Set in stone: time travel at BGS Keyworth


The recently opened Geological Walk at British Geological Survey’s headquarters in Keyworth near Nottingham crams three billion years of the Earth’s history into a beautiful, 130m long stone concourse. Stephen Parry (Mineralogist and Petrologist at the BGS) and Michael Heap (Managing Director of expert natural stone suppliers CED Ltd) did the time-walk with me.

An ammonite-bearing block of Portland limestone

Each step on the Geological Walk takes you 25 million years closer to the present day. What can we learn from this ambitious project?

The project scope

The British Geological Survey is the world’s oldest national geological survey (founded in 1835) and the UK’s foremost knowledge hub for earth science information and expertise. The organisation had moved its headquarters from London to Keyworth in the mid 1970s, but for a long time there was no tangible geological element on the new site. The Geological Walk project introduces this natural stone link, making the BGS’ knowledge and research visible to its visitors. However, the project also fulfills a number of other important functions:

      • A representation of the geology of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (the geology of the British Isles is remarkably varied for such a relatively small area of land);
      • An educational tool for visitors to the centre;
      • A break-out and circulation space for the site’s 300-odd staff;
      • A showcase for the UK stone industry;
      • A living laboratory that will show, over time, the performance and durability of the stone products used in the Walk.

The grand-daddy of them all: a monolith of Lewisian Gneiss, the most ancient rock type in the British Isles. In the foreground: Cumbrian and Welsh slate paving

Munro + Whitten – international landscape architects based in Leicester – undertook the detailed design for the Geological Walk and introduced CED as the supplier of the natural stone paving as well as the feature rocks and boulders. Munro + Whitten continued to act for BGS throughout the contract process; during the design development and the on-site construction stages. The contractors were the Kier Construction.

The 130m long concourse represents 3 billion years of geological history

Sourcing the stone

When it came to the extensive ‘stone shopping list’ for the project, the BGS put their heads together with CED Ltd to source and supply all the natural stone paving that forms the Geological Walk and the approach to the reception area, as well as some of the impressive feature boulders that line the paths. The total area covered is roughly 1800m2, and includes around 40 different natural stone products.

Let’s do the time-walk again: Mr Heap (left) & Dr Parry (right) each gave us a tour of the site

Michael Heap of CED and Steve Parry of BGS share an immense knowledge and passion for natural stone and geology, coming at the subject from two different angles: the commercial and the academic.

As Michael and Steve guided us through the Walk, the sheer complexity of the project became clear: not only did the stone types have to be placed correctly in relation to geological facts, but this very knowledge is continuously changing as research progresses. This meant that something that was considered a geological certainty at the start of the two-year process of designing and building the Walk could be thrown into doubt during the course of the project, necessitating a rethink of some design aspects.

Although the stones in the Walk follow a strict stratigraphic sequence (the chronological ordering of rock, if you like) it could naturally not be built to scale: doing so would have meant nearly all of the Walk would have been Precambrian!

The original plans for the path incorporated 70% of concrete paving, but Michael insisted that natural stone products – so much more appropriate for this particular project – were used throughout, and worked hard with Steve to make sure this happened.

As Michael says: “The British stone industry has come together in a remarkable way to support this project … Every supplier I approached contributed to facilitate the creation of this permanent display of British stone paving – a great national resource for the paving and landscape industries.”

Reclaimed ‘ironstone’ setts from the M25 corridor in Surrey helped fill another gap in the geological sequence

As a showcase for a thriving stone industry, it was important to make sure that most of the featured stone is commercially available: in this way, the Geological Walk can serve as an inspiration for other projects. The Geological Walk, therefore, shows every type of British stone paving that is currently in regular production – as well as a few that are not, but could (or even should) be. This CED photo gallery from the Walk gives details on dimensions, finishes and availability.

Practicality had to go hand-in-hand with geological accuracy and aesthetics: as the CED online specification guide puts it, stone paving in general use has to tolerate a lot more wear and tear than facades: abrasions and impact‚ frost‚ salt‚ skateboarders‚ market traders‚ pub deliverymen… making it all the more important that the specification and installation are spot on.

Also, considerations such as where utility and communications lines were running across the Keyworth site, and how to avoid tripping hazards near entrances and steps, had to be factored in.

Feature stones: Ledmore marble from Sutherland, Markfieldite from Leicestershire & Torridonian sandstone from Wester Ross. Paving: Highland Gneiss combination & Welsh Heather slate

Our guides also told several stories of fortuitous finds and lucky turns of events that had happened during the project – such as the chance discovery of suitable residual blocks of Cambrian quartzite in a small roadside quarry, and the selection of beautifully flat knapped flints fashioned from cliff-fall debris in a now-closed quarry. I was left with the impression that the Geological Walk is a result of extensive knowledge, careful design and selection, and a touch of serendipity – not to mention a certain amount of enjoyment.

Rain spattering onto sliced glacial boulders and cobbles in the Quaternary section (they compensate for the lack of fully consolidated sedimentary rocks from this period)

The buildings at Keyworth

Also recently opened at the Keyworth site is the James Hutton Building. Home to 100 BGS scientists and support staff, the building was designed by multi-disciplinary architectural and engineering partnership Pick Everard.

The partnership had already completed work on the neighbouring William Smith Building in 2009 – at 3000m², it is the largest wooden-framed open-plan office building in the UK, with an environmental rating beating the requirements for BREEAM’s ‘Excellent’.

The plans for the James Hutton Building were no less ambitious:

This new eco-friendly building has an A-rating for energy performance, with rainwater harvesting, a combined heat and power plant, photovoltaic solar cells and a passive cooling system. (BGS press release)

The view of the James Hutton Building from the Geological Walk is dominated by the feature wall next to the entrance. The wall commemorates the work of the 18th Century Scottish geologist whose name the building bears. It is a stylised representation of the unconformity Hutton discovered at Siccar Point in Berwickshire (can you see the similarity in the two pictures below?), which fuelled his theory on cyclic geological processes.

The James Hutton Building, with its feature wall representing the Siccar Point unconformity

Siccar Point: gently inclined beds of red sandstone above near-vertical beds of greywacke form Hutton’s ‘Classic Unconformity’ (Wikimedia Commons)

A little bit of Hercules

Hercules, the hero of Greek/Roman mythology, has long been associated with the British Geological Survey (although I have yet to establish the connection: is it because strongman Hercules traded places with Atlas in carrying the heavens – or in some versions, the terrestrial globe – on his shoulders?). This Portland stone statue was commissioned by the BGS in 1849–50, and moved with the organisation from London to Keyworth.

A complete Hercules guards the entrance to BGS’ headquarters

However, the Hercules statue has a rather traumatic past: in the 1880s, the wife of one of the BGS directors found that the statue’s prominent genitals offended her delicate, Victorian sensibilities. In the interest of public decency, she insisted that they were removed and replaced by a stone fig leaf. This was duly done, and until the decision was made in the 1970s to restore Hercules to his full, manly glory, the missing bits were carefully kept in a velvet-lined box. See the full story here:

Following up

Thank you for reading about my visit to Keyworth. As a follow-up, why not

A fossilised Purbeck conifer log (Late Jurassic–Early Cretaceous)

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