Sandstone and Sea Stacks

hardback: 280 x 215mm
208 pages: 250 colour pictures and 50 diagrams
Frances Lincoln October 2011: 25: ISBN 978-0-7112-3228-0

I do like to be beside the seaside, yes indeed. But even better, I do like to see beside the seaside: sea stacks and wavecut platforms, ammonites and sand. While serious geologists poke among the old fridges in abandoned quarries, this book goes paddling in the rock pools, to examine the rock samples so perfectly polished up for us by the sea.
       Between the lichen and the low-tide line, everything's out in the open to be looked at. Here are desert sand dunes emerging out of the ocean. Here are cliffs bent and crumpled by two continents crashing into each other, and a band of red-hot basalt squeezed from somewhere in Scotland. Britain today lacks glaciers and volcanoes; but the grand geological earth-shifter we do see is the sea, hard at it around our 6000 miles of coast. And as you wander along the edge of the sand, gradually slowing your eye to the beach-holiday speed of looking at things, you see small creatures, seashells and corals from hundreds of millions of years ago.
       Real geology isn't looking up the books and memorising all the long words. Real geology is looking at real rock, and working out what the heck's been happening to it. What Britain is and where it came from, just what's been going on around here for the last 500 million years: all is revealed, in a continuous slice around our seaside.

In due course (but not yet in August 2012) the first 50 pages, with all their pics and diagrams, will probably be seen on
Google books


REVIEW 1 - after publication   REVIEWER 1 SOURCE 1 SOURCE 1)



I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
     Isaac Newton (apocryphal, widely quoted)
     William Smith was to mock Newton, inhabitant of the Oolitic Limestone, for not looking at those pebbles hard enough ...
     Newton's own fields, or at least those he must have often walked over, are literally strewed with fossils in a manner which I never saw in any other soil, lying thereon like new-sown seeds of oats, and so numerous are they where I observed them, that in the moist state of that tenacious soil the great philosopher may have scraped them (unobserved) from his shoes by hundreds. It was this which, on my receiving the Wollaston Prize [as 'Father of English Geology'], induced me to say that 'had Newton condescended to look on the ground he must have been a geologist'.
     William Smith 1839, quoted in Phillips 1844

'I do like to be beside the seaside' -- rock pools and paddling, sandwiches with real sand in them, striped towels and a big yellow umbrella to keep off the sea breezes and summer showers. It's a peculiarly British form of fun, which foreigners might even misinterpret as suffering. But after greasing yourself with a mixture of suncream and grit, cleaning beach oil off your feet, and abandoning the attempt to read the latest Dan Brown with a Force Six breeze turning the pages ... look above you and around. What Britain is and where it came from, just what's been going on around here for the last 500 million years: all is revealed in a continuous slice around our seaside.
     Here are giant tree ferns engulfed in volcanic lava. Here are caves, rock-arches and sea stacks; here are desert sand dunes emerging out of the ocean. Here are cliffs bent and crumpled by two continents crashing into each other; and bands of red-hot rock squeezed out by a volcano somewhere up in Scotland. And as you wander along the edge of the sand, gradually slowing your eye to the beach-holiday speed of looking at things, you see small creatures, seashells and corals from hundreds of millions of years ago. All along the Dorset coastline are curled ammonites as if someone tried to unravel the workings of the great pocket watch of Time and guess what -- the little springs inside it came pinging out across the rocks.

     Take a poet to the seaside and he tends not to have a jolly time. Matthew Arnold visited Dover Beach in autumn, with a big sea crashing up the flint shingle: its 'melancholy slow withdrawing roar' reminded him what a dreadful state England was in. (He didn't spot the fossil sea urchins.) For his visit, TS Eliot wore grey flannel trousers with their bottoms rolled, and failed to hear the mermaids calling. Thomas Hardy, on the Cornish coast, looked across the dark spaces of the sea and thought of a women lost forty years before. Tennyson too, on the cold grey shores of the Isle of Wight, the waves made him think about death.
     We come to the edge of our busy land, so worked over with footpaths and fenceposts and bits of litter, and gaze over a vast emptiness. A couple of masonry corners stand against the sea; a fringe of stonework tops off 60 metres of vertical greywacke rock. I came down to Fast Castle as the last sunlight was a brownish glow across the dead heather. The breeze whistled through the dry grass, and far below, the sea was whispering amongst the rock stacks. A seagull soared to castle level, let out a cackle, and dropped back into the shadows.
     A metre of land connects the castle with the moorland above: there's a path of crumbling concrete protected by an old chain. Crossing it, you look down lichened beds of tough grey-black sandstone: beds so bent by earth movements that they stand on edge, straight out of the sea in smooth slabs that take an evil gleam under the sunset. Southeast, a single lighthouse, and a rock tower like a second castle against the fading sea. The other way, I looked up the coast to the glow of Torness nuclear power station, and two black lumps against the sunset, the volcanic plugs of Bass Rock and North Berwick Law.

