History of the major rivers of southern Britain during the Tertiary
A series of palaeogeographical maps illustrating
1 & John Lewin2
Late Early Eocene
and Late Middle and Late Eocene
The palaeogeographical maps are available for viewing from the individual pages listed here. They are accompanied by short explanations. For more detail, readers should consult the further reading list below. Maps like these are only as good as the evidence available to construct them. We welcome anyone who has evidence that can be used to update the courses to contact us without hesitation! Feel free to copy/paste images from these pages.
The original paper from which this information is taken is: Gibbard, P.L. & Lewin, J. 2003 The history of the major rivers of southern Britain during the Tertiary. Journal of the Geological Society 160, 829-845. ( download )
- Tectonic map
- Early Eocene
- Late Early Eocene
- Late Middle and Late Eocene
- Neogene (Miocene and Pliocene)
- Concluding points
The drainage maps represent a continuation of the work on the history of the NW European rivers of the last 3 million years , shown on other pages of this website. The maps were drawn by Ian Agnew and Owen Tucker of the Cartography and Reprographics Unit of the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge.
Long-term drainage pattern stability reflects a persistent tectonic regime in the south, with a subdued low-relief landscape having a weathered regolith and dense vegetation cover. Meandering river channels and alluvial styles predominated, although channel forms varied according to sediment load, slope and discharge variability. Coarse gravel-dominated accumulations are rare and localised. Chemically-stable lithologies dominate the clastic component throughout.
It appears that the deeply-incised river valleys seen today are related to high, predominantly coarse sediment yields, encouraged by substantial, rapid climate changes in the Pleistocene. This emphasises the significance of mechanical compared to chemical weathering for the rate and nature of landscape dissection, and the modifications that have arisen as a result of glaciation, frost-climate weathering, rapidly-changing climates and sea-levels.
The stratigraphical evidence is at variance with older, largely geomorphologically-based landform evolution models (‘denudational chronology’), but gives considerable support to recent proposals that emphasise the significance of Palaeocene erosion, and enduring low-relief landscapes and drainage systems evolving alongside fold development during the Palaeogene. Given the depobasin evidence now available, fluvially-active episodes can, and must, be linked to contemporaneous deposition. Some at least of the many controversies involving the identity of erosion surfaces, the dating of them using only residual deposits and weathering mantles, and the selection of particular Tertiary episodes as ones of landscape development can now be resolved.
This work was originally published by Philip Gibbard & John Lewin in 2003. They are presented here, in downloadable format, for use by anyone interested in the longterm development of river systems.
The approaches of Wooldridge and Linton and their immediate followers were essentially underpinned by three concepts:
(i) Geomorphology could use deduction and inference to erect a history of landform development using evidence from landforms themselves to fill an apparent gap in earth history after the rock record ceased. Only later on did the focus shift to a detailed reconstruction of processes and the stratigraphy of ‘superficial’ deposits.
(ii) The Davisian cycle of erosion was the persuasive theoretical basis available for interpretation. In this, uplift was followed by progressive erosion and stream adjustment to geological ‘structure’ (including lithological outcrop) as relief reduced to an eventual peneplain.
(iii) Sea levels changed; this could include progressively falling base levels, and might involve marine onlap and offlap at particular periods. Ideas concerning superimposition from a chalk cover and the development of marine shorelines came to Britain.
Thus the evidence which Wooldridge and Linton and their followers made use of was primarily geomorphological. This included accordance of hill summits to identify former marine surfaces or peneplains, relationships between stream courses and structural elements in order to distinguish between surface types and to reconstruct drainage evolution over time, and field mapping of planation surfaces and related features. In the three decades following initial publication of Wooldridge and Linton’s model, there followed a whole series of regional studies focusing on individual drainage basins or escarpment/backslope blocks and, generally speaking, upon episodic incision with a falling base level and on planation under hypothesised marine and fluvial conditions. A similar effort was made to map and interpret surfaces in upland areas of western Britain, with recognition of marine or subaerial surfaces at higher levels, though with conflicting interpretations in the absence of related deposits.
