A glimpse of a shopping centre floor leads Alys Fowler to find ancient life.
Although I know of many wild corners of London, places where swallows sweep home to nest in abandoned buildings and figs grow fat sprouting out of the edges of canals, there are other bits where it seems nature just can’t be present. Hard, artificial spaces where no natural light falls and there’s no rain to spark life. The Underground, the shopping centre, the covered walkways that are there to shuffle urban life along. ‘Keep right, walk on, go to work, look down, do not stop to try and find nature here,’ these places say to me. I have thought this many times whilst dragging myself past the shops to the supermarket beyond. Whenever I am feeling trapped by the modern world I do the same thing: I stare at the place beneath my feet and look for detail, any sign of natural life will do. One day, looking bleakly at the shiny surfaces of Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, I realised
I was standing on an ocean floor full of life.
Life long-gone, admittedly, but life, wild, natural life nevertheless. For those polished floors are full of fossils. They’re made of Treuchtlingen marble from Bavaria, not a true marble,
but a polished creamy limestone formed 150 million years ago.
These fossils died and floated to the seabed where they were slowly preserved in limestone forever. Dinosaurs still roamed and the land was covered in conifers, tree ferns and cycad; lapping around it was a warm calcite sea that was full of strange creatures.
The most distinctive fossil you find in this stone are ammonites, long-lost relatives of the octopus, squid and cuttlefish. They were coiled, hard-shelled sea creatures that could be as small as your thumbnail or as large as a human and they propelled themselves along the sea eating algae and other soft-bodied creatures. Their fossils look like coiled swirls, with the outer hardened edges of their shells easily identifiable and then the compartments inside as sections. There are some fantastic ones in Stratford Westfield, the top floor having some superb examples. Once you have your eye in for these, look for the bullet-like structures of belemnites, whose closest living relatives are squid and cuttlefish. They’re often dark brown, where the ink sack has been preserved, and were once thought to be thunderbolt in the stone before it was understood they were fossils. If there are many belemnites in a rock, it is common to find them aligned in one orientation: this is thought to indicate the direction of the current of the sea, so as you are milling along with the masses you can imagine the sea tides washing in the opposite direction.
Finally, you’ll find sponges – round fossils, often splodge-like in shape with a darker halo around their edges. The tiny white flecks that are prevalent all over this stone are the remains of bivalves, which would have littered the seabed.
It’s not just in Stratford; I’ve found the same fossils in Knightsbridge and at Cannon Street tube station, where the stone (it’s become rather fashionable stuff in the last decade) is used for the floors, cladding the ticket offices and access tunnels to the tube.
The biodiversity beneath your feet is a reminder that this world will not always be covered in concrete and populated by us. That nature, not us, dictates how the world looks and she’s always ready to roll out a new version of life.
Alys Fowler’s memoir ‘Hidden Nature’ is out now.
Photo: Herry Lawford.