Investigating the geological now

This leg of our journey in the company of William Smith begins in London, beside the River Thames. This is where Smith's 1815 groundbreaking vertical section of British strata begins. For the first time, the whole outline succession of stratified deposits that underlie the country's landscapes were laid bare in their correct sequence, from the youngest in the Thames Valley to the oldest in the Snowdonian mountains of North Wales. The material basis of a vast chunk of Earth Time was revealed for the first time, a story that we now know takes us through more than 540 million years.

Smith must have had very ambivalent feelings about the metropolis. He had been attracted, like so many others from the rural provinces, by hopes of fame and fortune. Geologically, London was where it was all happening at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A select group of enthusiasts for the newly emerging science of the 'study of the Earth' (logos, a Greek word meaning discourse +ge, Greek for earth) founded the Geological Society of London on November 13th, 1807, initially as 'a little talking geological dinner club'. By the 1820s it was on the way to being the centre and arbiter of all things geological. Its influence spread well beyond the capital and Britain. Having a headstart over most other geological societies, it achieved an international status through its publications.

But with Britain's highly 'stratified' social system, Smith was not a member of the Geological Society and never would be. He had tried to set himself up in the capital and had high hopes for the publication of his geological map, but an 'unlucky speculation' ruined everything and he ended up spending 10 weeks in the King's Bench debtors' prison in Southwark. Any hopes of being elected a Fellow of the élite Geological Society were dashed and he had to sell up and on his release move to the north of England when his debts were paid off. It took another decade before he was re-established and his contribution to geology was formally recognised by a new generation of geologists. The Society awarded him the first Wollaston Medal in 1831, but he was still not a Fellow of the Society.

The centre of a modern capital city might not seem to have much to do with Earth Time, but it provides important examples of how present processes, especially those mediated by humans, will become part of the future geological record. In order to get some sense of what living geology is about and how it can become part of the rock record, I want to explore two distinct aspects of Holocene London. One is through a brief history of the built environment. The other is through the River Thames and its recent deposits, known geologically since William Smith's days and before as Alluvium.

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