The Origins of the Birmingham Glacial Erratics Project
This article about the Glacial Boulder Project has been written for two reasons: firstly to record the significant contribution made by various people during the earlier development of the Project, and secondly to provide a short history of the Project for volunteers and others who wonder how it all got started. Inevitably the article is also a personal story.
The formal beginning of the Project was the formation of a steering group in 2019 with four partners: the Herefordshire and Worcestershire Earth Heritage Trust (H&WEHT, lead partner), the Lapworth Museum, the Black Country Geological Society, and Birmingham Open Spaces Forum. Then came a bid by the H&WEHT for funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund early in 2020. The successful bid was led by Professor Ian Fairchild (H&WEHT Chair) and a part time Project Manager and Volunteer Coordinator were appointed. The Project envisaged the creation of several walking or cycling trails across South Birmingham and North Worcestershire. The first Trail for walking was launched on 23rd April 2022. It led from the Great Stone in Northfield to the boulder on the campus of the University of Birmingham. So far as we know the Trail is the first designated glacial boulder trail in the country.
However, the Project had its antecedents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when professional and amateur geologists began to draw public attention to the glacial landscape beneath the urban and rural landscape of the area. They often recorded the exact location of boulders and this greatly facilitated my own searches a hundred and fifty years later! It seems some of the boulders I discovered have not been previously recorded: hence my Project nickname ‘Roland the Rockhound’. Julie Schroder and others have recently described in the Project literature the public excitement over the boulders all those years ago. Since then, apart from some academic papers about the glacial geology of the area, there has been a loss of connection between the boulders and the residents of Birmingham and North Worcestershire.
I have long had an interest and feeling for the natural landscape and when I retired twenty years ago I turned my attention to it locally, and quickly gathered that it was a glaciated landscape containing large boulders. I gave myself the pleasure of seeing how many I could find. The more I found the more puzzled I became that public awareness of the boulders did not seem to exist. I observed people in a public park walk past a conspicuous boulder without a second glance. I considered that people might pay attention to the boulders if they knew about their dramatic journey by ice from North Wales. I decided to try to raise public awareness of them. I produced two pamphlets to be distributed from a stall run by The Rea Valley Conservation Group at local carnivals and open days. The pamphlets were named ‘The Rea Valley Mystery Boulders’ and ‘The South Birmingham Glacial Boulder Trail’. I also led a number of walks along this trail which finally became Project Trail number one. I wrote articles for local publications and developed a power point presentation for various local Group meetings. Perhaps, fortuitously, I provided the Friends of Cotteridge Park with copies of the early 20th century Bournville Works Magazine which described the discovery of large boulders on Cadbury land and their preservation in Cotteridge Park by the then Chief Engineer, Louis Barrow.
Years went until in 2014 I realized that something else needed to happen if the boulders were to be given the recognition they deserved. I had long thought that if some of the more conspicuous boulders could be signed in some way then passers-by might stop to read. I chose the Great Stone in Northfield, set safely in the pound owned by the Great Stone Inn. Janet Ward, the manager of the Inn readily and helpfully gave her consent to my placing a plaque in front of the boulder. The next person was Dr Rob Ixer whom I approached at a meeting of the Black Country Geological Society. He was giving a lecture on the Welsh origins of the blue stones of Stonehenge. I needed a professional geologist to approve the wording of the plaque, and he readily agreed to do this and later assisted the Project by doing chemical analysis of boulder rock samples. When I needed advice about the making and form of the plaque itself I received this from John Gale of The Birmingham Civic Society. He provided the unveiling apparatus and, crucially, the local media coverage. Someone estimated that a hundred or so people crammed in and around the pound on that day in October 2016, including Julie Schroder and other Black Country Geological Society members.
What happened next? There is a gap in my knowledge, but I understand there was a connection made between the well-publicised unveiling event in Northfield and the boulders in Cotteridge Park. Emma Woolf, MBE, of the Friends of Cotteridge Park led on a Lottery Project to explore the history of the park and she made contact with the Earth Heritage Trust via the Lapworth Museum to develop a theme about the boulders in the Park. As a result of this contact, Professor Ian Fairchild became involved and he asked me to show him the boulders I had been finding. Together with Julie Schroder we traversed the country between Barr Beacon, Rowley Hill and Bromsgrove. Ian and Julie examined, measured and employed GPS as we moved from boulder to boulder. Only about that time did it dawn on me that a major project was being considered for the boulders and that it would be in the safe hands of the Herefordshire and Worcestershire Earth Heritage Trust, led by Emeritus Professor Ian Fairchild. It gives me pleasure to think that others have continued to find new boulders during the project and that this heritage is being safeguarded for the future.
Roland L. Kedge