Little Malvern Priory
(Church of England)

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Geology of the Malvern Hills

Of Interest

 

“Before the Hills in Order Stood or Earth Received her Frame”

 

The geological history of the Malvern Hills which we all love and enjoy provides us with a glimpse of Creation in progress. But first we need some context. In 1915 a Swiss meteorologist, Alfred Wegener, noted that the coastlines of Africa, South America, India, Australia and Antarctica could be fitted together like a jigsaw to form a single “supercontinent” which he called Gondwana.  He postulated that this  landmass then split up by a process he referred to as “Continental Drift”. His views were ridiculed by the geological establishment because nobody could envisage how the enormous forces necessary to move continents thousands of kms could be generated in the Earth’s crust. However, by the 1960s research on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean established beyond dispute that the Atlantic was splitting apart along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at a rate of about 25mm/yr. New oceanic crust was being created by up-welling lava from deep below the ocean floor, driven by convection currents in the Earth’s hot, mobile, viscous Mantle. Where plates pull apart new oceanic crust is formed and where they collide together great mountain chains, like the Himalayas, are pushed up – a process known as plate tectonics. So the history of the Malvern Hills has to be understood against this background of crustal instability – plate creation and plate destruction, mountains rising and mountains being worn away.

· The oldest rocks in the Malverns are dated to the Precambrian, some 600mya (million years ago). At that time the landmass we now call England and Wales was a tiny part of the so-called “Vendian supercontinent”. This was centered on the South Pole, encompassed all the Earth’s continents and was surrounded by a single ocean.  This concept is beautifully reflected in Genesis 1 v 9 And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place and let the dry land appear.

· The rocks of our hills, already old, were 60 degrees south of the Equator, and Scotland was  located on a distant part of Vendia. Then the processes outlined above started to split the continent apart. A vast plate, Laurentia, containing the land masses which would become North America and Scotland drifted off to the northwest, whilst “England-to-be” remained in-situ on that part of the supercontinent  which was to become Gondwana..

· By the start of the Cambrian 550mya, we too had started drifting north on a splintered-off fragment of Gondwana known as Avalonia. We know that the Malvern Hills were standing above sea level. The evidence for this is in Gullet Quarry where eroded Malvernian Gneiss is overlain by basal Cambrian conglomerate, a pebbly marine beach deposit.

· Over the next 150my, during the Ordovician and Silurian, we continued to drift north reaching a balmy 30 degrees south as coral reefs grew in the warm shallow seas on our flanks. These  fossiliferous limestones now form the gentle wooded hills between West Malvern and Cradley.

· Towards the end of the Silurian there was a momentous event. The Avalonian and Laurentian  plates collided together throwing up a great chain of mountains along the western side of Britain during which England and Scotland were joined together. So despite historians believing we were joined by the Act of Union of 1707 we were actually joined by an Act of God millions of years earlier. The SNP might wish to ponder -  what God has joined together let not man put asunder!

· During the Devonian, 400-350mya, this great mountain chain was worn down but the Malverns probably stood up as low hills (inselbergs) in a desert landscape* Then around 350mya at the start of the Carboniferous we crossed the Equator into the northern hemisphere. Malvern now formed part of an upland known as St George’s Land with reef limestone flourishing on our flanks, the nearest exposures of which are now the Mendips to the SW and Derbyshire Dales to the NE.

· During the Permian and Triassic (c.290-200mya) the tectonic plates drifted together again forming a new super-continent – Pangeaea.  The Malverns were at the arid centre of this land mass surrounded by dune sands, mud flats and salt lakes which now form the red rocks immediately to the east of the Malverns under the Severn Plain and the salt deposits of Droitwich.

The Jurassic and Cretaceous (200-80mya) saw warm seas encroaching over the desert, but Malvern, possibly roamed by dinosaurs and overflown by pterodactyls, remained dry land whilst a few kms to the east limestones were being deposited then uplifted to form the Cotswold Hills. About this time Pangaea started to break up with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean, and the continents began to adopt their current configurations.                                                                                                                

        *Footnote; The reddish brown and cream coloured sandstones deposited in this Devonian desert occur just across the border in Herefordshire where they have been quarried for centuries as building stone. They are the probable source of stone used by the founding monks for the construction of much of Little Malvern Priory. Today we think of these stones as having witnessed and absorbed nearly 900 years of Christian worship, and indeed they have. But prior to that they witnessed hundreds of millions of years of the slowly unfolding and awesome story of Creation.

