Nor for all but the latest sliver of the ninety-nine million years that followed, for that matter.
What about the land they now called England? That existed, in a manner of speaking. But it had no humans yet, and so no names based on imaginary lines on maps or in minds. It also sat about in tropical latitudes some thousand miles from where it is now. It had dinosaurs. When it wasn’t underwater – which much of the time it was.
And while it was underwater, it had something else: extremely tiny planktons which, when they died, left behind extremely tiny calcium carbonate shells. There were a lot of them. More than forty million years’ worth in fact. And that’s why these extremely tiny creatures are among the most extremely important things to the people of what is now southern England.
They’re standing on them.
Standing on them physically, but also mentally. The English like standing on these planktons’ contributions. It makes them feel English. Be it rolling downs like the Chiltern Hills or the soaring cliffs of Dover and Beachy Head, chalk is a nigh-obligatory feature in the green-and-pleasant landscapes of their national imagination.
The cliffs are ironic. Within that imagination their chalk is a barrier, a natural wall against the inferior barbarian hordes on the European mainland. In reality the chalk does the opposite. Its province of deposits does not separate but connects England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands over a timespan for much of which the island of Britain was no island at all but a European peninsula. The Dover cliffs are not a wall, but a bridge beneath the Channel to the Alabaster Coast of Normandy. It’s the same chalk.
Chalk – that is the concern of today’s length of river. It is through the outer arms of this Cretaceous (literally, chalky) realm that the river cuts down to Reading and the comparatively recent sands and clays of the London Basin. And having followed the water up that basin, it is time to cross into a more ancient land: the Jurassic reaches of Oxford, and in their midst, the river’s origins in Cotswold limestone.
The river created this passage itself. Later it would prove important to the human immigrants by funnelling their boats, roads and railways through its narrow corridor. And so the corridor sprouted a pair of villages: Goring on one side, Streatley on the other. From the former comes their present name for this gap in the chalk: the Goring Gap.
Start: Whitchurch Bridge (nearest station: Pangbourne)
End: Goring Bridge (nearest station: Goring and Streatley)
Length: 6.4km/4 miles
Location: Oxfordshire – South Oxfordshire
Topics: Whitchurch, Hartslock Wood, Gatehampton, Goring, and the geology of the Thames
First off, a smaller crossing: that of the river itself, from Pangbourne into the village of Whitchurch which faces it on the north bank.
|From atop the bridge, the view back into the London Basin. Today we leave this for the older, higher Thames.|
|To the west, a first glimpse of Whitchurch communicates the genteel character of this area’s social landscapes.|
Straight away we are necessitated to do what we’ve so often had to on this journey and take an inland detour to get past propertied land-grabs. On this occasion we can take advantage of this to get up close and personal with the geology in question, for after following the river along the southern dip slope of the Chiltern Hills, we now find them sweeping in right up to the water’s edge. To advance into Whitchurch is straight away to climb uphill.
|Whitchurch is smaller than Pangbourne. Most of it branches off this main road, here beginning its climb up the Chilterns.|
|They’re huddling round this tree for protection because they know the politics has gone all wrong.|
|According to ancient Chinese philosopher Gongsun Long, ‘a white horse is not a horse’. What about a green horse?|
After accumulating a little altitude, it’s time to swing left and seek the river again.
|Many of the pastures here seem set up for horse grazing. This horse does appear to be a horse (but you never know).|
|When the fence concedes a view over the river valley, it is to reveal this stock of nuclear warheads in the guise of agricultural supplies.|
And now the ground starts to undulate, as the road turns to path and plunges into that rarest of environments on these cleared, farmed and propertied riverbanks: proper woodland.
|The first serious ups and downs on this journey indicate geological happenings worth paying attention to.|
|Through gaps in the trees the Chilterns roll. Their name is said to come from Cilterne in the ancient Celtic languages, meaning ‘land beyond the hills’.|
Hartslock Wood and the Goring Gap
The name Hartslock descends from a family called the Harts who once installed a lock on the river here. The river didn’t like it and by 1800 it was already in ruins. But apparently it was never demolished properly, and a hundred years later boats were still getting damaged by the bits sticking out.
