When I was at school we had a teacher called Peter ‘Percy’ Williams, he primarily taught geography. At first he hammered it into our small and stupid heads; over those first three years he gradually worked out which ones of us were holding the water and who was sinking fast; erosion and settlement patterns, the weather and volcanoes. By the Third Year, which is now Year 9 in that ever confusing way that things change, we selected subjects for the first time, I chose geography over history, or it chose me like some Grammar School Sorting Hat. I’d have done both if I’d been allowed but I wasn’t, so I picked the one with the best teacher, the one I liked; he was a slightly cynical, knowledgable and entertaining chap, a pale green suit with chalk on the cuffs, funny at times and approachable but in the driver’s seat and interesting too a facts man with a bit of spirit. He was an ex-RAF Met officer who I think flew Mosquitos, and he knew his onions, my god he did. The irony of not doing history isn’t lost on me given the things I tend to be interested in and actually spend quite a lot of the time on now. There was only so much I wanted to learn about the British royal line (nothing thanks) and Ur Nammu (not much really) when actually what Geography gave me was a massive interest in two things; landscapes and human settlement, the stuff about Amsterdam’s industry left me cold but you can’t have everything and two hands can comfortably carry two buckets.
One of the things that has always really stuck with me has been glaciation, the process of change it brings into a landscape as it moves in and fades, a process you can see marked so clearly in so many landscapes. When I was twelve my dad won an 11th share of a pools syndicate win, his careful crosses at the table on a Saturday paying off just the once, not a trivial amount or a fortune but enough to go on the only holiday I had with my parents. We went to Canada to see my brother and his family in the North of British Columbia. Then we drove back down through the coastal ranges in a Winnebago to Vancouver. I got to stand on the Athabasca Glacier and woke up for a couple of mornings to the sound of Canadians shouting and banging saucepans together to scare off brown bears in a forest on a slope made of mica fragments pushed there by a sheet of ice. Ice so dense it was blue if you looked down the fissures in its surface, past the trodden mud walked onto it by the tourists. You could see back in time, down through the compressed layers of many thousands of winters’ snow into this strange electric blue, The ice becomes plasticised so it flows down to this toe of ice like, well, ice does when you keep adding snow to it in the corries and valleys above.
I still have some of that mica, dustily displayed with all the other bits of rock I’ve grabbed along the following thirty something years of walking past the past. And with those things Percy added I have a lot of other dusty stuff in drawers in my head from patterns of settlement, the formation of place names, clouds and weather systems and a lot of ice. He was one of three teachers who Filled my head; His Geography, one English and the last one Art and unwittingly they all taught me more about history than I ever learnt in a lesson.
We did field trips at A Level, a coach load of 16 to 18 year olds desperate to hide booze wherever possible, the coach evenly split between the ‘lads’ who liked rock, and the ‘others’ who liked New Wave, with a few drifters who like both or neither, we clambered over moraines and looked up at hanging valleys, stared through the mizzle at drumlins, and shivered while pretending to sketch Eskers. For some reason it stuck and I still look for our ice-formed past. You don’t have to go to the Vale of Pickering or Scotland or North Wales because handily the ice stopped here too.
Around ten to twelve thousand years ago the glacial sheet stopped by, the last of four advances, at Cromer, the amount of snow being added at the top beind smaller than that which melted at the front it stopped, it dropped its load of water and shingle, leaving erratics; bits of stone that aren’t natural to Norfolk behind, two reasonably famous ones rest in Beeston Regis churchyard; it also pushed up a ridge or terminal moraine, which is that gorse covered feature that stretches across the lid of the county, the Cromer-Holt Ridge. It also left behind Beeston Bump and millions of tons of glacial till, pushed some Boulder clay about and dropped a huge piece of chalk it had scraped up on the way in. When you have that amount of ice sitting about melting it also causes lakes, diverts water, causes rivers, shifts sand about and dumps it and generally makes up most of the modern landscape we live in. Mousehold Heath is a relic of this, huge amounts of sand washed up and dammed in by a lake on one of the earlier pauses in its forward trip backwards to the icecap. You can see it in our coastline; the higgledy-piggledy layers of sand and shingle overlaying older earlier riverbed-made clay where our ancestors cousins lived and hunted before the ice pushed them away to refuges in the south of Europe.
Ice doesn’t just affect the bits under and near the end of it, if you can imagine that dome of ice stretching back over Northern England and the North Sea as far as the polar cap across the whole of Northern Europe, fluxing over the millennia, you have to also imagine a pretty arid environment below it, basically Tundra and Steppe, a veritable moonscape of loose rock and fluvial deposits with plants and animals slowly filling the void as it freezes and thaws, eventually adding a vegetative mat of peat back on top. And that’s what you can find remnants of in Breckland as well as elsewhere across Norfolk. There is an area between Stow Bedon and Thompson where one particular feature is still present, it’s quite unusual in Britain because 12,000 years of time and man wears you down and fills you in, nature has softened them but you can see them. These are relict Pingos or hydrolaccolith; ponds formed by a natural periglacial process.
When the ice was here as it retreated the ground would have been froxen for most of the time, permafrost kept the ground frozen to a depth of six to ten feet. Any water that either bubbles up in the form of springs, or appears as sub-surface water becomes trapped and in places freezes, through another process this can attract more water and eventually an ice lens forms. These lenses push the surface up as they grow, during the summer months the top may melt and slough off and form a lip, during the cold months it freezes again and grows, repeat for years. When the thaw finally arrives what is left of the thinning crust collapses and you end up with a hole which in most cases fills with water.
Thompson Common and Stow Bedon are riddled with them along with other less obvious features and there are hundreds if you look, some dry, some wet, and a few that barely exist, only the light giving the ghost faint depressions away, they hide in the trees and sit in the rough common like water-filled marl pits, the ground around uneven, some of the low spots almost overlapping from the long period when they formed over each other.
On the other side of the Great Eastern Railway line from the Maze of Pingos is Cranberry Rough or what was once Hockham Mere, it hides another periglacial secret and its own human history. Once a periglacial lake of uncertain origin, it could maybe have been formed from a broken orphaned lump of ice it may have just been a scooped hollow. Core samples have proved its age from the pollen the silts it contains and it has for thousands of years provided fish and fowl for the fire sides and tables of the locals and was still doing so until the fourteenth century. By the eighteenth it had largely silted up. Now it is wet woodland and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, dense thickets of trees grow over water, grass and sedge. Despite the made-up wooden paths and the odd fragments of the age of the GER and it’s steam engines, give it the broken light of Autumn flattened by the cloud you can almost feel the age of it and the surroundings, sense the men fishing with bone hooks on the edges of the warmed encroaching woods.