Beech Caves

Beech Caves, Staffordshire

Now that teaching and exams have finished for another year, thoughts turn to the field. Whilst the likes of Geotripper and Dr Jerque get to visit some spectaclur and unspoilt places, my field work takes me to somewhere interesting but not quite as pretty. These are Beech Caves in Staffordshire.

Beech Caves, Staffordshire

The caves aren’t natural but the result of mining the Triassic Bromsgrove Sandstone (formerly the Keuper Sandstone) for building stone. The pillar and stall workings were begun possibly in 1633 for the construction of the nearby Trentham Hall. The Trentham records for August 31st 1633 note a Roger Low being paid 22 pence per score for carrying 130 foot of stone from Beech.

Trentham Hall 1686
Trentham Hall 1686 : Image source – Lost Heritage

This was the first of several halls at Trentham, being rebuilt in 1690 and again in the 1830s, ultimately becoming one of the finest buildings in England. Unfortunately, pollution from the growing Potteries conurbation filled the lakes with sewage and the magnificent hall was abandoned and demolished in 1912. The gardens did remain and now the lakes have been cleaned and the gardens refurbished (well worth a visit) there are plans to rebuild the hall as a five star hotel.

Beech Caves, Staffordshire

Beech Caves still show the evidence of the hand-pick marks by the miners as they followed a layer of pale-coloured sandstone dipping gently down into the hillside. The thick overburden made mining rather than quarrying a more attractive proposition.

In more recent times the caves were probably used as a munition store in the second world war but lately they have been used for raves and other undesirable activities. The caves are now litter strewn and graffiti covered. The land owner and the local council now want to block off the entrances to stop the ne’er-do-wells from getting in. However, in doing so, they will bury an important piece of Staffordshire’s geological history. It would be a great shame if these historic pillar and stall workings were lost. Whilst understanding the landowner’s concerns for the site, it is hoped that some limited, secure access can be maintained for historians and geologists alike.

Beech Caves, Staffordshire

Reference: Middleton T, 1986. A survey of Beech Cave, Staffordshire. Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society, 9, 401-403


On a field trip to the Peak District this weekend. He is a close up of some Lower Carboniferous shark dermal denticles.

Also some nice crinoid fragments.

Geology Teachers in England – An Endangered Species

If Geology Teachers were a species, then in England they would have just had their ‘Red List’ status upgraded from VU vulnerable to EN endangered – a high risk of extinction in the wild. There are only two universities where geology teachers are trained for the award of Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). Bath University had no geologists on their PGCE course last year and Keele University has just announced that its Geology PGCE course is to close this summer after 50 years of training the country’s geology school teachers. This now means that there is unlikely to be any further specialist geology teachers to be trained in England.

In a year that has seen major geological news stories, large earthquakes in Mexico, Haiti and Chile, the volcano at Eyjafjallajökull and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill amongst others, geology as a subject in English schools is slowly dying. The mining industry is coming out of recession, as we pass peak oil hydrocarbons become harder to find, in a world of diminishing water resources hydrogeology becomes increasingly important, with increasing populations it becomes crucial to better understand natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes and landslides, alternative energy sources such as geothermal and coal bed methane are now serious contenders, and the construction industry is belatedly cottoning on to the need for a better understanding of the subsurface, geology as a subject in England is being slowly killed off.

To be fair, this has been coming for some years now, since the introduction of the national curriculum. The few bits of geology that are still taught in English schools are, in the main, now taught by chemistry teachers. I don’t want to disparage chemistry teachers but in general they don’t have the background knowledge in geology to allow them the confidence to teach the subject well. If the situations were reversed, and I had to teach chemistry, I’d give it my best shot but without that foundation in the subject I would struggle, and I certainly could not teach it with the enthusiasm that comes from really knowing one’s subject. The other significant education event was dropping the compulsion for English school children to study geography to the age of sixteen. At university level, we used to pick up a significant number of students who came to study geography, really didn’t get on with ‘human’ geography and the things that they thought were physical geography (earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.) they discovered were actually geology. These changes in school education has led to a downward spiral. School children are either no longer exposed to geology or are taught it by teachers who are not specialists in the subject. Fewer go on to study university and ultimately go on to geology teacher training. As specialist geology teachers retire from schools they are either replaced by non-specialists or the geology-oriented courses are closed. Student numbers decline further and the downwards spiral tightens. There are now so few specialist geology courses taught in schools now that there are very few teaching opportunities for geology PGCE students. The lack of career opportunities in geology teaching causes geology PGCE applications to drop. And the spiral tightens further.

