Rock of ages: how chalk made England – Guardian Long Read by Helen Gordon

Swathes of England’s landscape were shaped by the immense block of chalk that has lain beneath it for 100 million years. For a long time, even geologists paid it little heed – but now its secrets and symbolism are being revealed.

On the British Geological Survey’s map, chalk is represented by a swathe of pale, limey green that begins on the east coast of Yorkshire and curves in a sinuous green sweep down the east coast, breaking off where the Wash nibbles inland. In the south, the chalk centres on Salisbury Plain, radiating out in four great ridges: heading west, the Dorset Downs; heading east, the North Downs, the South Downs and the Chilterns.

Stand on Oxford Street in the middle of the West End of London and beneath you, beneath the concrete and the London clay and the sands and gravels, is an immense block of white chalk lying there in the darkness like some vast subterranean iceberg, in places 200 metres thick. The Chalk Escarpment, as this block is known, is the single largest geological feature in Britain. Where I grew up, in a suburb of Croydon at the edge of south London, this chalk rises up from underneath the clays and gravels to form the ridge of hills called the North Downs. These add drama to quiet streets of bungalows and interwar semis: every so often a gap between the houses shows land falling away, sky opening up, the towers and lights of the city visible far in the distance.

You can read the full article here.

Helen Gordon is the author of Notes From Deep Time, which was published by Profile Books on 18th February. It was selected by the Financial Times as a book to watch out for in 2021, and the Telegraph described it as an ‘extraordinarily ambitious journey through our planet’s past’, which ‘sidesteps the maundering and finger-wagging that comes with Anthropocene thinking, and shows us how much sheer intellectual and poetical entertainment there is to be had in the idea.’

Max Porter called it a ‘marvel-rich masterclass of narrative non-fiction’, adding that ‘to escape from the present into deep time with such a companionable guide was clarifying, almost therapeutic, and at times gratifyingly dizzying.’ The Mail On Sunday wrote that the book is ‘beautiful and deftly written’, while Philip Hoare called it ‘wonderfully expansive’.