The Abberley and Malvern Hills Geopark is one of a new generation of landscape designations that has been created specifically as a result of the interest in the rocks and scenery within a particular area. The 1,250 km2 of this Geopark spans four counties of the Western Midlands of England; Shropshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, in a strip of countryside that is 83 km long and at most 18 km wide. However, you will not see any large signs proclaiming your arrival, nor any wardens working for the Geopark. Instead, a partnership of organisations, encompassing the fields of geology, forestry, heritage, conservation and education as well local wildlife and landscape protection and management, decide strategic initiatives and day to day activities in the Geopark.
With aspirations to highlight and promote the geology, landscape and associated heritage within the Geopark to the local communities and to wider audiences, the Geopark Partnership has developed certain geotourism initiatives. Thus in 2006 the notion of a long distance walking trail that was born - a trail that could bring to life the geological story of the Geopark. The result; in 2009 the Geopark Way long distance walking trail and associated trail guide were launched.
Take a Walk Through Time
The wealth of geology and landscape features together with the associated heritage and wildlife within the Geopark presented a challenge in devising which course the Geopark Way trail should take – so many potential pleasing routes! However a desire to encapsulate the geological essence of the Geopark was of foremost importance, followed by a yearning to seize the opportunity to portray and illustrate how geology and landscape can significantly influence land use, history and the social fabric of a community. The end result, after several hundred miles of paths were walked and researched, was a 175 km (109 mile) trail winding its way from Bridgnorth in the far north of the Geopark, about 35 km west of the city of Birmingham, to Gloucester in the south. The route is not the quickest way between these towns but rather an exploratory journey through the Geopark, visiting sites of interest and reaching places off the beaten track.
The Geopark contains rocks which span over 700 million years and include some of the oldest found in England. They tell amazing stories of continental collision, of tropical seas, hot deserts, equatorial swamps and coastal lagoons and of vast ice sheets and polar deserts.
Imagine that you were transported back 700 million years to that piece of the Earth’s crust which was to become the Geopark of today. You would have been in quite a different part of the world; about 60 degrees south of the Equator, close to the Antarctic Circle. You would find yourself in a place of violent geological activity, amidst volcanic mountains and subject to frequent earthquakes as the rock around you was slowly bent and buckled into a mountain chain; very different from today’s landscape. And so the story of the rocks and landscape along the Geopark Way begins to unfold.
Geological and Industrial History
Starting at the town of Bridgnorth, Shropshire, the trail explores the Permian sandstone cliffs that separate Bridgnorth into a ‘High Town’ and ‘Low Town’. Laid down in a landlocked desert, these rocks display the shape of ancient sand dunes, even revealing the predominant wind direction 300 million years ago. Cut into these fossilised dunes are a number of rock houses and caves, one of which was at the centre of an English Civil War siege.
From Bridgnorth the trail follows the River Severn southwards. It comes as a surprise to discover that a feature as large and as important as the River Severn is so recent an addition to the Geopark’s landscape. Evidence to support the early stages of its formation, a mere 12,000 years ago, begins to emerge on the way down and through the National Trust property of Dudmaston Estate.
Entering into the Wyre Forest Coalfield you pass back in time onto Carboniferous strata. Along with exposures of Carboniferous cyclothem lithologies, the trail encounters evidence of the social and industrial impact that the availability of natural resources had on local communities. These industries date back centuries and include coal mining, brick making, stone quarrying and iron smelting. In the 19th and 20th centuries commercial scale coal mining took place. There is abundant evidence of this industrial history still to be seen on the ground, in the style of Highley town, and the fabric of some local communities.
Leaving the coalfield, the trail passes over a succession of Permo-Triassic sedimentary rocks before encountering the Quaternary wind-blown sands that cover the lower terrace of Hartlebury Common. This local nature reserve is celebrated not only for its geology, but as a lowland heath and as a common with a social history spanning at least 2,000 years.
