Tuesday, June 22, 2010

At the site of 'The Miracle'

Down for a weekend in Herefordshire, stopping at this very pleasant place,


Some part of what George Sandys said centuries ago is still true of Herefordshire: “the great Age of the Inhabitants is a sign of the goodness of the Air …This County exceeds in 4 W’s. Wood, Wheat, Wooll and Water. Much Syder is made here, so that the County deserves the Name of Pomerania.

But my photographs are of the site of what was once a great prodigy, one that Sandys also mentions, though with some inaccuracy and some improvement on the strangeness of the event: “Anno 1575 (sic) Marcley-Hill shaked and roared for 3 days together, and raised it self into an higher Place” (Anglorum speculum, or, The worthies of England in church and state alphabetically digested into the several shires and counties therein contained, 1684).

What can be seen today? The solitary yew tree was supposedly once in the ground of the chapel at Kynaston which was demolished by the slide. The sunken lane with rock faces at either side in the photograph was (I thought) a remnant of the slide. There was no reason for anyone to make a deep cutting into a field which could be walked into further down-slope; it looks like the ground opened and was pulled apart.



A full and more accurate account that that given by Sandys can be found in the chroniclers William Camden and John Speed:

“But more admirable was the work of the Omnipotent, even in our own remembrances, and year of Christ Jesus 1571, when the Marcley Hill in the East of this Shire, rouzed it self out of a dead sleep, with a roaring noise removed from the place where it stood, and for three days together travelled from her first site, to the great amazement and fear of the beholders. It began to journey upon the seventh day of February, being Sunday, at six of the Clock at night, and by seven in the next morning had gone forty paces, carrying with it Sheep in their cotes, hedge-rows, and trees; whereof some were overturned, and some that stood upon the plain, are firmly growing upon the hill; those that were East were turned West; and those in the West were set in the East: in which remove, it overthrew Kynaston-Chappel, and turned two high-ways near an hundred yards from their usual paths formerly trod. The ground thus travelling, was about twenty six Acres, which opening it self with Rocks and all, bare the earth before it for four hundred yards space without any stay, leaving that which was Pasturage in place of the Tillage and the Tillage overspread with Pasturage. Lastly, overwhelming her lower parts, mounted to an hill of twelve fathoms high, and there rested her self after three days travel, remaining his mark, that so laid hand upon this Rock, whose power hath poysed the Hills in his Ballance.”
(An epitome of Mr. John Speed's theatre of the empire of Great Britain And of his prospect of the most famous parts of the world, 1676 edition.)

John Speed’s account gives us a clue to that unlikely notion of the landslide defying gravity (as in Sandys’ sensationally miraculous “Marcley-Hill shaked and roared for 3 days together, and raised it self into an higher Place”) - the material coming down the hill (I take him to be saying) piled up where it came to a halt to a height of twelve fathoms. This might be just about believable as a guess at the height of the slumped material piling up on itself. I take it that this entire tongue of land (covered in blackcurrant bushes) is of material that once was higher up the ridge, and also represents the lateral spreading of that temporary new hill of slumped earth.

Speed’s account was repeated verbatim in early modern writings that deal in their own way with what we would call geology: “And if this late Earth-quake seeme strange or incredible unto them, I wish them have recourse unto that more admirable worke of the Omnipotent, even in ours and our Fathers remembrance, in Hereford-shire: and recorded by our best Historiographers: when as, In the yeere of Christ Iesus, 1571. Marcley Hill in the East of the shire, rowzed it selfe out of a dead sleepe, and with a roaring noise remoued from the place where it stood...”  Henry Holland continues to quote the whole account he found in Speed. (Motus Medi-terraneus. Or, A true relation of a fearefull and prodigious earthquake which lately happened in the ancient citie of Coventrie, and some other places of the Kingdome, to the great amazement of the inhabitants. With a touch of some other occurrences, as well forraine as domestique, 1626).

The Marcle Hill landslip remains on the Ordnance Survey map as ‘The Miracle’. These writers seem unduly excited by events of this nature, and it is worth pausing over why they cite and re-cite the few examples they had. Obviously, Great Britain is not very active geologically, so the rare instances of a major movement assume importance, and get confused with earthquakes (as we see in Henry Holland, though of course a minor tremor might have started the slump). Mainly, of course, God has to be involved: His world is in the order in which He established it. Latter day changes to that initial divine ordering are important signs: warnings of His displeasure, portents of things to come. This 1571 landslide was more locally known, but creates (in a smaller way) the same kind of stir as the nova in Cassiopeia would do in the following year.

