Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Wealden Quarries

At the end of July 2008 I had the opportunity to visit two Wealden quarries that were new to me. I was aware of them, however, and was familiar with their history over the years. They were both within a few miles of each other and both were only a few miles from Misty Bluff and indeed were both working clay quarries.

Peacefield (name changed) was, by reputation, a quarry that, although could hardly be thought of as prolific, turned up some excellent vertebrate remains and I had earlier seen an exceptionally preserved dorsal vertebra from an Iguanodon that really whetted the appetite.

The drive to Peacefield was pleasant and as I pulled up to park on site, I felt very comfortable straight away. It felt “right”. I was also pleased to see a few people there that I knew from the Bluff and after the usual greetings and predictions about what may be found, we made our way into the quarry.

I was immediately struck by how deep the quarry was. The Bluff is fairly deep and covers a much wider area but Peacefield was much narrower and not that long but it was certainly deeper and it had the look of one of an American open cast coal mine.

I stayed with the upper levels to begin with since these correlated with the dinosaur beds at the Bluff. These were quite hard to interpret since the colours of the clays and sandstones were hard to differentiate, unlike the Bluff, where the stratum is much easier to split. Because of this I prospected like a skier would traverse, hoping to come across the correct strata with fossils perhaps weathering out.

Unfortunately this was not to be the case and the plant growth at this level also added to the difficulty. There was quite a bit of wood weathering out and I spent time examining these areas but to no avail. This strata needs scraping again but this does appear unlikely at the moment.

I decided to change tact and move lower into the quarry, still hoping to find the odd reptile bone but also looking for fish remains. I descended deeper and deeper but still I could find no fossil remains. At this point it became apparent that very little was being found and I knew then that my chances of finding anything were remote. Indeed the only fossils of consequence were a nice fossil plant and a small partial lepidotid fish jaw, with teeth in situ.

It was time to move on although we had spent only a couple of hours in the quarry. Peacefield was obviously not giving too much away today but it is a quarry I would like to go back to and try again.

Only a couple of miles away, in the same Wealden formation, is Cuckoo’s Hole quarry. This is another site with a big reputation for yielding high quality vertebrate remains and I was looking forward to the experience. After parking the cars we moved through the brickworks on route to the quarry – it was a very similar set up to the Bluff.

Instantly I felt more comfortable here than I did at Peacefield. Although nothing like Peacefield or the Bluff in depth or shape, I could make out the different layers of clay and indeed it felt much more familiar. What was different, however, were the layers of dark red sandstone with which this quarry is synonymous. It appeared to me to be very strange to have such a vivid colour in a Wealden quarry.

Again I kept to the upper layers of the formation, firstly walking above the red sandstone and then onto the Wealden clays themselves. Again I was struggling to find anything when I noticed a small group of fellow prospectors working in one particular level. Unbeknown to me at that point was this was a dinosaur bone bearing horizon similar to the one at the Bluff. I walked slowly past, oblivious to what I was walking on!

From here I stepped down a couple of beds, hoping to find some fish remains and this time I was a little more successful. Parallel to the bone bearing horizon is an access road and below this road the strata dips at an angle of about 5°. I started to prospect along a lighter clay/shale band for I knew that at the Bluff, before it disappeared, this bed had turned up numerous fish remains.

Only a few metres along this bed I found a couple of lepidotid scales and then, just a little further on came upon a piece of a shark spine, probably Hybodus Sp. A little more careful excavation enabled me to recover more of the spine and it looked that the pieces may fit together. Further along this horizon I found more scales, a few small fish vertebrae and a small sandstone block that was full of fish remains. All in all I felt much happier.

As I approached the end of this bed I came across a few others who had found a nice little insect bed but this was only producing flies. This bed was on yet another access road and I noticed that the bed I was prospecting continued on the other side. Here I recovered a couple more scales but little else. At this point our time on site was running out and we slowly gathered together to see what had been found.

There were a couple of bones recovered from the dinosaur bearing bed of which one was a small caudal vertebra. One of the guys thought it may be from a sauropod but it was far too small for my liking. On the other hand I now knew for sure that it wasn’t crocodilian either, so the bone remains a mystery for the moment. The other bone was too scrappy to be diagnostic.

The find of the day, however, was a dinosaur bone for sure. Encased in a block of sandstone and found at the other end of the quarry more or less opposite from where I was. The guy who found it was someone I’d met on numerous occasions and what he didn’t know about these Wealden quarries wasn’t worth mentioning.

Unfortunately the bone had been broken off at some point in the past and only the proximal end remained but straight away we all thought that it may be a partial ischium – a really nice piece. Later I showed a photograph to Mark from the NHM and he agreed with the initial prognosis. I’ll let you know when identification is confirmed.

We made our way out of the quarry, thus bringing another day to an end. Out of the two quarries I much preferred Cuckoo’s Hole although I would return to Peacefield given the opportunity. After a couple of trips now on which two locations are visited on the same day, I would much prefer only the one venue to be visited since you never really get the time you need to really get the feel for a place.

A good day though and I look forward to returning to one of these quarries next year.


Sadly, on the day of this visit, we were to find that most of the brick quarries in the area were falling victims to the economic recession that has hit the building trade. Peacefield is reducing output to about 50% although the Cuckoo’s Hole is still working as normal.

Most disturbing of all was the future of Misty Bluff. With over forty of its staff laid off the entire site has been mothballed with immediate effect, with only a skeleton crew to keep things ticking over – at least for the short term. Fortunately, the brick works has had muti-million pound investment over the last few years and thus, in my opinion, is unlikely to suffer permanent closure. I feel that this is the reason the site has been closed relatively quickly – to protect the investment with a view to (hopefully) reopening during 2010, maybe earlier if the recession ends quicker than anticipated.

All of these sites are to be closed for an extended 12 week break over the Christmas holiday period, which seems sensible since this is the slowest period in the building industry. However, this does not help the people employed in the brick business and my thoughts go out to them and their families in what must a difficult time for them.

What do these problems mean for us palaeontologists and geologists then? As far as the Bluff is concerned, this year’s final field trip goes ahead and, at time of writing, next years field trips are safe. However, with no new scrapings of clay taking place for the foreseeable future, we are reliant on the forces of nature to reveal new fossils for us and that, combined with rapid plant growth in the quarry, are going to make the next couple of years extremely hard, and the Bluff is unforgiving at the best of times.

The Bluff has a hundred years of clay remaining and I am hopeful of a bright future for it. The sooner the economic climate takes an upturn the better, the better for us and, more importantly, better for all those employed in this very important industry.

Footnote to the Footnote

Since I wrote this piece there have been a couple of developments. It is with regret that I have to report that the Cuckoo’s Hole brick works and quarry have been closed indefinitely because of the recession. At present, there is little information that can be gleaned about the future of the site and there are more rumours flying around than hard facts.

The quarry is a designated SSSI and as such does receive a modicum of protection for now, but as for the long term future, nobody knows. I’ll let you know just as soon as I know anything. Peacefield, maybe more surprisingly, is still working but on a vastly reduced scale and its future too is uncertain.

Its all as was with the Bluff but without the prospects of any new scrapings just yet, good finds are increasingly rare. This all ties in with the works at Quarry 4 which, although Quarry 5 has been opened now, also continues to produce at half capacity.

I have been made aware that the geological and palaeontological world is now considerably poorer in the UK since so many working quarries have permanently closed during the last two years. One can only hope at time of writing (May 2010) that, now that the general election is out of the way, we can look forward to a more vigorous economic recovery and that all of these quarries can be reopened and back to working at full capacity as soon as possible.