Flashback to February 1999: Ripples in the rock reveal Earth’s past

Only a mile or two from Wellington, we can see the beginnings of life.

Shore thing – these rock ripples are evidence of an ancient seashore near Wellington.
Shore thing – these rock ripples are evidence of an ancient seashore near Wellington.

We are going back to the days when Wellington was, or at least would have been had it existed, a seaside town.

Or, as Shropshire Geological Society puts it on its website: "Fancy a trip to the beach? No need to leave the county – just go to The Ercall.

"Within the Cambrian sediments you can find rock-hard ripples in the pale grey sandstone, just the same as those you see on the beach today after the tide has gone out, except here the tide went out 544 million years ago.

"These features have made The Wrekin and The Ercall particularly special and are now protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest."

Today The Ercall is an internationally important nature reserve which was officially unveiled on February 10, 1999.

In the shadow of The Wrekin, this former quarrying area had been bought by Shropshire Wildlife Trust at a cost of £86,000, of which £63,000 came from a Heritage Lottery Grant.

Geologist Peter Toghill, far right, points out the geology of the Ercall site in February 1999.

Apart from its ecological and intrinsic landscape value, The Ercall is the site of that shoreline of a vast prehistoric ocean which you can still observe today, and of huge geological interest, bearing evidence of the first life on Earth.

It was probably the biggest land purchase by the trust in many years, and the reason for the investment was partly because it is a site where the junction between Pre-Cambrian rocks and Cambrian rocks was first demonstrated, and most easily demonstrated. This boundary is known as the Ercall uncomformity.

According to the county's geological society, The Ercall is "a hidden gem of Earth history."

It says: "Standing at the bottom of the quarries you can see an obvious change in the rock, from a bright pink mass to pale grey layers.

"This change is internationally famous among geologists as it marks the change between the Pre-Cambrian, where there was very little life, and the Cambrian, where life suddenly exploded in lots of different varieties."

When worlds collide – this picture by Susan Beale shows The Ercall unconformity.

Or, as one of the wildlife trust's sign boards puts it, The Ercall's dense woodlands "hide evidence of one of the most important events in the history of the Earth. The rocks show us the precise boundary when life exploded in complexity. It evolved from simple, soft-bodied animals to creatures with hard shells."

There was another motivation for the trust's purchase, simply that it is a beautiful area much loved by Salopians, a place of leisure and relaxation, and people walking through the woods there are following in the footsteps of the creatures from the dawn of life (or would be if they had had feet).

The Ercall Nature Reserve was unveiled at a special launch attended by 70 business and community leaders.

Guests were given a short tour of The Ercall, and then at a lunch at the nearby Buckatree Hall Hotel a £40,000 appeal was launched to raise the further cash needed to open up the 131-acre nature reserve fully to the public.

David Tudor, director of the Shropshire Wildlife Development Trust, said at the time: “We think it’s an enormous benefit to the people of Telford and Shropshire generally to have The Ercall, which is such an important geological site, with open access and as a recreational area, and it is important to preserve it as such for future generations.”

In the days when the area was by the sea, what is today Britain was 60 degrees south of the equator as part of a land mass which has migrated northwards over untold millennia since.

Marks and Spencer's Telford branch manager Adrian Lowe, left, presented a cheque for £3,000 to Shropshire Wildlife Trust at a lunch at the Buckatree Hall Hotel held to launch the new nature reserve with, from left, Lady Cossons (trust president), Jean Jackson (chairwoman of Shropshire Wildlife Development Trust) and David Tudor (director of Shropshire Wildlife Development Trust).

In 2005 Liz Etheridge, head of geology at the trust, composed a poem telling the story of the area, which was engraved on a stone and attached to a rock at the reserve.

It read: "Upon my shore you stand, Marking time, A mark in time I am, And older yet than that.

"Over hill, And under sea I've seen, The birthing of this land.

"By pick and blast made new, Ripped open, It ripples on through me, A sear reclaimed by green, Uncovered, My secrets held in folds, Of quiet eternity."

Naturally (pun intended) for Shropshire Wildlife Trust it is not just old rocks that make The Ercall interesting.

It says: "In spring the woods are awash with bluebells and singing with birds just returned from Africa, and in summer plentiful bird’s-foot trefoil makes this a favoured stronghold of one of Telford’s speciality butterflies, the dingy skipper.

"A staggering 821 species of invertebrates – butterflies, beetles, spiders, bees, bugs, ants, and so on – were found here in a single survey."

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