Thomas Lawrence intelligently cited the landslip as a hint towards a way to account for anomalous discovery of fossil sea shells far inland and up mountains: Marcley hill with us in Hereford-shire, Anno 1571. with a great noise removed it self from its place, and went continually for three dayes together, overthrowing Kinnaston Chapel, bearing the earth 400 yards before it. And therefore Exhalations may be granted to remove stones and sands, and with them such heterogeneous bodies as lie on them, from one place to another, from the sea to the hills, from a coast far into a countrey. (Thomas Lawrence, Mercurius centralis, or, A discourse of subterraneal cockle, muscle and oyster-shels found in the digging of a well at Sir William Doylie’s in Norfolk many foot under ground and at considerable distance from the sea / sent in a letter to Thomas Brown by Tho. Lawrence, 1664).

The date of the landslip does vary from author to author. 1575 is a mistake; both Camden and Speed give 1571. February 17th 1571 is the date given in the most consciously ‘scientific’ or Baconian of these writers, J. Childrey, but his account is a very close paraphrase of what he had found in Speed, and he maybe introduced this later date through an error in his note-taking. Childrey’s surmise was that large earth-slips had something to do with the local soil: “Machley-hill in Herefordshire, Westram in Kent, and Armitage in Dorsetshire were all of a fat and clammy soile, and not very stiffe; (for then I think I have much to say to the cause of those too) but till I am sure, I shall be silent, though some of Herefordshire have told me, that Marcley-hil is such as I would have it to be.” (J. Childrey, Britannia Baconica: or, The natural rarities of England, Scotland, & Wales. According as they are to be found in every shire. Historically related, according to the precepts of the Lord Bacon; Usefull for all ingenious men of what profession of quality soever, 1662).

Gideon Harvey’s account of “a very stupendious Earthquake, that befel the east part of Herefordshire in the year 1575 in March, where the earth and a rocky hill (called Marcley hill) was removed to a far distance thence with the Trees and all the Sheep that were upon it” in his Archelogia philosophica nova (1663) seems to have conflated this landslide with the one at Westerham in Kent, for he says that “Some other Trees were cast out of the ground, whereof many fell flat upon the ground, others hapned to fall into the seams of the Hill, and closed as fast, as if they had taken their first root there. The hole which this eruption made was at least 40 foot wide, and 80 yards long, lasting from Saturday in the Evening untill Munday at noon.” The detail of trees being swallowed up comes from accounts of divine signs and wonders which gather together all sorts of events, as when Increase Mather cites both Marcle Hill and Westerham in his An essay for the recording of illustrious providences wherein an account is given of many remarkable and very memorable events which have hapned this last age (1684).
The slow landslide at Marcle Hill got into poetry (of sorts) too, when the courtier poet Sir Aston Cokain, writing a ‘Remedy for Love’ after Ovid, sensibly told his recovering sufferer from love to go and view the beauties and wonders of the world “Hereford behold, / And Marcley hill whose motion is so told.” (A chain of golden poems).

This was my previous landslide:



Ray Girvan said...

Very interesting. Somehow I managed to miss your geology & literature series until now. You might be interested in this post - Seaton, slips and Sabine Baring-Gould - which focuses on the appearance of the 1839 Bindon Landslip in Baring-Gould's 1900 novel Winefred, a story of the chalk cliffs. There must be quite a long list, going up to modern times with Desmond Bagley's Landslide, where the climactic event is a landslide caused by liquefaction of a bed of thixotropic 'quick clay'.

DrRoy said...

Why, thank you: that link leading to the Baring-Gould novel was very well worth following. I have been a poor attender at my local geological society in the last year or so, but do have a project going to speak to them myself one day about geology as it appears in literature: I will certainly check out some S B-G. I had vaguely heard of him, but never of Desmond Bagley. So, thanks for that too.

MTB said...

Another reference to the landslip can be found in the entry in Fuller's Worthies under the heading Wonders in the entry for Herefordshire.

MTB said...

A further reference to this landslip can be found in Fuller's Worthies, in the section on Wonders in the entry for Herefordshire.

Hedvig Earwettsch said...

Perhaps DrRoy you're not on the edge of your seat waiting for follow-ups, but I walked around the Wonder today. I thought the little gorge was modern - judging from the fence posts overhanging the edge. It must have been much narrower quite recently. I thought maybe a source of handy building material?

The whole Wonder must have been a general slump of the hillside. There's a lane just below with a suspicious dent in it, and the long ridge line above has a gap in it at this point. Unfortunately, no one around to ask.