     Fast Castle must have been quite something when it was still there. It was here that Mary Queen of Scots, after 13 years among the elegant gardens and tapestried halls of France, spent her first night in Scotland. I imagine her descending the rough heather on her pony she was a fine horsewoman to where black towers stood against the darkening sea, and a lantern above the gatehouse, and the smell of the salt water. Fast Castle is now celebrated as where not only Mary Queen of Scots but also, now, this book's author has spent the night. The facilities are not what they were in 1566 but then, Queen Mary didn't have a Gore-tex bivvybag or a plastic box of Co-op luxury coleslaw.
     Gore-tex bivvy bags are slippery, and I didn't fancy a midnight descent onto the black sea-stacks 50 metres below. So I retreated to the moorland at the mainland end of the iron chain, and bedded down in the deep heather. All night long, the sea stretched away towards Denmark reminding me, as it must have reminded Queen Mary in 1566, that most of our planet is actually underwater. While the sea-cliff steepness, dropping to darkness and a flash of breakers and the harsh cry of sea birds, tells how the sea inexorably moves inwards, battering the little solid bit that we scamper about on.
     The sea moves forward against the land, like a very slow bulldozer with a blade as wide as the North Sea. The breaker crashes, and the withdrawing water rubs at the rock with the handful of sand it carries. In the game of water against rock, the sea has time on its side. It carves a cave; the cave becomes an arch, and then a sea stack; and the sea stack falls into the sea. The backwash carries away the rubble, and the wave blade moves forward another metre. The wave-cut platform at Robin Hood's Bay, in Yorkshire, has been sliced out by the sea in the 20,000 years since the Ice Age. That's an average of 2cm per year: the speed of a small child growing. Yet that would be enough, in 5 million years, to meet the sea on the other side. In geological terms, 5 million years is a mere moment. Us Johnnies-come-lately, the human beings, have been around almost as long as that. The planet has been here long enough for the sea totally to destroy the UK a thousand times over.
     In Norfolk the sea is cruising inland much faster. Elsewhere, the waves are obstructing their own project by piling shingle against the cliff base. Changes in ocean level can send the sea back to the start to cut a new platform 5m lower down. So Britain may not disappear exactly as described above.
     But then again, it already did. Twice. The Greensand Sea chopped off the top of southern England, from the Weald across to the Devon coast. And it did before that at a place called Siccar Point, a few miles north of where I lay watching the sunset fade above Fast Castle. It's a place made famous by a man called James Hutton, and first geologist of Scotland's first geologist.
     James Hutton's insight about the world came in a letter to the engineer Joseph Black: "The world? The world is no more than a turnip!" This seems to have been a catchphrase of his, as one sardonic friend described Hutton and Black as "two philosophers rioting over a boiled turnip." Hutton was a man who knew his turnips. A so-called 'gentleman farmer' in a very ungentlemanly land, "a cursed country where one has to shape everything out of a block and to block everything out of a rock." Over the rough country of Berwickshire, he carved drains, struggled with boulders, and introduced the lighter Suffolk plough. His innovative crop rotation included turnips, which were drilled in straight lines to allow hoeing between the rows so the turnip crop cleared his weeds before going on to feed his sheep. He also introduced the practice still common of undersowing the barley crop with cultivated grasses: harvest the barley and there's your hay field all ready to go.
     James Hutton looked at the world as he looked at his turnips. Looking at the turnips, he saw the sense of sowing them in straight lines. Looking at the land below them, he saw rivers carving through the rocks, carrying away sand into the sea. He saw the sea bashing away the cliff bottoms of Berwickshire. "In the natural operations of the world, the land is perishing continually." And he saw all of that sand and debris reforming, at the sea bottom, into the next lot of rocks. "As the present continents are formed from the waste (mineral but also animal and plant) of more ancient land, so, from the destruction of them, future continents may be destined to arise."
     Rocks are made out of earlier sand: sand is made out of earlier rocks: in a process apparently endless and without any visible beginning.

