A brief history of Scarborough landslides

In the summer of 2018, I was filmed in Scarborough by a TV production company making a series for Channel 5 about Sinkholes. As the episode has never been broadcast, I can only assume my performance was so dreadful, or so controversial, that it cannot be permitted to see the light of day, but I thought I’d blog about it anyway.

Warning! Non-landslide expert alert!

It all began when a Hull colleague of mine was contacted by the production company, who were trying to find a geologist who could tell them about coastal landslides in Scarborough. The 25th anniversary having just passed, I assumed the company was interested in the Holbeck Hall Hotel landslide. However, when I talked with them on the phone, this wasn’t the case. They’d heard only about a landslide in the spring of 2018, which I had to confess I knew nothing about.

From such inauspicious beginnings, our conversation piqued their interest in the Holbeck landslide, and mine in what was going on now. Both parties went away to do a bit more research, and when we spoke again a day or two later, it seemed there was enough of a story for them to want to do some filming, with me, in the South Bay.

Pretty much the best view in the world.

The following week, I found myself in the legendary Clock Café, holding a plastic box containing a miniature reconstruction* of the local geology. After nearly 40 years of yomping up and down the South Cliff on family holidays, suddenly I was there to explain its geological structure to the world. Well, to the viewers of Channel 5 at least.

(*comprising two beach cobbles, builders’ sand, some Plasticine and a Lego hotel. Sadly it will not make the cut.)

Now, I am definitely not a proper expert on coastal landslides, so – if the show is ever shown – writing this is perhaps a pre-emptive strike against looking like a dingbat on national telly**.

**again

Nonetheless, I found the research really interesting, and turned up a history of landslides in Scarborough and the Yorkshire Coast that people might want to know about, So, rather than have it all go to waste, here are my findings.

A Brief History of Scarborough Landslides

Although the East Yorkshire coast is eroding much more rapidly, landslides are common in North Yorkshire, as summarized by E. Mark Lee in Chapter 6 of his co-authored book Geomorphological Processes and Landscape Change: Britain in the Last 1000 Years (Higgett and Lee 2008).

In 1682, he notes, at Runswick Bay, “the entire village slipped into the sea”. On Christmas Eve, 1787, there was then a “great landslide” at Haggerlythe, Whitby, and in 1829, at Kettleness, “the whole village slid into the sea”.

For Scarborough’s South Bay, the landslide story begins in 1737, when buildings in the Spa area, which had only recently been rebuilt, were destroyed. No major events seem to have occurred for the next 250-odd years, until by far the most dramatic landslide in Scarborough’s 20th Century history – the collapse of the cliff beneath the Holbeck Hall Hotel in June 1993.

The landscaped site of the 1993 Holbeck Hall Hotel landslide (from Wikimedia Commons)

A detailed webpage on the Holbeck Hall Landslide is provided by the British Geological Survey, so there’s no sense in me rehashing their expert information. However, it is worth pointing out that the rotational landslide occurred because soft Ice Age sediments, into which rainwater can seep and pond quite readily, sit on top of well-lithified Middle Jurassic bedrock. The Scarborough Spa marks a spring line, where the waters can seep out, but if – as in 1993 – the volumes of water are large, and they accumulate rapidly, their escape can be catastrophic.

I found this photograph of the hotel (from a BGS blogpost marking the 25th anniversary of the landslide), taken by the British Geological Survey immediately post-landslide, particularly amazing, though the classic footage is this video, starring Richard Whiteley:

Countdown to collapse

And so we move to 2018, and the South Cliff landslip.

It appears that the incident the production team had been alerted to had occurred over the weekend of March 17th/18th 2018, following the wild weather of late February and early March. A retaining wall below the Clock Café was pushed onto the chalets beneath, leaving cracked pavements above it, the wall leaning towards the sea, and the listed chalets listing. It attracted a bit of press coverage:

20th March 2018 (Scarborough News) “Landslip warning in Scarborough

21st March 2018 (BBC) – large crack appears in Scarborough cliff path.

19th April 2018 (BBC) South Cliff cracks ‘could take a year to repair

25th May 2018 (Daily Mail) – Scarborough beach chalets in danger of crumbling into the sea.

South Cliff chalets, Scarborough, summer 2018.

In June 2018, with rumours abounding that the Clock Cafe would have to be demolished, a series of new announcements were made. Firstly, the Clock Café demolition rumours were quashed. Then the Scarborough Borough Council announced that the incident was an “isolated wall movement that occurred in the spring behind the South Bay chalets”. It wasn’t a landslide, or a landslip. Overlooking my uncertainty over whether landslides and landslips are one and the same, perhaps it should simply be called a slope failure.

Either way, in late November 2018, a new movement of soil behind the wall caused further collapse of the chalets, and the borough council decided to demolish them as a matter of urgency. In February 2019, it was reported that they would be coming down imminently, but I’ve not been down to check.

