Burford - the Original Jurassic Park
Did you know that the first dinosaur ever recorded was dug out of a quarry just a few miles from Burford? Or that you could find those same rocks by digging a few feet under the Burford High Street? Or that the spectacular view that endless visitors snap from the top of the High Street spans some 25 million years?
Most Burfordians have a keen sense that the beauty of their town is based on a sympathetic relationship between the buildings and the landscape that stretches back hundreds of years. J.B. Priestley appreciated this when he passed through on his English Journey in 1933, whilst William Morris thought that the buildings seemed to emerge naturally from the ground on which they stood.
But probably not many realise just how long this landscape was in the making. Those dinosaur-bearing strata were laid down millions of years ago, during the Jurassic Period. They are stacked under our feet, a petrified record of our remote history. At the very bottom of the hill, the Windrush River cuts its way through the oldest rocks - deposited nearly 200 million years ago. Progressively younger strata overlie them as you ascend the hill which is capped by rocks a mere 160 million years old.
These rocks were laid down in a shallow sub-tropical paradise – a bit like the modern Bahamas (albeit with added dinosaurs). The world was warmer then and Britain lay further south than it does today. Sadly since then continental drift has transported us towards colder climes. As we drifted north, those Jurassic rocks were buried under younger deposits where they rested entombed for aeons.
Two devastating episodes of earth history then combined to exhume these rocks and sculpt the modern landscape. First the area felt the distant effect of the violent continental collisions that raised the Alps and other mountain ranges. Far from the epicentre, the Cotswolds were merely uplifted and gently flexed. Erosion then began its ceaseless work of denuding the elevated landscape once again. Next, a series of ice ages ravaged a huge area that included much of Britain. Burford was not itself covered by ice but lay close enough to feel the impact. A mere ten thousand years ago formerly sub-tropical Burford would have resembled parts of Iceland: frozen, storm-swept and virtually uninhabitable.
The ice sheets are gone, for now, but they have bequeathed us the landscape we prize so much. The gentle, slow-flowing Windrush River of today did not carve out the broad valley that separates Burford and Fulbrook – that was the work of its boisterous youth millennia ago when debris-charged torrents tore south and east from the ice-front.
Morris’s vision of his beloved Kelmscott emerging naturally from the underlying earth is in some profound sense true. It is just that it took a lot, lot longer than he could have imagined.