Posted by: Kash Farooq | September 8, 2013

Bradgate Park and Precambrian Life

Bradgate Park is a country park in the Charnwood Forest area of Leicestershire. It is very picturesque, has lots of deer roaming around and has lots of history (the 500+ year old Bradgate House is thought to be the birthplace of Lady Jane Grey, for example). It’s free to get in, and parking costs £5 for the day. For these reasons alone, I would recommend a visit.

Deer, Bradgate Park.

Deer, Bradgate Park.

Bradgate Park is also very interesting for scientific reasons. It has some of the most ancient rock in the UK, and probably the oldest rock in England. Within 3 km2, you can look at geology 220 to 560 million years old.

Twice a year, around May and September, local paleontologist John Martin takes people on a guided geological tour of the park: “Geology of Bradgate Park – 500 million years in one afternoon!“.

This weekend I went on the guided walk. I’ll write about what we learnt from John about the geological history of the park in more detail in a later blog post. Here is a tip: put the next walk into your calendar now. Seriously. Do it now. I highly recommend it.

For this blog post I wanted to write about one particular story.

During the walk we were lucky in that we had two experts guiding us – paleontologist John and keen geologist Roger. Throughout the afternoon, with John leading the walk, Roger would contribute extra details in his areas of expertise.

The whole walk was scenic and scientifically fascinating. Learning how to “read the rocks” added to the beauty of the park.

The walk ended at this rock face.

Precambrian rock face, Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.

Precambrian rock face, Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.

It’s not much to look at in this image, but it (and others like it in the area), are scientifically very, very important. It is Precambrian rock – i.e. older than the Cambrian Period, which started about 540 million years ago.

John started telling the story of the discovery made in this type of rock, in this area of England. It’s a story I knew well after seeing David Attenborough talk about it in a couple of documentaries.

The accepted scientific view at the time was that life emerged in the Cambrian period. The Cambrian Explosion was the period in which most major animal phyla appeared. There was no point in looking for life in rock older than Cambrian rock – you’d just be wasting your time.

But there was something in the Precambrian rocks of Leicestershire. Tina Negus, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, had seen something in the rocks, but her geography teacher wouldn’t believe her (and didn’t think to check).

I’ll let John Martin continue the story:

In 1957, three Leicester school boys who were into rock climbing had gone to quarry on the other side of the forest near Charnwood Golf Course. In the rock they saw what looked like marks on the rock surface. They kind of knew that you weren’t supposed to find fossils in the Precambrian.

One of the lads had a relative who was on the staff at the university in Leicester, and this relative knew the geologist Trevor Ford.

And that lad was called Roger Mason. And that’s him.

John pointed at Roger. The guy who had been walking around with us as a punter, helping John explain the geology here and there.

Roger Mason, Bradgate Park, 2013-09-07 - standing in front of a Precambrian fossil bed.

Roger Mason, Bradgate Park, 2013-09-07 – standing in front of a Precambrian fossil bed.

WOW!

Needless to say, the geologist Trevor Ford did check the school boys’ story and a new species was catalogued.

We were gob smacked. I’ve been telling this story for years, and here I was, getting geological insights about the area from the discoverer of Charnia. The image below is of the actual fossil Roger and friends found:

Charnia masoni - discovered by Roger Mason and friends (New Walk Museum, Leicester).

Charnia masoni – discovered by Roger Mason and friends (New Walk Museum, Leicester).

[Wikimedia Commons image by Andy Dingley]

The full species name is Charnia masoni. Yes, it’s named after the area where it was discovered and Roger Mason.

Incidentally, it is difficult to pick out the signs of life in these fossil bed rock faces. But if the light catches it just right, e.g. when the Sun is low in the sky but still bright, you can easily see the fossils. And this happened while we were there. Signs of life leap out.

It was stunning.

Update

Roger sent me a photograph from the local newspaper at the time of the discovery:

Roger Mason - Leicester Mercury - 1957

Roger Mason – Leicester Mercury – 1957

Related articles

Well worth a read: An account of the discovery of Charnia – by Tina Negus. Tina discovered Charnia a year before Roger, but her geography teacher wouldn’t listen!

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Responses

  1. Thanks for mentioning me Kash! As your photo shows, the delicate fossils in Bradgate Park are in danger from graffiti scratched on the surface and from attempts to collect. Do not try, it is impossible and because these are protected sites under observation you could receive a hefty fine. Study the rock surfaces as closely as you like, but don’t scratch, hammer or chisel them.

  2. I would echo Roger’s comment regarding preservation of the specimens which remain in situ. They cannot be removed without damage, and protection of the sites now means a fine for damage would be imposed. Anyone who wishes to see the “real thing” should visit the Museum at New Walk in Leicester or the British Geological Survey.

    An account of my discovery of Charnia is available on-line.

    Tina Negus


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