Revealed: the rarely-glimpsed geology that shaped the Norfolk we know

Anyone who has spent time in Norfolk cannot have failed to notice the county's natural beauty and wealth of wildlife.

Yet many of us know very little about what lies beneath our feet: the geology that has shaped our county, creating many of its physical features and wildlife habitat.

A new report aims to put that right, providing an introduction to Norfolk's geodiversity, defined as the natural range of geological features (rocks, minerals, fossils and structures); geomorphological features (landforms and processes), soil and water features that compose and shape the physical landscape.

The report emphasises the importance of geodiversity in every aspect of our lives. 'It provides our drinking water, our soils, our building stones and the minerals we need to produce everything from tin cans to television sets and the fuels that drive our economy,' it says.

'It has determined many of our historical choices; the waterside locations of towns and villages, the types of agriculture we practice; our transport routes, for example. It determines our physical landscapes and wildlife habitats and the climate and weather we experience.'

The publication outlines some of the outstanding features of Norfolk's geodiversity, including the North Norfolk coast and landforms such as the shingle spit at Blakeney Point, the offshore barrier island at Scolt Head and the dunes at Holkham and Wells.

It highlights the Happisburgh Palaeolithic site, where a handaxe and other flint tools dating back more than 800,000 years were found. The items are the earliest and northernmost evidence of human expansion into Eurasia.

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The Cromer Ridge is described as 'an outstanding assemblage of lowland glacial depositional landforms, including the Blakeney Esker and Kelling Heath outwash plain'.

Also highlighted are the West Runton Elephant, the Lynford Neanderthal site, the Broads, Hunstanton Cliffs, Sheringham and West Runton beach and West Runton cliffs. The publication is the work of Norfolk's Geodiversity Partnership, which was founded four years ago. It was funded by Natural England via Geo-East.

Tim Holt-Wilson, author of the report, said: 'We hope that our publication will raise awareness and appreciation of Norfolk's geology. It is so often unsung – yet it plays such an important role.'

Jenny Gladstone, convenor of the partnership, said: 'It's aimed at Norfolk people who don't know what's under their feet and want to find out.

'It's designed to take the generalities of what has been known by specialists and try to make them accessible to non-specialists.

'A lot has been written on Norfolk's geology, but it's mostly been too difficult for the ordinary reader to understand.'

And Mrs Gladstone said she hoped the publication would dispel one enduring myth. 'People say 'Norfolk hasn't got any geology'. It hasn't got any hard rock, and that's very different.

'You can think of Norfolk's geology as very simple or very complex. We have a layer of chalk, and about two million years ago the ice brought a whole load of other stuff, including gravels and clays that most of Norfolk is made of.

'The cliffs around north-east Norfolk have hardly any chalk exposed; it's all glacial sands and gravels from places like Scotland, Wales and even Norway.

'If we didn't have the ice sheets, about half of Norfolk would be under the sea.

'Norfolk isn't hilly. Parts of it would have been, but the ice sheets came and flattened everything. There was once a chalk ridge running from the Chilterns to Lincolnshire. Glaciers lowered this and made The Wash. One of the ice sheets broke through, eroded the chalk and spread it across Norfolk.'

One of the most visible examples of Norfolk's geology is at Hunstanton Cliffs, where red chalk can be seen sandwiched between grey chalk and carstone. The Village Stone at Great Hockham, near Watton, is an erratic boulder that is ritually turned over to commemorate important events in the life of the village.

It was brought to the area during the Anglian glaciation, the coldest glacial period, which saw ice sheets spreading across Norfolk from the north and north-west about 450,000 years ago.

The publication highlights the diverse range of physical landscapes in Norfolk, ranging from the sandy hills of the Cromer Ridge to the peaty levels of the Fens; from the waterways of Broadland to the chalk uplands of west Norfolk; and from the till (boulder clay) plateau of central Norfolk to the sand flats of the North Norfolk coast.

It looks at the county's water, its rivers, lakes and ponds, and its wide range of soils, which determine which plants can thrive.

It also considers the county's archaeological wealth and some of its major finds.

The report highlights some of the threats to Norfolk's geodiversity, including burial by coastal protection, landfill and landscaping; damage through road cuttings and quarrying and through drainage and excavation; inshore dredging; and built development.

Ground water and surface water is at risk from pollution and contamination, soil acidification and over-abstraction, while threats to soil include drying-out and shrinkage of peat; soil erosion and contamination.

But a lack of public understanding about geodiversity, and why it is valuable to society for its contribution to economic life, science, wildlife, leisure and recreation is also highlighted as a threat.

'Geodiversity is the other half of nature conservation. It's often a forgotten part of the equation, and it's a case of 'out of sight, out of mind'.

'When we talk about nature conservation, we really ought to be including what nature is growing on and living on,' said Mrs Gladstone.

'We're hoping that this report will give people some idea of what there is, what's important and what's interesting in Norfolk.'

The publication is available in printed form at �12 + �2 p&p from jennygladstone@aol.com. It can also be downloaded free of charge from the following sites: www.norfolkbiodiversity.org, www.geo-east.org.uk/publications.htm and www.nbis.org.uk.