Marvelous Shades of Green: A Natural History Tour of the British Isles
Museum Musings

Marvelous Shades of Green: A Natural History Tour of the British Isles

July 5, 2023
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Written by: Dwayne Ellis

Happy summer! For today’s blog post, we are travelling far away from the Quinte region to explore some of the rich natural heritage that the British Isles have to offer. Our amazing museum volunteer, Dwayne, is sharing some interesting stories and discoveries from his recent trip across the pond. Enjoy!

I have been working as a volunteer host at the Quinte Museum of Natural History for a little over a year now. This volunteerism has changed my life. I describe myself as an amateur everything. This is my first time traveling through life, as far as I can tell. That makes me an amateur. Sharing the things that I have learned here with strangers who are motivated likewise to see, explore, and learn, has changed me.

My awareness of natural history has been kicked into high gear by the experiences at the Quinte Museum. In the early days of being open, we had children visiting that struggled to avoid touching the specimens on display. We decided to give them an outlet for tactile learning by creating a touch table featuring local fossils from the bedrock that underlies the Quinte area. The response of the visitors to this small display has been wonderful. It has caused me to appreciate far more, the treasures we have in this area.

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I now travel with new eyes. Everything is interconnected for me now. Geography, geology, horticulture, agriculture, industry, ecology, topography, navigation, microbiology, sociology, anthropology, history; they all contribute to understanding the natural heritage of our area and its impact on our lifestyles.

A recent trip to the United Kingdom, Ireland, and France brought to my attention an enhanced appreciation of everything that I encountered, all because of the past year’s experiences.

The first thing was the green. Everything was such an array of the colour green. I left the Quinte region at the end of an extended winter and flew into a riot of trees, shrubs, and grasses that were all marvelous shades of green. It was instant spring!

The road travelling south out from Gatwick featured low rolling hills that look very much like the drumlins of the Trent River Valley and the Murray hills. Gently rounded hilltops covered with smallish farm fields surrounded by verdant hedges and stone fence lines. Bright yellow fields of Rapeseed stood out; here it’s still Rapeseed, while in Canada it’s Canola. The highway we were on was a major one, so broad and very much Canadian-like, right up until the first roundabouts started. The speed on them was what impressed me! I was just getting used to the directions and speed when they threw their first multiple roundabouts at me! My friend, Julie, prompted by the Garmin, handled it all in stride. I concluded right then and there that I would confine my contribution to navigational assistance only!

Our first stop was Brighton, where we visited the Royal Pavilion, built in the late 18th century as a seaside retreat for King George IV. The palace has extensive gardens that once supported the huge kitchen of the royal residence, made possible by the rich soil in the surrounding fields. King George was known to often have over 100 guests for dinner, used only the best chefs, and had the most modern kitchen of its time.

The streets of Brighton were narrow in many parts of the city. Many of the buildings were far older than Canada itself. The beach area was extensively developed. Broad walkways made the waterfront readily available to the multitude of visitors. This contrasted with many of our large cities, where the beaches and lakesides are often occupied by industrial development. It’s easy to see how the natural history of the area has contributed to the architectural development of the seaside.

After sampling the iconic fish and chips on the seaside, we left the big city for the country experience. As soon as you leave the main motorways, you immediately are in touch with the trees. I mean that literally! My navigation job turned more into my memories of playing hockey on the street. I would yell “car”, as soon as I spotted one coming towards us. Julie, or alternatively, the oncoming driver would search out the nearest pull over spot. Whoever was closest to one would squeeze into the shrubs along the road and let the other vehicle pass. This system worked remarkably well. The natural flora of the area has necessitated the social structure that allows this system to survive. I was living and learning.

Our first B&B had a path lined with large bamboo on one side, and across the well-groomed yard were low palm trees and subtropical bushes. The effect of the Gulf Stream was well apparent! Keep in mind that at this point we were near 50 degrees of north latitude; something like a line drawn across the bottom end of the James Bay region. I was impressed.


