A blog by an historian, Pagan and fanfiction writer, with left-wing leaning politics. In short, I could be waffling on about anything.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

History of Wolverhampton: The Prehistoric Landscape

After some rather disparaging comments about Wolverhampton this week, I thought that a series of blogs about the city's history might be in order. We certainly have a lot of it; and the traces of the past can seen be found dotted around the city centre in particular.

I could do this without chronology, just whistling through random stories, focusing on the interesting bits; or I could take the Lewis Carroll approach, 'start at the beginning; keep going until you reach the end; stop.' Let's do the latter. :D

Image: Wolverhampton in Colour by Lee Jordan
Image: Wolverhampton in Colour by Lee Jordan

Where is This Wolverhampton Anyway?

This is for the non-Wulfrunians, as the rest of us know that it's the place up the hill, with shops and a profusion of people wearing old gold and black. For the rest of Britain, it's the place where Wolverhampton Wanderers FC come from, hence the colours.

Wolverhampton is in the English West Midlands. No-one can ever quite agree on whether it is or isn't in the Black Country; but then there's never been a consensus on where the Black Country is either. The signs welcoming you into the city state that this is Wolverhampton, in the Black Country; the football matches between Wolves and West Bromwich Albion are billed as Black Country derbies; and I'm personally quite happy to call myself a Black Country wench. However there are still histories, guide books and emphatic people in pubs, who will state that the Black Country's border ends at Sedgley, or Tipton, or Dudley, or somewhere to the south, east, north or west. As I said, there never has been a consensus.

Britain's second city, the sprawling metropolis of Birmingham, is just down the road. If the traffic isn't too bad, then a driver leaving Wolverhampton, on the M54, M6 or down the Birmingham New Road (it hasn't been that new for over a century), can reach that city in about 20 minutes. A whole network of roads and motorways surround Wolverhampton. It's always been a bit of a thoroughfare. A Roman road is not too far away; and our economy boomed on the back of Welsh sheep drovers, bringing their livestock (and therefore the wool) into the many 'folds' dotted around our centre.

The city sits on a dorsal ridge of Triassic rock, stretching all the way towards Dudley. At around 394ft above sea level, overlooking the plains of Staffordshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, on a clear day the views can be tremendous. The Welsh border is not too far away, as the crow flies. It used to be much nearer.

The Prehistoric Landscape of Wolverhampton

In its ancient past, Wolverhampton has been both under a shallow sea and completely covered in a vast, dense forest. It may be difficult to imagine the former, given the aching leg muscles that follow any major trek up into the city centre. However, we hadn't yet had the ice ages, that forced the land up into the hillside upon which the city perches.

The land beneath our feet contains both limestone (formed from the bodies of all those sea-creatures that lived and perished in the sea) and carboniferous (coal-bearing) layers. The latter came from the trees and plants that fell, and were crushed, as glaciers grew above us.

There is also plenty of 'Keuper' sandstone, dating from over 200 million years ago, again from Wolverhampton's prehistoric sojourn under a Triassic sea. Some of this hints at a later landscape too, during the melting of each of the ice ages, just 10,000 years ago. 'Bunter' sandstone contains rounded pebbles, some of which originated in modern day Brittany, in France. They would have been carried on a vast, turbulent river, which presumably ran through the area that became Wolverhampton.

To my knowledge, there have never been any major dinosaur nor fossil finds in Wolverhampton. But we are only about ten minutes drive away from a very substantial spot for that. Wren's Nest, on the outskirts of Dudley, became a National Reserve in 1956, because of such discoveries. The same limestone, that yields so many Silurian Era fossils there, lies beneath us here too.

Heading out of the city centre, towards New Cross Hospital, in Wednesfield, dolerite has been found in huge quantities. To the initiated, this is melted rock. In short, there was once a volcano near by. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Half of the Black Country is built on volcanoes, that became dormant way back in antiquity.

Image: St. Peter's Collegiate Church by Roger Kidd

Seeing It Today

Sea, forest, volcano, ice and scary river, Wolverhampton has had its fair share of major changes in the past; and that was before any people even arrived!

To see some of the evidence of this, try looking up at the very peak of Wolverhampton city centre. St Peter's Collegiate Church is made entirely out of Bunter sandstone rock, mined locally. Alternatively, the towns and villages around are strewn with outcrops of red rock (Tettenhall Rock is a great example). Next time you pass by them, nod knowledgably, as you know they are evidence of Wolverhampton's prehistoric past.

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