It Seemed Like A Small Treasure

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There it was lying among the chaff and wheat stalks, a small fossil brachiopod, the size of my thumbnail, both shells of the bivalve quite intact, but washed free of its sedimentary matrix, to be found by me as I wandered about in Townsend Meadow after the harvest.  I was out in the field, relishing the new views, seeing the town from fresh angles as I climbed the hill, and much like Monet with his many haystack renditions, as I went, snapping multiple views of the large straw bales. With the morning sun on them they looked like some rustic art installation.

I saw the fossil from the corner of my eye and instantly switched to archaeologist mode, at first hoping it might be a Roman coin. It was a similar size and pewtery dullness to the ones I’d uncovered at nearby Wroxeter Roman City when I was digging there aeons ago. But no. It is a washed up remnant from the Silurian Sea, the 400 million-year shallow ocean, whose bed in more recent eras thrust upwards to form Wenlock Edge.

But that’s not all that is marvellous. Before the upthrusting, back in the oceanic days when this little mollusc was still busy sifting warm currents to find its lunch, the land beneath my feet was lying south of the Equator, somewhere near the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. It takes one’s breath away: Shropshire to the Comoros. Is all too hard to grasp. Too much time, too much planetary expanse for the mind to girdle. I mean how could the world’s parts have done so much monumental shunting about? And we humans with all our technology think ourselves masters of the globe. Silly, silly us.

Anyway, I brought the little fossil home, and it sits on my desk. It feels like a touchstone, an omen, a talisman. What meaning might I take from it? This 400 million-year-old mollusc found by chance among the chaff and sawn-off stalks after the wheat harvest.

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

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Christmas Walk Through The Mists Of Time

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Here we are – midday on Christmas Day in Ashes Hollow, Little Stretton, Shropshire, walking across some of the oldest landscape on the planet. Such vast antiquity is perhaps an unexpected distinction within a rural English county whose location, even to the citizens of the United Kingdom, is often a total mystery.

But here it is, one of the valleys, locally known as batches, whose streams wheedle their way down from the flanks of the Long Mynd, a 7-mile ridge of Precambrian rock, formed around 570 to 560 million years ago. It is also well travelled geology, having moved 13,000 miles from its origins in the Antarctic circle where its iron-rich sediments (eroded from volcanic mountains) first accumulated on the sea bed. This was closely followed by some tectonic shunt and shift which squeezed the sediments into a U-shape, so tipping them from the horizontal to the vertical. It’s a feature you can glimpse here and there on exposed rock faces. It means too, that in one sense at least, as you pass, you are walking through time.

Time Square #27

Back To The Stiperstones ~ Or Slow Under The Surface, And What On Earth Were The Luftwaffe Doing Here?

This week at Lost in Translation, Paula’s prompt is ‘SLOW’. So here is another vista from our recent trip to South Shropshire’s Stiperstones (see also the previous post.) And the reason I’ve chosen it is because I cannot think of anything slower than the trans-global  journey of the landmass on which these hills sit. It has been travelling an inch a year for 450 million years, moving up from its source on the southern shores of the Iapetus Sea, 60 degrees south of the equator and roughly where the Indian Ocean is today. I’m not sure if the land beneath our feet is still heading north, or if one day Shropshire will be in the Arctic.

That’s quite a thought.

The other aspect of slow-going to be seen in these photos is the gradual weathering of the folded, upthrust former beach from which this 5-mile ridge is mostly formed. Much of the shaping began with the last Ice Age when the glaciers extended across Shropshire.

A far more recent, and somewhat bizarre reshaping apparently took place during World War 2, when the Luftwaffe, flying over the north end of the Stiperstones, mistook the rocks of the Devil’s Chair outcrop for a town with ammunition dumps, and duly bombed the place. How they came to this conclusion is hard to understand. Even in the heyday of the local lead mining industry, the communities were small and sparse and tucked into hillsides and valleys. There has never been a town in these parts. Perhaps in the dark the strangely glowing quartzite exercised some mystical, mystifying interference in pilot perception. Who knows?

