Thursday, February 9, 2017

Book Review: Built on an Ancient Sea

I don't often review books on this blog but this one is rather special, because it tells the 300 million year-old story underlying the landscape and natural history that I often write about.

Built on an Ancient Sea: The Magnesian Limestone Landscapes of North East England by John Durkin, Niall Hammond, Elizabeth Pickett and Paul Williams. Published by Groundwork NE & Cumbria. ISBN 978-0-9935039-0-0. £10.

The landscapes of East Durham’s Magnesian limestone hold a special place in the affections of anyone with a passion for the natural history of our region. Sites of Special Scientific Interest, National Nature Reserves and several of Durham Wildlife Trust’s finest nature reserves owe their existence to this distinctive underlying sedimentary rock. The summer display of wild flowers in its species-rich grassland can stop a walker in their tracks, whilst its cliffs of warm, honey-coloured rock provide some of our most spectacular coastal scenery.

Built on an Ancient Sea is a book that will help readers look on this much-loved landscape through fresh eyes. In eight chapters it takes us on a 300 million year journey from the warm, equatorial seas where our limestone was laid down, through the great Ice Ages that sculpted our landscape, then on past the first human colonisation to the present day, where we have transformed the natural landscape for our own purposes.

All too often the geological processes that create landscapes are overlooked by naturalists, perhaps because so much lies out of sight, perhaps because of the unimaginable timescales involved. One of the great achievements of the authors is that they vividly portray just how much the scenic beauty, history and natural history of our region owe to what lies deep beneath our feet.

Ever since the glaciers retreated and we humans first settled here, the underlying rock strata have played a major role in where we settled and how we lived. Geology ultimately determined the natural resources that were locally available and the location of ports that became lifelines for trade once the land bridge with the continent sank below the North Sea. Limestone supplied the raw material for buildings, agricultural lime for soil improvement and, from within adjacent strata, coal and minerals that have dominated our recent industrial history.

The authors have done a wonderful job in drawing together all the threads of geology, human occupation and natural history in this lavishly illustrated book. In a forward-looking, thought provoking final chapter they highlight the way in which the Magnesian limestone landscape is still evolving under human influence.

Built on an Ancient Sea is part of the Limestone Landscapes Project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has done so much to raise awareness of the special importance of the Magnesian Limestone landscape in the North East. Read the book then visit the twenty two key locations it recommends; even if they are already familiar, you will see them in a new light.


  1. It looks like an interesting book, Phil and I will put it on my Want to Read list. It isn't often that different disciplines are combined, it is? I am pleased that there is funding for the project.

    1. i have no vested interest in the book but I think it's a real bargain. I've lived here for 40 years and learned a lot about my own 'back yard' from reading it. I really like the way it integrates geology, history and natural history,


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