse splay sandstone in the cliff. This two-metre thick bed was created by a flash flood spilling sand and silt out of a stream and covering the surrounding flood plain. It took just a few hours to create and is still there millions of years later. Another instant in time made timeless.

The most magical evidence of brief events preserved for eons is the multitude of dinosaur footprints found along the coast – the slightest moment in time captured and preserved. Geology looks at millions of years of earth’s history, but time is made up of moments and when we see the record of a single moment from so very long ago then we surely must experience a deep sense of wonder.

 

Yorkshire Time Travel  July 2016

Let’s face it folks, the Yorkshire coast is the best place in the world for quite a few things. The best fish and chips, the best weather, the best sandcastles and, beyond doubt, the best rocks and fossils. Due to a quite wonderful quirk of nature (the earth was obviously designed by a Yorkshire woman) the rocks of the coast slope gently southwards, so that in a 70-mile stroll from Saltburn to Flamborough it is possible to take in 120 million years of earth history. Yes, time travel is here already.

Not only that, but those 120 million years cover the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods – the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and when the seas were home to giant ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, ammonites and coral reefs.

If that wasn’t enough the changing conditions during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods are reflected in the rocks and fossils along this beautiful coast. So, in the north around Staithes, Whitby and Saltwick there are deep-sea creatures preserved in dark shales; around Scalby Mills and Scarborough there are plant fossil and footprints left by dinosaurs in mudbanks. Further south we’re back to fossil sea creatures like ammonites, gastropods and corals.

Add in the contrast between towering cliffs and sandy bays, and the fascinating remains of the alum, jet and iron industries and you have what amounts to a natural geological theme park.

Lots of people – visitors and residents – are waking up to the natural treasures on their doorstep and the Yorkshire coast is getting more widely known for its rocks and fossils. I know because I’ve been drafted in to help cope with the huge demand for fossil trips with Hidden Horizons. We always find lots of fascinating remains and it sure beats sitting at home. So don’t miss out, get to the website and start doing some Yorkshire time travel.

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