It is anyway another good yarn to add to the tales of witchcraft and devilry that, in the human imagination of ages, enmesh these bleak uplands.

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We certainly saw no signs of bombing, though it might be hard to spot among the heaps of fragmenting quartzite. These particular shots were taken at Cranberry Rocks at the southerly end of the Stiperstones. We did not make it as far as the Devil’s Chair; it was too hard underfoot and too windy. But we do mean to make another visit one day soon, and tackle the hill from the northern end. We just have to remember not to go when mist threatens, or we might come on the Devil himself, brooding nastily on his craggy, Luftwaffe-remodelled throne.

 

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Of Rivers Running Backwards And Looping The Loop

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Last week I took you on a walk along Wenlock Edge behind our house, and talked about the melting ice fields of the last Ice Age (around 15,000 years ago), and how the River Severn that once flowed north, started to back up against the limestone ridge of Wenlock Edge and so formed Lake Lapworth. And then I said how the expanding melt waters worked their way through the rock wall, and so formed the Severn Gorge, and at the same time created a whole new southerly course for Britain’s longest river.  Well, this is where it all happened – at the northerly end of Wenlock Edge.

Off to the left of the photo, and out of shot, is the old Ironbridge Power Station. It’s coming up next in a ‘zoomed in’ shot.

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The power station stands on the riverbank at the entrance of the Gorge, and below Benthall Edge, and thus marks the spot where the Severn first headed south. And just to orientate you further, dead ahead to the left of the power station is Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale, and to the right, and below the power station is the road to Much Wenlock. You can just see the house roofs along it. Benthall Edge is thus a southerly spur striking off from Wenlock Edge.

Like Wenlock Edge, Benthall Edge is also composed of limestone strata formed around 400 million years ago when both Edges were part of the Silurian Sea. From the early 1200s the monks of nearby Buildwas Abbey had the rights from Lord Benthall to quarry the limestone, which they burned in kilns to make fertilizer for their farm fields, and lime mortar for building. They also cropped the woodland along Benthall Edge to make charcoal.

In later centuries the Benthall limestone was used in local blast furnaces, tipped in with ironstone, and when fired,  acted as a flux which drew impurities from the metal. This was tapped off as slag, and the resulting molten iron cast into ‘pigs’ on the furnace floor. The pig iron was then shipped on to the forge to be worked further into wrought iron, a more durable product than cast iron, which has a tendency to fracture. So now, if you can picture it,  see that little stretch of the Gorge by the power station thick with sulphurous smoke, and hear the whole place banging and clanging with forge hammers.

These days Benthall Edge is a tranquil place of hanging woodland and winding paths, although you can still spot the remains of old quarries among the trees. The ‘Lime Trail’ information leaflet of the Severn Gorge Countryside Trust provides an extraordinary statistic about the quarrying. It says that over a period of 750 years an estimated 1.2 million cubic metres of limestone was removed from the Edge. So there we have it: landscape formed both by human and natural agencies – though I’m wondering how that piece of man-made intervention was calculated.

But now to get back to the other feature of note at this spot – the River Severn’s meanders between the villages of Buildwas and Leighton.

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I’ve not really done it justice, this looping riverscape formed by silting on the one hand, and erosion on the other; an oxbow lake in the making. I think I probably needed to climb a tree to achieve a better panorama:

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It is  of course a favourite viewpoint for geography fieldtrippers, and a very fine place to linger, although not for too long on a winter’s afternoon, however bright and beautiful.

As we headed home, the December sun was lighting up cascades of Old Man’s Beard along the roadside; the trailing seed heads of wild clematis making their own festive streamers. Caught here through the car windscreen. (I wasn’t driving).

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Rambling Yesterday On Wenlock Edge ~ “The Holly And The Power Station”?