From here, our first excursion was to the dockyards of Portsmouth. Again, the geology and the geography of the region plays such a huge role in the facilities that exist there. A deep harbour opening onto the English Channel has been critical to the industrial and economic history of the United Kingdom. The surrounding farmland contributed to the victory of thousands of ships through the centuries. These connections are everywhere! Natural history is always at work shaping the outcome of world history.


Our next outing was to the nearby Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, the site of one of the most active airfields of the second world war. This particular location was chosen because of the large, flat surrounding fields that could easily accommodate the huge number of fighters flying in and out. Canadian and other allied flyers and support workers served here as well. The personal stories of the men who served here were as striking as the natural history of the region and the equipment and machines that were on display.

The following day, we visited Weald and Downland Living Museum, a living history farm site that is part of a nationwide museum structure. This is where the BBC television series, “The Repair Shop” is filmed. With several buildings dating back to the early 1500’s, the rich history of the site was palpable. The land, the use of the land, and the soil types in this area have supported populations for centuries. Much of the area shows similar effects of glaciation to what we see in our immediate neighbourhood in Quinte. Most of the buildings in the museum had gardens featuring local herbs and plants that were essential to the survival of generations of farm labourers on this land. Many of the farm implements and machines are very similar to what we can see when we visit agriculture museums near Trenton and Belleville.


Later the same day, we visited a huge castle with extensive formal gardens featuring plants imported from around the world. These we do not have near Trenton and Belleville! Arundel Castle, located near Chichester, is currently occupied. We guessed that the Duke that lives there was away to London to attend the coronation activities, as this was the time period when Charles III was being crowned in London. That afternoon, we also attended a big band outdoor presentation along the side of the rapidly flowing river that ran through the town of Arundel. The views from the hill tops in town and from the castle grounds were fabulous. You found yourself looking out over a huge agricultural landscape in a wide valley. A valley obviously productive enough to support a large medieval castle!


After a wonderful introduction to the south-central part of England, Julie and I then journeyed to Southampton to board a cruise ship for a tour around the British Isles. This trip introduced me to nearly every kind of geology and topology that I have ever studied in high school and beyond!

The first stops were in Guernsey and Jersey, two of the Channel Islands between England and France. We visited tunnels dug by slave labour for the German defense positions during the occupation in World War II, one of which was an underground hospital. The rugged hilly nature of sections of the island reminded me of the territory driving north of Quinte towards Bancroft.


From there, we sailed on to stops in Cobh, Dublin, and Belfast. Each harbour we visited demonstrated the importance of Navies, trade, immigration, and emigration. Military structures at each of these locations spoke to the history of conflict; but also to the history of technology. Impressive defensive structures, machines of war created during times of struggles, all nestled in natural landforms that gave strategic advantage.


In Scotland, visits to Inverness, Invergordon, and Edinburgh spoke to the iron age evolution of professional engineering. Canals, bridges, and industrial works were all influenced by the challenges that the land threw at people. The large rift that one can see running across the lower part of Scotland was a natural area in which to build an industrial canal for transportation and communication. A visit to the Falkirk Wheel canal structure made me realize the treasure that we have in Peterborough on our own Trent-Severn River system. Hundreds of kilometers of our own industrial canal structure were built to serve the lumber industries that played such a huge part in Trenton and Belleville history. These now form the focal point for tourism and lifestyle treasures. The technology in these structures alone surpasses much of the rest of the world. I must say, the Falkirk wheel pales in comparison to the Peterborough and Kirkfield Lift locks! We need to introduce international visitors to these with pride.


The final stop on the cruise was a visit to Le Havre, a port city in northern France. We managed to find ourselves in the middle of a medieval festival celebrating Joan of Arc when we visited Rouen during our stop-over. The rich fertile farmland of the rolling countryside visible from our coach windows made me think of our own Canadian prairies, just not quite as flat and much more green. Such a fortunate combination of soil and weather! We must acknowledge the much more difficult continental weather patterns with which our farmers must deal!