Cockburnspath, end of the Southern Upland Way and start of my walk to Fast Castle, has a stone cross at the village centre, a small shop, and a handsome sandstone church hidden among the cottages. At Cove Harbour I passed over round-edged, red-layered sea cliffs, rocks that were obviously made, as Hutton realised, out of earlier sand. The Old Red Sandstone was laid down in rivers or shallow lakes, or still preserves the swirl of a desert sand dune. The wide beach of Pease Bay was the last chance to stop for a swim; and many were doing so, as the tide moved in over the sun-warmed sand. Behind the bay, though, not layered sea-cliffs, but caravans, laid in parallel lines like the natural rock strata that they so conspicuously were not. To travel across the country in a wheeled metal box, so as to live for a few days inside a larger metal box: many find it a satisfying form of fun, going by the size and number of caravan sites all around Britain's coastline. (And a caravan really is a whole lot better than a rucksack for putting those interesting beach pebbles into.)
      Beyond Pease Bay the Southern Upland Way turns aside, the lanes end, and the cliffs rise in hard grey rocks to rough fields where turnips grow out of red-brown sandstone soil. At the field corner is an interpretation board, and a steep-dropping grass slope (there's a fence to hang on to) down to the sea and Siccar Point. It was in 1788 that James Hutton arrived here in a small boat, along with his young colleague John Playfair, and a Mr Hall whose father owned the boat. And here, where the red sandstone lies down against the ancient, tilted, grey rocks of Fast Castle, he and those seashore rocks displayed to his friends the incredible ancientness of the Earth.
      First the tough grey rocks, themselves a sort of sandstone, had formed in some deep ocean. Then they had been tilted sideways, and raised to form dry land. Some time - a very long time - after that, the sea had flattened the dark grey continent and overrun it. Red sand had covered it, a grain at a time, hundreds of metres deep; and been crushed underneath another ocean into a different, reddish sort of sandstone.
      And after all that, the land rose again into the air. The sea attacked it, again. And the old junction of the grey and the red re-emerged, excavated by the waves, to be seen by Mr Hutton and his friend Mr Playfair in their little boat. But before reckoning up all that amazing span of time, just think of one thing more. That grey rock, right at the start, is itself a sort of sandstone. It formed at the bottom of the sea from small grains brought down by rivers from some even earlier land Playfair, brought up with the idea of a Biblical Earth just 5700 years old, was stunned.
      We felt ourselves necessarily carried back to the time when the schistus [the tough greywacke sandstone] on which we stood was yet at the bottom of the sea, and when the [newer, red] sandstone before us was only beginning to be deposited, in the shape of sand or mud, from the waters of a superincumbent ocean. An epoch still more remote presented itself, when even the most ancient of these rocks, instead of standing upright in vertical beds, lay in horizontal planes at the bottom of the sea, and was not yet disturbed by that immeasurable force which has burst asunder the solid pavement of the globe.... The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time. (Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. V, pt. III, 1805)
      Geologists seeing Siccar Point for the first time are sometimes so excited they burst into tears.
      So at teatime I stopped off at Siccar Point to pay respects to the spirit of James Hutton and found a TV crew already at it. They'd arrived the authentic way, by sea, and were filming the famous red-meets-grey unconformity in the last moments before the cliff shadow fell across the rocks. They'll be geologising Scotland this winter, unless somebody at Channel Four happens to think up a new six-part drama about nurses or policemen.
      You can fit a lot into a six-mile stretch of Scottish coastline. The abyss of time in the afternoon: overnight, the near-infinite ocean.
      At dawn I headed up from Fast Castle to the signposts of the new extension of Berwickshire's Coastal Path. They pointed me along field edges and past a decomposing combine harvester, intricate girderwork under the early pink rays of the sun. It wouldn't have looked out of place as an artwork in the big hall of Tate Modern, and fitted equally well at the corner of its clifftop field. But then the path swung around a gorse bush to the tops of great grey cliffs. Those cliffs dropped 150m into a sea that was slaty green, and fringed with white foam in the early sun. A stream chuckled under a footbridge, fell over the cliff edge, and was snatched by the easterly breeze in circles around the next big curve of the cliff.
      And here the rocks changed again, from ancient grey to orange and mauve, the volcanic lava of St Abbs Head. On the purple rocks, pink thrift in great bright bunches, and yellow birdsfoot trefoil. Not even at the Tate Modern -- only Nature herself is brave enough for such a colour scheme. Out of green seawater rose the orange and mauve sea stacks, but the ledges of them were dull grey with thousands of squatting guillemots.
      The cliff path looks down across tottering chimney-stacks of red basalt to St Abbs village -- after the night in the wilderness, a civilised cup of coffee for breakfast.



The two mighty voices

1 The Sea

Ocean Motion

Ice, the sidekick

2 Understanding Sand

How come this stone's got a seashell inside it?

Life and times of the Ammonite

Sandstone and sainthood

Stones with stripes

3 Antrim Basalt

Giant's Causeway

Vents Unfold

4 Hot Rocks

Lands End

5 How to make mountains

Crunch times

6 Chalk

The Greensand Sea


7 Faults

Stretches of time that are also times of stretch

Stones that stop

8 Jurassic Coast

William Smith: main man of the Jurassic

The Layers of the Lias

The Great Unconformity

9 Yorkshire Rock

Alum Money




Stones with spots

10 Red Sandstone Sandwich

11 Coal Coasts


12 Greatly Controversial Devon

13 Ancient Days: Pembrokeshire

Wacke sort of stuff

Pembrokeshire and the bottom of geology

14 Rock Bottom

Snake stones of the Lizard


further reading


Glossary: agglomerate to xenolith


timeline and world maps