Category Archives: Geography of Britain

How a volcanic eruption in Iceland affected Britain

The Laki Fissure

The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption has ruined travel plans but does not rank as particularly disastrous, except financially for the air companies.  A volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 – the Laki Fissure eruption – was catastrophic for the Icelanders (25% of the population died in the ensuing famine) and had serious consequences in Britain.

The amount of volcanic ash in the atmosphere over the UK gave rise to the “sand-summer”, as the 1783 summer became known. The amount of sulphur dioxide released by the eruption was colossal – 120 million tons:

approximately equivalent to three times the total annual European industrial output in 2006, and also equivalent to a Mount Pinatubo-1991 eruption every three days – Wikipedia

The resulting smog – the Laki Haze – was deadly, killing as it spread over western Europe.  It reached Great Britain by late June of 1783, and thousands died from sulphur dioxide poisoning, outdoor workers being particularly vulnerable.

The effect on the weather was no less dramatic.  As the haze heated up, a serious of heavy thunderstorms were unleashed, hailstones causing livestock losses.  Gilbert White described that summer in The Natural History of Selborne: Continue reading How a volcanic eruption in Iceland affected Britain

Record rainfall in the Lake District

The Guardian’s Country Diary has a vivid description of the recent torrential rain in the Lake District, which resulted in the catastrophic flooding of the Cockermouth area. Here’s an extract:

Sheets of precipitation ran off the waterlogged ground and into the becks and rivers, which stampeded downhill causing landslides and destroying bridges and collapsing embankments.  . . . few Lakeland valleys escaped. Waterfalls cascaded down crags, sweeping scree on to roads so that rocks litter the tarmac, some big enough to have smashed through drystone walls and leave gouges in the fellsides in their wake.

About 25 cm of rain fell in 24 hours, making it the wettest day ever recorded in Cumbria. This quantity is the equivalent of the rainfall usually experienced in the Southeast of England over 5-6 months. Newcastle University researchers have found that rainstorms in the UK have doubled in intensity over the last 40 years, due in part to increased water evaporation from warmer seas.

A geological history of Britain

Gad Cliff to St Alban's Head

This week’s In Our Time, the ever erudite BBC Radio 4 series chaired by Melvyn Bragg, looks at the geological formation of Britain. The panel of experts discuss how Britain came to be where it is now, charting its separation of North America and Europe to the carving out of the English Channel, and also what is still not understand about the rocks beneath us. Available on demand hopefully forever here.

Around six hundred million years ago, the island that we now call Britain was in two parts, far to the south of the Equator. Scotland – and north-western Ireland – were part of a continent (Laurentia) that also included what is now North America. To the south-east, near the Antarctic Circle, meanwhile, you would have found Southern Ireland, England and Wales. They formed a mini-continent (Avalonia) with what is now Newfoundland. Over the course of hundreds of millions of years, as they inched their way north, the two parts came together, first as part of a vast unitary continent (Pangaea), later as a promontory on the edge of Europe, and eventually, as sea levels rose, as an island.

In the photo the so-called Jurassic Coast along the coast of southern England from Wikipedia by Jim Chapmion.

How did the Needles get their name?

The western tip of the Isle of Wight peters out in a series of three jagged rocks known as the Needles.  You might think they owe their name to their sharp edges but it turns out there used to be a fourth, needle-shaped, rock called Lot’s wife, as shown in Isaac Taylor’s map of Hampshire published in 1759.  Continue reading How did the Needles get their name?

Britain’s smallest island

Britain’s smallest island lies off the south west coast at the western tip of the Scilly Isles.  Bishop Rock is also classed in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest built-on island in the world.  In fact, the only building is a lighthouse, as there isn’t room for anything else. To the west of Bishop Rock, there’s no more land till the American coast, so it bears the full brunt of Atlantic gales.  The lighthouse was built with great difficulty – the first one was washed away in 1850 before it could be used.  An enormous wave once snatched away the 550lb fog bell.  The island has not been inhabited since 1992 when the lighthouse became fully automated and the last keepers left.
The lighthouse features in the BBC’s Seven Man Made Wonders

The geographical centre of Great Britain

Peat bog near the exact centre of Great Britain

According to the Ordnance Survey, the geographical centre of Great Britain (factoring in its 401 associated islands) lies at unmarked point surrounded by peat bog on Brennand Farm, about four miles north-west of Dunsop Bridge. This BBC page goes in search of it armed with a GPS.

The Northumberland town Haltwhistle also claims to be the centre.

The lowest land point in Britain

Holme Fen, Cambridgeshire

The village of of Holme Fen, specifically Holme Posts as depicted above, is probably the lowest land point in England at nearly 3 metres (9.8 ft) below sea level. Wikipedia

See also

UK’s lowest spot getting lower
“Conservationists have raised concerns that the lowest land spot in the UK is sinking.Holme Fen, a national nature reserve near Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, has sunk by about four metres since draining work began in the 1850s, leaving it about 2.75 m below sea level. ” BBC

Holme Fen is a rare surviving relic of the vast fenlands that once covered the countryside in parts of East Anglia. Listen to BBC documentary about Holme Fen here.