They tried to farm this area too. With twentieth-century agricultural technology there weren’t many wild places they couldn’t flatten into commercial farmland. But here on this slope they gave up. The chalk was too steep, made the soil too infertile. Hartslock Wood is now a protected nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), one of the few of its kind remaining and home to some very rare plants and animals.
And then, a short distance into these woods, the ground to the left suddenly drops away. It’s a chalk cliff, directly above the river: we now stand on the very west edge of the Chiltern escarpment.
|And there’s the river. It might be down there now, but it was that flow which carved out this gap between the Chiltern Hills...|
|...and the Berkshire Downs on the other side, which despite getting a different name are really the same chalk ridge.|
Scattered across the far side are the dispersed hamlets of Basildon, which might look like the middle of nowhere but were actually pretty centrally-positioned. They grew up on the old Roman road through this gap, which was later the contested frontier between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia – thus getting successively rampaged over by those kingdoms’ armies, the Normans, the Angevins, and then the bubonic plague. Its nonetheless prosperous manors later gave rise to Jethro Tull, whose inventions pioneered the eighteenth-century mechanical revolution in English agriculture.
|Back on the Chiltern side, this tree has grown its roots in a tentacular manner to express its disapproval for the cosmic horror of the English socio-economic condition.|
|Is this the Golden Hopelight flower, which grows in the soil of countries where there’s at least a minuscule chance that they’re not irrevocably doomed? Alas, no – it would appear to be the easily-misidentified Future-To-Dust Follyblossom.|
Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on here. Here is an extremely simplified attempt to make sense of this region (as well as a reminder of why I don't draw things):
Like its human history, the deep history of the British landmass is a story of migration and diversity (only without the hostile panic at it). The journey of this land upon the tectonic movements of the Earth’s crust has brought it through hot and cold, over and under the water, and across the planet’s surface from as far as where Antarctica is now, ever rising and falling, growing and shrinking, losing chunks and joining greater wholes.
As such its present-day geological profile reads like a colourful cross-section of three billion years of planetary history. The general principle is that the further north and west you go, the older the layers that rise to the surface, with the Precambrian metamorphic gneiss of the Scottish far north and the Hebrides lurking at the deep end of this scale.
Here at the younger southern end, the Thames threads through several of this land’s more recent layers. We are now high enough up the river to begin consideration of the one it first sprung from: the sedimentations of the warm and shallow sea that covered what is now the Oxford Basin in the Jurassic period, about 145 to 200 million years ago. Oxford’s fossil-rich clays accumulated over that period, and so did the honey-coloured limestone of the Cotswold Hills, formed of billions of tiny calcium carbonate shells left behind by tiny marine organisms and rolled around into cute ovular shapes (ooids) on the shallow sea floor. Today it is from their midst that the Thames springs.
There followed a dramatic change in climate, marking the end of the Jurassic period and start of the Cretaceous. In this chapter of the story, lasting famously to the extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago, these lands were submerged under deeper seas, further from exposed rocks and thus from their eroded sediments. As a result the tiny marine organisms of this time left far purer calcite shells, which over this period, built up into a province of a softer, more porous variety of limestone: chalk – known as creta in Latin, hence Cretaceous period.
|Chalk which here regularly emerges from the thin soil, and has a distinct texture beneath the soles of your shoes.|
The Chalk Group is the general name for this province of deposits. It encompasses all the chalk formations of south and east England, including the Chiltern Hills and Berkshire Downs here at its edge, as well as the Dover cliffs and various Downs in south England; but also the white limestone cliffs of Antrim in Ireland, the Alabaster Coast of Normandy and wine caves of Champagne in France, numerous formations in the Low Countries, Germany and Denmark, and even the petroleum-bearing shelves beneath the North Sea. At the risk of understating its complexity (there are multiple chalk subgroups as well as different localised processes), this chalk is essentially a single contiguous unit developed over tens of millions of years.