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We went for a tramp along the Edge Wood at midday yesterday. It’s three fields up from our back garden and quite a haul to reach it. Once there, a breather is definitely called for, and so it’s a good moment to stop and look at the old Ironbridge Power Station cooling towers.

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Some find them ugly, but I like them. They are true landmarks – geologically and historically speaking. They stand on the banks of the River Severn, England’s longest river, which rises in the Welsh uplands and descends through the Midlands to the Bristol Channel. The towers stand on a piece of landscape – the Severn Gorge – which was only created 15,000 years ago – a mere nano-second past in Earth History Time.

But the thing that most fascinates me is that the River Severn, presently running south past the towers, once flowed north, so meeting the sea on the coast between North Wales and Chester. This remarkable change of direction is all down to the last Ice Age and the fact that the land was glacier-locked as far south as Shrewsbury, our county town. The Severn’s northern outlet thus became blocked by ice, and so the river backed up, forming a great lake (Lapworth) as the water lay trapped between the ice sheet, and the limestone ridge of Wenlock Edge.

Little by little, as the Ice Age drew to a close, the river wheedled its way through the northerly end of Wenlock Edge and carved a new course, cutting through, and so exposing the Industrial Revolution-making strata of coal, ironstone, fire clay, and limestone. And as I’ve said in other posts, this part of Shropshire lays claim to being ‘the cradle of the Industrial Revolution’, though crucible might be a better metaphor, given the emphasis on iron production.

However, the 18th century pioneering ironmasters of the Severn Gorge were not the first to take advantage of the local geology. Nearly two millennia earlier the Romans were already exploiting these resources. Their military camp of Viroconium (Wroxeter) lay just to the north of the Gorge and, once the locals were suitably subdued, so the camp transformed into a great city, one of the four largest in Britain. There is evidence of glass making and iron working in the area, and local clays would have served for brick and tile production. In fact one of the brick-built basilica walls still rises impressively above the surrounding farmland, a surprising survival when so much of the city fabric was recycled through succeeding centuries.

Back in the Gorge, and many centuries after the end of Roman rule, the mediaeval  monks of Buildwas Abbey and Much Wenlock Priory were also busy making use of local natural resources on an industrial scale. They had mines, decorative tile works, iron-making forges and bloomeries. They also had a thriving export business along the River Severn. There’s a record from around 1200 that states that the Prior of Buildwas was fined because twelve of his barges were blocking the river downstream at Bridgnorth. Probably not your usual vision of what monastic enterprises got up to.

Given so much entrepreneurial and manufacturing business afoot in the Gorge AND a navigable river with access to the great port of Bristol,  it is not surprising that when the monasteries were dissolved in 1540, and their properties distributed to the king’s friends and favourites, that the place should attract a rash of opportunistic London merchants, lawyers and aristocrats, all out to get rich and exploit the former monastic concerns for themselves. Soap  making, cold tar exploitation, coal mining, iron production, steel-making experiments were being conducted by very unlikely people of the well-heeled sort across south-east Shropshire.

Such industrial fervour was further stoked by Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) who offered a prize for anyone who could find a way to smelt decent iron using coal instead of charcoal. The loss of the nation’s great trees, needed for naval purposes and the protection of the realm, was causing the monarch much concern. The prize, however, was to remain unclaimed. It would be a good century later before  Abraham Darby arrived in the Gorge and, after remodelling a former monastic iron works in Coalbrookdale, perfected the much sought-after technique.

His discovery helped shape the world we occupy today. See what geology has to answer for.

And here’s some more of quite another sort: the Wrekin. We have the best view of it on our homeward path back down into Wenlock.

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The plain to the left of the hill was the location of the glacial Lake Lapworth. The Roman city was in that vicinity too. The Severn Gorge is off-screen to the right of the Wrekin.

