February 2021

The Eighth Wonder of the Natural World: Royal Wootton Bassett Mud Springs
by Rebecca Davies BSc. (Hons)

Introduction to the Royal Wootton Bassett mud springs

From time to time something gets discovered that is new and surprising.  Royal Wootton Bassett mud springs are definitely new and surprising. These are springs that instead of upwelling water, as springs generally do, produce goopey clay mud.

History

So say in 1974 the staff of Wootton Bassett sewerage works were investigating a flow of mud into their stream.  A fields length upstream from the sewerage works was a copse of trees, surrounding a marshy area. Here they decided to dig. Pressure was released, and SPLAT! Mud showered everywhere, coating the surrounding trees. Following this astounding event, powers that be called for the Geologist W. I. Stanton to investigate.  He wrote about the interest of the site, but to no avail.

It has been known for cattle to disappear and such an area is hazardous.  Many have lost their boots in the spring and one investigator ended up in up to his armpits.

The spring is well within walking distance of the town’s venturesome children and children might well want to investigate such an unprecedented location for getting dirty. Thus, those in charge had to take action to render the location harmless. So they tipped a hundred tons of rubble into the spring in 1990 to make it `safe`.  This disappeared without a trace, except maybe an equal amount of mud squeezed out into Hancock water. So then council officials had to clear that.

These springs are deep…bottomless even … DO NOT APPROACH!!

1994

It was in 1994 that this phenomenon was further investigated, studied and reported in scientific papers and even the international press. Suddenly the quiet town of Wootton Bassett (these were the days before it was `By Royal Appointment` and was then known as the town with four sets of double letters in its name…) became a sensation.

Then someone suggested that this seemingly endless source of mud might have useful qualities. Some claimed hat Wootton Bassett was actually a spa town in Georgian times. Indeed there are salt springs in the locality. In Purton Stoke for example.

Eric Hodges, when a councillor for the town, campaigned to have the springs accepted as a World Heritage Site. He proposed the building of viewing platforms and interpretative boards. And, presumably, long sticks for poking supplied. Sadly this appealing project was never accepted. But in 1997 did get designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Nowadays the furore is over. But the mud springs still produce mud.

The geology of the mud springs

Ordinary springs are a common enough feature of the landscape, why is this special?

The local geology consists of Oxford clay, capped with the limestone known as Coral Rag, forming the ridge that Royal Wootton Bassett stands upon. Covering over that is Ampthill clay.

The water flow originates in the Coral Rag layer, under enough pressure to force it up through the normally impermeable clays. Forced out as the mud it forms a blister of material, added to when the springflows strongly, in the winter and after heavy rain.

The fossils

The mud springs are an upwelling of material from the Ampthill clay, clay that itself is rich in fossils. This washes out into the stream, which is in consequence a good hunting ground for them. Found there are many ammonites, belemnites, sharks teeth and the occasional bone.

Royal Wootton Bassett Mud Springs - fossils

My visit

Shame on me, I have never visited this fascinating place. I recall reading about it in the 1990s, when it was very much in the local news. I have also walked along the canal; but never crossed the field to the copse.

Time to rectify that.

There is no doubt the springs are dangerous. Though – as far as I know – mercifully never a location for human fatality. I aim not to change that. But I intend to get a good photo of them, and find some fossils.

The mud springs themselves lie in a grove of trees called Templars Firs Copse, alongside a stream. This stream is called Hancocks water and is a tributary of Brinkworth brook. That in turn flows into the Bristol Avon. It is just south of the popular walk along a restored section of the Wilts and Berks Canal.

A stretch of the Wilts and Berks Canal

From the towpath you cannot see anything special.

View from the towpath
From the towpath


And there they are – securely fenced off.

Royal Wootton Bassett Mud Springs
Royal Wootton Bassett Mud Springs
Royal Wootton Bassett Mud Springs warning sign
Royal Wootton Bassett Mud Springs warning sign

I decided discretion was best when approaching the stream. The ground underneath was very slippery, and the stream was in spate. With its melodious gurgling it stood in stark contrast to the silence of the springs themselves.

 a stream
Steam

Somebody had been digging in the stream bed.

Stream with ladder type thing across it.

And had excavated a quantity of stream gravel, which they had picked over for fossils.

Gravel next to stream

I, personally was more interested in the everyday geology.

Conclusion

The mud springs are an unusual but not unique geological feature. There are other examples of this, -a bit further to the east on Greenhill Common, just south of the A3102.

As for the provocative name? A red herring. I think. Temple/Templars names in Britain often refer to the Knights Templar, who had properties all over Europe. But this time it refers to Templars Firs, a belt of trees between the railway and the canal. Planted buy someone surnamed Templar …

Thank you very much to Melinda Lewis and Luis Albornoz-Parra of the British Geological Survey for their advice and encouragement. My geology is shaky.


Bibliography

BRISTOW, C. R., GALE, 1.N., FELLMAN, L. & COX, B .M. (with WILKINSON, 1.P. & RIDING, J. B.) 2000. The lithostratigraphy, biostratigraphy and hydrogeological significance of the mud springs at Templars Firs, Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 111, 231-245.

Site of Special Scientific Interest Wootton Bassett Mud Spring – Wikipedia

Swindon Advertiser It’s mud, mud, inglorious mud, says Barry Leighton | Swindon Advertiser

STANTON, W. 1. 1988. Mud springs in Britain. Geology Today, 4 (6), 187.

STANTON, W. I. 1995. Wootton Bassett: Fame at last for mud springs. Geology Today, 11, 172.


See more posts by Rebecca Davies here.

This article, MOLLUSCS, MUD AND A FACE TO DIE FOR, by The Independent is also worth a read. Wootton Bassett mud face packs anyone?!

See also on YouTube: Jurassic Cold Mud Springs, Royal Wootton Bassett