All this chalk then got crumpled towards its present shape by the violent tectonic upheavals of around 30-50 million years ago – an orogeny, as they call it (from Greek óros + génesis, ‘creation of mountains’), whose plate movements pushed up the long chain of Eurasian mountains from the Alps and Atlas at one end to the Himalayas at the other. Here at the edge of the action they only got small “mountains” like the Chilterns and the Downs, while the spaces in between sank to form valleys like the London Basin.
In London the chalk is still down there, deep beneath the ground we’ve walked up so far. But during and since those foldings it has collected a few more layers of deposits, including, eventually, on account of the Thames and its tributaries.
It’s impossible to state when exactly the river’s story begins, but for most of its existence it is thought to have run more or less straight east to the sea. Its change to its present course is, by the scales we’ve been looking at here, extremely recent. It came about thanks to the ongoing glaciation (“ice age”) of the last two million years or so, or more precisely, its alternating glacial and interglacial periods of advancing and retreating ice sheets (of which the planet is currently in one of the latter).
It so happened that the early Thames ran close to the limit of the Arctic ice sheets’ advance. The ice was not all that thick down here, but grew substantial enough to form blockages to the river’s route and cause it to grind into the Chalk Group in search of paths of less resistance, especially when the melting ice turned its flow torrential. Eventually – it’s not clear exactly when – the water broke through the chalk right here, creating what they now call the Goring Gap and plunging a new course into the London Basin. With it went huge loads of glacial debris, which it would go on to deposit as London’s sand and gravel terraces.
The wider landscape remained in tremendous flux in this period, with temperatures and sea levels rising and falling. Britain alternated between peninsula and island. It was connected to the European mainland till as recently as 10,000 years ago, when much of the North Sea was exposed as a landmass called Doggerland and the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine. Only when Doggerland submerged due to undersea landslides around 6,000 BCE did Britain become an island again.
Which is hardly its final destiny. These processes are still ongoing, right now, at the same patient pace as has always been their way. It can’t be said, however, that they’re so vast as to be indifferent as to the humans who came along and ruined it with pretend-games like nationhood and private property. These too have had real geological impacts: the draining of lowlands, forest clearance and consequent accelerated erosion, gravel and clay extraction, and of course, anthropogenic climate change with its vast and wide-ranging impacts on temperatures, sea levels, flooding, coastal erosion and ecology. Whether humans like the English will come to terms with their position as characters within this ongoing story, rather than authors who think they’ve ended it and stand with arms folded on its cover, will strongly influence how it unfolds from here.
|This is obviously a tunnel into another world; on the balance of probabilities, a healthier one where they’ve made far better choices than in this one. No entry if you’re too tall.|
So let’s press on and – there. You see?
|This. Look at this. The English and their choices.|
|Presumably this is a World War II bunker. They were scared of the Germans invading, expected they’d do so by means of the river, and somehow imagined that if they did a thing like this would stop them.|
Gradually the woods thin and the slopes ease down to the present-day river level. The trees open up to reveal broad views of the Goring Gap.
|More of the Chilterns’ western slopes. Notice the extremely English barbed wire, fending wayfarers off property claims that should be common land.|
|The chalk is never far beneath your feet.|
|As the chalk poorly suits this ground for growing crops, most Goring Gap farmland appears to be pasture for cows or horses.|
|Despite its narrow isolation, the Gap’s geography has made it a pinch-point for human travel and communication routes, thus connecting its villages – eventually – to metropolitan culture.|
Inside the bend before the Gap is the isolated hamlet of Gatehampton. This tiny cluster of farms and cottages has been an outlying satellite of Goring for over a thousand years, though it picked up a manor house when Enclosure hit it around 1700. But if it’s never exactly been huge, its modest size belies its historic weight. Flint hunting tools have been found here from some ten thousand years ago, some of the earliest post-glacial Neolithic relics in the country, as well as Bronze Age graves, Iron Age potteries, and the remains of sophisticated Roman and sub-Roman farm buildings, including a grain-drying kiln and a villa with painted walls and floor heating.
Clearly this site, on a river ford at the entrance to the narrowest part of this geographic funnel, has held vital and continuous importance to humans living on or moving about this land. Indeed, it’s one theory as to where Gatehampton’s name comes from. The ‘home farm at the gate’: the gate to the Goring Gap, and by extension to the English interior.
