Country diary: this ancient limestone became a hallmark of human prestige

Jackdaw Crag, Boston Spa, Yorkshire: As you shake your fist at the Houses of Parliament, this is what you are looking at

The boom of a shotgun somewhere sends up a cloud of birds from the woodland clinging to Jackdaw Crag, the conspicuous outcrop that hangs above the River Wharfe as it runs through Boston Spa. Buzzards, crows, red kites, greylag geese and – naturally enough – jackdaws scatter into the sky like the exodus before a storm, producing a great ruckus of bird noise.

I have always thought of this area as quite distinct from the industrialised parts of Yorkshire, such as the market town of Otley, where I grew up. Today I see this difference as affected by, and reflected in, the underlying geology.

As you follow the course of the Wharfe downstream from Otley, the landscape lightens. No longer hemmed in by the glacial flanks of Wharfedale, the land starts to ease into the true blue flatlands of the Vale of York, and the buildings brighten. There is no coal-stained Millstone Grit here; the grand Georgian houses have a radiant, almost pearlescent quality to them, shining in the sun like the whitened teeth of a stockbroker.

The cause of this is what lies underfoot: the Cadeby Formation, previously known as the Lower Magnesian Limestone. It was created when the world was still dominated by the supercontinent of Pangaea, on the margin of the Zechstein Sea, a teeming tropical ocean that would have stretched from what is now here to what is now Poland. The rich aquatic life of this fluctuating shoreline died, lithified, and about 260m years later became a building material highly valued by Homo sapiens for its strength, regularity and attractiveness. As you crane up at the bright Gothic glories of York Minster, or shake your fist at the Houses of Parliament, this is what you are looking at, quarried from various points along a long ribbon of dolomitic limestone that runs from Nottinghamshire to County Durham. Somehow this solidified ancient life has become a hallmark of human prestige.

I put my hand on the rock and imagine I’m standing on the sun-baked shore of an ocean that is somehow here but not here. The words of William Faulkner come to mind: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Newton Kyme Hall, between Tadcaster and Boston Spa.
‘The grand Georgian houses have a radiant, almost pearlescent quality to them, shining in the sun like the whitened teeth of a stockbroker.’ Newton Kyme Hall, between Tadcaster and Boston Spa. Photograph: Carey Davies

Contributor

Carey Davies

The GuardianTramp

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