Later research was able to involve a greater concentration on, and technical knowledge of, residual deposits and weathering products associated with particular surfaces. In general these studies have thrown considerable doubt on the earlier Wooldridge and Linton model since weathering products, like the widespread Clay-with-flints on the Chalk, have not proved to be what they initially seemed. Further north and west, residual deposits and Tertiary outliers have been carefully examined. Again, conclusions from such studies conflict with earlier assumptions. Finally, detailed mapping of surfaces and the interpretation of drainage patterns has suggested some convincing alternatives to the Wooldridge and Linton model.
Given also the new mobile tectonic framework made available through developments in plate tectonics, and new information derived from exploration of the shelf sea floor, evidence has been growing that the erosional landscape has inherited substantial elements from throughout the Cenozoic beginning in the Palaeocene and incorporating earlier elements in the west. Thus any study of the evolution of the major drainage elements of the southern British Isles must begin at the latest with the Palaeogene or even earlier in the Palaeozoic ‘oldlands’ where a Chalk cover may not have been complete.
Futhermore, whilst the recent concentration on residuals and surfaces is fully understandable, it appears timely to reconsider the evidence provided by larger known bodies of Tertiary sediment. Erosion and depositional systems are necessarily linked, with the latter able to provide key information on the timing, environment and extent of the former. It appears that whilst the basal unconformities of Tertiary formations and epochs have been projected to indicate erosion levels (e.g. the variously-termed sub-Eocene, early Tertiary, sub-Palaeocene, sub-Oligocene surfaces recently incorporated into polygenetic models by Jones 1999), the diagnostic potential provided by the major bodies of Tertiary sediments has not been adequately developed. There is now sufficient evidence to assess river development from the standpoint of fluvial sedimentology and provenance, rather than surface morphology alone. Based on the location of deposits and their provenance, it is possible to indicate broad drainage lines (commonly called 'proto-' river systems) though not with very great detail. In some instances, sediments allow former channel types and depositional styles to be suggested, whilst they may also be indicative of erosional energy and weathering regime in the catchments which supplied them. A similar approach was successfully adopted for a synthesis of North-west European drainage history of the last 3 my . The same approach is applied here, with the effects of supplementing or modifying earlier conclusions drawn largely from erosion surfaces and residual deposits.
The response of the British lowland drainage system to the external influences over the past 50 million years of the Tertiary Period has been complex being dependent on the scale and duration of the events. However, certain patterns emerge and indicate the impact of climatically- and tectonically-controlled variables on the system as a whole. These patterns are discussed on the individual pages below.
- Anderton, R. 2000 Tertiary events: the North Atlantic plume and Alpine pulses. In: Woodcock, N.H. & Strahan, R.A. (eds) Geological history of Britain and Ireland, Ch.20, 374-391, Blackwell Science: Oxford.
- Balson, P.1999 The Neogene of eastern England In: Daley, B. & Balson, P. British Tertiary stratigraphy. Geological Conservation Review series No. 15, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough, Ch.8, 235-240.
- Blundell, D.J. 2002 Cenozoic inversion and uplift of southern Britain. In: Doré, A.G., Cartwright, J.A., Stoker, M.S., Turner, J.P. & White, N. (eds) Exhumation of the North Atlantic margin: timing, mechanisms and implications for petroleum exploration. Geological Society Special Publication, 196, 85-101.
- Bowman, M.B.J. 1998 Cenozoic. In: Glennie, K.W. (ed) Petroleum geology of the North Sea. 4th edition Blackwell Science: Oxford.
- Brodie, J. & White, N. 1994 Sedimentary basin inversion by igneous underplating, North -west European continental shelf. Geology 22, 147-150.
- Cameron, T.D.J., Crosby, A., Balson, P.J., Jeffery, D.H., Lott, G.K., Bulat, J. & Harrison, D.J. 1992 The geology of the geology of the southern North Sea. United Kingdom offshore regional report. British Geological Survey. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office: London.
- Catt, J.A. 1983 Cenozoic pedogenesis and landform development in south-east England. In: Wilson, R.C.L. (ed.) Residual deposits: surface related weathering processes and materials. Geological Society Special Publication, 251-258.
- Clark, M.J., Lewin, J. & Small, R.J. 1967 The Sarsen stones of the Marlborough Downs and their geomorphological implications. Southampton Research Series in Geography, 4, 3-40.