Upon returning to dock in Southampton, Julie and I continued our trip by car down the Jurassic Coast. Not only was the scenery lovely, but the experience was unique. At the beginning of this article, I shared a picture of a tiny English roadway. The picture is completely inadequate in conveying the concept of Cornwall roadways! What I must convey to the Canadian driver is the concept of narrowness. In Canada, we must have places to put the snow. Part of that concept is ditches. Also, if you need to drive a snow plough down the street, it is important that the houses are set back off of the street. We think of it as a “right of way”. Well, it seems the concept of both of those are lost on the British in the south of England. Hedges are 4 to 7 feet tall and brush both sides of the vehicle most of the time. Houses sometimes have the corners cut off or rounded to allow for the roadway, or carriageway. Many times, as you sail around a roundabout, you are hard pressed to find a sign with the name of the roadway. On more than one occasion, we had to turn around and try again. Thank Heavens for GPS!


Many of the homes we drove past are far older than Canada itself. It is quite common to see thatched roof housing throughout an entire town or village. One of the B&B’s that we visited was originally built in 1549, with a ‘newer’ addition constructed in 1712. Anything that we have in the Southern Ontario region of that era will definitely be by the indigenous peoples. Because these groups did not tend to build in stone, little remains to demonstrate their pre-contact settlements and unique building technologies.


At Trethevy Quoit we visited a megalithic structure believed to be over 5000 years old. It is suggested that structures like this may have been used as religious gathering places or community graves. Several similar neolithic stone structures can be seen throughout Dartmoor.


The surrounding landscape was dotted with tall brick chimneys, standing as derelict reminders of Cornwall’s long history of tin mining. Nicknamed ‘cornish cathedrals’, these large chimneys were used to draw air into the mines by dropping a shaft down to the side branch tunnel. When a fire was built in the chimney, the resulting draft drew its air through the mine races, bringing in fresh air to the mine in the process.

Now, in that previous picture of the narrow roadway, you may have noticed what looked like snow on the top of the distant hill. This is not snow, but instead is a china clay deposit. The clay figurines, for which Britain is famous, are made using clay from natural deposits throughout the country. We visited a clay works at St. Austell which showed a fabulous combination of technology and geology. This site was powered by a 35-foot diameter water wheel that transferred power over one mile into the clay pit mines using a reciprocating steel pipeline. This mechanism moved back and forth to power a huge water pump, keeping water from flooding the mine.

Even more amazing was a visit to an old clay pit that has been converted to a world-class tourist destination known as the Eden Project. The pure white depression in the ground now houses three geodesic eco-domes containing unique flora and fauna from around the world. It can easily take a full day to explore the plant varieties and educational displays that abound at this location. Also on this site, there is a very long zip line activity and a large play area for children. Additionally, there are several food venders, cafes, and restaurants on the site.


Finally, we concluded our adventures with two of the most iconic locations in the Southern part of England; the Jurassic-age beach at Lyme Regis and Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plains. Both of which are truly remarkable!


If I could offer one travel tip, it would be to make sure you plan some down time in your itinerary. One day, the total extent of our activities was to venture a few meters outside our secluded B&B door and spend the day sunbathing. The combination of driving narrow roads, seeing new sights, and gaining new experiences can be quite tiring. Build in some recovery time and you will appreciate the sights and sounds far more.

When I travel, I now pay more attention to the countryside than ever before. I feel volunteering at the Quinte Museum of Natural History has contributed greatly to this newfound attitude. Hooray for Natural History!


Arundel Castle. Retrieved from

Eden Project. Retrieved from

German Underground Tunnels. Retrieved from

Jersey War Tunnels. Retrieved from

Lyme Regis. Retrieved from

Portsmouth. Retrieved from

Royal Pavilion and Garden. Retrieved from

St. Austell. Retrieved from

Stonehenge. Retrieved from

Tangmere Military Aviation Museum. Retrieved from

The Falkirk Wheel. Retrieved from

Trethevy Quoit. Retrieved from

Weald & Downland Living Museum. Retrieved from