New book on geology and landscape of the Britsh Lake District

I don’t often review books on Earth-logs, but one that is pending publication may interest readers (Ian Francis, Stuart Holmes and Bruce Yardley 2022. The Lake District: Landscape and Geology. Marlborough: The Crowbrook Press; ISBN: 078 0 7198 4011 1). Ian Francis urged me to create Earth Pages, the predecessor to Earth-logs. One good turn deserves another, but this is a very good book. Unlike nearly all area-specific geoscientific books it is not primarily a guidebook. Instead it uses the internationally famous Lake District as a means of teaching how to fathom what a landscape represents. In this case, one with a history going back half a billion years, involving closure of an ocean, destruction of a mountain chain and sediment deposition in a ‘shallow, inland sea’. The last couple of million years or so of cycles of glaciation and river erosion have sculpted its present form. Finally, it became the home range of human hunter gatherers, once the ice had melted away around 10 thousand years ago. Britain’s first stone-age tillers and herders colonised its lower elevations, followed by miners and metal smelters, Roman, Viking and Anglo Saxon invaders and settlers. Its beauty and complexity have inspired poets and artists, and they in turn have drawn in more visitors per km2 than perhaps any other National Park on Earth, and far more per annum than its indigenous population.

Cover of The Lake District: Landscape and Geology

Ian, Stuart and Bruce lace their book with some of the best landscape images of the Lake District that I have come across, which invite you to read the text. The Lake District is pitched at a level that anyone can understand, with a minimum of jargon and a pleasant style. Basic geological concepts are covered in separate ‘boxes’, where the main thread requires them and for those who want a little more science. Geology being an observational science, there is some emphasis on indicators of natural processes, such as elliptical drumlins whose sculpting by flowing ice aligns their long axes, and exotic boulders made of rocks only present miles away whose presence suggests the source of the ice that had moved them. Solid rock outcrops in the Lakes are products of many Earth processes, both internal and at the former surface. There are granitic rocks that intruded through once volcanic and sedimentary rocks. Their internal features tell the rocktypes apart, such as the layering of sediments, often cleaved and folded by deformation. and the lack of structure in granite that cuts the layering, yet imparts new minerals to the older marine rocks as a result of igneous heating to very high temperatures.

Most of the geological concepts raised in the main text are amplified by narratives of seven field trips; provided the reader physically walks through them. And why shouldn’t they? Each of them involves only a few kilometres of gentle walking from parking spaces on metalled roads.  They cover all the solid geology, from the regionally oldest rocks, the Early-Ordovician, deep-water Skiddaw Slates; upwards in geological time through the varied products of later Ordovician volcanism and marine sediments; the thick Silurian mudstones and silts; and the youngest and structurally simplest shallow-marine Carboniferous limestone. The sediments all contain fossils and the volcanics are full of evidence of the environment onto which they poured – an oceanic island arc. A simple story is unveiled by all, such as following a track on the flanks of Blencathra, a hill in the Northern Fells. From slates with cleavage formed by compressive forces acting on muds; to a point where new minerals have grown in them through later heating; then to where heat was so intense that the slates came to resemble igneous rocks; and finally outcrops of a granite whose much later intrusion as magma explains the simple sequence. All the trips are like that: not too much to take in, but enough to hammer home the various rudiments of geology.

Britain was where the modern Earth sciences were largely forged. But that was in the absence of complete exposure of all the solid rock that underpins it. What lies between outcrops is the modern natural world and a diversity of ecosystems to which The Lake District also draws attention. Even professional geologists get bored to tears by trudging unendingly over nothing but rock. They enjoy flowers, trees, birds, streams and tarns with fish as a relief. Some of the text also taught me about oddities created by Cumbrian farmers: bields, which are shelters for shepherds and sheep; washfolds where sheep used to be gathered and cleaned prior to shearing, and lots more about the unique upland farming culture of Cumbria. I hope the book proves physically durable, for it will surely find its way into secondary-school and first-year undergraduate field trips. It is also ideal for any family aiming at a fortnight’s holiday in the Lakes, but wondering what to do. The book will get well-thumbed and wet – the one drawback of the Lake District is its annual rainfall, averaging 3.3 metres! Go in April, May or early June to escape the worst of it and that of tourists, and to see its ecology at its best. I’m giving my complimentary copy to my grandchildren, because I get annoyed when they complain of boredom!