PICNIC IN SILURIA, by Paul Olver (producer). A Woolhope Club film, produced byField of Vision,2008. Running time: 26 min. Price: UK£12-00.

Stephen K. Donovan*, * Department of Geology, NCB—Naturalis, Postbus 9517, Leiden, The Netherlands

I am always inclined to appreciate the irregular in geology and Picnic in Siluria is certainly unusual in the best sense. The Woolhope Club, founded in Herefordshire in 1851 as the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club, have recreated one of their field excursions in the mid-19th Century with an enthusiastic amateur cast. The chosen time was after the arrival of the railways in this part of the Welsh Borders and included the presence of one of their founding members, the Director-General of the Geological Survey and the King of Siluria, Sir Roderick Impey Murchison. Murchison is played wonderfully well by Professor Hugh Torrens. The presence of Murchison on this excursion emphasizes the social aspect of geology at that time; the field party is a group of the Great and the Good of Herefordshire. These were the people who had the time and finances to pursue geology as a hobby when there were still few professionals in the field.

To tell the story in brief, after a preamble on the early history of geological endeavour in Herefordshire, we join the geologists, including Sir Roderick and his wife, Charlotte, on a train to Kingsland, on the Leominster to Kington railway, where they alight, meet the rest of their party and go for a hearty breakfast (with the sexes segregated). The menfolk—including Charles Lyell!—are treated to a discourse from Murchison before the whole party sets off to examine the fossils of the Aymestrey Limestone, enjoy the view, eat their picnic and hear more fine words, mainly from Sir Roderick (this time, the sexes are permitted to intermingle). A final summing up of the day's events, by the Reverend Thomas Taylor Lewis, played by the producer, is a preamble to more wining and dining, this time not seen. The film then jumps to the present, where Torrens and Olver, complete with high visibility vests and protective helmets, put the story in a modern context.

What criticisms might I have about Picnic in Siluria? Not many and none are really geological. Cox (2010) has already commented on the plethora of dates at the start of the film, the inconsistencies that they engender and the confusion that they cause. For example, the narrator states that the excursion occurred ‘... in the 1860s’ (2 min 41 s) in contrast to the text exclaiming ‘Herefordshire—the late 1850s’ (3 min 23 s). And Murchison states (13 min 46 s) that ‘... they've just appointed me the new Director of the [Geological] Survey’, but this happened in May 1855 (Flett, 1937, p. 57), over 2 years before the opening of the railway to Kingsland (Sinclair and Fenn, 1991, pp. 34–35).

I enjoyed the party arriving by train at Kingsland, now a closed station (albeit converted to a private dwelling; Sinclair and Fenn, 1991, fig. 59, incorrectly numbered ‘LVIX’) on a closed railway, but brought to life by renaming the preserved Titley, which was only two stops down the line and architecturally similar, at least in the 1930s (Sinclair and Fenn, 1991, compare figs 44 and 58). The completely enclosed cab rather marks the steam engine off as a product of the 20th century (1928, in fact; The carriage with a rigid wheelbase is a beauty, although the presence of upholstered seats and glass in the windows again suggests it to be too luxurious for third class in the 1850s/1860s (Nock, 1962, p. 152 et seq.). And this is my only real complaint—I do not believe that Sir Roderick Impey Murchison would ever have travelled third class!

Picnic in Siluria is great fun. It is fun to watch and, from the many smiles, it was fun to make. I first saw it on ‘the big screen’ at a HOGG meeting in Manchester in April 2010 and immediately bought two copies, one to give as a gift, something I am unlikely to do with a ‘dud’ film. Ignore my quibbles, and enjoy the scenery, the geology, the geologists (finely dressed for the part—watch for the wonderful hat of the Rev. Lewis) and a fine portrayal of the authoritarian Murchison by one of our most distinguished historians of geology. And Hugh, I'm jealous—I would have loved to play the part!


  1. Top of page
  • Cox, B.2010.Picnic in Siluria: a DVD produced by the Woolhope Club.Newsletter of the History of Geology Group of the Geological Society of London38,1113 (Review).
  • Flett, J.S.1937.The First Hundred Years of the Geological Survey of Great Britain.H.M.S.O.London.
  • Nock, O.S.1962.The Great Western Railway in the 19th Century.Ian Allan: London.
  • Sinclair, J.B., Fenn, R.W.D.1991.The Facility of Locomotion: The Kingston Railways: A Local and Social History.Mid-Border Books: Kington, Herefordshire.