On the edge of a Massive Massif


Gorges d’Héric (photo taken by your contributor)

I have lived in south-west France for 8 years, while completing several British university degrees, mostly around earth sciences and environmental studies – hence my semi-professional and unreservedly enthusiastic geological interest.

Castres is famously ‘rugby country’ (at least amongst us aficionados); otherwise, these last ramparts of the Massif Central are little known, even by the French. The nearest part of the Massif to the Pyrenees, a proverbial ‘well-kept secret’, this special and surprisingly diverse area has huge potential for enthusiastic geologists and travellers alike.

This wonderfully detailed (therefore slow-loading) NASA relief map of France shows that the Massif Central stretches all the way from the Alps to the Pyrenees. The Montagnes Noires (Black Mountains), are right at the south-west, where the Aquitaine Basin starts sloping gently towards the ocean; they form an east-west sub-range, with the slightly higher but more amorphous Hauts (uplands) of Lacaune just north. Geologically, all belong to the Massif.

Figure 1: The Black Mountains, the Lacaune Hills and the Sidobre [Source: Adapted from http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/jpeg/PIA03393.jpg]

Figure 1: The Black Mountains, the Lacaune Uplands and the Sidobre [ Source: Adapted from http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/jpeg/PIA03393.jpg ]

“South-west France” suggests typically Mediterranean vegetation: scrub, gorse, cacti. This is somewhat valid for the southern slopes of the Black Mountains, between Carcassonne, the UNESCO-listed medieval city (the fortress of which was used by Kevin Costner as his Robin Hood ‘Nottingham Castle’!) and Béziers – also with their ‘Cathar Castles’ (a useful label, albeit a misnomer – see below). Here too are the southern slopes’ reputed ‘Languedoc’ wines such as Corbières, Minervois, and Saint-Chinian – geological fieldwork and leisure are not mutually exclusive pursuits!

Carcassone all

Figure 2 Various views of Carcassonne’s defensive walls, the ‘cité’, and the fortified castle; taken by your contributor

To the north, in sharp contrast, a rain-shadow fosters vast natural mixed coniferous-deciduous forests, important if little-known rivers such as the Tarn, the Aveyron…. and thus some fantastic gorges (and a few grottos, such as Cabrespine and Devèze). For over three centuries, this rainfall has been artificially feeding the 17th century Canal du Midi, also UNESCO-listed, which is situated to the south of the mountains; the canal stretches from the Mediterranean at Béziers/Agde westwards as far as Toulouse. (The 1850s Garonne Canal links Toulouse to the Atlantic Ocean, the two canals forming the ‘Canal of the Two Seas’).

The above-mentioned Tarn river formed (and is still forming) the Tarn Gorges, over which the famous and fantastic Millau Viaduct crosses; this is officially the world’s tallest bridge. Not far downstream is beautiful Albi – which is, with my apologies for repetition, also UNESCO-listed! Further west are the Gorges d’Aveyron which offer beautiful villages and family-friendly canoeing – the gorges up-close-and-personal.


Figure 3 Millau Viaduct, Millau and its bridge (Source: used with the permission of the rights holder, Eiffage)

Space here does not permit me to do justice to the variety and quality of the local geology. But please indulge me one close-to-home example, the Gorges d’Héric (map here), and even then only briefly, alas. Access is easy, there are pleasant walks for all ages, with rock climbing for the more adventurous. Further, visitors can bathe in fresh spring waters.

These gorges are bordered on one side by the Massif du Carroux (gneiss, steep, rugged slopes) and on the other by the Monts d’Espinouse (more complex: granite, gneiss and schist, with seams of soft bituminous coal; it is here where the Agout River rises). The national park is noted for its wild ‘mouflon’ sheep roaming the steep escarpments here. Botany fans too will be spoilt.


Figure 4 Gorges d’Héric, various and varied images, taken by your contributor; they are representative regarding the site’s accessibility, but do not do it justice regarding the views – and you cannot hear the waterfalls from the photos!

The Agout later flows through Brassac, where I work at Transports Maury. Of both personal and professional interest, therefore, not least because it is literally outside my office door, is the Sidobre, a major granite site, important both for its beauty and for its extractive value. In the interest of aesthetics, these two activities are wisely kept apart, though of course many visitors, not least geology enthusiasts, come to study the mining too. Many appreciate the associated artwork using the granite. The Champs Elysées ‘Parisian walkways’ are paved with Sidobre granite.


