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  • Julie Muller

HARESFIELD BEACON (GL10 3ES) Forts and Fossils

January weather is always unpredictable but luckily for us our humans chose a cold, bright and sunny day to visit

one of many properties owned by the National Trust.

A sheep dog sits on the ramparts of Haresfield Beacon in Gloucestershire enjoying the afternoon sunshine
Bruno poses on the slopes of Haresfield Beacon, near Gloucester

To reach it, our humans firstly had to battle the busy highways around Gloucester .

A short steep drive took us to the car park, and we jumped out of the car excited to explore somewhere new.

From the gate we trotted along paths that hugged the contours of the hill and, at first, the only sound that we heard was the wind rattling the leaves off the trees and sheep bleating distant conversations to each other.

Our path was flanked by tall stands of dead bleached thistles and umbrella-shaped seed heads silhouetted against the pale blue sky. As we trotted along, the path repeatedly climbed up and dipped down before finally emerging on a grassy knoll which was topped by a white stone trig point proudly celebrating its lofty elevation.

In places the smooth grass surface was punctuated with neat mounds of damp, dark soil left in the wake of the resident moles.

The weather though bright and sunny shot frequent blasts of ice-cold wind at us, which tugged at our humans’ coats, and we wrestled, tumbled, and played in excitement.

There were several other dogs out walking with their humans, but we were always careful not to invade their space with our games. Of course, Bruno had to say “hello” to everyone that he met. At least that gave me time to catch my breath. Playing with Bruno can be exhausting. Whilst he was otherwise occupied , I rolled on to my back and jiggled my way down the slope. It felt so good, and the grass smelt so sweet.

From the top of the knoll, we heard the rumble of fast-moving traffic racing along the motorway below us, but we were shielded from it by a copse of sycamore, ash, and beech trees. Sadly, many of these ash trees may soon be lost from the hillside because, like all native ash, they are under attack from an Asian derived fungal infection called Ash Die Back. The fungus produces spores which invade the tree tissues, block the transport systems and kill the tree.

Gaps in the tree cover afforded our humans amazing panoramic views towards the estuary. Whilst the muted colours of the man-made buildings and sheds that corridor the motorway blended into the sage green backdrop, in the distance, the River Severn glistened like a silvery snake in the weak afternoon sunshine.

A sheep dog sits on the ramparts of Haresfield Beacon SSSI on a sunny late January  afternoon
Shep surveys the land below Haresfield Beacon in Gloucestershire

Meanwhile Bruno and I continued to explore. There were so many lumps and bumps in the ground, and these are all signs of past human activity. Peoples in Bronze and Iron Age times would have used the natural contours of the land upon which to construct their settlements and this gave them a superb vantage point from which to protect themselves against marauding forces. In more recent times, Roman artefacts have also been found here suggesting that the Romans reused this Iron Age Fort for their own needs.

So, over time, the site has been inhabited by a succession of peoples as a place to live, a place to enclose their animals or a place to store their food

However, fascinating though all of this evidence of human settlement is, Haresfield Beacon has an even more ancient secret to share, and it is all to do with the underlying rocks.

As Bruno and I bounded along the ramparts we often had to skip over bare limestone rock jutting up above the soil surface.

This is oolitic limestone formed when calcium carbonate, of which it is comprised, becomes deposited, layer by layer, on specks of rock as they bounce along the seabed. As it forms, numerous fossil skeletons and shells get trapped within it, and Haresfield Beacon boasts a bed of fossils particularly rich in brachiopods and ammonites. Brachiopods resemble scallops and other shellfish that we find on our beaches today. However, they have a completely different line of symmetry, and the two shells (valves) are not identical.

Conversely, the ammonites had a coiled outer shell, and they are closely related to today’s squids and octopuses.

These rocks were formed during the Jurassic Period – the so called ‘age of the dinosaurs’.

The presence of ammonites is very useful because it can allow scientists to age the rocks very accurately. Ammonites have a very short life span which means they can evolve to adapt to changing conditions very quickly and subtly change in response. Looking at these changes, scientists are confident that the limestone was laid down during the early mid Jurassic period that is 174-163 Million years ago.

The winter sun was beginning to go down as our humans led us off Haresfield Beacon, but they couldn’t resist a walk up to the toposcope perched on another hilltop. As we walked away the sound of traffic completely faded away, a pheasant clacked its presence, and the long winter shadows crept like fingers across the fields below us – themselves etched with the ridge and furrow of past farming activity.

There were so many more dogs walking their humans on this part of the hillside and Bruno was keen to meet and greet as before. However, it is so important to recognise that not every human wants to interact, but Bruno, despite being young, is quite good at assessing the situation. Of course, sometimes our humans must think for us if we are to avoid disturbing the wildlife that has chosen to make the special places, that we visit, their home.

Two sheep dogs bask in the afternoon sunshine by the toposcope near Haresfield Beacon in Gloucestershire
Bruno and Shep have reached the toposcope near Haresfield Beacon in Gloucestershire

The thick ridge of Standish Wood invited us to extend our walk, but we had already used up our daylight – this is a walk for another day!

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