Richmond Park Geotrail
Richmond Park Geotrail
by The London Geodiversity Partnership
In an urban environment it is often difficult to ‘see’ the geology beneath our feet. This is also true within our open spaces. In Richmond Park there is not much in the way of actual rocks to be seen but it is an interesting area geologically as several different rock types occur there. It is for this reason that the southwest corner has been put forward as a Locally Important Geological Site. We will take clues from the landscape to see what lies beneath. Richmond Park affords fine views to both west and east which will throw a wider perspective on the geology of London.
Richmond Park is underlain by London Clay, about 51 million years old. This includes the sandier layers at the top, known as the Claygate beds. The high ground near Kingston Gate includes the Claygate beds but faulting along a line linking Pen Ponds to Ham Gate has allowed erosion on the high ground around Pembroke Lodge. Both high points are capped by the much younger Black Park Gravel, which is only about 400,000 years old, the earliest of the Thames series of terraces formed after the great Anglian glaciation. Younger Thames terrace gravels are also to be found in Richmond Park.
The route described is a circular walk, about 7 km long, beginning and ending at the Kingston Gate car park, open daily during daylight hours (toilets adjacent to the Gate). It conveniently passes Pembroke Lodge, approximately half-way round which makes a good stopping place with refreshments and toilet facilities. Part of the walk (near Pembroke Lodge) is on the Capital Ring and so if coming from the north along the Capital Ring to Pembroke Lodge the early part of the walk can be taken in reverse towards Kingston Gate, then in reverse the last part of the walk to Pen Ponds to rejoin the Capital Ring to exit Richmond Park at Robin Hood’s Gate.
Useful maps and guide books
The Royal Parks have a printable pdf map of Richmond Park on their website: www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/richmond-park/map-of-richmond-park.
Richmond Park from Medieval Pasture to Royal Park by Paul Rabbitts, 2014. Amberley Publishing.
The Walker’s Guide to Richmond Park by David McDowall, 2006. Published by David McDowell and available through the Friends of Richmond Park.
British Geological Survey 1:50,000 sheet 271 South London
Section 6 of the Capital Ring:
Start and end Car Park Kingston Gate TQ 193 706.
Nearest station is Norbiton, which is a 15-minute walk. The bus stop closest to the Kingston Gate on the main road between Kingston and Putney is called ‘Queens Road, Kingston Hospital’ and is served by buses 57, 85, 213. The 371 also stops close by.
Leaving the car park by the Exit Only sign, cross the road and head up hill bearing slightly to the right till you reach 66 rudimentary wooden steps which will take you onto the flat plateau at the top. Near the top of the steps an increasing number of the pebbles from the Black Park Gravel can be seen.
1. Black Park Gravel plateau TQ 1947 7075 (at top of steps)
The plateau near the King’s Clump is the most extensive on Richmond Park, continuing to the southeast beyond the park for about one kilometre on Coombe Hill. At about 53 metres it is at a similar elevation to the high ground near the Richmond Gate entrance to the Park that encompasses Pembroke Lodge and Sidmouth Wood. It is also the same height as Wimbledon Common to the east, separated by the low ground created by the course of the Beverley Brook. Both this south end of Richmond Park and the south end of Wimbledon Common are underlain by the full depth of London Clay with the Claygate beds at the top. There is at least a 50 million year time gap between the top of the solid geology (be it Claygate beds or London Clay) and the overlying gravels during which time any later sediments were subsequently eroded. The Black Park Gravel is the earliest of a series of Thames gravels in the London area, deposited only 400,000 years ago. These gravels underlie all of the high plateau areas in this part of London.
The Black Park Gravel is composed predominantly of flint pebbles originating from the hard grey layers within the softer, white Cretaceous Chalk. The rounded nature of some of them indicates a long period of erosion by flowing water. They may have been recycled through several periods of deposition and erosion. Other pebbles have come from much further away. Triassic ‘Bunter’ pebbles have been found that have been brought from the Midlands by the great Anglian ice sheet that reached as far as Finchley in North London. As the ice melted, about 400,000 years ago the transported pebbles and rock fragments were released into the engorged River Thames and deposited over a wide flood plain. It is likely that the Thames at that time was a braided river with many channels switching course repeatedly, much as can be seen today in places like Iceland where glaciers are retreating.
