To Woldly Go

The White Cliffs of Yorkshire

The problem with being a geologist is that you never really switch off. Wherever you go, there are always rocks; the underlying structure and origins of a region always piques your interest. You might not be at work, but you'll end up geologizing anyway.

A day out to Bridlington was ostensibly my baby daughter's first trip to the seaside: a promenade, a toe-curling dip in the North Sea, perhaps, and some fish and chips. At the north end of the bay, though, the East Yorkshire bedrock disappears for good beneath the glacial embrace of Holderness. You can't not go and see a buried cliff, and there are fossils to be hunted for in the chalk pebbles, and exotics to be unearthed from the tills.

If I was a palaeontologist I'd be able to tell you what type of sponge this was.

When you've done that, and found Cretaceous Porifera in the spring sunshine, and pretended that building up a "treasure collection" for E wasn't mostly about searching for Scandinavian erratics and transported toenails, you can yomp up Sewerby Steps and turn into the wind, admiring a paraglider's parabolas as you breeze back along the clifftop path.

Then you can take the scenic route home, across the Wolds, and you might enjoy the quiet landscape purely for its looks, and you might hold your breath for a moment when a pale shape sweeps across the car, and turns to fly briefly in parallel with you, and becomes a barn owl.

No barn owls were harmed in the making of this blogpost.

But if you pass through Rudston, as you will, you must visit the churchyard, for it contains a standing stone taller than any other in the UK, and that monolith is mysterious, not just archaeologically, but geologically. It isn't chalk, like the local bedrock. It is coarser-grained, and sandy, like the rocks further north. It doesn't belong here. Was it brought to Rudston by the people who erected it, or did glaciers do the shifting and people just the lifting?

(A literature search reveals that my friend Ben's parents pondered this very question 25 years ago, arguing that there was no clear need to invoke human actions in anything but the monolith's local transport.)


Is it what it claims to be? The plaque at its base says it is 'A Slab of Moor Grit Conglomerate As Found…In The Cleveland Hills Inland of Whitby'. However, a quick inspection with a hand lens and a Phonescope - for you always carry these with you - shows the rock not to be a conglomerate, but a very clean, grey, quartz arenite. Monolithic, in a different sense.

The monolith magnified.

Your cursory inspection reveals a little, but only a little, of the monolith's geology. Its layers are broadly tabular, but slightly scoured and trough-shaped, each built up of smaller layers inclined in the same orientations. The monolith is pock-marked where mud or calcium carbonate has weathered out. Lichen grow on some of the layers, but not on others. It looks like a fluvial sandstone - perhaps it does belong to the Moor Grit Member (much of which is not conglomerate, but grey quartz sandstone, you later discover) - but can its provenance be more precisely determined?

Tabular to trough-cross-bedding in the sandstones of the Rudston Monolith.

More ichnologically, and therefore more personally, does the monolith really have dinosaur footprints preserved on one face, as its Wikipedia entry boldly states? They hardly look convincing at first glance, but you're no expert in the subtleties of footprint preservation, particularly in the Moor Grit, so it's possible. You just need to assemble a crack team of experts to really get to the bottom of it: to put the lithic back into the Neolithic.

And did those feet, in ancient times...?

In the meantime, you'll just have to get back into the car and continue winding your way home, making sure in the dusk that you pay more attention to the road map, and less to the rocks. You've got to have something to come back to.