I’ve written about the Wrekin’s mythological and geological origins HERE, but I may not have mentioned there that it has an Iron Age hillfort on the top. This was a stronghold of the Celtic Cornovii  i.e. those who  were duly subdued and citified by the invading Romans. Under Roman rule Viroconium became the Cornovii regional capital, which they continued to occupy until the late 600s – 700 C.E. when the site was abandoned.

We were always told at school that Viroconium’s last days were due to Saxons or Vikings marauding up the River Severn, but there is no sign that the exit from the city was anything but peaceful. I remember working on the excavation of the presumed road-of-retreat long ago as an archaeology student. I have to say that at the time I wasn’t altogether convinced by the site director’s interpretation of the remains that we were uncovering. At least it made me consider that much depends on the way you excavate a site. This site was being stripped across a whole field, rather than being investigated through the judicious placing of exploratory trenches. It seemed to me that certain trowelling techniques, as applied by willing and enthusiastic novices, might be responsible for creating features that aren’t actually there at all. An interesting thought on how the past might be re-created and invented.

And now just to prove how cold it was on our ramble, and not just gloriously, and so unexpectedly sunny: next some ICE, a phenomenon not witnessed in these parts for several seasons. Which brings me back to the start of this yarn, but hopefully not to the start of a new Ice Age as long predicted by certain climatologists. There have been enough tangents along our path already.

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copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 

Jo’s Monday Walk  Please take a turn in this quarter for another fabulous ramble with Jo in the Algarve.

The Old Quarry ~ Thursday’s Special

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I’ve always found quarries disturbing places – the wholesale delving into the earth, the ravaged landscapes left behind. And yes, I know we need the resources. (Our own house is built of this fossilized Silurian Sea, although actually I’d be just as happy with brick or timber).

Shadwell Quarry behind Much Wenlock’s Windmill Hill is only one of the many old limestone quarries along Wenlock Edge. These days they are no longer worked but host various business enterprises that simply need a large amount of storage space. Quarry owners are supposed to do some restoration after the blasting has stopped, but I’ve not noticed much of this actually happening.

These photos show how slowly recolonization of quarried land takes place. (For an aerial view go HERE.) It has been twenty years since Shadwell was decommissioned.

The water in the quarry bottom is also a strange blue, almost turquoise at times, coloured by the limestone deposits. At over seventy feet deep, it lures tipsy young men to prove their manliness by diving in from one of the man-made cliffs while their mates film the act and post the videos on You Tube. Last summer I spotted gangs of school leavers heading off behind Windmill Hill. They were armed with ghetto blasters and towels and I overheard them saying they were ‘going to the beach’.

It’s interesting how people’s perceptions of places differ. One sees ‘exciting resort’; another oppressive dereliction – albeit with strains of desolate grandeur.

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I’ve written more about the history of Wenlock’s limestone quarrying  at Hidden Wenlock #4

This week at Lost in Translation Paula’s theme is ‘forbidding’. Please call in there if you want to take part in the challenge. She suggests many possibilities for interpretation.

“Wheat…fields of wheat…” Musings on the path to the allotment

 

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Okay, who knows which film this quote comes from? As an extra clue I give you the line in ‘full’: “Wheat… lots of wheat… fields of wheat… a tremendous amount of wheat…”

For some reason I cannot explain, this particular exhortation is rather popular in the Farrell household.  The Team Leader is wont to deliver it at unexpected  intervals and with some vigour. This habit even predates the time when we actually came to live beside  a field that often has wheat growing in it. So here is it. The field behind our house. And while I admit it might overstep the bounds of propriety to share my washing with the world, here is another view of the wheat field from our garden. I also think the flower shadows on the sheet rather fine: housework turned artwork?

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I have written in earlier posts how our house lies on the edge of Wenlock Edge, a twenty-mile scarp formed from the upthrust bed of a tropical sea – the Silurian Sea in fact. This geological formation is a breath-taking 400  million years old – a place once inhabited by trilobites, and molluscs, and sponges and corals, although it should be made clear that when these creatures lived, the shallow sea in question was not in the northern hemisphere.  No indeed. In its tropical heyday Shropshire lay off equatorial East Africa. We are thus, for all our rustic appearance, a well-travelled county. We also have lots of geology of international importance, but  which I cannot begin to describe because the terminology and chronological expanses confound even me, a prehistorian. The Shropshire Geological Society have  a good site HERE should you wish to know more.