The Black Park Gravel is also found in East London. In a railway cutting in Hornchurch it overlies the glacial till, left behind by the retreating Anglian ice sheet. This exposure has helped to date the gravel as the earliest of the post-Anglian sequence and the cutting has become a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The same-aged gravel is still quarried at Mark’s Tey, not far from Hornchurch, and recently a boulder of dolerite, an igneous rock that solidified just beneath the surface, was found in the quarry. The nearest solid rock of this nature can be found in the Cleveland Dyke in Yorkshire and the Whin Sill in Northumberland so presumably the boulder was carried nearly all the way to London within the ice sheet before being released into the fast flowing melt water of the Thames. The first gravels after the Anglian glaciations have also revealed human bones at Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe, Kent on the south bank of the Thames. Three separate fragments of human skull were found in the 1930s and 50s. It is thought that they belonged to an early Neanderthal and the bones were those of a female. Perhaps early Neanderthals also roamed the shores of the Thames in Richmond Park as well? To date no artefacts or exotic rock fragments relating to the gravels of this age have been recorded.
On the Plateau take the broad path to your left to find the circular enclosure of Scots pines known as King’s Clump [TQ 1951 7089]. It is generally agreed that this is a barrow. The Scots pines were planted in 1901 for scenic purposes. Although Scots pines are not habitual so far south they do well here on the acid soil of the Black Park Gravel.
With King’s Clump to your right, take the small track in front of the bench, back down the slope to the west. It cuts through a clump of bracken. Turn right, around the bracken until you arrive at an area overlooking Gallows Pond where there are small exposures of sand [TQ 195 709].
2. Sand exposures beneath King’s Clump TQ 1945 7090
Small exposures just down slope from King’s Clump and the bracken beneath it are of a sandy nature. This is an important exposure but the sand is sometimes covered by surface sediment. Even when visible there is not enough of an exposure to be sure of the origin of the sand but the most likely explanation is that is from the Claygate beds, the near-shore top horizons of the London Clay. These are usually alternating clays and sands as the sea-level rose and fell over time, but layering is difficult to ascertain here. The London Clay and Claygate beds are marine and range in age from 55 to 50 million years. They were laid down at a time when the temperature was significantly higher than the present and the London Clay environment has been compared with Malaysia today; hot and wet but with some seasonality. Seeds from the London Clay found on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames and elsewhere provide the clues. The tropical Nipa palm, quite common in the London Clay is still found today; alongside are magnolia seeds providing evidence of seasonality. During London Clay times Britain was lying at 41° N, the same as Barcelona, Rome and Istanbul today. Summer temperatures in those cities are similar to Malaysia.
Continuing clockwise round King’s Clump and make your way back to the plateau and head due north keeping the Thatched House Lodge at a distance of about 200m to the left. The path passes through a clump of three young fenced beech trees. Follow the main path off the top of the plateau as it slopes down towards the old quarries below.
3. Old quarries at the north edge of the Black Park Gravel plateau TQ 1960 7115 (access track)
The sharp nature of the slope round the edges of the plateau in this area indicates that this was at one time quarried. Now it is very overgrown and exposures are hard to find but the quarry edge to the west (left from the track) is a good place to look. Gravel was seen in the roots of an upturned tree in this vicinity (TQ 1957 7122)
To the right of the track the area has been dug to a slightly lower level. A small stream is easily detected by its border of reeds. Following it towards the quarry edge reveals that it seems to begin at the junction of the bank and the floor. This marks the junction of the Black Park Gravel and the underlying Claygate beds. The gravel is more permeable than the alternating fine sand and clay of the Claygate beds and so rain-water from above can be found at the surface at the junction. Springs in Richmond Park mostly come from this junction but a second junction is found at a lower level between the Claygate beds and the much less permeable London Clay proper.
Return to the path and find a track leading due west, keeping the white building of Thatched Cottage Lodge to your left. The final 100m skirts the perimeter fence. The track emerges onto a fine view point to the west with a bench to sit and admire it.
