The London Geodiversity Project, the result

Posted on March 9th, 2011 by Charles Boot

Sarah Rutherford, Sarah Couch, Eric Robinson write:

It is good to be able to report progress on the Geodiversity project mentioned in GHS News 85. Several members kindly responded to the request for information on this rather arcane subject including those who had studied geology at university: John Edmondson, Meg Hardie and Christopher Dingwall (see below), for which the team was most grateful.The project team was also aided by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association’s Joyce Bellamy and her extensive expertise on both London parks and gardens and geology, and contributions from geology professors Jay Appleton and Peter Doyle. The London Parks and Garden’s Trust’s Inventory provided an invaluable source for correlating designed landscapes with sites of geological interest, with kind assistance from Sally Williams.

This jointly-funded Natural England and English Heritage project examined the geodiversity of London’s historic parks and gardens. It also highlighted the distinctiveness that the geodiversity unique to the London area contributes to their design and appearance. One of the first things to do was to define Geodiversity itself! Geodiversity is concerned with both the natural and human aspects of landscape, but is primarily focused on the rocks, sediments, soils, the landscape topography and the processes that act on and determine the character of our natural landscape and environment.When applying this to parks and gardens it is essential to broaden the definition to include not just indigenous geology, but also material extraction sites and the widest range of geological materials in London landscapes, particularly those imported from beyond London for use in man-made structures and forms of designed landscapes and architecture.

The effective use of underlying and superficial geology was highlighted in case studies, including the design of Richmond, Maryon and Crystal Palace Parks.The effect of introduced natural and artificial geology was found to make a major contribution such as the spectacular geological illustrations at Crystal Palace Park as well as to such landscapes as town squares (e.g.Trafalgar and Hoxton Squares) and cemeteries (e.g. Kensal Green and Highgate) and to public structures which make such spectacular use of a variety of building stones such as Victorian drinking fountains in parks and squares, most notably the Burdett-Coutts drinking fountain in Victoria Park. Not forgetting garden rockeries such as those using natural stone at Kew and E.A. Bowles’s Middleton House and Battersea Park’s Pulhamite rockwork.

Geomorphology contributes elevation in the form of the low hills around central London, contributing to the choice and design of sites such as Greenwich, Crystal Palace and Richmond Parks.A particular group of historic landscapes was identified as of interest in this respect, the so-called Northern Heights of Highgate and Hampstead outcropping northwest of central London. This is a group of parks, gardens cemeteries and open spaces benefitting from the elevation which provides views over the City and environs of the River Thames, and dramatic slopes.

Taken from Peacock's Polite Repository, 1795, after a view by Humphry Repton

Taken from Peacock's Polite Repository, 1795, after a view by Humphry Repton

The Northern Heights were easily reached by roads from the City and Westminster and colonised in the C18 and early C19 by businessmen and professionals. Many of these men had town houses just to the north of the city in Bloomsbury, which was being engulfed by urban development. Men of the City looked to the Heights of Hampstead and Highgate for more spacious and rural accommodation. This area lacked an established designed landscape character, unlike the string of villas along the Thames from Richmond to Teddington for example, and the cultural character that it acquired owed much to its colonization by prosperous men of the law. It also owed much to the prevalent fashion for informal Picturesque layouts and dramatic views wherever possible and the availability of land with low development value.

These wealthy men presented themselves as a resident gentry on the northern heights, laying out their fashionable and in some cases large, estates to take full advantage of the topographical elevation offered.The landscapes varied in size depending on the status of their owner: Law lords and judges bought substantial properties, barristers and attorneys smaller ones between. They overlooked a metropolis whose prosperity and influence enhanced and reflected their own status and wealth and formed a cluster of elevated and prominent villa landscapes which spoke of their taste. At this time the fashionable designer Humphry Repton was employed for several commissions on the Heights including Golders Hill, Evergreen Hill, Kenwood House, Brandesbury and Fitzroy Farm.

On these heights today Kenwood House, Highgate Cemetery and Waterlow Park are exceptional examples of the use of the elevation and prospect of the City.

We concluded that geodiversity has a major effect on landscape design, particularly the selection of sites and the character of the landscape, the development of landscape features, the use of landscape materials, hydrology and vegetation.

It was also all too clear that, although highly influential, the effect of geodiversity on landscape design is a neglected aspect.This neglect seems to arise from the complexity of geology and thus the need for interpretation of designed landscape features in geological terms based on expert but lucid geological knowledge. In the case of Greater London’s indigenous geology this understanding is made more difficult as the underlying geological stratum is seldom evident on site and so a theoretical understanding is required in order to interpret this aspect. Conversely Greater London has a wealth of non-indigenous geological features used in myriad ways which are clearly visible on site, but again this aspect requires lucid interpretation of the geological origin.

One of the recommendations was to extend the study to other areas and regionally specific geological formations which may yield useful comparisons with London.We await the outcome of this recommendation and hope that the study may be extended to other regions.

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