Book Review: The Observer’s Book of British Geology by I. O. Evans (1949)

by Victoria Madden

This is one of the book reviews I mentioned in an earlier post, each started and put aside for another attempt as I struggled to get to grips with the format. As I’m picking up several, long hanging, threads now, in various corners of my life, I’ve decided to dust these off and tidy them away too.

IMG_0003After getting completely bogged down with my first attempt at book reviewing, I decided that what I needed was something Much Smaller; and looking through my bookshelves in search of inspiration I lighted upon The Observer’s Book of Geology. This may not seem like an obvious choice but: it was written in 1949; I like bricks and it’s quite literally about the building blocks of the English landscape; and at six by three and a half inches, it’s certainly small.

So there we go.

For those who aren’t familiar with this peculiarly English (British?) phenomenon The Observer’s books are a series of pocket sized reference books, mostly published after the Second World War, by Warne and Co., best known, perhaps, for bringing us the Beatrix Potter series. The Observer books are in a similar vein: satisfyingly sized, with delightful watercolours and line illustrations and, rather like the Ladybird Books of my youth, now collector’s items.

From Birds in 1937 to Opera in 1982 the series eventually consisted of some 97 titles, having expanded from its natural history origins into spotters’ guides, and the Arts and Crafts. The idea behind the books was to assist ‘the Observer’ – ‘the scientifically curious amateur’ – to know more about the world around him (always a him, then) with a pocket-sized reference guide that would always be to hand. Each title was written by an expert in the field, whose intelligently lucid comments convey a sense of respect for both subject and reader – something frequently absent in standard textbooks today.

(If I’ve sold you on the concept and you want some of your own, you can buy copies here or here, or learn more at The Observer’s Book Society.)

The Observer’s Book of British Geology is number 10 in the series. My edition is from somewhere around 1965, as the last subject in the list given at the front is Churches, but, although the title has been abbreviated to The Observer’s Book of Geology, there’s no indication that the text has been revised. The copy is missing its dust jacket and the bumpy brown cover is extremely tactile; the book fitting pleasurably into the grasp of a palm. It’s visually appealing too – very neatly case bound, with a Wainwright-ish/steam railways sort of font on the outside and shiny pages with a clear type within, and, again, that pocket/hand size. There’s something deeply satisfying in the little books as artefacts in themselves, regardless of content.

But the content itself is interesting and really well written, with the language wonderfully and clearly simple but not at all dumbed down. It starts with a Preface by the author, I. O. Evans F.R.G.S., which explains how the book came about (with numerous acknowledgements) and has a nice description of the Observer as ‘the wayfarer with an appreciative eye for the interest and beauty of the countryside’.

The Foreword by Professor H. L. Hawkins (D.SC., F.R.S, F.G.S), explaining ‘What is Geology’ is so beautifully written, in such clear, intelligently simple prose, that I was tempted to just transcribe the whole thing. This is followed by an Introduction by the author, giving a summary of the layout of the book and usefully explaining beforehand a few basic geological terms. It’s also nice and simple, though without his colleague’s level of clarity, and quite dense with information: I found I had to concentrate quite a lot when reading it and refer back to it constantly when reading the main sections. There are notes on practical work such as fossil hunting, too, which are a nice bonus.

The main part of the little book is divided into sections: Bedded Rocks; The Structure of Bedded Rocks; The Record of the Rocks; Fossils; Massive Rocks; Minerals and Scenery; and ends with Some Geological Problems.

As no student of buildings history can afford to ignore their local strata which, being used as the first building materials, have created a distinct local identity for each region – or used to anyway – it was obviously the sections on Bedded Rocks that interested me most.  Evans writes of ‘The Chalk’, ‘The Limestone’ and ‘The Sandstone’ as almost mythological entities in a way that reminds the reader of Kipling and Pratchett, describing the occurrence, character and composition of each, together with its use as a building stone and the distinctive scenery that each provides.

‘The Chalk’ – a phrase which immediately brings to mind Kipling’s ‘Puck’ and Pratchett’s ‘Tiffany Aching’ – occurs only in the South and East of England but runs as far north in the east as Yorkshire. It’s a landscape of rolling hills covered in short springy turf that makes excellent pasture for sheep but, as the white rock is so close to the surface, having a light, thin soil unsuitable for arable crops. The hills are sometimes topped with glacial clay which allows clumps of trees to grow on their crown such as yew, juniper, box and beech. He discusses some of the uses of Chalk and describes the Flint in history but his examples are those great features of the South: Salisbury Plainthe Chiltern Hillsand the North Downs.