  The Late Cretaceous sea probably inundated the Malvern area but there is now no trace of the characteristic Chalk deposits so well developed in the south of England, as they were subsequently eroded away during a period of uplift and tilting in the early Tertiary, 40 to 50 million years ago. This was caused by a mountain building episode known as the Alpine Orogeny, generated when the African tectonic plate pushed northwards into Europe. Further east this orogeny thrust up the great mountain ranges of the Alps and Himalayas, but this area experienced only the gentle outermost ripples of its effect. Local evidence for these earth movements is the southeast tilt of the Cotswold escarpment, the gentle folding of the Triassic rocks west of the Hills and, in particular, the up-thrusting of the Malverns from below the Cretaceous seabed to their current elevation.

 

At about the same time a totally separate tectonic event was taking place – the opening   of the Atlantic Ocean by seafloor spreading - magma welling up along what is now known as Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This event resulted in great outpourings of basaltic lava along the northwestern fringes of Britain, of which the Giant’s Causeway is the most famous example. Nothing so spectacular occurred this far south, but a basalt dyke, (a near vertical sheet of igneous rock intruded into the much older Malvernian rocks) is exposed by the Giant’s Cave near the Shire Ditch.  I am not aware of any evidence of its age but in Shropshire similar dykes have been dated radiometrically to this period.        .      

 

There is no evidence in the rocks around Malvern for the next 40 million years, during which time the Hills (with the rest of the European landmass) continued to drift 1000kms northwards towards their current position. Then the Pleistocene (commencing two million yrs ago) ushered in what is popularly known as “The Ice Age”. This actually involved at least three glacial periods separated by warmer interglacials.  As the glaciers advanced and retreated over the last million years they scoured and shaped the landform. Ice several hundred metres thick, advancing eastwards from Wales surrounded Malvern, but may not have overtopped the Hills, leaving projecting peaks known as nunataks. Then 10000yrs ago the ice retreated leaving us with the Hills we know today.

 

So, after a journey of 12000kms lasting over 600million yrs the Malvern Hills have arrived at their present but certainly not final latitude 52 degrees north. Within the lifetime of the infants we have seen baptized at LMP the Hills together with the Priory Church will almost certainly move a humanly imperceptible 1-2mtrs further north, driven by a process inconceivable only a generation ago. Hills of the North rejoice indeed, in the handiwork of your Maker!   

                                                     John Chatten

   

 

Hills of the North Rejoice!

 

The Late Cretaceous sea probably inundated the Malvern area but there is now no trace of the characteristic Chalk deposits so well developed in the south of England, as they were subsequently eroded away during a period of uplift and tilting in the early Tertiary, 40 to 50 million years ago. This was caused by a mountain building episode known as the Alpine Orogeny, generated when the African tectonic plate pushed northwards into Europe. Further east this orogeny thrust up the great mountain ranges of the Alps and Himalayas, but this area experienced only the gentle outermost ripples of its effect. Local evidence for these earth movements is the southeast tilt of the Cotswold escarpment, the gentle folding of the Triassic rocks west of the Hills and, in particular, the up-thrusting of the Malverns from below the Cretaceous seabed to their current elevation.

 

At about the same time a totally separate tectonic event was taking place – the opening   of the Atlantic Ocean by seafloor spreading - magma welling up along what is now known as Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This event resulted in great outpourings of basaltic lava along the northwestern fringes of Britain, of which the Giant’s Causeway is the most famous example. Nothing so spectacular occurred this far south, but a basalt dyke, (a near vertical sheet of igneous rock intruded into the much older Malvernian rocks) is exposed by the Giant’s Cave near the Shire Ditch.  I am not aware of any evidence of its age but in Shropshire similar dykes have been dated radiometrically to this period.        .      

 

There is no evidence in the rocks around Malvern for the next 40 million years, during which time the Hills (with the rest of the European landmass) continued to drift 1000kms northwards towards their current position. Then the Pleistocene (commencing two million yrs ago) ushered in what is popularly known as “The Ice Age”. This actually involved at least three glacial periods separated by warmer interglacials.  As the glaciers advanced and retreated over the last million years they scoured and shaped the landform. Ice several hundred metres thick, advancing eastwards from Wales surrounded Malvern, but may not have overtopped the Hills, leaving projecting peaks known as nunataks. Then 10000yrs ago the ice retreated leaving us with the Hills we know today.