- Cope, J.C.W. 1994 A latest Cretaceous hotspot and the southeasterly tilt of Britain. Journal of the Geological Society, London.151, 905-908.
- Curry, D, Adams, C.G., Boulter, M.C., Dilley, F.C., Eames, F.E. et al. 1978 A correlation of the Tertiary rocks in the British Isles. Geological Society, London, Special Report, 72pp.
- Daley, B. 1999 Palaeogene In: Daley, B. & Balson, P. British Tertiary stratigraphy. Geological Conservation Review series No. 15, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough, Ch.1-7, 1-230.
- Dobson, M.R. & Whittington, R.J. 1987 The geology of Cardigan Bay. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 111, 331-353.
- Edwards, R.A. & Freshney, E.C. 1982 The Tertiary sedimentary rocks. In: Durrance, E.M. & Laming, D.J.C. (eds) The Geology of Devon. University of Exeter: Exeter, 9, 204-248.
- Eissmann, L. 2002 Tertiary geology of the Saale-Elbe region. Quaternary Science Reviews 21, 1245-1275.
- Evans, C.D.R. 1990 The geology of the western English Channel and its western approaches. United Kingdom offshore regional report. British Geological Survey. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office: London.
- Ford, M, Lickorish, W.H. & Kusznir, N.J. 1999. Tertiary foreland sedimentation in the Southern Subalpine Chains, SE France: a geodynamic appraisal. Basin Research, 11, 315-336.
- Funnell, B.M. 1996 Plio-Pleistocene palaeogeography of the southern North Sea Basin. (3.75-0.60 Ma) Quaternary Science Reviews, 15, 391-405.
- Gale, A.S., Jeffery, P.A., Huggett, J.M. & Connelly, P. 1999 Eocene inversion history of the Sandown Pericline, Isle of Wight, southern England. Journal of the Geological Society, London 156, 327-339.
- Gatliff, R.W., Richards, P.C., Smith, K., Graham, C.C., McCormac M., Smith, N.J.P., Long, D., Cameron, T.D.J., Evans, D., Stevenson, A.G., Bulat, J. & Richie, J.D. 1994 The geology of the Central North Sea. United Kingdom offshore regional report. British Geological Survey. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office: London.
- George, T.N. 1974 The Cenozoic evolution of Wales. In: Owen, T.R. (ed) The Upper Palaeozoic and post-Palaeozoic rocks of Wales, 341-371 University of Wales Press: Cardiff.
- Gibbard, P.L. & Allen, L.G.1995 Drainage evolution in south and east England during the Pleistocene. Terra Nova 6, 444-452.
- Gibbard, P.L. & Lewin, J. 2003 The history of the major rivers of southern Britain during the Tertiary. Journal of the Geological Society 160, 829-845. ( download )
- Hamblin, R.J.O. 1973 The Haldon Gravels of south Devon. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 84, 459- 476.
- Hamblin, R.J.O., Crosby, A., Balson, P.S., Jones, S.M. Chadwick, R.A., Penn, I.E. & Arthur, M.J.1992 The geology of the English Channel. United Kingdom offshore regional report. British Geological Survey. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office: London.
- Haq, B.U., Hardenbol,J. & Vail, P.R. 1987 Chronology of fluctuating sea levels since the Triassic. Science 235, 1156-1167.
- Huuse, M., Lykke-Andersen, H. & Michelson, O. 2001 Cenozoic evolution of the eastern Danish North Sea. Marine Geology 177, 243-269.
- Jones, D.K.C.1999a Evolving models of the Tertiary evolutionary geomorphology of southern England, with special reference to the Chalklands. In: Smith, B.J., Whalley, W.B. & Warke, P.A. (eds) Uplift, erosion and stability: perspectives on long-term landscape development. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 162, 1-23.
- Jones, D.K.C.1999b On the uplift and denudation of the Weald. In: Smith, B.J., Whalley, W.B. & Warke, P.A. (eds) Uplift, erosion and stability: perspectives on long-term landscape development. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 162, 25-43.