Figure 5 Transports Maury’s ‘home’: Brassac, with the 12th century asymmetric cobblestone bridge in the foreground (and shown right), made of course from local granite. Source: http://www.tourisme-tarn.com.

There are many geological attractions within traveling distance of ‘home’. Just south of the Sidobre, up the road from Castres (the aforementioned rugby town on the Agout River), is Le Causse de Caucalière, which is a “vast lacustrine plateau (about 1900 hectares §) of limestone dating from the Tertiary Period, rich in fossils” — my translation of the website of one of the municipalities situated on the plateau. (§ ~4700 acres).

Little Venice

Figure 6 The “Houses on the Agout River” in Castres, called by some “Little Venice”. Source: http://www.tourisme-castres.fr/

Slightly further afield, surely meriting a multi-day trip, are the Pyrenees, with their wonderfully asymmetric and unusual orogeny due to the “opening of the Bay of Biscay”, thus ‘wedging’ (both ‘pro-wedging’ and ‘retro-wedging’, for enthusiasts of the details) and rotating the future Iberian peninsula west-to-east into south-west Eurasia (i.e. France).

The Pyrenees are clearly visible from local uplands, and are easily accessible by minibus or coach. On the way, explore the ‘Cathar Castles’ (ask your guide ‘en route’ why this is the aforementioned misnomer) and Bugarach, more interesting for its beauty and its reportedly upside-down (actually a thrust fault) geology than for the fact that it was the village at the end of the world – back in 2012!

Composite satellite image of the Pyrenees (NASA)

Composite satellite image of the Pyrenees (NASA)

In the opposite direction, I suggest a very different multi-day excursion, to visit the Auvergne (extinct) volcanos and the (yet again, UNESCO-listed) Causses and Cevennes agro-pastoral landscape. All this without even starting to present my adopted region’s culture, history, prehistoric grottos, gastronomic and oenological attractions!

I recognise that I am lucky to live here, and further to work in tourism, not least promoting local geological attractions – having earth-science, environment and natural science qualifications from a British university. I want to share this, so I am more than enthusiastic to advise geology enthusiasts (and others) on fieldwork and leisure trips. Indeed, and as already discussed, fieldwork and leisure are not mutually exclusive, and never will be. Thankfully.

  • Peter Culleton has various qualifications, including in geology; he works at Transports Maury, a transport and tourism company based in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France.
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Ancient life in three dimensions

The Journal of the Geological Society’s series of ‘Review Focus’ articles on fossil Lagerstätten continues with a remarkable fossil collection from Strawberry Bank, Ilminster, Somerset…

infant Pelagosurus crocodile (top), a Pachycormus fish (middle), and the skull of an ichthyosaur (Hauffiopteryx typicus , bottom) Credit: Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.

infant Pelagosurus crocodile (top), a Pachycormus fish (middle), and the skull of an ichthyosaur (Hauffiopteryx typicus , bottom) Credit: Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.

In the early 1840s, noted Bath-based geologist Charles Moore (1815-1881) was out for a walk in Ilminster, Somerset, when he saw some school boys kicking a rounded boulder about. On cracking it open, to his amazement, Moore found a perfect three-dimensionally preserved fish inside – just one of a collection of fossils revealing secrets about life 190 million years ago.

Since that first find, Moore collected hundreds more of the nodules, forming a collection which has lain, almost forgotten, in the museum of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution in Queen’s Square, Bath.

Infant crocodile, 26cm long. Credit: Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution

Infant crocodile, 26cm long. Credit: Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution

Now, thanks to the exception preservation conditions, and a collaboration between the BRLSI and palaeontologists from the University of Bristol, the fossils are revealed in a paper published this week in the Journal of the Geological Society.

‘It was obvious that these fossils were very special from the first time I saw them on joining the BRLSI’ says Matt Williams, curator of the collection.

‘Our stores are full of treasures, but these specimens are truly unique. We secured some funding to clean and curate them, and uncovered some unexpected treasures.’

larger juvenile crocodile skull of the same species and about as long as the whole infant specimen. Credit: Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution

larger juvenile crocodile skull of the same species and about as long as the whole infant specimen. Credit: Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution

The collection includes two species of ichthyosaurs, tiny marine crocodiles and hundreds of insects.

‘When Matt first showed me the fossils I couldn’t believe it’ says Professor Michael Benton from the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, who is collaborating on the project.

‘There are 100 nodules containing a large fish called Pachycormus, five or six tiny marine crocodiles, and two species of ichthyosaurs. There are also early squid with their ink sacs and other soft tissues preserved, and hundreds of insects that had flown out over the shallow, warm seas of the day’.