 

So, after a journey of 12000kms lasting over 600million yrs the Malvern Hills have arrived at their present but certainly not final latitude 52 degrees north. Within the lifetime of the infants we have seen baptized at LMP the Hills together with the Priory Church will almost certainly move a humanly imperceptible 1-2mtrs further north, driven by a process inconceivable only a generation ago. Hills of the North rejoice indeed, in the handiwork of your Maker!   

                                                     John Chatten

   

 

Floreat Cornubia; In praise of Cornwall

 

 The Cassiterides (Tin Isles) to the Ancient Greeks, Cornubia to the Romans, Kernow to the natives and Cornwall to the rest of us – this small rocky south-westernmost peninsula of Britain jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean has played a disproportionately large role in the culture, technology, economic prosperity and spirituality not only of Britain but of the whole of Europe and beyond

 

Tin has been mined here from at least the first millennium BC. It is the one third addition of this metal which turns soft malleable copper, of limited use for tools and weapons, into the much harder alloy bronze capable of retaining a keen cutting edge. This super-metal of its day ushered in the Bronze Age and changed the culture of Western Europe. It was so important in the Middle Ages that tin miners were granted special legal jurisdiction through the Stannery Courts. By the early 18th Century Cornish tin mining took on a new industrial scale following the invention by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 of the first practical low-pressure steam pumping engine or beam engine which allowed mines to be de-watered and worked to greater depths. Huge improvements in the size and efficiency of these engines were made over the next hundred years, much of it attributable to the work of the Cornish-born inventor and engineer Richard Trevithick (1771-1833). His high pressure reciprocating beam engines enabled tin to be mined to previously unimagined depths – in some cases as much as 600m below sea level. Consequently by the 1840s Cornwall was producing over half the world’s tin output. This steam technology, honed in Cornwall, became the driving force of the Industrial Revolution. It opened up rail networks, powered mills and factories and enabled iron-clad merchant and war ships to project power across the globe for better or worse.

 

By the early 20th Century Cornish tin production was on the wane, but the relicsof the industry are to be seen everywhere in the form of the ruggedly romantic, granite-built engine houses (picture 1), which are to Cornwall as castles are to Wales. They are an integral part of the landscape and unambiguously state to the visitor “you are now in Cornwall” In addition to its geological and mining heritage there are many other delights. The great wealth which the mining produced also financed plant hunting expeditions to the Himalayas and Far East. As a consequence many of the former mining estates have some of the finest collections of rhododendron, azalea, magnolia and camellia in the country. A relatively recent newcomer to this cornucopia of exotics is to be found in Trewidden Garden near Penzance, founded by the Bolitho family in the 1840s from tin mining revenues. It is a deciduous conifer with delicate fern-like foliage which glories in the name Metasequoia glyptostroboides, or Dawn Redwood.  It was thought to be extinct and was only known to science from fossils (picture 2), ranging in age from Cretaceous (circa 100 million years ago) to Miocene (circa 10 million years ago). During that long period it had not changed significantly – an example of evolutionary stasis, or “stand-still”.   However, in 1941 a small group of them was found in China and seed was brought back to England. The magnificent specimen in Trewidden is believed to be the first to have been raised in this country – a living fossil retrieved from near extinction.

Blessings come in many guises for holiday makers in Cornwall. Travel far enough west down the peninsula and your mobile will probably declare “network cover unavailable”. Deep Joy! The phone can now be packed away for two weeks with a clear conscience and the world enjoyed in its full 360 degree glory, rather than glimpsed through a flat 3in x 2in screen.

I have referred before to the Celtic saints who seem to spiritually inhabit and inspire this land and who brought Christianity to these shores in the 5th Century. One such was St Buryan (or St Buriana, perhaps translatable as “the Irish Lady”) to whom the church in the village in which we were staying is dedicated. The following prayer-poem is from the welcome leaflet in the church. It seems very relevant to the present difficult times.

 

I sought my God,

My God I could not see.

I sought my soul,

My soul eluded me.

Baronet's engine house at Pennance Consols

And I found all Three.

 

                                                                                                     John Chatten

 

 

 

 

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