Cordoned off South Cliff chalets (photo credit: me)

At the same time that the South Cliff chalets slope failure occurred, remediation works were about to begin, to try and stabilize the cliffs above the Spa Complex, a short distance to the north. This South Cliff Slope Stabilization Scheme was not set to include the Clock Café area, but instead try to secure the long-term stability of the gardens above the economically and historically important Spa area. As explained in an October 2016 consultancy report:

“The South Cliff upon which the proposed works area lies is inherently unstable…Ground modelling and stability analyses undertaken previously have found that the slopes are close to failure, with potential for both shallow and deep-seated failure. Such failure could result in the loss of parts of the Spa Gardens, damage to the Esplanade and damage to or complete loss of The Spa Complex. There is also clear potential for injury and loss of life.”

The contract was awarded to Balfour Beatty, and work began at the end of May 2018. The most recent update from the contractor reports that all is ‘going well‘. Presumably it has to be finished by March 2020, as a £7m South Cliff gardens regeneration scheme is due to begin then.

Are you putting any money on these gardens lasting a century? (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Given the predictions of warmer, wetter weather, higher sea-levels, and increased storm frequency, one can only wonder how this coastline will cope with Anthropocene climate change. It was only just over a decade that a fairly large landslide occurred at Knipe Point, at the northern end of Cayton Bay, and the last couple of years have seen numerous small to moderate collapses. Whether it ever makes it onto screen, one of my conclusions for the TV company was that, when it comes to landslides on this stretch of coastline, geologically it’s not a matter of if, but when.

Still, should you want to keep an eye on things, the National Landslide Database is probably the place to go.

Why isn’t the Yorkshire Coast a UNESCO World Heritage site?

I was leading a Geology Hull first year fieldtrip to Filey on Thursday, in the teeth of a gale, barely able to be heard above the wind, barely able to see the cliffs through the clouds, barely able to get to the rocks because the waves were too high, the students struggling gainfully to begin collecting geological data, wondering what it was we were hoping to achieve. And then the wind dropped, and the clouds broke, and the sun came out, and the geology began to reveal itself – Ice Age tills full of exotic erratics; karst pavements on the wave-cut platform; giant storm-tilted boulders of sub-tropical Jurassic limestones, each latticed by a fabric of cemented lobster tunnels – and I suddenly paused, and wondered. The geology of the Yorkshire Coast is amazing, astonishing, stupendous: why isn’t it a UNESCO World Heritage site?

Just look at the burrows on that! Dr Richard Callow admires the amazing Thalassinoides trace fossils of Filey Brigg.

The Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site of Devon and Dorset is fantastic; this is not a competition. But the Yorkshire Coast is easily its equal. The geological, geographical and biological treasures it contains are just as diverse and significant, yet are offered up so much less easily, or obviously. Northerly, east-facing, precipitous, cool, dark, crumbling, brooding: this coast seems to reflect much of the local character. Yet at the same time it has uniqueness and richness, quirks and complexity; great warmth and wonder for those who choose to embrace it. There can be few more picturesque coastal villages in Britain than Staithes, there can be few grander panoramas in the country than Scarborough’s South Bay, there can be few finer coastal cliffs than those of Flamborough Head.

Come on, UNESCO! Get your act together!

Hull’s Lost Fossils

One way or another, 1988 was a momentous year for geology collections in the city of Hull. In March of that year, it was announced that – after a contentious government review – the Geology degree programmes at the University of Hull would cease. Most of the university’s rock and fossil specimens would move to other universities.

Based on this map from the UGC Earth Sciences Review, it’s easy to see how the Hull fossils ended up lost.

Then, in October 1988, workmen digging a drain in a central Hull car park stumbled upon some mysterious artefacts, including dinosaur bones. These turned out to be the remains of the basement of the city’s old Municipal Museum, destroyed in a World War Two air raid some 45 years earlier, and a project to reclaim the specimens took place the following year.

Thirty years on, now that geology degrees are back on the menu at the University of Hull, I have helped us reacquire thousands of our old specimens from the University of Oxford Natural History Museum. Now, my project “Back From The Dead: Uncovering the Hidden Histories of Hull’s Lost Fossils“, funded by the Ferens Education Trust, aims to begin telling the stories of the specimens, their collectors, and the places they came from. Something rather similar happened at the Museum of Somerset a few years ago.

I’m also hopeful that we might use our university collections work to help find out more about the old Hull Municipal Museum collections too. So, watch this space, or this one, or this one, to see how we get on…

Yorkshire Fossil Festival 2018 – update

As the chief organizer of the 2018 Yorkshire Fossil Festival, I ought to have been doing a lot more promotion of the event, which is now less than 3 weeks away. Still, better late than never.

I’m delighted to confirm that the following organizations will be taking part, and bringing their finest fossiliferous activities along:

The Palaeontological Association will be 1) letting you make your own salt dough fossil; 2) taking you swimming* through a Jurassic sea; 3) playing the fossilization board game; and 4) having the brilliant palaeo-artist James McKay bring your fantastical fossil creatures to life!

