|Brass Point nr. Beachy Head
'The Chalk' hills surround London and the Thames Valley, with rolling downland, capped with pure white stone. The bleached clean bones of old England, Tolkien's Barrow Downs. Wonderful stuff. There aren’t many places in the world where pure chalk rises to the surface and England is blessed with the largest proportion of them. If you are walking, it is usually dry and springy underfoot and on a bike the slopes are merciful.
A short reprise. The white chalk of the downland has its origins at the bottom of an ancient sea at around the latitude of what is now North Africa. It was a long way from land and as deep as the scarps hills are now high. Sharks swam in it, crabs scuttled along the bed and coiled carnivorous cephalopods called ammonites floated about.
Throughout and at the bottom of the food chain, then as now, were clouds of microscopic Down in the basement of the food chain were plankton called coccolithophores who, for reasons that are not clear but probably hinge around a victim mentality, enclosed themselves in a shell of calcium carbonate. When they died their skeletal remains fossilised and sank like snow to to end up as a white ooze on the sea bed which, under its own weight and the water above it, was compressed into what is now the chalk. Other rocks started life in a similar way and chalk is actually a variant of limestone. What makes it different and unique is its purity.
As soon as movements in the Earth's crust hoisted the chalk out of the ocean to become land, it started to be ground down by river, rainwater, wind and ice. This grinding is why they are usually gently rounded rather than rocky and jagged.
|Coccoliths under a microscope
Geologists like to complicate things, so they identified three types or layers of chalk, unimaginatively named Upper, Middle and Lower corresponding very imprecisely to when they were formed. Now, there are further classifications, but I won't go there! The 'lower' and oldest layer is greyer and can be found in many places. The 'upper' is the lovely white stuff which gives us the unique hill landscape that is 'The Chalk' of the uplands of the Downs and Chilterns and flirtatiously displayed at Beachy Head and Dover.
|Brass Point, nr. Beachy Head
The landscape is far from unchanging. It is sometimes said that, thousands of years ago, the Downs were part of the primaeval forest, but it now seems more likely that any coverage was patchy and often just scrub. Even that has mostly disappeared now thanks to human clearance dating back to the stone age and the depredations of sheep and perhaps rabbits. I wrote about the original deforestation of Southern England in the post 'Enter The Flintstones'. In short, it probably came earlier than you thought.
Now, a lot has been converted to arable use even though the soil isn't very rewarding. (See later). The Chilterns is actually fairly wooded but that is because there are large areas of thicker clay soils there. Annoyingly a good deal also ended up providing golf and horsey leisure opportunities for the local bourgeoisie. Harrumph. Everywhere trees were valued for their timber for building and as fuel but in some areas such as the beechwoods they had a wider 'industrial' purpose.
What I want to do here is to describe some of the unique features of chalk country, namely the dry valleys, chalk streams, sinkholes, soils, flints and finally the strange figures cut into some of the hillsides.
Valleys are usually occupied by the rivers that cut them. An odd feature of chalk hills is dry valleys i.e. with no visible stream or river. Here is a classic example from the Chilterns.
|Incombe Hole, near Ivinghoe
There are two ideas about how dry valleys form.
The traditional view is that, in the ice ages, the ground would have been frozen solid so the water couldn't sink through it. The streams that flowed over it, carved out a valley in the normal way. When the glaciers disappeared and the ice melted, those streams sank through the earth and disappeared, leaving the valley in place.
There are now a variety of other views. One more recent notion explains this as resulting from continuing fluctuations in the level of the water table. The water table is the level below which the ground is saturated or, to put it another way, if you were to dig a deep hole, the depth at which it would start to flood. It rises when it is cold and wet and falls when it is warm and dry. That can happen on a seasonal basis or as a result of longer-term climatic changes. When the water table sinks, the upper reaches of the stream, or in some cases all of it, can disappear, re-emerging as a spring lower down the valley.
This simple diagram from a National Trust website, which you can expand, might help to visualise all this.
These are not uncommon and are sometimes called 'winterbournes'. There is one, conveniently called the Winterbourne, flowing into the Lambourn at Bagnor, just outside Newbury. The new idea is that this process alone is enough to explain the dry valleys.
Another great example is the Manger, next to the White Horse at Uffington and on my 'Barrow Downs' bike ride. Legend has it that this is where the Horse goes to feed! The stream that presumably created the valley now seems to emerge at its base north of the B4507. You can see this on the OS Map. Note also the fluted sides of the dry valley. This is caused by the ice penetrating the chalk and freezing and fracturing it until it comes adrift and slumps down the hillside.
|The Manger, Uffington
Much of the soil layer on the chalk hills is thin, but in some places and in particular in the valleys and hollows, clay mud can accumulate. This isn't porous and as well as supporting a stream, it can result in flooded dips in the ground. In my experience, this is a common nuisance in patches of clay on higher ground in the Eastern Chilterns in particular.
