To Dorset, to Dorset to Talk of the Chalk

By: Jeremy Sigmon, WSPM 2018-2019

A late September field trip to the South of England for a new group of Oxford water science students seems like a perfect recipe for one thing: rain.  Prepped with waterproofs, “stout” shoes, notebooks, and curious minds, the students and staff were instead greeted by sun and (mostly) clear skies!

This year’s water science, policy, and management (WSPM) class includes a group of 23 students with 23 unique perspectives from more than a dozen countries.  The induction field trip to Dorset provided a perfect opportunity to get to know each other and to learn from several of the teaching staff, covering a wide range of the topics that we’ll be exploring this year.

Day One – In Chalk We Trust.

Rolling down English country roads, the class began to appreciate the landscape for not only its beauty, but also its hydrogeology.  The Cretaceous Period was generous in its deposits of finely ground fossil plankton in the South of England.  This thick and porous layer of earth has been pressed by “Alpine Earth movements” into monoclines and anticlines that carved magnificent hills and ridges into the above-ground landscape.  Underground, the chalk accepts gifts of rain and carries them gently seaward in patterns that do not necessarily correspond with surface flows.

It’s into the chalk that Wessex Waterworks and so many others insert their drinking straws that feed typically English activities – charming agriculture, ale brewing, and steeping afternoon tea.  Our visit to the waterworks revealed many water management challenges that water utilities face – from upstream and downstream contamination mitigation to meticulous oversight of continuous, high-quality supply.



Jasper Verschuur peers into the historic borehole at Wessex Waterworks.


Day Two – A Wish in the Well for Salmon, Gadflies, and Watercress.

It was a chilly morning to run water quality tests from atop a bridge first built in 1343 over the River Frome, but the class warmed up quickly on the bus during a window viewing of watercress farming beds.  The Bere Regis basin has long enjoyed high-quality water from groundwater-fed streams and springs, the foundation of the region’s major watercress industry.  The plant’s fragility requires careful water management to ensure the health of these gently sloped soggy bowling lanes of green that supply dinner plates around the world with a power punch of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants!

A next stop on the tour took us to Cerne Abbas village, a very small place with outsized water history. We first toured a centuries-old engineered chalk-fed stream channel that captured the flow to turn a local mill.  At the old abbey up the road, the group toured St. Augustine’s holy well, illuminating an enduring 9thcentury example of how water has been at the centre of human civilisation, culture, and mythology.



Professor David Bradley discusses the symbolism that surrounds water with the WSPM cohort at St. Augustine’s holy well.


Saying farewell to an upstream flood control system that, incidentally, sat downstream from the Cerne Abbas Giant, the class spent the afternoon with scientists at the Freshwater Biological Association research facility in East Stoke.  Whether discussing the fragile recovery of gadflies in British streams, the forbidding impacts of a warming climate on freshwater aquatic life, or the crafty methods of implementing an annual salmon census, the class was dazzled by the teams of scientists working to understand and resolve contemporary water management issues where biology hangs in the balance.



The WSPM discusses the cause of declining salmon migration on the river Frome with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust at their Hydro-Electric (SHE) Mk Xb resistivity counter (


Day Three – Welcome to Jurassic (coast) Park.

On the final day of the induction trip, the class enjoyed a surprisingly sunny visit to the gem of the Jurassic Coast: the Durdle Door.  Its sturdy Portlandian rocks were pressed skyward from Alpine Earth movements in continental Europe long ago. The dense Portland stone once guarded much more of this majestic coast and the rocks’ more erodible neighbors in geological succession – among them the sedimentary layers of gault, greensand and chalk.  Most tourists likely look past this geologic story.  We, of course, did not!

With an ice cream in hand, I then took to the cliffs overlooking the English Channel to enjoy the fresh air and the views at Lulworth Cove.  After a few minutes’ repose, I rejoined the group feeling refreshed, oriented, and energized for a water-focused year!



Enjoying the glorious sun and ice cream (not pictured) at the lovely Lulworth Cove!



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