4. View point along the Thames Valley from the ridge leading north from Thatched House Lodge TQ 1924 7131 (by bench)
On a clear day there is a spectacular view to the west from this point. In the far distance to the left can be seen the chalk ridge of the North Downs. The London Basin is enclosed by chalk with the high ground of the Chilterns on the north side. The chalk lies beneath the two under London and the aquifer created still provides London with much of its water. Views straight ahead and to the east are better studied at Stop 9 (King Henry’s Mound) where there is a map and a telescope to aid identification.
Looking at the ground immediately in front, it appears to be very hummocky. This is a result of repeated rotational slips where the sandy Claygate beds have slipped over the underlying London Clay (see diagram). The nature of the Claygate beds can be seen in the gullied path leading towards the road below and this is also a good place to examine the nature of the pebbles that make up the Black Park Gravel.
Descend the gully and take the second rough path to the left (south) to a small area where sand from the top of the slips is exposed behind an old oak tree. It is visible from the road and the exposed patches can be seen when driving by.
5. Roadside exposure beneath Thatched House Lodge TQ 192 712
The height of this exposure at c.32 m above sea-level indicates that it is beneath the height of the junction of the Claygate beds and the London Clay (c.40–45 m) yet sand similar to that seen at Stop 2 is exposed. This is readily explained when it is realised that it is the sand of the Claygate beds at the top of one of the blocks that has slipped down, rather than an in situ exposure.
Cross the road, turn right and walk north along the metalled path that parallels the road until you arrive at Ham Cross (the junction of Queens Road and Ham Dip).
6. Ham Cross Junction TQ 192 718
The dip of Ham Dip is a natural feature. This is the line of a fault that continues through the middle of Pen Ponds. The area to the south has been downthrown, perhaps about 10 m, with respect to the area of the north half of Richmond Park. As a result all the Claygate beds north of the fault appear to have been removed before the Black Park Gravel was deposited. At the low point in the road there is a small pond marking the line of the fault on the east side of the road.
Cross the two roads leading to Ham Gate and take the first track to the left onto the ridge that runs north to Pembroke Lodge. Where the track forks, take the right-hand route, past the bench, to keep on the ridge. Follow the track to the right that begins at the 2m high hollow tree stump.
7. Ridge to Pembroke Lodge (start TQ 190 717)
When walking along paths searching for clues to the geology look out for exposures, tell-tale plants, water (or absence of water), bearing in mind the topography. Be aware that paths have been repaired using imported material so if there is gravel under foot, check that it extends either side of the path. In this case the gravel is probably imported but eventually it is just clay underfoot. This is the London Clay. To the left there is a steep escarpment down to the Thames and occasionally small exposures can be seen close to the path. A good example is an eroded patch with a bench for observing the view, primarily to the southwest. As you approach the gates of Pembroke Lodge the ground becomes higher and there are pebbles underfoot; you are back on the Black Park Gravel.
Continue along the ridge to the entrance to Pembroke Lodge.
8. Pembroke Lodge TQ 1862 7288
Pembroke Lodge has an interesting history, best read in more general books on Richmond Park. One titbit tells how, in 1854, the Earl of Aberdeen's Cabinet met at Pembroke Lodge, Lord John Russell’s home, and decided to proceed with the Crimean War against Russia. Apparently several ministers were dozing at the time (summer’s day, late afternoon), and the rest were mysteriously compliant. So the very strongly worded statement, which was expected to provoke a ministerial debate, was approved with not one change. The rest is history.
If planning on completing the Circular Walk, Pembroke Lodge makes a good stopping point with fine views to the west. Refreshments are available, sandwiches and hot meals, as well as toilet facilities. There is a car park so the walk can be started from this point and there is a free shuttle bus around Richmond Park during the summer months that stops here once a week on a Wednesday. Just outside the gate, in the car park, there is a hut selling publications on Richmond Park run by the Friends. A second hut sells snacks.
Just before entering the grounds the path rises onto the Black Park Gravel but at this end of Richmond Park it rests directly on London Clay with over 50 million years of erosion and/or non-deposition between the two horizons. During this time the African continent collided with Europe, the Alps were pushed up and even as far north as southern England the affects were felt with the Weald of Kent and Sussex pushed up into an anticline and the London Basin downfolded into a syncline.