*not literally

University of Hull Geology group will be ‘Uncovering the Hidden Histories of Hull’s Lost Fossils’ (supported by the Ferens Education Trust) and also panning for gold!

Jordan Bestwick and colleagues from the University of Leicester will be showing how fossil microwear can tell us about palaeo-diets, possibly with a sandpit too.

The Palaeo@Leeds team from the University of Leeds will be playing mass extinction darts!

The Yorkshire Museum science team will be exploring Yorkshire’s Jurassic World.

Hidden Horizons and the Scarborough Museums Trust will be taking you hunting Dinosaurs At Dusk.

Hull Geological Society will be unveiling some of the Ice Age fossil treasures unearthed in East Yorkshire

Oxford University Museum of Natural History will show off the amazing fossil insect discoveries of East Yorkshire’s Hugh Edwin Strickland.

Yorkshire Geological Society will be bringing their rock saw, so if you’ve any rocks or fossils that you’d like to have cut and polished by the YGS teams, bring them along!

The Dinosaur Isle Museum and the University of Sheffield will also be taking part, but I can’t reveal their activities yet. Watch this space (and book your place to attend the Fossil Festival here)!

Yorkshire Fossil Festival 2018

Update: Click here for the 2018 Yorkshire Fossil Festival website!

For the last four years, the Yorkshire Fossil Festival has been held in the splendid environs of the Rotunda Museum, Scarborough. Each September, thousands of visitors have come and sampled a wide array of fossily and rocky delights, made possible through the Palaeontological Association‘s kind sponsorship of the festival.

Fossils For Everyone!

In 2018, Scarborough is unable to host the festival, so rather than have a year without a festival, I have decided to take the festival (or a slightly scaled-down version of it) on the road. It is therefore a great pleasure to be able to confirm that the 2018 Yorkshire Fossil Festival will be coming to Hull, on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th of September! This is the weekend of the Hull Science Festival, so the Yorkshire Fossil Festival 2018 will be a special, limited edition, possibly one-off spin-out!

One Hull of a place to study!

At present, I am the sole organizer, although Mark Lorch and the Hull Science Festival team have offered support, and the Palaeontological Association have indicated they are willing to assist too. I am also hopeful to get the Geology Hull team to assist me. So, if you are interested in running a stand, or giving a talk, or presenting some kind of show, please drop me a line and I’ll be happy to chat.

In 2019, the Festival will then return to Scarborough, over the weekend of Friday September 13th to Sunday September 15th. I expect the main Yorkshire Fossil Festival website to come back to life before then, but in the meantime, watch this space!

Geology of York

Permian magnesian limestones in the York city walls.

The slides from my Lifelong Learning class on the Geology of York can be downloaded as a PowerPoint file (Geology_of_York) or a PDF (Geology_of_York).

The paper by Hall et al. (2010) on the glacial and post-glacial geology of the Vale of York can be downloaded here.

The History of York website gives a brief summary of the prehistory of the city.

Sources of Building Material in Roman York (Gaunt & Buckland 2002) can be downloaded here.

The London Pavement Geology website, run by Dr Ruth Siddall, which includes York building stone sites, can be found here.

A biography of Martin Lister on the Yorkshire Philosophical Society website can be read here.

3D Geology of York – the British Geological Survey has produced a 3D model of the geology beneath York, which can be downloaded here.

A Geological History of Britain

The Iapetus Suture on the Isle of Man.

My lecture slides for the 2017 Lifelong Learning class ‘A Geological History of Britain’ can be found (as PDFs) here:

  1. Introduction: 2017_GHB_Part1_Intro
  2. Precambrian: 2017_GHB_Part2_Precambrian
  3. Palaeozoic: 2017_GHB_Part3_Palaeozoic
  4. Mesozoic: 2017_GHB_Part4_Mesozoic
  5. Cainozoic: 2017_GHB_Part5_Cainozoic

Other useful resources:

Geology of Britain (British Geological Survey) – see also the Geology of Britain viewer

Geological History of Britain and Ireland (Woodcock & Strachan 2012)

Geology of Britain (Toghill 2003)

The Geological Formation of Britain (In Our Time, Radio 4)

An Intro To Shales & Fracking (2016)

Utica Shale, New York State (Photo by Michael C. Rygel, from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joints_1.jpg)

Utica Shale, New York State (Photo by Michael C. Rygel, from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joints_1.jpg)

The lecture slides for my York Lifelong Learning class on Shales & Fracking can be downloaded here: 2016_intro_shalesfracking_sml

Most of the references I discussed can be found on the website for the 2015 version of this site, here.

The new British Geological Survey appraisal of the shale gas/shale oil potential of the Wessex Basin (Oct 2016) can be found here.

The new ReFINE study (Dec 2016) on how much methane is escaping through natural fault zones in the UK can be read here.

Last but not least, a new study I have been involved with, trying to understand how climate change in the Jurassic led to the formation of organic-rich shales, can be read here. A less technical article on the study can be found here.