The Corryvreckan whirlpool

Remarkably the third largest whirlpool in the world, the Corryvreckan whirlpool, lies in Scottish waters. It is located in the narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba. The names comes from the Gaelic, Coirebhreacain meaning “cauldron of the speckled seas. Continue reading The Corryvreckan whirlpool

Remembering the Great Storm of 1987

Anyone out of the country that week in October came back to find an altered landscape.  An estimated 15 million trees had been toppled, mainly in southern England, which bore the brunt of the hurricane-force winds.  The north of Britain is used to ferocious winds, but the south hadn’t experienced anything like it for nearly 300 years.  The result was a large population of very tall, old trees that had never been tested by such severe weather conditions. Continue reading Remembering the Great Storm of 1987

Abandoned villages in the UK

This site on Abandoned Communities in Britain is fascinating and poignant. Since the Middle Ages thousands of towns, villages, and other human communities in Great Britain have been abandoned. Often the settlement was abandoned because of economic and social changes, but sometimes also due to the forces of nature. Many tell a tragic story. The web “commemorates all abandoned communities” through text, photos, paintings and poetry.

Loch Coruisk

Loch Coruisk in the Isle of Skye is one of the most spectacular and isolated places in the British Isles.  The head of this freshwater loch is surrounded on three sides by the imposing volcanic Black Cuillin while the southern end runs into a small rivulet, which then discharges into a sea loch, Loch Scavaig. Coruisk is an Anglicisation  of the Scottish Gaelic, Coire Uisg meaning “Cauldron of Waters”. As with much of the Highlands, once it would have been thickly wooded. Deforestation has left it all the bleaker.

Robert Macfarlane visited Loch Coruisk  in his tour of Britain’s remotest parts, The Wild Places. He describes it as the greatest example in Britain of what he calls “sanctuaries”: hidden valleys with all the lure of lost worlds.

Sir Walter Scott visited the loch in 1814 and described it vividly:

“Rarely human eye has known
A scene so stern as that dread lake,
With its dark ledge of barren stone…”

Lord Tennyson was somewhat more descriptive:

“Loch Coruisk, said to be the wildest scene in the Highlands, I failed in seeing. After a fatiguing expedition over the roughest ground on a wet day we arrived at the banks of the loch, and made acquaintance with the extremest tiptoes of the hills, all else being thick wool-white fog

The loch has been painted by many painters including Sidney Richard Percy (1821-1886) who painted the above picture, William Daniell (1769-1837), J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), and Alexander Francis Lydon (1836-1917). Turner almost fell to his death while painting this view of the Black Cuillin from a crag high up the valley.

The foreground figures help establish the scale of this awe inspiring view over the remote Loch Coruisk. The Cuillin Mountains soar above the loch like gigantic waves. Read National Galleries of Scotland

The loch is accessible by boat from Elgol, or, most usually, a 7-8 mile hike from Sligachan.

See also

  • Loch Coruisk – Wikipedia
  • Misty Isle Boat Trips. We are a family-run business running boat trips from Elgol on the Isle of Skye to the famous Loch Coruisk in the heart of the Cuillin Hills.
  • Skye – Loch Coruisk Cruises
  • Review of The Wild Places in the Guardian “In certain predictable ways, his early travels provide him with “the real” that he wants. On the island of Ynys Enlli, off the westernmost tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, he identifies with the contemplative and austere connectedness of the original peregrini – the monks and other devout solitaries who settled there. In Coruisk, the loch-filled valley on the southwest coast of the Isle of Skye, he encounters “a silence that reached backwards to the Ice Age” (similar sorts of time-travel occur in later chapters as well). Making “an ice-bound traverse” of Rannoch Moor, trekking through the Black Wood east of Rannoch, teetering on cliffs that define the north coast of Scotland and contemplating the peatbogs (the “Flows”) nearby, he is at once taken out of himself and connected with the original need for his journeys. They are all places that put human achievement in the perspective of eternity and generate a sense of the primitive that is salutary and bracing.”

Books about the Isle of Skye

Collins Rambler’s Guide – Isle of Skye

Produced in association with the Ramblers, this walking guide covers the beautiful Isle of Skye and combines detailed route descriptions with information on the local history and wildlife.

This famous corner of the Scottish Highlands and Islands is home to a spectacular variety of mountain landscapes and dramatic coastlines. There is also a wealth of fascinating places to explore: caves and sea stacks, headlands and arches, waterfalls and castles.

The introduction gives information about the topography, geology and history of the area, and describes the flora and fauna inhabiting it.

Isle of Skye: 40 Coast and Country Walks (Pocket Mountains)

An excellent little walking guide, especially for those – like me – wanting to explore as many parts of the Isle of Skye as possible in a visit. Arranged roughly by ‘peninsular’, there are walks ranging from 45 minutes to a few hours, even a day. We did at least one from each section and they were all straightforward and, of course, beautiful!