From the viewpoint in the gardens take metalled path to the north, following the signs to Poet’s Corner and King Henry's Mound. At the final signpost, however, walk instead through John Beer’s Laburnum Walk because immediately beyond the end of that, opposite the steps to the right, one can look down on to the roof of a circular brick-domed building probably built in about 1692 to exploit the springs in that area at the base of the gravels. It was used in the grand Petersham Lodge and its extensive formal landscape gardens known from the painting by Knyff & Kip (by 1720). In the nineteenth century it supplied water to drinking fountains and a school near the Petersham Gate.
Return through the Laburnum Walk following the sign to Poets’ Corner to ascend King Henry’s Mound on your left.
9. King Henry’s Mound TQ 1861 7310
This is an artificial mound which is the site of a barrow. The feature which is now commonly called ‘King Henry VIII's Mound’ appears to have little, if any, association with that monarch. (Henry had been dead for 90 years when the wall round the Park was completed in 1637.) It was shown on the 1637 map as ‘The King's Standynge’ and may well have been the place where Royal falconers stood for hunting rabbits from ‘The Warren’ shown below that point on the edge of Petersham Park. It is one of possibly three barrows along that escarpment. It has clearly been extensively remodelled. It is associated with the false story that Henry waited there to hear news of Anne Boleyn's execution in May 1536. Evidence shows, however, that Henry was hunting in Wiltshire, or possibly Windsor that day. Wherever the King may have been, it is extremely unlikely that he was in Richmond. In 1835 it was reported that the earth mound had been opened and a considerable deposit of ashes was found in the centre of it. Incidentally, rabbits burrow into sand, they avoid clay, and burrows can provide evidence for the underlying geology.
The mound provides a view point to St Paul’s Cathedral, some 10 miles to the northeast. This is the highest point of Richmond Park and at 57.4 m is level with the base of the dome. The top of the dome is 108.1 m high. This is now a protected view and is maintained here as a clipped arch by the Royal Parks with a clearing through Sidmouth Wood close by. St Paul’s is visible with the naked eye on clear days and there is free use of the strategically placed telescope to enhance the view. Although St Paul’s is situated near to the Thames it was built on a prominent hill, Ludgate Hill. This is capped by the Taplow Gravel, lower down the sequence of Thames terraces than the Black Park Gravel.
The view to the west is similar to the view at Stop 4 but here is the added advantage of a map of what you are looking at and the telescope to see it more clearly. Almost due west, just to the left of Heathrow Airport, is Windsor Castle, built on a hill formed where the Chalk has risen to a level 100 metres or so higher than the surrounding area. It is not easy to see Windsor Castle, except on a very clear day because of the dark shape of Bowsey Hill beyond it. The steeper hill to the right and beyond the Heathrow Control Tower is Ashley Hill. Both these hills are capped by patches of London Clay surrounded by the Chalk.
What is very noticeable is how steeply the ground falls away. At this point the bend in the Thames at Richmond is less than one kilometre away and as the river has cut down it has left a steep slope of London Clay. Standing here on the plateau of Black Park Gravel it is difficult to imagine that the Thames was once at this height. Over 400,000 years it has eroded over 50 m to its current position of 2-3 m OD at Richmond Bridge. When the Black Park Gravel was deposited, it was on the bed of the Thames. It shows us, therefore, that the steep slope between us and the modern River Thames is the result of erosion at roughly the rate of about 40 m in 400,000 years (or 1 cm per century).
Before the Anglian glaciation, which reached its peak 450,000 years ago, the route of the Thames was via the Vale of St. Alban’s to the North Sea near Clacton. It was the ice sheet that pushed the river further south. The ice never reached as far as south London but as it retreated the Thames found a new course through what is now London. London was built here because of the Thames so, geologically, at 400,000 years, we are a young city.