What can be done to reverse this trend? It the cause has to be treated, not the symptoms. It is unrealistic to expect any university to run a loss making course, particularly in the current economic climate, when there is little demand from either potential students or future employment in schools. If geology is to extract itself from the downward spiral, first there needs to be recognition at a national level that geology is of critical strategic importance to the country and is under threat. Certain STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects have a recognised ‘Vulnerable’ status. These subjects get increased funding. Physics, chemistry and chemical engineering are considered vulnerable subjects of strategic importance by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) but geology isn’t. It should be. It is important that geological institutions in the UK should lobby hard for geology’s strategic vulnerable status to be recognised. They also need to lobby for a proper recognition of the importance of geology as subject in its own right within the national curriculum. Only with geology taught by geologists in schools will the downward spiral into oblivion be broken. The oil revenue from the North Sea has netted various British governments an estimated one trillion dollars. They have wasted it all. If only a fraction of a percent of this revenue had been given back to the subject that found them the resources in the first place then we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Which brings be on to the oil and mining companies. They have largely sat back and let this happen. They might moan about a lack of suitable graduates to employ but they have failed to address the fundamental root problem. They might get persuaded to fund the odd PhD topic or a couple of places on an MSc course in an area that might benefit them in the short term but they have not really engaged with developing the next generation of geologists. Oil companies in particular have profits in the billions annually. If only for their own future, they really do need to help support the training of future geology teachers a lot more than they currently do* and start lobbying for geology as a subject in schools … whilst they still have a subject in the UK to lobby for.

Disclaimer: Although I am employed by Keele University, I have no direct connection with the Education Department that provides PGCE training or the Earth Science Education Unit (other than that the Earth Learning Ideas website is hosted on our geophysics server). As always, this post is written solely on behalf of myself and not the University. My concern is for the future of geology as a subject in England irrespective of where any teacher training may or may not be done.

* The UK offshore operators association (UKOOA) do support the Earth Science Education Unit at Keele (who produce the Earth Learning Ideas for school teachers).

Accretionary Wedge #25 : Images

I’m late with last month’s accretionary wedge on images hosted at Highly Allochtonous (I’m writing this post between chairing exam boards).

As a quickie, I’m going to nick Clastic Detrius‘ idea and use my blog masthead image.

It is a seismogram from my PhD thesis. It comes from the pre-digital era where the original seismograms were recorded on light sensitive paper, a day at a time. These were then copied to microfiche and the copies sent round the world to a number of libraries. To get a record one had to travel to the library, find the set of microfiches for that day, then the station you wanted, then the fiche for the long period vertical component. You then had to load it into a microfiche reader and decode the time by eye. Each dot above the trace represents a minute, longer dashes represented hours (with some missing so you could work out what hour it was!). When you had found the right part of the record you then took a copy of the image. The system in the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh used a liquid petroleum based copier and after a day working in the microfiche library one reeked of petroleum vapour. It took about two years between the earthquake happening and the microfiches being lodged in the library. The contrast between 25 years ago when I had to travel from Cardiff to Edinburgh, look up at least two year old records by hand, copy them, bring them back to Cardiff and then digitise them by hand using software that I had written myself on an Apple IIe – and today when I can watch earthquake waves arrive in realtime from around the world sat at my computer screen – is staggering.

The long-period, vertical component seismogram in the image is from a mb 6.0 earthquake on September 21, 1981 274 km beneath the Kermadec Islands in the Pacific recorded at Adelaide, Australia. The direct P-wave arrives just before the second minute mark. A minute later a second downward kick indicates the arrival of pP, a wave that leaves the earthquake upwards as a P-wave, gets reflected back down from the surface near the epicentre and then travels back down through the mantle. The large arrival on the right-hand side of the image is sP. This leaves the source as an S-wave upwards and at the surface undergoes a phase conversion to a P-wave as well as a reflection and continues back down through the mantle as a P-wave. The interesting arrival here to me is the high frequency one between pP and sP which doesn’t appear on the standard travel-time tables. I tracked it down to being S670P, a wave that leaves the source downwards as an S-wave, hits the upper/lower mantle boundary at 670km depth and part converts to a P-wave that then travels on downwards through the mantle. A few years later I had a PhD student do her whole thesis on S670P, but it all started with this strange pulse on this seismogram.

I’m a great believer in observational seismology, actually looking at earthquake records rather than just pumping seismograms through big inversion programs. It is by looking at things closely and recognising when something strange is occurring that science advances.