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The reason I’m showing you the wheat field is because my path to the allotment runs along the edge of it. I walk back and forth at least once a day. And so when I’m not writing blog posts or fiddling with my novel, this is one of the places where I’m likely to be. There is always something that catches my eye – thistles, the light, clouds, buzzards, the rooks and jackdaws, a neighbour’s three white ducks that regularly escape from their pen to eat slugs along the path, cats on the prowl, pretending I can’t see them.

Even the wheat is quite interesting. It amazes me how it manages to force its way up through a cloddy layer of grey clay that bakes to concrete after a few days with no rain. This soil, too, is a product of a geological event – a deluge of  volcanic ash from aeons ago and that has now broken down into bentonite clay.  It is the same soil in the allotment. Soft fruits seem to thrive on it. Everything else is a challenge. Wheat, though, has apparently been grown along the slopes above the town for generations, hence the name The Wheatlands for some of our now built-upon areas.

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And talking of building, a couple of years ago when the Local Authority called for landowners to put forward development land, our local landowner proposed  this and most of the fields on the Edge side of the town, including the allotments too, gardens  that have been there since the 1940s.  Development on this scale is something that most town residents fervently  hope will not happen. We have already been threatened with up to 500 houses over the next 11 years. This in a town with antiquated drainage, severe traffic congestion, few jobs, poor public transport, and inflated house prices, and one that has seen several new developments of upmarket houses in the last few years.  More crucially, the town sits in a bowl below the Edge and has recently been designated a rapid response flood risk area by the Environment Agency.

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More tarmac, roofs and roads that speed up run off from the hills above our homes are the last thing we need.  Some of the newest developments in the town are themselves subject to flooding.

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All right, I admit it. The landscape behind our house is perhaps not particularly noteworthy of itself, but the light and sky above it are. The uptilted scarp of Wenlock Edge forms a false horizon, so there is always much weather to watch. It changes every second. One day we saw a fire rainbow which we gather is quite rare.

Ironically, it it perhaps because this view from our house is ever under threat, that makes us look at it and appreciate it all the more. But it makes me angry too. I am not opposed to development, but it should be well planned, and enhance the locality, not cause problems for other people’s homes. There appears to be no mechanism in English planning that can ensure the provision of good quality housing at prices people can afford. Density seems to be the only planning criterion, not  homes with green spaces around them, and places for community orchards and gardens, footpaths and cycle tracks and areas where people of all ages can play. All things that boost wellbeing. You would wonder why it is so hard to do.

It is true that  Much Wenlock people have recently voted to have the Local Authority  accept their Neighbourhood Plan, a community compiled document that reflects our aspirations and plans for the foreseeable future. Our Conservative Party MP, Philip Dunne, tells us the Plan will deliver localism to our door, that is, we will have a say in the kind and scale of development that is proposed for our town and parish, development that will protect landscapes, open spaces and heritage while improving the quality of life for everyone. Whether it will, or not remains to be seen, particularly under a government whose recently sacked Secretary for the Environment apparently allowed for the destruction of ancient woodland as long as developers replanted elsewhere.  Bio-diversity anyone?

Which I suppose brings me back to the quote; “Wheat…fields of wheat…” You can’t get more of a monoculture than that. Hey ho. So many things to unpick. Think I’ll trundle up the path to the allotment and pick raspberries.