The PreCambrian Ridge
Next the trail veers westwards and crosses over the East Malvern Fault where the topography becomes more dramatic as the Silurian limestones and shales of the Abberley Hills come into view. The East Malvern Fault defines the line of hills that run through the centre of the Geopark. It had several phases of movement and the immense pressures and forces at work during these episodes of uplift, folding and faulting stand recorded in the structure of the rocks seen today. Along this part of the trail you can find fossils and occasional bentonite layers and there are old pits, quarries and abandoned lime kilns; collectively telling a compelling story of this series of rocks.
The Silurian hills then give way to the dominating landscape feature of the Malvern Hills, a 21 km (13 mile) long ridge line forming the centrepiece of the Geopark. Composed of Precambrian-aged rocks, the geological history of this meta-igneous suite of rocks is yet to be fully understood. The Geopark Way visits several sites on the hills to capture the essence of their geological history; some peppering the science with tales of folklore and the Victorian Water Cure phenomenon that placed Malvern on the map.
Leaving the Malvern Hills the horizon changes as the Cotswold Hills come into full view. Into Gloucestershire the trail passes over the inlier of May Hill with its distinctive crown of Jubilee (Queen Victoria) trees, before entering into Huntley Quarry Geological Reserve to explore the fault and fold structures clearly seen in the quarry face.
The final leg of the trail leads you over the relatively flat plains of late Triassic and early Jurassic sediments, visiting sites which unveil the River Severn’s formational history, before arriving at the final destination of Gloucester cathedral. This wonderful building of oolitic limestone marks a fitting end to a traverse across 700 million years of Earth history.
A New Perspective
The story of the rocks along the Geopark Way can be followed in the guidebook, delivering a totally new perspective on long distance walking. The trail guide conveniently splits the trail into 18 comfortable day walks and comes with a supplementary booklet detailing public transport routes, tourist amenities and attractions and countryside sites within the Abberley and Malvern Hills Geopark.
Since its launch in 2009 several thousand people are believed to have walked along sections of the Geopark Way. Some of these walkers did so through the Malvern Walking Festival, which in 2009 featured the Geopark Way in its festival programme; walking the full 109 miles over a period of 9 days. The nine days were well attended, so much so that sections of the Geopark Way were included in the 2010 walking programme and will feature again in 2011. A fine example of how a geotourism initiative can reap benefits to the wider tourism economy.
Since the launch of the Geopark Way trail in 2009 funding was secured to develop three (which we hope one day will be a complete series) circular trails, each incorporating a section of the Geopark Way linear trail. These free trail leaflets (also available as downloads) prove very useful tools in introducing people to the concept of Earth science exploration as a leisurely and enjoyable form of recreation. Each trail leaflet offers a great walk, along with a healthy sprinkling of geology.
All of these trails feature as guided walks in a new initiative: GeoFest. First run in 2010, GeoFest is a three month festival of events and activities that highlights and promotes the many attributes of the Geopark. Events include children’s activities at museums and visitor centres, guided walks, talks and ‘meet the expert’ sessions where people are invited to quiz geologists about their rock, fossil and mineral specimens. GeoFest 2011 runs from 1st June – 31st August 2011.
With a growing understanding, demand and appreciation of geotourism, evolving out of what was once a niche market, there is much potential for growth in the Abberley and Malvern Hills Geopark. Linking and integrating geotourism to the already established tourism industry is one avenue, as is developing pure geotourism ventures to attract more visitors to the area. Although such initiatives are dependent on sponsorships or funding, the enthusiasm of the Geopark partners will ensure that each year more visitors to and residents of the Geopark take pleasure in all that it has to offer.
Don’t take my word for it though - come and find out for yourself.
Natalie Watkins is Trails Manager with the Herefordshire and Worcestershire Earth Heritage Trust, one of the founding partners of the Geopark. Further details can be found at www.EarthHeritageTrust.org and www.Geopark.org.uk.