The skull of a juvenile ichthyosaur, Hauffiopteryx typicus and a model made from data gathered through X-Ray micro CT. Credit: to Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution

The skull of a juvenile ichthyosaur, Hauffiopteryx typicus and a model made from data gathered through X-Ray micro CT. Credit: to Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution

The site, Strawberry Bank, has now been built over and lost, but work has begun in earnest on preserving and studying the fossils Moore first discovered 150 years ago. A grant of £250,000 from the Leverhulme Trust will fund three-dimensional scanning and further research, with fossil fish expert Matt Freidman of the University of Oxford.

Journal reference:

  • Williams, M., Benton, M.J. & Ross, A. 2015. The Strawberry Bank Lagerstätte reveals insights into Early Jurassic life. Journal of the Geological Society, first published online July 15, 2015, http://doi.org/10.1144/jgs2014-144



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The 100 Great Geosites Photo Competition

Flickr albumsHelp us create a 2016 #100geosites calendar!

This time last year, you were hard at work flooding us with nominations for our #100geosites project – over 400 sites made it into the longlist before public voting began.

In October, we launched the final list – 100 of the great geological sites you can see in the UK & Ireland, divided into 10 categories. Many people sent us beautiful images of the sites as part of their nominations – which got us thinking about other ways we could display the project….

geosites compilation image 1

The Calendar

The 2016 #100geosites calendar will feature 12 of our sites, with some background information about them and how to visit. It will also contain a map of the full list, as well as useful geological dates for your diary.

To create it, we need your help…. Continue reading

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Spectacular Moroccan fossils redefine evolutionary timelines

A marrellomorph arthropod, probably belonging to the genus Furca. c. Peter Van Roy

A marrellomorph arthropod, probably belonging to the genus Furca. c. Peter Van Roy

Some of the oldest marine animals on the planet, including armoured worm-like forms and giant, lobster like sea creatures, survived millions of years longer than previously thought, according to a spectacularly preserved fossil formation from southeastern Morocco. Continue reading

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Jurassic World Review

jurassic world posterJurassic Park was over twenty years ago, and people just aren’t buzzed by a T rex like they used to be. The format is tired, the thrills too predictable. Audiences demand more. Continue reading

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The 2015 Great Geobakeoff – the results!

USBWe launched the second annual Great Geobakeoff with some trepidation. Had geobaking fatigue set in? Was everyone too busy watching the General Election to notice? Is it in fact impossible to bake a hidden fossil cake?

Of course, our concerns were needless. Once again, the geobaking world has answered our call to arms, and produced a wondrous array of edible geological constructions. Many thanks to everyone who joined in, and we hope your kitchens have since recovered from the carnage. Continue reading

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‘San Andreas’ – a crack in the edge of credibility

Dwayne Johnson saves the family

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as Ray. A better actor than most former wrestlers

Geoscientist Editor Ted Nield reviews the latest geology-related cinema release.

A divorced search and rescue helicopter pilot (Ray, played by Dwayne Johnson) goes in search of his daughter in earthquake-hit San Francisco and is reunited with her and his ex-wife in  the process.   Yes, the Coast is toast – yet again. Continue reading

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The Lyme Regis Fossil Festival – make your own fossil cast!

A couple of weeks ago, we headed to Lyme Regis for the annual geological extravaganza that is the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, armed with fossils, badges, geological colouring in and a brand new activity.

This year, for the first time, we took part in the schools programme, talking to over 140 primary school children about all things geological.

One of the many school groups to visit our stand

One of the many school groups to visit our stand

As we’re celebrating the Year of Mud and the William Smith Map Bicentenary, we wanted to take a long an activity which would relate to both. Many thanks to the palaeontologists from Leeds University and the Palaeontological Association for inspiring our solution! Continue reading

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The 2015 Joint Photographic Competition

NugentM Etna beneath our Feet

c. Malcolm Nugent ‘Etna Beneath our Feet.’

The annual photography competition, organised by a number of our Regional Groups, is now open to all geologists, amateur or professional, living within the postal districts of the Southern Wales, West Midlands and North Western Regional Groups. Continue reading

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2015 Nepal Earthquake

Nepal 2015_Nepal_earthquake_ShakeMap_version_6

Nepal Earthquake ShakeMap (USGS)

In the early hours of 25 April, 2015 a magnitude 7.8 earthquake occurred in Nepal. The largest the country has experienced in over 80 years, the earthquake occurred due to thrust faulting resulting from the subducting India plate and the overriding Eurasia plate to the North. Continue reading

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