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

Related:

…of Silurian Shores

Old Stones of Wenlock: repurposing the Silurian Sea

In Much Wenlock an Inspector Calls

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P.S. The quote is from Woody Allen’s Love and Death

 

Vulcanicity ~ Welcome to the hot zone

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I have long had a fearful fascination with volcanoes – probably ever since, as a young child in the 1950s, I saw a newsreel item of Mount Etna erupting. It seemed like a living nightmare. I remember especially the unstoppable flows of boiling lava that rolled over everything in their path.  Even in places where it had cooled I seem to remember people who walked on it found their shoes smouldering. It was perhaps my first apprehension of the fact that the earth could do things that mankind was incapable dealing with. I remember having a dream afterwards where the ground beneath my feet kept cracking open into ever widening fissures: my first anxiety dream perhaps.

With this in mind, you will understand how very deeply impressed I was when I first set eyes on Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

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NASA non-copyright image

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Here, on the surface of the earth, we have a 4,000 mile chain of connected fissures that extends from Lebanon in the Middle East to Mozambique in south east Africa. It comprises the Jordan Rift Valley, Red Sea Rift and the East African Rift, which itself divides into eastern and western arms with Lake Victoria Nyanza in between. The entire system has been described as a world wonder, the biggest rupture in the planet’s land surface, and the only geological feature that can be seen clearly from the moon. The East African Rift of course includes the great ice-topped volcanoes of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya that are mere remnants of their formerly gargantuan fiery selves.

So however you look at it, moon- or otherwise, the Great Rift is definitely a case of EXTREME geology. All that seismic shunt and shift. And it is still happening and at this very moment. One day the Horn of Africa and littoral East Africa will be an island.

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The East African Rift is thought to have begun to pull apart around 40 million years ago. Scientists surmise that the environmental changes associated with fissuring may have had a significant impact on the evolution of humankind. So far, very many of the earliest fossils of (potential) human ancestors have been found in the Rift – Olduvai Gorge, and in the vicinity of Lakes Baringo, Turkana and Omo. On the other hand, this could simply be a reflection of the  decades of systematic searching in these areas, instigated largely by the Leakey dynasty of palaeontologists. But whether a good case of careful looking or not, I’m still prepared to believe that humans could have evolved here.

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The photograph at the start of this post is of the old volcano, Longonot. It lies in the Rift between Nairobi and Naivasha in Kenya. In the next shot you can see it from Lake Naivasha (hippo added for purposes of scale Smile). Part of this lake is also formed within a submerged crater.

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One key side effects of volcanic activity is highly fertile soil. In Kenya and Tanzania the Rift Valley floor supports the Serengeti grasslands that in turn are home to millions of herbivores, their following of big cat predators, and the whole wonderful species-rich eco-system. These plains also have long been the grazing grounds of the best known nomadic pastoralists on the planet, the Maasai.

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Before the British invaded East Africa in the late nineteenth century (intent on setting up the Imperial British East Africa Company) and concluded that any land not occupied by people at that point in time was EMPTY and thus FREELY AVAILABLE, the Maasai ranged over vast tracts of the Rift grassland system. It is believed that their ancestors moved out from the Horn of Africa about four thousand years ago. 

This means that the Maasai lived a life that suited them and apparently with little cost to the environment for 4,000 years before the British came along and herded them into a reserve where the land is least fertile and watered for human purposes, and otherwise known as the Maasai Mara. Europeans then set about destroying the plains’ wildlife on a breathtakingly ugly scale. The invaders, or their activities also became vectors for deadly disease – rinderpest that decimated native cattle, and smallpox and syphilis that took their toll on the human populations.

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Smallholder farms at Escarpment just north of Nairobi. Mount Longonot beyond.

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Once the British had staked their claim in British East Africa, the Bantu farming communities that inhabited the higher hillside zones of Kenya were also enclosed in Reserves. The occupants could only leave to work for Europeans. The justification for creating reserves with designated boundaries (and they were quite large areas) was to protect tribal land holdings from the incoming white settlers.