Or gate could actually mean goat. No-one’s quite sure.
|A riverside cottage at Gatehampton, named Ferry Cottage for the ferry to Basildon that crossed here for several centuries. The ferry seems to have vanished after the 1830s when the bridge up in Goring appeared.|
|The river at Gatehampton, hidden beneath the reeds.|
Further round this bend, Gatehampton surprises wayfarers with its most outstanding structure.
|Here once more runs the Great Western Railway...|
|...which suddenly rockets across a more impressive brick viaduct than you’d ever expect to find this far out in the bush.|
It takes only a glance to suspect this bridge to be an Isambard Kingdom Brunel creation. The English’s most admired engineer-hero was known for designing structures to be not merely functional but aesthetically pleasing, a concern which stands out all the more for its contrast with the soullessness of market-fundamentalist architecture today. This thing is huge – too huge to fit in one photograph, with four of these great wide arches stretching beyond the riverbanks. Yet it’s a comfortable hugeness, not a menacing one, and in its own way fits agreeably into its landscape. As for function, it’s had a few upgrades and repairs since its opening in 1840 but still appears up to its job two centuries later.
|A pocket of peace: the ‘Little Meadow’ beyond the railway bridge.|
|Idyllic places of rest like this lose their magic under the psychology of the COVID-19 age. The more attractively-positioned a bench like this, the less inclined you are to sit on it for fear that someone with the virus was recently there.|
|Some positionings are not so well thought through.|
The Gatehampton farm fields extend a little further before at last giving way to the residences of Goring.
|And this makes three consecutive sections with bovine encounters.|
|This is a younger, shyer herd. After raising their heads to stare a while they turned and shuffled away.|
And then, too soon, another round of over-propertied encroachments signals the approach to the pair of villages in the gap.
|It starts on the opposite bank, where from here on it’s all huge houses with gardens large enough to house several families of refugees. It’s not lack of space that’s the problem in this country.|
|Englishness is placing a heron statue on a river post so actual herons don’t land there.|
|It’s noticeable that some of the mansions along here have been left to fall into dereliction. This one, The Grotto, built in 1720 for the Basildon nobility, had a fire (suspectedly arson) rip through it just this March.|
|Across to the west, the Berkshire Downs extend the chalk into the old kingdom of Wessex.|
As the fences close in, a steady increase in foot traffic indicates that we have entered Goring. Virtually all of these walkers are white and middle-aged or elderly, which would seem to represent these settlements’ position on the English class profile. Fortunately they also tend to come with dogs, making for some more therapeutic encounters on this narrow towpath.
|One of the last scenes of passably wild river before drawing into the landscaped pinch-point.|
|Another wartime bunker hides unconvincingly on a river island.|
|How the English like their walls and fences.|
The closer we get to their centre of settlement, the fiercer grow the fences and displays of reeking conspicuous consumption.
|This is eyebrow-raising on several levels. It’d be one thing if it were public. As it is, it kind of leaves you speechless.|
|The river belongs to everybody, and everybody belongs to it. It’s a fair question whether this degree of land-privatisation should be allowed in a healthy country.|
|Are they proud of themselves?|
The final approach to Goring is lined with lived-in boats, most of which look comfortably well-off and/or have English flags flying from their masts.
Goring on the east bank (Garinges in Domesday, 1086) is an Anglo-Saxon name for ‘Gara’s People’, while Streatley on the west refers to the old Roman road which came through a clearing (leah) here. The latter’s name as well as the bridge highlight this pair’s significance.