From the base of King Henry’s Mound follow the Capital Ring route to the centre of Pen Pond, or take a short diversion north back to the sight line to St Paul’s. Emerge behind King Henry’s Mound, then cross the road to reach the side of Sidmouth Wood Plantation to reach the sight line. By careful looking in the grassland close to this point a manhole cover is revealed. This is the access to the large underground reservoir built here in 1876 to store water pumped up from the Chalk in the deep well in Water Lane, Richmond for the town’s main water supply.
Turning back southwards following the edge of the woods one passes also the smaller covered reservoir built in the 1860’s to supply Kew Gardens with Thames water pumped up from their filter beds. A little further on, this wood edge path joins the Capital Ring. Follow that to the Pen Ponds.
10. Pen Ponds TQ 200 730
These ponds were built by building dams across the valley rather than by extensive excavation as is clear from their shape. They lie along the line of the fault to Ham Gate (see Stop 6 and geology map, Stop 2) which here has made a natural dip so it was an obvious location to choose. Pen Ponds were dug soon after the Park was enclosed in 1637 and apparently gravel continued to be extracted until 1683. The ‘gravel’ extracted in this location is what is termed ‘Head’; a relatively recent deposit of eroded material from higher up which will include the Blackpark Gravel, the Claygate beds and the London Clay. There is reference to a boat on the ponds as early as 1650 and they were first shown on a map by Roque (1741-5) in more or less their present position and plan. In 1754 Edward John Eyre made ‘A Plan of his Majesty’s New Park at Richmond in Surrey’ which appears to show their main water supply was from springs and reservoirs in woods that are now Sidmouth Wood and Queen Elizabeth Plantation. This fits with a geological origin of springs emerging from the base of the Black Park Gravel.
Approaching Pen Ponds from Sidmouth Wood, two hillocks can be seen on the high ground beyond. The White Lodge is situated on the left hillock with a fine view over the ponds. The hill on the right is known as Spankers Hill and both hillocks are capped with gravel from the next sequence in the Thames gravels, known as Boyn Hill Gravel which is about 350,000 years old. With each successive cold stage the Thames cut down further, creating a new terrace. The terraces are very hard to date and a number of methods have been attempted over the years. One of the most significant is to use the bones and artefacts found within each terrace. The ages are linked to cores in the North Sea and are related to ‘Marine Isotope Stages’. The odd-numbered stages relate to interglacials (see diagram). Unlike the older Black Park Gravel artefacts have been found associated with the Boyn Hill within Richmond Park. As well as being slightly younger than the Black Park Gravel, it has a slightly different composition. Although it is still predominantly composed of flint in a sandy matrix, it does also contain rare pebbles of Greensand Chert which will have come from the Weald of Sussex, Kent and Surrey, perhaps by an early version of the River Mole.
A handaxe from Richmond Park near White Lodge was found by Mr. C. H. Watson in 1949 on a gravelly field and described by Wymer in 1968. The artefact is now in the Wymer Collection held at the Geography Department, Royal Holloway, University of London. A second implement from the same collection, from Richmond, was provenanced by Wymer to the Boyn Hill Gravel from details on its label. It seems that early humans were roaming close by 350,000 years ago.
Follow the path on the south bank of the top pond and continue beside the enclosed Pond Plantation beyond. At the end of the wood walk along the metalled road then take a path that cuts across the open grassland to the northwest corner of the Isabella Plantation by Peg’s Pond. There are toilets at this entrance, Bottom Gate, and at the top High Wood Gate exit.
11. Isabella Plantation, Peg’s Pond entrance TQ 195 720
In spring time the Isabella Plantation is a riot of rhododendrons and azaleas. It is slightly surprising that this location was chosen for the Isabella Plantation as both shrubs are acid-loving and would prefer the sand and gravel soils of the Black Park Gravel. Instead the plantation is situated on London Clay. However, there is a surface deposit of sandy soil over some of the area, labelled as Head. This is a mixture of sand, clay and pebbles eroded from the southern plateau; Isabella Plantation lies just below and adjacent to it. Heather, another acid-loving plant also thrives here. Springs arising from the base of the Claygate and Black Park Gravel cross the site, initially supplying water.
