Downton Gorge 18th May 2017

Simon Cooter, Senior Reserves Manager, Natural England based at the Stiperstones Nature reserve, patiently guided 15 of us on a morning tour of part of the River Teme’s Downton Gorge, upstream of Ludlow. Simon had clearly, long ago mastered the skills of leading from the back, of allowing a linger-long crowd of rockers, birders and plant experts to take their time in this unique place, whilst adding his own sage comments with dashes of poetry as appropriate.  I think that we were quite pleased to hear from Simon that we had not been the slowest group he had led around.  That honour belongs, he said, to the Society of Conchologists, but they would be wouldn’t they?   The weather was fine, what an improvement on yesterday’s non-stop deluge, the vegetation at its spring best, not too verdant to cover over the many rock exposures. We entered near Bringewood House, walking upstream some considerable way beyond Castle bridge. The geology map clearly shows a dramatic change in rock types.

Downton gorge, through which the Teme rapidly flows was at Bringewood, the site of very early iron smelting and forging (from the 1500s) taken over and hugely expanded by the Knight family a couple of centuries later.  The steep descent of the river bed provided plenty of water power to drive the bellows and hammers, whilst the woodlands were given over to the production of charcoal for smelting. It must, in those days have presented a blasted site, with nary a foothold for nature in the area of the works. Now that industry has ceased, only a few stone buildings and several weirs remain to hint at previous activity.  Existing too, are walks and rides constructed by the Richards’ Knight (there were several) subscribers to the Picturesque movement.  We were led into grottoes and caves, on to high promontories by way of slippy steps and ledge like walkways along precipitous hillsides, to be met with sudden openings of dramatic river and woodland vistas.

The route of the Teme has changed over the millennia.  It used to form part of the headwaters of the River Lugg, flowing past Aymestrey, but the last ice age (Devensian), its advances, retreats and final melting changed all that.  It is conjectured that ice melt, blocked on other routes, overflowed the low point en-route East (towards present day Ludlow) and with the difference in height beyond was able to cut deep into the softer shales, developing a gorge back upstream to the flat lands near Leintwardine, site of prehistoric Lake Wigmore. This reversal in the direction of flow, is evidenced in LIDAR views of the area (see below).  Feeder streams normally join the main flow as does a motorway on-ramp, but LIDAR illustrates the opposite and also shows the main river wider upstream.

LIDAR view of the apparently reversed flow of the Teme--it indicates South but actually flows North

LIDAR view of the apparently reversed flow of the Teme–it indicates South but actually flows North

So, the Teme where we joined it cuts through beds of Raglan Mudstone, Whitcliffe Formation (highly fossiliferous) and Downton Castle Sandstone, although this last I am not aware that we saw any in situ but some as building stones, on one of the bridges for example. An article HERE covers the theories appertaining to the formation of the gorge much more thoroughly (thanks to the author, Kathryn Francis)