One of my favourite places to visit on my native Wirral is Burton Point on the edge of the Dee Marshes. You can’t actually get to the promontory, with its Iron Age fort: it’s owned by the RSPB, who presumably don’t want us disturbing the local wildlife. But you can get to within a hundred metres, if you approach via the cycle path along the edge of the marshes. The tree-topped sandstone outcrop is wonderfully photogenic in the right light, especially when the bluebells are in flower.
But the main reason I like to visit Burton Point is to climb to the top of the slope next to the old quarries, and take in the view across the marshes towards Wales. If the ground is dry, and I don’t need to rush off anywhere, I might even sit there for half an hour or so to see if anything interesting comes along. Nature-waiting, as I think of it.
Once it’s time to move, I like to walk back down the slope immediately alongside the quarry-face, examining the slanting, late-Triassic sandstone layers. The rock was laid down 200-million years ago, when what was to become England lay beneath desert sands at the centre of the super-continent of Pangea. Two-hundred-million years… In your face, young-Earth Creationists!
How many thousands of years does this small rock face represent? How much farther back in time do I travel with each step down the slope? What strange creatures roamed these rust-red sands two-hundred-thousand millennia ago? How on earth did all these water-smoothed pebbles, peppered throughout the rock, end up in the desert?
I know very little about geology, but I understand its fascination. It’s the history of our planet, written in stone for those clever enough to read it. The clues are there, if you can work out what to look at: fossils, volcanoes, earthquakes, glaciers, deserts, coral reefs, rivers, silt, erratic boulders, moraine, fault lines, geomagnetic fields, and a host of other stuff most of us would never have even considered.
Geology doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. Our modern understanding of how the world formed and evolved is one of science’s—one of our—great triumphs. It’s one of the most fascinating detective mysteries ever solved.