The geology of ‘Mordor’: presenting a different perspective on distinctive landscapes

One of the things I like about the current National Curriculum and GCSE and A level specifications is that they don’t shy away from the big picture aspects like geological timescales and geological patterns. We didn’t look at geology maps of the U.K. or talk about conditions for rock formation (other than a passing reference to igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic). We certainly didn’t talk about how geology leads to distinctive landscapes and look at the different landscapes of the U.K. However, I’ve struggled over the last couple of years to see how I can get my students to actually connect with the relevance of geology and it’s distinctive landscapes – the karst scenery of the Peak District or the tors of Exmoor aren’t really enthralling students in Coventry!

But on Saturday I think I had a bit of a break through. The distinctive landscapes we teach are beautiful, awe inspiring landscapes but there is a different type of distinctive landscape on our doorstep. One which would enable us to look at geological timescales to unpick how the current and future geography of our area had been impacted. A distinctive landscape that could make geology a bit more real and concrete for my students. And it’s all thanks to the Geologists Association.

On Saturday I had the pleasure of joining part of the Geologists Association Annual Conference and it was all about the geology of ‘Mordor’ aka the Black Country. Talks from Graham Warton (Dudley Museum), Oliver Wakefield (British Geological Survey), Colin Knipe (Johnson Poole and Bloomer), Lil Stevens (Natural History Museum) and Elizabeth Withington (Stantec) unpicked how the distinctive landscape of the Black Country came to be and continues to evolve over time. The following information is an amalgamation of different aspects of their talks to illustrate how the Black Country can be used as a different way to discuss distinctive landscapes of the U.K. My next challenge is to develop this as a series of lessons for KS3 so they can see for themselves how these big picture aspects of geology, continental drift and geological timescales are directly related to their everyday experiences (the Peak District, Exmoor and the South Downs can be left as examples for GCSE!).

The geology of ‘Mordor’; geological legacies in the Black Country

The Black Country is regarded by many as the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution with its enormous wealth of coal, ironstone, limestone, fireclay, soft sandstones and brick clays. The exploitation of this vast mineral wealth led to the Black Country becoming the ‘workshop of the world’ and Birmingham being named the ‘city of 1000 trades’. By 1868 the area was described as a landscape that was ‘Black by day and red by night’ from the tremendous amount of industry in the region.

But where did this mineral wealth come from? Tracing the geological history of the region is fascinating and would enable students to really see the relevance of continental shift to their lives as each shift over time has led to new rock formation millions of years ago. Despite some of these materials being deposited hundreds of millions of years ago there location and patterns have shaped the urban spaces and human geography of the Black Country. Of particular significance is the Carboniferous period during which the warm equatorial location and climate of what is now the U.K., together with ecstatic sea changes created ideal conditions for tropical forests and the subsequent formation of coal. A delta system of overbank areas and swamp forest areas with huge biomass including lycopsids (rapid growing, short lived trees) and sphenopsids (including calamite group of trees) and ferns (including tree ferns) covered the area eventually leasing to the formation of peats which would eventually be compressed into the thickest coal seams in Britain.

Coal mining of these thick seams began as gin pits and these progressed over time to deeper and larger mines with machinery and then to a few major collieries that were some of the deepest in the world including the Heath pits at West Bromwich which were 302m deep in the 1800s (and led to earth tremors being felt as a result of the mining). By 1861, there were over 500 active collieries and 2000 mines of varying sizes. By 1901, number down but larger. By 1942, only a handful remained with the last mines closed in 1960s as the impact of opening the railways meant Swedish iron was now cheaper to import than making our own. The geology of the area has created a distinctive landscape of industrial activity which has in turn changed the physical appearance of the area.

After over a hundred and fifty years of mining and industry the surface of the Black Country is now covered in mining and industrial spoil to fill in dips from subsidence resulting from the underground mining – the topography of the land is a continuous reminder of the legacy of its geology. For example, you can see in Tipton where railway line and canal have been built up as embankments to counter the subsidence (evident by the ground level in either side now being much lower).

Another legacy of exploitation of the area’s landscape is the need to clean up the pollution and debris left behind from the multitude of polluting old industries – slag heaps, pit banks, burning seams, waste tips, chemical tips, disposal in rivers, canals and mine shafts and smog have all been left as the legacy of its time as the Industrial Powerhouse. Historically the cleaning up and prevention of further pollution has been due to a series of different pieces of national legislation but latterly this has been linked to to work of the Black Country LEP and their work overseeing regeneration in the area.

The resulting distinctive landscape of the Black Country and its unique natural and cultural heritage has led to a current bid to designate the Black Country as an UNESCO Geopark. Geoparks are large areas with geological sites and landscapes of international geological significance.

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