The Strange Day that a Five-Acre Hole Disappeared
In search of Angelina Sedgwicki: A five-acre hole on a Welsh hillside proved surprisingly elusive. ©Ian Vince
On a damp and squally warm Welsh day in late summer, I make my way up a steep track that runs along the edge of an ancient wood. I am in search of something exotic - the distorted fossil of an Angelina Sedgwicki, a half billion-year-old Trilobite a little under two inches in length. The fossil, according to a guide book I had recently uncovered in a secondhand bookshop, is apparently fairly easy to find - perhaps within a quarter of an hour or so of diligent rock splitting in an abandoned quarry on the other side of the hill - a statement I accept completely without question.
The trilobite I am looking for was laid down in mud and then squeezed as if in the jaws of a vice when two continents collided 430 million years ago. It was the same process that contorted muddy shales into the Welsh slate that still roof the Victorian suburbs of industrial English cities and I would apparently discover at least one contorted specimen splitting those slates apart. However, in order to do that, I have to find the quarry first and it seems to be peculiarly elusive for a five acre hole in a Welsh hillside.
Following the directions, I pass through a gate and struggle up a path that runs between ancient dry stone walls carpeted in moss. The wood is musty, its air thick and oppressive and every warm breath is filled with the cloying scent of chlorophyll before a summer storm. My asthmatic wheeze is accompanied up the hill by the nearby whistle and puff of a Welsh steam engine - recently re-purposed from carrying rock to ferrying tourists - which seems strangely apt, as I am the latter in search of the former.
The path levels out for a few yards as it crosses the saddle of the hill, then plunges down the other side towards the meadows of a flood plain. On this side of the hill, the geology of the area suddenly asserts itself on the path’s character. The wall incorporates thick slate within its structure and the footpath becomes strewn with large, loose slates making an unconsolidated scree upon which every footstep is uncertain. I elect to walk down through a stream bed that threads its way from one side of the path to the other, preferring the discomfort of wet feet to a long slide towards certain concussion. This trilobite, I tell myself, had better be worth it.
After ten minutes of alternate squelching, slipping and side-stepping my way to the foot of the hill, I find myself in the corner of a field, the expected location of a quarry which isn’t there. I check the map, read the directions and peer back up into a wild wood of tangled hornbeam and oak. I can just about make out what looks like a face of rock, but it may as well be on the other side of a barbed wire thicket - the wood is utterly impenetrable. A mosquito rasps into my ear, just one of hundreds buzzing around like paparazzi on mopeds circling their quarry, while I completely fail to get near mine. However, a few large boulders of slaty shale have tumbled onto the edge of the meadow and I spend twenty minutes with a hammer and chisel breaking rocks, all to no avail. I eventually give up, down tools and give in to a mind-altering mix of perspiration and disappointment.
I sit on a rock, take stock and try not to think about climbing back up the path. Sitting there in the quiet, I hear an almost metallic, ‘chip, chip’, which is quickly followed by ‘peek, peek’, a sound which has a chalk-squeak-on-a-blackboard quality about it - a grating, citric creak that seems more at home between your teeth than in your ear. Following the sound, my eye is drawn to a flash of short, white tail feathers and a streak of rusty brown. I find my binoculars and after a moment of searching along a branch of hornbeam, I locate the most exotic creature in the woodland, bar none - a Hawfinch. What gives it away, for the two seconds it is in plain view, is its bull-headed appearance and enormous gunmetal blue-grey beak - one field guide calls it a ‘flying pair of nut-crackers’.
The Hawfinch is characterized as being shy but, as it generally spends most of its time in the canopy of mature woodland, elusive would be a better description. After thirty years of looking out for one, this is my first and seeing it for the first time is a spectacular moment of triumph. It flies quickly back into the canopy and is soon lost again. After that, the trilobite is just history.