‘The Limestone’ gets the largest portion of Evans’ attention, perhaps because it’s the most widespread of the Bedded Rocks. For most people, ‘The Limestone’ is that glorious, honey coloured stone that defines the Cotswolds and the area around Bath but it’s also found in many other regions, running north-eastwards and varying greatly in colour and hardness. A landscape of sloping hills with fields bounded by walls of the local stone and rocks sometimes poking through the surface, gentle in the Cotswolds, gives way to the ‘fiercer aspect’ of the Yorkshire Dales and the ‘high mountainous scenery of Matlock Tor’. The hardest, or Carboniferous, Limestone forms the northern section of the north-south Pennine Chain known as ‘the backbone of England’; as well as the Derbyshire Peak and Fells, and the Mendip Hills in Somerset. Limestone is also found in Wales, around the Lake District, in the Scottish Lowlands and over a wide area in Central Ireland.

‘The Sandstone’, my own local strata, gets barely a look in compared to ‘The Chalk’ and ‘The Limestone’. There is no description of its distribution, merely a few sentences citing the Old Red of South Wales and Herefordshire, and the iron containing New Red of Cheshire and Devon; and a photograph each, mentioning Worcestershire and Norfolk. Evans has little to say either on ‘The Millstone Grit’, that incredibly hard sandstone found mostly in south Lancashire, which forms the unmistakable built environment on both sides of the southern section of the Pennine Chain, beloved of rock-climbers for its unrivalled grip and the challenge of its fantastical weathered shapes.  The example given of the brown, sandy earth, pinewoods, moorlands and heathlands of a Sandstone landscape, is the South Downs, close to London.

I can’t recommend this little book highly enough for its introduction to the subject. (If I have one criticism it’s that Evans is very London/South-centric in his examples.) It’s impossible to understand buildings history, or history at all really, without at least some knowledge of geology and, true to the precepts of the Observer’s series, this pocket sized field guide will assist the ‘scientifically curious amateur’ to make a very good beginning. (For those who are interested in investigating further, there is a great online resource at the British Geological Survey website: a set of atlases, commissioned by Historic England, that depicts and describes the distribution and type of building stone in each county.)

As both a gardener and historian I know that Everything Starts with the Soil. It determines what plants can be grown where and, more importantly, what crops or livestock can be farmed where. This, in turn, will determine the particular places where the origins of our modern towns and cities developed; and even whether these settlements would become rich or poor. And, as soil is basically the broken down rock of millennia, enhanced by the in-their-turn broken down bodies of plants, animals and latterly us humans, Geology is not only pretty interesting, but a fundamental study for many other areas of knowledge. Everything, in fact, comes back to the rocks.

But don’t just take my word for it.

‘Rocks! Why am I messing about with lumps of stone? When did they ever tell anyone anything?’ said Ponder. ‘You know, sir, sometimes I think there’s a great ocean of truth out there and I’m just sitting on the beach playing with … with stones.’
He kicked the stone.
‘But one day we’ll find a way to sail that ocean,’ he said. He sighed. ‘Come on. I suppose we’d better get down to the castle.’
The Librarian watched them join the procession of tired men who were staggering down the valley.
Then he pulled at the nail a few times, and watched it fly back to the stone.
He looked up into the eyes of Jason Ogg.
Much to Jason’s surprise, the orang-utan winked.
Sometimes, if you pay real close attention to the pebbles you find out about the ocean.

Lords and Ladies (1992)

A postscript

And talking about the ocean … One of the particularly interesting things about older text books are the ideas of the time that are now either resolved or exploded: Evans, for example, has suggestions for further avenues of exploration as to the origins of the planet and life on earth, most of which are largely understood today.

His final section Man as a Geological Agent discusses what we would now refer to as environmental impact. As part of this, Evans mentions a scheme being put forward by scientists of the time, in the Brave New World that was just beginning, for large scale re-irrigation of the planet’s deserts – by melting the polar ice caps with the use of atomic bombs. This, Evans comments in a dryly detached manner ‘would certainly have far-reaching and incalculable geological results.’

For an example of sheer, overwhelming idiocy, amidst the half baked ideas of the coming decades that continue to affect our planet, it’s a scenario that even Pratchett himself couldn’t have bettered.