Llanymynech rocks!

A Darwinian day out in the Welsh Borders

Borderlands are intrinsically interesting regions; places of cultural flux and dynamic (not to mention dangerous) interactions over long timescales. The Anglo-Welsh version is a prime example.

As a geologist, I was well aware that this area was the birthplace of the Silurian, where the pompous-but-dynamic Roderick Impey Murchison stuck an imperial flag into an ancient landmass.

What I hadn't realized, visiting my in-laws on the Shropshire-Powys border, is that this was also the geological testing ground for a certain Charles Darwin.

"I, a geologist..."

The discovery originated from me scouting out the Offa's Dyke Path, and complaining that the local route across the floodplains of the Severn and the Vyrnwy wasn't very exciting. I looked north, where the land rises again, and decided Llanymynech was the place to head to.

Llanymynech couldn't be more of a border village if it tried: one half of it is in England, the other half in Wales. The border runs down the high street. It couldn't be much more of a historic border village either: Bronze Age copper mines, an Iron Age hillfort, the possible location of Caradoc's last battle with the Romans, a Norman castle of grisly murder, and a bustling limestone port in the Industrial Revolution.

The Hoffman kiln in Llanymynech.

But then I stumbled upon Geologizing with Darwin, a Scientific American blog post by David Bressan, and discovered Llanymynech's role in the training of the greatest naturalist the world has ever known.

Having grown up in Shrewsbury, Charles Darwin was familiar with the area, just 15 miles to the west-north-west. Having discovered his love of geology as a Cambridge undergraduate, Darwin headed to the village to have a first stab at making a geological map. Frankly, it was rubbish, but this should only provide solace for those of us who have been flummoxed on their first mapping fieldtrip.

Darwin improved quickly, and shortly afterwards, travelled to North Wales to assist his mentor Adam Sedgwick with his Cambrian fieldwork. At the end of the year, he joined the second voyage of the Beagle, and put his Welsh geology training to an international test. The rest is natural history.

Shrewsbury to Llanymynech and then some.

Llanymynech Rocks are the place to follow in Darwin's local footsteps. These steeply quarried limestone cliffs, high above the village, are the stacked beds of an equatorial Carboniferous sea. It's a popular spot. From hikers to climbers, geologists to black sheep, life abounds in the old quarry.

Sheep and climbers, Llanymynech Rocks.

The 340 million year-old limestones are full of life too. Just scrabbling about in the scree at the foot of the cliffs yields all sorts of treasures, particularly colonial rugose corals. Darwin must have found the same species when he was here:

Lithostrotion through the looking glass.

Siphonodendron

And at the viewpoint at the edge of the limestone escarpment, looking south over the confluence of the rivers and out to Wenlock Edge, there is a metal memorial to a small but significant bit of science. The depicted Darwin doesn't look very happy, perhaps because he was actually only 22 when he came here!

Why don't you ever portray me as a young man?

Nonetheless, it's nice to know that Llanymynech's role in the great man's education is recognized. Should you wish to find out more, read Michael Roberts' 1996 article 'Darwin at Llanymynech: evolution of a geologist'.

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