Chalk streams are rare and precious habitats and England has more of them than anywhere else on the planet. You will often find them clear and full of life. The few remaining watercress farms are a testament to that. In my ‘Giro de Lilly Bottom’ cycle routes you encounter the Lea, Mimram, and Beane. To the west, the Chess south of Chesham and the Hamble Brook near Henley are particularly lovely. Lilley Bottom itself is the dry valley of the headwaters of the Mimram.
|River Chess nr. Latimer, Chesham
I am not going to pose as any kind of expert on the ecology, so if you want more try these links:
Wildlife Trust : Chalk River Habitats Chalk River Ecology
And for stuff on the streams specifically Chalk Streams
Chilterns AONB : Chalk Streams Chalk Streams - The Video
You might notice the black flint stones (!) scattered everywhere. Flint is a type of quartz formed in sedimentary rocks i.e. those formed underwater. No one is quite sure how they are formed. A popular theory is that minerals (mainly silicon) filled gaps in the chalk left by dead sea sponges and burrowing crustaceans or molluscs and that this has solidified, compressed and crystallised over time.
That turned out to be a godsend for our unshaven Palaeolithic forbears, who found that the sharp edges of the flint made a good tool for cutting up animals, trees, or irritating neighbours. Very much later they were put to use for lighting fires and in ‘flintlock’ guns used as an updated means of neighbour disposal. There are flint mines and quarries in the Chilterns, the most scenic for my money being Pitstone Hill, just east of Tring.
|Tring golf course circa 5000 BC.
For the most part, the chalk hills are not fertile and their porosity leaves them prone to drought. The soils are alkaline and thin, not least because the counterpoint to the purity of the chalk is the relative absence of the clay minerals that build thicker soils.
I gather that yews are native to it, hawthorn and hornbeams seem to like it. More seem to tolerate it; oaks, yews, maples and conifers grow in sheltered spots or where the soil is more obliging.
Arable land is found closer to the scarps in the Downs than the Chilterns. Wheat seems to predominate although the Barley looks happier. Maybe there isn't enough demand for it. Drink more beer! There is more variety on the dip slopes including the garish yellow rapeseed and more rarely lovely blue linseed. Beans and peas are sometimes grown in rotation with cereals to preserve the health of the soil. I am no expert on plant life so if you think I have got it wrong, please let me know.
A more recent use for chalk is as fertiliser. The valley soils can be acidic and chalk, being alkaline, can balance this. In some places it was dried in kilns to create a dust and in others just spread directly on the fields. It is also still used for aggregates, which is rather sad in my view. Couldn’t they use the ugly grey stuff instead? And of course you can still find it in some toothpastes.
Travelling around southern England, you can't miss seeing the odd figures carved into the white hillsides. Locals often ascribe them to the remote past although in many cases their origin is more recent and can safely be ascribed to self promotion or outbreaks of boredom and booze. Notwithstanding they are loved and of course attract the usual bevvy of self-appointed druids, witches, deities, spirit guides, necromancers, bards and romantics.
My favourite is the impressively endowed Cerne Abbas Giant, shown below which, thanks to some recent scientific magic with lasers and snails, we now know is medieval was cut in medieval times, maybe 1000 years ago give or take a few centuries.
Another genuinely ancient effort is the Horse at Uffington near Wantage. Even though the outline design looks sleekly modern, it is reckoned to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old judging by the dating of associated debris.
|Uffington White Horse
Quite a few are not that old but still date back a few hundred years.
The Long Man of Wilmington, near Eastbourne, has been dated to the 1700s but what you see now owes something to the addition of lime mortar. It was carefully cut to make the figure look in proportion when seen from below. In the Chilterns, the crosses at Whiteleaf and Bledlow also go back quite a bit. Again, booze and boredom and in some cases a two-fingered salute were probably the motivation.
|The Long Man of Wilmington
Legend has it that the Westbury White Horse, under Bratton Camp Iron Age hillfort in Wiltshire, was originally cut to commemorate King Alfred's victory at the Battle of Eoandun here in 878. In fact, it dates to the 1600s.
Horses feature. There is another outside of Weymouth that dates back to 1808 and is supposedly being ridden by King George and many more in the chalk hills outside the South East.
This is a landscape littered with prehistoric relics; sarsens, hillforts, barrows etc. And there is an excuse for some of the horses. The bronze age Britons were keen on them and had horse Gods such as Epona. Designs like these appear on some of their coins. So they didn't just scrape away the turf but dug into the chalk. Respect. Quality endures! But while many are indeed hundreds of years old, many are quite recent.
The Bulford Kiwi near Amesbury was recent, as you might expect, carved by New Zealand troops after WW1. Yet another White Horse (have these people no imagination!), that you see when disappearing into the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone, was the realisation of a bureaucrat's promotional dream in 2003. There is a giant lion on the hillside beneath Whipsnade Zoo in the Chilterns, apparently carved there in 1933 at the behest of.......Whipsnade Zoo.
Is it fakery? I actually don't mind the modern versions. Why should the ancients have all the fun and why should the tradition of cutting the figures not be carried on, hopefully to puzzle people when we are seen as the ancients!