Perched on either side of the narrowest point in the Thames valley, these small settlements sit on the crossing of some of the most ancient tracks in the country. Most ancient of all is the river itself, but here it is met by the Ridgeway and the Icknield Way, both Neolithic routes along the top of the chalk. The rich archaeology of these surroundings attests to long and sustained occupation by humans for thousands of years prior to recorded history – an importance carried on by the Roman road, and more recently by the river, road and rail traffic of the industrial age.
|Immediately upstream of the bridge is Goring Lock and Weir: first built in 1787, with a current build from 1921.|
Goring and Streatley form an interlinked community and are often referred to together, as in the names of their bridge, their railway station and their various amenities. But their relationship has a complicated history. In the Anglo-Saxon period the river placed them on opposite sides of a boundary between rival kingdoms: Goring in Mercia, Streatley in Wessex. Though eventually unified under the English state, a thousand years later its tides of industrial capitalism buffeted them unevenly. The road on the west side had long made Streatley the dominant village, all the more so after they built the bridge, but when the railway came through on the east side Goring expanded in both size and popularity while Streatley found its expansion constrained by its steeper Berkshire hillside. That is why Goring is the larger village today, though they claim to peaceful coexistence.
|Post Office, café and ‘doggy boutique’ on the Goring side of the bridge. A closer look at Streatley should be possible in the following stage.|
|The road into Goring, beside its old rectory gardens.|
|Goring high street.|
It was in the industrial period that Goring seems to have acquired the whiff of money which, while not as in-your-face as some of the hulking Privilege Forts of the lower valley, nonetheless hangs unmissable in its atmosphere. Wealthy industrialists fleeing the cities were drawn here both for the fresh, picturesque situation and the long-trodden connections to both sides of the chalk, now accelerated with up-to-date transport and communications technology. With their resources these new-rich arrivals Enclosed the local land – likely with violent consequences for those who lived off it – and transformed a largely rural collection of hamlets into a fashionable resort of posh houses, social clubs and sports facilities whose air of privilege still radiates today.
|This is a village for people with money. A passer-by was excited to point out that this grand house, next to Goring’s ancient water mill, was inhabited by the late musician George Michael. It appears to have since been sold for over £3 million.|
|The view west towards the river from near Goring and Streatley train station. The steep profile of the Berkshire Downs is apparent from here.|
As a final point, we would be remiss not to address the elephant in the room – that is, the resemblance of Goring’s name to the perhaps more familiar Göring. I have not been able to establish whether this most English of villages in the chalk shares an etymology with the Reichsmarschall of Nazi Germany, but the mere suggestion is not one from which we might expect a favourable English reaction.
Nonetheless, there is surprising irony here in that Goring-on-Thames did house perhaps this country’s closest equivalent to the man who oversaw the atrocities of the Luftwaffe. This was the English’s own carpet-bombing air commander Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who after building his Royal Air Force (RAF) career on blasting civilians to bits for the British Empire in – guess where! – Iraq and Afghanistan, burnt his name bloodily into history in the massive area-bombing raids on German cities in the closing stages of World War II. Perhaps the most notorious was the February 1945 firebombing of Dresden, which deliberately and horrifically burnt tens of thousands of civilians to death.
The English idolise their RAF for its protection of their country in that war, in spite of its catalogue of atrocities in their colonies before and after it which they are not taught in schools. Nonetheless, even by their standards Harris is bitterly controversial. Known as “Butcher” Harris within the force for his apparent indifference to the staggering losses of life among the bomber crews he commanded, the epithet has stuck for the blatancy of their war crimes for whose blame he became the primary lightning rod. He has a statue outside the RAF church in London – of course he does – but it has been a frequent target of protests and attacks. The man himself eventually settled in Goring and died here, apparently unrepentant, in 1974.
It’s hardly the first or last time this country ascribed no value to the death or agony of those it chooses to other. Pertinently, its government has now announced the lifting of all COVID-19 restrictions amidst a wave of euphoric jubilation – right as the deadliest strain of the virus so far is surging at around thirty thousand new cases per day and rising. Having got fed up of masks and social distancing, it appears that many of the English have chosen simply no longer to bother. To make their peace, that is, with how the most vulnerable in their society, those most marginalised in their health outcomes and their access to care, will inevitably be the ones to eat the worst of the mass deaths, traumatic mental health effects, and protracted suffering under the still poorly-understood Long COVID.
Over the hundred million years that the Goring Gap took to form, England didn’t exist. Looking at it now, we might well wonder whether it will for much of the next hundred million – or indeed, whether it deserves to.