African farmers, being the successful cultivators they had been for several millennia, were naturally inhabiting the best and most covetable land. So in this sense, the British administration had a point. The early settlers were British aristocrats like Lord Delamere and  the sons of the Earl of Enniskillen, and thus the kind of men who expected to own vast acreages and begin farming/ranching on an industrial/landed gentry scale.

Meanwhile from 1896-1902, and as a result of military paranoia of epic proportions, the British had built a very expensive 600-mile railway  from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. It was called the Lunatic Line even at the time of its building. But as the strategic objective receded in importance during the early 20th century, so the Colonial Office needed settlers – well-heeled, gentlemen of means who would grow produce for export and so help pay for the railway.

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First page of Lord Cranworth’s A Colony in the Making: Or Sport and Profit in British East Africa, Macmillan 1912. A guidebook and general sales pitch to attract gentleman settlers. (Out of copyright).

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Thus, in the wake of the adventure-aristocrats came retired military men, among them individuals who were variously set on nation-building, knocking the natives into shape and, in the process, getting rich from flax, ostrich feathers and coffee. The country’s fine shooting and fishing were definite lures, and made much of in the publicity brochures sent out from British East Africa. Other attractions included the notion of plentiful cheap farm labour and house servants, and thus the preservation of social status that was already well on the wane for the middle classes back in Blighty.

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But now we come to the rub. Or in fact two rubs. Firstly, when the monsoon winds are blowing in the right direction, Kenya has the most benign climate imaginable,  providing two rainy seasons, and thus two and sometimes three growing seasons for some crops. The elevated plateau of Central Province in particular, and its Aberdares highlands are rarely too hot. The beauty of the great forests suggested Scotland or Wales rather than Africa to the newcomers. They set about building mini-baronial lodges and laying out English lawns and rose beds.

But then comes the other rub. The soil. As I’ve said, volcanic soils are very fertile, but they are also very fragile. Wholesale clearance of trees and bush will quickly create desert. The late, great Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, has maintained that felling deeply rooting forest trees ultimately leads to desertification for a whole range of reasons. 

The forests not only attract rain but the trees shelter, stabilize and feed the soil (many tropical species fix nitrogen). Most importantly, she pointed out, the deep roots open up underground aquifers to water the land.

Traditional farmers of course made gardens within the forest rather than large fields. They cleared trees certainly, but they did not clear all trees. Some had sacred meaning, like the wild fig, and were protected. Others were valued for cropping purposes – for animal fodder, medicine, bee forage etc.

When the old colonials set out for Africa on a cash-cropping spree, full of the notions that they knew best how to farm, they singularly failed to understand that indigenous peoples, far from being ‘undeveloped’, had very good reasons for doing things the way they did them. Their objectives were more about living well than getting rich.

Pre-colonial accounts by explorers and missionaries show that the Bantu peoples were very successful farmers. They planned their planting to take into account the possible vagaries of climate. For instance, drought resistant millet might be the mainstay crop, and cultivated on the  drier soils in their territory. Squashes and beans would be grown near stream beds, and water-hungry maize would be the risk crop,  planted on a river bank on the off chance that seasonal floods would be small enough not to wash the crop away, but good enough to provide a bonus to the annual harvest.

Kikuyu farmer and sugar cane

The other important contingency depended on kinship and clan ties. As the Bantu communities moved out across the African continent over many centuries, pioneering into new territories as population growth or failing soil fertility dictated, networks of clan relationships became extended over quite large territories. If drought, disease or invaders struck, people would take their possessions and seek refuge with distant relatives until the threat had passed.

Pastoralists like the Maasai also relied on being able to move over large distances to secure grazing for their herds in times of drought. But once people were confined to reserves, bound by European constructs of land ownership, they could not move. Land in the Native Reserves where people farmed thus became overcrowded, degraded and overgrazed. Under colonial rule Africans were not allowed to acquire fresh land. This was one of the chief reasons for the uprising in 1950s Kenya when the Land and Freedom Army (dubbed Mau Mau) went to war against British rule.