The Isabella Plantation is bisected by a stream running down the middle into Peg’s Pond at the bottom, with tributaries from Still Pond and Thomson’s Pond. Although water from natural small springs probably flowed through the enclosure, the Plantation has always been short of its own water. In 1950 James Fisher initiated the woodland garden in the Isabella Plantation. He began by clearing the Still Pond and started the construction of a watercourse to link it with Peg’s Pond, which at that time lay outside the plantation. By 1960 Thompson had obtained an additional water supply from the Metropolitan Water Board. Unfiltered Thames water was pumped into a reservoir in the Sidmouth Wood Plantation and from there it fed the Isabella Plantation. Additional water enabled improvement of the original ditch from Broomfield Hill to the east and extended a stream into a second area to the east of the first one – now known as the Main Stream. In the mid 1960s a third more meandering stream was constructed to the north of Thomson’s Stream, and a large pond, Thomson’s Pond was excavated, which the stream fills on its way down to join the Main Stream close to Peg’s Pond. After the 1976 Great Drought, the now expensive purified mains water supplied by Metropolitan Water Board was replaced by an independent water supply. Water is pumped from Pen Ponds to the top of the garden to feed each water feature. It flows down the streams to Peg’s Pond, and returns by gravity through an outlet to Pen Ponds via culverts and open ditches. This system is still in place today although it has been updated from time to time.
From the High Wood Gate exit at the north end of the Isabella Plantation take the path straight ahead then follow the tracks in a south-easterly direction back to the Kingston Gate car park. There are paths that more or less parallel the road without the need of walking along it. The easiest way off the plateau is via the rudimentary steps up from the car park. An alternative exit for pedestrians is Ladderstile Gate, but there is no longer any need to climb the stile over the wall .
12. Return via Black Park Gravel plateau: brickmaking, geology and vegetation
Between 1634 and 1637 the almost 8-mile-long perimeter wall was constructed enclosing Richmond Park. It is reported that the bricks that built the nine foot high wall were made ‘on site’. Maps show a shallow hollow in this vicinity that was the site of a former tile kiln. The kiln has long since disappeared and even the hollow is now masked by bracken.
There are two possible sources of clay found in the area that are suitable for large scale brick-making. The Claygate beds that lie in this area have just the right amount of sand required and this is a very likely candidate for the source of the brick-making. The Claygate beds were extensively used in north London, particularly within and around Hampstead Heath where the tell-tale over-heated, welded bricks in the garden walls provide continued evidence.
Brickearth is another good brick-making clay as the name implies. More technically, the Langley Silt is found locally in areas of low ground. There is a patch immediately below King Henry’s Mound to the west, underlying Petersham Park. Other patches underlie the urban areas of Kingston-upon-Thames and Surbiton. There is evidence that Terrace Gardens and Terrace Fields by the edge of the Thames just to the north of Petersham Park were exploited for bricks from the early 1600s. The clay is a wind-blown ‘loess’ blown south from retreating glaciers and redeposited locally by water. As well as clay and fine sand it also contains ground up fragments of chalk that make it particularly good for brick-making. It was operating at the time the wall was built and could possibly have contributed to the stock of bricks. London Clay is used occasionally in London but sand and chalk need to be added to it. Its iron and gypsum content also make it less suitable for brick-making.
The wall has needed many repairs over the years and Paul Rabbitts in his book on Richmond Park gives several quotations about some of the early restorations. There are also references about the use of bricks in building New Lodge and White Lodge in the History of the King’s Works (Volume 5) by H. Calvin.
David McDowell, in his book The Walker’s Guide to Richmond Park, describes the acid grassland of the plateaux as the most important acid grassland area in the Greater London Area. The acid nature of the soil is hardly surprising as it underlain by the nutrient-poor Black Park Gravel. The grass here is finer bladed than the more lush grass of the lower areas underlain by London Clay. Many plants seen on the plateau are acid-loving; amongst them are the conifers – the Scots pines have already been mentioned at Stop 1 – and the rhododendrons in the Isabella Plantation. It is surprising they have not colonised the entire Park. This is mainly because the deer keep down the vegetation but probably the Friends of Richmond Park are vigilant as well. Bracken does well but unfortunately the deer and human and canine feet have probably eliminated the natural heather that was probably once found here.
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