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29 October 2014

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Coast: Features

You are in: Norfolk > Coast > Coast: Features > Ice Age leaves legacy on the coast

Ice fields and glaciers

Ice fields covered the Earth

Ice Age leaves legacy on the coast

The Norfolk coastline, as we enjoy it today, owes much to the frozen wastelands of the past. As the last Ice Age held the world in its icy grip for thousands of years, the melting glaciers revealed a vast change in the British landscape.

It would be easy to think the Ice Age didn't have a huge impact on Norfolk. The county is famous for its wide, open landscapes - you won't find towering mountains and sweeping valleys carved out by the glaciers.

But the big freeze left us with something much more interesting - one of the most extraordinary and unusual landscapes anywhere in the British Isles.

The frozen past

The last Ice Age in Britain took place around 10,000 years ago and lasted for some 80,000 years. During this period, one third of the world was covered in ice with much of Great Britain hidden under vast glaciers.

The glaciers and ice sheets transported huge amounts of debris, ranging from huge boulders to fine rock particles, which helped to form much of the landscape seen around us today.

As the ice melted, the glaciers eventually dumped their rock debris, known as till or boulder clay, which formed many our smaller scale features of mounds and ridges, called moraines.

Other evidence of glacial deposition includes erratics, rocks transported hundreds of kilometres by ice sheets and deposited in different geological areas.

Undulating landscape of the north Norfolk coast

A coastline created by the Ice Age

Landscape detectives

The bumps of hollows of Salthouse Heath and Cromer Ridge hold many clues to Norfolk's ice-covered past.

"It's a bit like a detective story, piecing together the evidence," said geologist Peter Lambley.

"We're looking for something that shouldn't be here, like a granite erratic. It will have got here in the ice, travelling four or five hundred miles from across the North Sea.

"It seems [Cromer Ridge] to have been the front line of the ice sheet for some time. For some reason the glaciers ground to a halt here. All the material that was dredged up from the North Sea was being poured out of the glaciers to form a ridge.

"Out to sea you'd have seen a huge ice sheet. Right out to the horizon would have been white, glistening glaciers around 1000ft thick," he added.

It was because Norfolk was on the edge of the glacier, that it has such a unique landscape, unavailable anywhere else in East Anglia. The clay soil, found in many parts of the region, is also thanks to the Ice Age, providing some of the best land for crops and wildlife in Europe.

Fossil hunters

The Ice Age didn't just leave an inspirational countryside in its wake, but also clues to the creatures that roamed the region all those thousands of years ago.

Hunting for fossils on the Norfolk coast

Fossil hunting on West Runton beach

The Norfolk coast is a haven for fossil hunters.

"If you sift through the rock pools you should find the bones of smaller animals. You can take your finds home, but I recommend that whatever you find you take to your local museum for identification," said Nigel Larkin, curator of geology at the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.

In the cliffs at West Runton, you can find evidence of the warmer periods of the Ice-Ages preserved.

"We have molluscs and bits of wood. It's incredibly fossil rich, a complete environment preserved. The whole bed is about 650 to 750,000 years old, that's before the Ice Ages. The fossils you get here are so well preserved, considering their age," said Nigel.

"This is a site of special scientific interest. We've found evidence of rhinos, hyenas and, of course, we also found the West Runton elephant here. Now that was a massive individual, about 5m high at the shoulder," he added.

Mammoths died out some 10,000 years ago, probably due to the changing climate and the increasingly successful hunting techniques of modern humans. Part of the mammoth, found in West Runton, can now be view at the Norwich Castle Museum.

Excavating a mammoth's tusk in West Runton

Excavating the mammoth's tusk

If you're taking a trip to the coast in the search for fossils, you're not allowed to dig into the cliffs for safety reasons, but fossils found on the beach are there for the taking. Visitors are advised to check the tide times.

If you fancy going sieving for fossils or looking for evidence of the Ice Age, there are plenty of places you can explore in the county.

In Morston you'll find one of Britain’s most remarkable sites of special scientific interest. The small ridge, nestling between the salt marsh and the coast wall, marks the spot where the last glacier to arrive in East Anglia stopped – it was on the retreat from then on.

You can also find Ice Age features in west Norfolk. There are a number of small ponds near Watton that are part of the Great Eastern Pingo trail. During the big freeze they were a frozen spring, but when the ice melted they left the hollows you can see today.

last updated: 08/04/2008 at 16:09
created: 21/06/2005

You are in: Norfolk > Coast > Coast: Features > Ice Age leaves legacy on the coast

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