- Knox, R.W.O’B. 1996 Tectonic controls on sequence development in the Palaeocene and earliest Eocene of south-east England: implications for North Sea stratigraphy. In: Hesselbo, S.P. & Parkinson, D.N. (eds) Sequence stratigraphy in British Geology 209-230, Geological Society Special Publication 103.
- Lautridou J.P., Auffret J.P., Lécolle F., Lefebvre D., Lericolais G., Roblin-Jouve A., Balescu S., Carpentier G., Cordy J.M., Descombes, J.C., Occhietti, S. & Rousseau, D.D. 1999 Le fleuve Seine, le fleuve Manche. Bulletin de la Société Géologique de France. 170-4, 545-558.
- Murray, J.W. 1992 Palaeogene and Neogene, In: Cope, J.C.W., Ingham, J.K. & Rawson, P.F. (eds) Atlas of Palaeogeography and lithofacies. Memoir 13, 141-147, Geological Society, London.
- Neal, J.E. 1996 A summary of Paleogene sequence stratigraphy in northwest Europe and the North Sea. In:
- Overeem, I., Weltje, G.J., Bishop-Kay, C. & Kroonenberg, S.B. 2002 The Late Cenozoic Eridanos delta system in the southern North Sea Basin: a climate signal in sediment supply? Basin Research 13, 293-312.
- Plint, A.G. 1982 Eocene sedimentation and tectonics in the Hampshire Basin. Journal of the Geological Society of London 139, 249-254.
- Plint, A.G. 1983 Sandy fluvial point-bar sediments from the Middle Eocene of Dorset. Special publication of the International Association of Sedimentologists, 6, 355-368.
- Pomerol, C. 1973 Ere Cénozoïque Dion:Paris.
- Reid, E.M. & Chandler, M.E.J. 1933 The flora of the London Clay. British Museum (Natural History): London.
- Small, R.J. 1980 The Tertiary geomorphological evolution of south-east England: an alternative interpretation. In: Jones, D.K.C. (ed.) The shaping of southern England. 49-70, Institute of British Geographers Special Publication 11, Academic Press: London.
- Tappin, D.R., Chadwick, R.A., Jackson, A.A., Wingfield, R.T.R & Smith N.J.P. 1994 The geology of Cardigan Bay and the Bristol Channel. United Kingdom offshore regional report. British Geological Survey. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office: London.
- Tourenq,J. Kuntz, G. & Lautridou, J.P. 1991 Démonstration par l’exospoie des quartz des conditions marines de mise en place des sediments pliocènes (Sables de Lozère…) de Haute-Normandie (France) Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences Paris 312, 855-862.
- Ulyott, J.S., Nash, D.J. & Shaw, P.A. 1998 Recent advances in silcrete research and their implications for the origin and palaeoenvironmental significance of sarsens. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 109, 255-270.
- Walsh, P.T., Atkinson, K., Boulter, M.C. & Shakesby, R.A. 1987 The Oligocene and Miocene outliers of west Cornwall and their bearing on the geomorphological evolution of Oldland Britain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A323, 211-245.
- White, N. & Lowell, B. 1997 Measuring the pulse of a plume with the sedimentary record. Nature 387, 888-891.
- Wilkinson, G.C., Bazley, R.A.B. & Boulter, M.C. 1980 The geology and palynology of the Oligocene Lough Neagh Clays, Northern Ireland. Journal of the Geological Society of London 137, 65-75.
- Wolfe, J.A. 1978 A paleobotanical interpretation of Tertiary climates in the Northern Hemisphere. American Scientist, 66, 694-703.
- Wooldridge, S.W. & Linton, D.L.1955 Structure, surface and drainage in south-east England. George Philip: London.
- Zagwijn, W.H. 1989 The Netherlands during the Tertiary and the Quaternary: a case history of coastal lowland evolution. Geologie en Mijnbouw 68, 107-120.
- Zagwijn, W.H. & Hager, H. 1987 Correlations of continental and marine Neogene deposits in the south-eastern Netherlands and the Lower-Rhine district. Mededelingen Werkgreup Tertiar en Kwartar Geologie 24, 59-78.
- Ziegler, P.A. 1994 Cenozoic rift system of western and central Europe: an overview. Geologie en Mijnbouw 73, 99-127.