Then there were the colonial agriculture officers trying to dictate the way the people on the Reserves grew their crops, pressing for mono-culture rather than the traditional way of mixing crops which helps to fool insect pests and utilizes advantages of companion planting.

As we left Kenya in 2000 I was interested to learn that some European agricultural aid project was actually advocating that smallholder farmers (which means most Kenyans) should use ‘kitchen-garden’ planting techniques to reduce crop pest damage and/or the need for pesticides. It had only taken a hundred years for outsiders to teach Africans what they had known all along, but doubtless been told to forget in the interim because their methods were considered primitive.

Sometimes the hypocrisy of rich world tinkering is enough to make this particular writer’s blood boil up in seismic fury.  Time to cool down with a view of snow-topped Kilimanjaro. Who’d have thought it: ice on a volcano. When in the 1840s German explorers and missionaries, Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, out exploring from their Mombasa mission, claimed to have seen snow-capped mountains at the Equator, no one back home believed them. Thought they were barking. There’s a lot, we outside Africa do not know about this vast, extraordinary continent even though its nations provide us with so many of our essential raw materials, fairly and otherwise; mostly otherwise…

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

 

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Old Stones of Wenlock: repurposing the Silurian Sea

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I like the idea that I, like many in and around Much Wenlock, live inside blocks of repurposed, and well-travelled seafloor – the compressed and decomposing shells, sponges, bony fish, sea scorpions, trilobites and corals of  the Silurian Sea. It is also intriguing to know that some 400 million years ago, this shallow tropical ocean was part of a land mass that lay off East Africa, somewhere near the Comoros Islands. We even have our own geological epoch – The Wenlock that lasted from 428 to 423 million years ago. And yes, I know, it is hard to fathom – this mind-boggling vastness of geological time, the tectonic shunt and shift across the globe to create the continents we all now recognise.

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My own view of the world, I find, is firmly fixed, and distinctly two-dimensional, being the usual flat configuration found in an atlas. And of course, when I consult the world map I can surely see that Much Wenlock is definitely in the northern hemisphere, in England’s Midlands to be exact, nudging towards Wales. Yet the proof that this was not always so, is all around me – in the stones of church, priory, and the many barns and cottages, even in my chimney breast – this place, this ground beneath the wooded ridgeback of Wenlock Edge, where the stone was quarried, WAS ONCE IN THE TROPICS. And since I once lived in the tropics myself, I like to think that returning to Shropshire has brought me back to the place where I was in Africa, but in a different time zone – a bit like a Time Lord, a Doctor Who without a Tardis.

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The Farrell Silurian fireplace built c 1830

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But back to the stones. The circular sections you can see in the first photo  are the remains of crinoids or sea lilies. These were animals, echinoderms, not plants, and looked something like this:

From McGraw-Hill Science and Technology Encyclopedia; Articulata

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Bony fish also made their first appearance during the Silurian:

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Artist’s impression of Silurian Fish (creative commons copyright expired) from  Nebula to Man by Joseph Smit 1905

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And the landscape may have looked like this, although was apparently entirely inhospitable above water, with roaring winds and hot flying dust, and no signs of life.

Silurian Sea reconstruction by Richard Bizley: http://www.bizleyart.com/

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And here is bed of the Silurian Sea today, the upthrust levels that form the fifteen-mile wooded ridge of Wenlock Edge. Its geology is of international importance. (For more on Wenlock Edge, see its Facebook page here.)

The Edge has been quarried for centuries, but the quarries lie mostly empty now, waiting to be repurposed themselves. In the town our earliest surviving stone buildings date from monastic times. (In Much Wenlock An Inspector Calls.) But old buildings have always been recycled into new buildings, and you can see signs of this as you walk along the streets nearest the priory ruins.

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And finally  (below) is the Farrell establishment – a blend of old and new construction. Hopefully the inhabitants are not yet as fossilized as their surrounding walls, although clearly it is only a matter of time.

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Travel theme: stone

© 2013 Tish Farrell