The hungry sea

Things have been quiet over here for a while. I’ve been singing a lot (Olympic torch ceremony, recording) plus other things have been taking up my remaining time and energy.

I feel a burst of energy now as I’m going off on holiday soon, to Suffolk in the east of England. Part of me still can’t believe I’m going to one of the flattest parts of the country, where the nearest metamorphic rocks will be under my feet. I’m getting over that feeling now, on my fourth visit. Suffolk is very different from my ‘ideal’ holiday location but it has a weirdness, a spookiness that I’m growing to like very much. It’s all about the sea, which is quiet and grey, but hungry.

from http://www.flickr.com/photos/bridgetmckenz/3797966322/sizes/l/in/photostream/

West is best?

The British Isles has a tilt to it. Broadly speaking, the rocks in the north and west are rising up and those in the south and east are sinking. This is slow, finger-nail slow, of course but important nonetheless. Part of the cause is post-glacial rebound. There was a big ice-cap over northern Britain that squashed the ground down. It melted only recently (a mere 10,000 years of so) so the ground is still flowing back to where it was. Where the ice was, the ground is moving up, but in the south and east it is sinking (mass must be conserved, so if some areas rise, others must sink).

One consequence is that north and west is where the oldest rocks are found, in places like Assynt. Rocks are old and hard. Coasts are craggy, often spectacular. The water is the Atlantic Ocean, so wave fetches are large, storms spectacular and the sea is a dramatic presence. The sea fights the land, but it loses as the rocks are tough. This is a dramatic land of dreams and for centuries it was the edge of the known world.

In soft old Suffolk, things are different. The rocks are young and unconsolidated. To my hard-rock-snob eyes they are barely rocks, they are just piles of sand and mud. The sea is the  North Sea which is just a wet patch between Norway and the UK. Geologically it is a Mesozoic continental basin (full of oil and gas) which is almost completely full. Trawlers dredge up flint arrow heads from Dogger Bank – to our ancestors this was dry land.

But this lack of distinction between sea and land is what makes Suffolk so unworldly. The rocks are not the bones of past orogenies like in the west. They are parts of the North Sea basin that happen to lie on land. They were created by the sea, and the sea will take them back, if it likes.

The North Sea is not as dramatic as the Atlantic, but it is hungry. Coastal erosion is an ever present feature of the Suffolk coast. The town of Dunwich used to the be the capital of Eastern England, a major town full of churches and people. It has been almost entirely swallowed by the sea. Where rocks are soft and land is soft, the erosion of metres thickness of sediment can add up to kilometres of land becoming sea. From a sedimentary basin perspective, this is mere detail. If your house is built on that land, it is rather important.

For some reason nuclear weapons are associated with unusual landscapes. Like the deserts of New Mexico, or Kazakhstan, the coast of Suffolk is linked to nuclear fission. Just south of Dunwich, Sizewell hosts two nuclear power stations, one decommissioned, one active. Visually they dominate the coast. I’ll forever associate them with the best concert I’ve ever been to. This involved fabulous singing of Renaissance and twentieth century music, combined with fisherman’s huts and the projection of video onto the massive concrete side of a nuclear power station.

A place in Suffolk I’ve yet to visit is Orford Ness. This is where all the eroded land ends up, is a nature reserve, yet is full of unexploded bombs and had a role in Britain’s nuclear program. I’ll be there next week, and at Dunwich, with camera and a hope to provide you with some more geologically-focussed posts.

I’ll leave you with a musical treat, a depiction of a Suffolk storm from the great Benjamin Britten. This is the sort of storm that eat towns.

Image of Suffolk Coast courtesy of bridgetmckenz on Flickr.

Categories: England

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