The extraordinary UK sites you have to see from the air
By Amanda Ruggeri23 February 2017
The Royal Geographic Society’s exhibition Britain from the Air displays aerial photographs of the UK’s extraordinary landscapes. We chose 12 of the most striking and surreal.
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They’ve been nicknamed the Cornish Alps – but from above, these peaks and valleys look more like an alien planet than any earthly landscape. Located just outside of St Austell in Cornwall, a region of southwest England known for its rocky coastline, rolling downs and lush meadows, this sudden, surreal part of the country comes as a surprise.
If it seems different than the rest of Cornwall, that’s because it’s entirely man-made, a result of china clay mining. The aqua-blue ‘lakes’ are clay slurry and the ‘mountains’ and ridges are waste heaps. This kind of clay, which is ideal for making high-quality ceramic porcelain, was a particularly hot commodity in the early 1900s; Cornwall is home to the largest known deposit of the clay in the world. Five tonnes of waste were produced for every tonne of usable clay that was mined. One such pile (not shown here), nicknamed the Great Treverbyn Tip, is a full 180m high. It is currently at risk of being flattened to build a new development, which some locals have been fighting – including by petitioning Unesco to recognise it as a world heritage site.
Starting some 2,800 years ago up until around 2,000 years ago, during the period in Britain now known as the Iron Age, prehistoric people built thousands of hillforts across Britain. Among the most famous is Maiden Castle in Dorset, about 40 miles south of Glastonbury. Larger than 50 football pitches put together and with earthen ramparts rising up to 6m, it is the largest hillfort of its period in Europe – and one whose scale and complexity can be appreciated best from the air.
The type and purpose of hillforts differ across both regions and centuries, and archaeologists can’t always pinpoint exactly what they were used for. The most obvious answer, warfare, isn’t quite as bulletproof as the modern name would imply. And at many hillforts, it isn’t even clear whether they were occupied year-round or just seasonally or ceremonially. But at Maiden Castle, excavations have turned up evidence of numerous roundhouses, grain storage pits and metalworking and textile production, showing this site was almost certainly a densely populated, walled settlement.
(Credit: Adrian Warren and Dae Sasitorn)
The River Dee gets its start in the mountains of Snowdonia, Wales, from where it makes its way north and east – including along the border between England and Wales – finally dumping into Liverpool Bay and the Irish Sea here at the Dee Estuary. The river’s quiet surface hides a hum of activity: algae, cockles, clams, mud snails, worms and shrimps all make their homes in these mudflats, attracting birds and fish that feed, as well. The landscape also has a surprising amount of movement, with small creeks siphoning out water and tides flooding the flats twice a day.
Built from more than 16,000 yew trees, it includes just under two miles of twists and turns – all of which you can see from one of the six bridges that let you look down on the maze (and find a way out, if you need it) from above.
The volcanic rocks of Giant’s Causeway, located on the northern tip of Northern Ireland, date back to a particularly turbulent period in the Earth’s history – and their massive size and hexagonal shape continue to fascinate visitors even now, 60 million years later.
Today we know that the rocks were created by molten lava that erupted and then cooled. But they also, of course, have been the subject of legends. One myth holds that the Irish giant Finn McCool created them during a fight with Scottish giant Fingal, building the causeway between Ireland and Scotland so that the two could have a face-to-face fight, hence the geological feature’s well-known name.
This massive raised-earth sculpture – which measures more than 200m long – rises out of the land in Caerphilly, South Wales, some 15 miles south of Brecon Beacons National Park. The design is based on Sultan, who was a beloved local ‘pit pony’. These miniature horses, used to haul coal in the mines, would even have been stabled underground, only rarely coming up to the surface.
The importance of Sultan, and other ponies like him, of course, speaks to how predominant coal mining was in this area throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries. In 1913 alone, British coal production reached 300 million tonnes (today, it is around 20 million). Many of the mines were closed in the 1970s and 1980s, including by some of the most controversial policies passed by Margaret Thatcher’s government.
This sculpture, which took artist Mick Petts three years to complete, was created in 1999 in homage to the mines and their ponies.
From the sky, this landscape looks like a paint palette with mounds of pigment ready to be mixed. In fact, it’s a steel factory – and the colourful mounds are heaps of raw iron ore, which differs in colour depending on its origins.
In the late 19th Century, Britain produced more steel than any other nation in the world; a century later, the country had been surpassed by newly industrialising nations like China and India. However, two steel works continue at full operation: Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire, England, and this one at Port Talbot, Wales, about 10 miles southwest of Swansea. In spring 2016, the Port Talbot plant’s future seemed uncertain after its owners announced it would be put up for sale, but in December 2016 the company made a five-year commitment to keeping up its two blast furnaces.
Scotland’s Ben Nevis is the highest peak anywhere in the British Isles at 1,344m, and nine other mountains in Scotland also are 1,200m or higher. But while it’s not one of Scotland’s tallest peaks, the 731m Mt Suilven is certainly among its most distinctive. Like much of Scotland’s dramatic landscape, Suilven took shape during the last Ice Age, which began around 33,000 years ago and ended about 15,000 years ago. It’s thought that the mountain’s sandstone (which itself is some 500 million years old) was shorn away by a giant mass of ice that ground along both sides.
Centuries later, sights like this one would inspire the 18th-Century Scottish naturalist James Hutton to formulate his highly controversial Theory of the Earth, which centred on the proposal that Earth was millions of years old – and which is often credited as the founding of modern geology.
This unusual-looking loop-the-loop, which can be found in the bay of Lax Firth just off the Shetland Islands, is becoming an increasingly common sight from the air over Britain. (Each of the circles here is a salmon pen).
Once, Arbor Low was a circle of more than 40 standing stones surrounding an upright monument of several other limestone slabs. Today, the stones have fallen. But the 4,500-year-old monument in northern England’s Peak District remains impressive, not least for its earthwork mound with its 2m-tall bank and 78m diameter. As with Avebury in Wiltshire and other similar prehistoric monuments, it’s likely that prehistoric people saw the process of building Arbor Low as being just as important as the ceremonies it may ultimately have been used for, since it would have taken time, effort and a great deal of cooperation to build.
Far from alone in the area, Arbor Low is surrounded by a landscape of other large prehistoric monuments, including chambered tombs and burial cairns.
Chalk it up
The Uffington White Horse can be best appreciated from the air – and yet it was etched into the landscape around 3,000 years ago. The entire shape of the horse can only be seen from above, and at 110m by 40m, the Uffington White Horse is the longest chalk engraving in the country. It can also be viewed from nearby hills, even from up to 20 miles away.
The mystery, of course, is why any of them were created. One theory is that the Uffington White Horse may have marked a land boundary for members of an ancient Celtic cult that worshipped the horse-goddess Epona. What we do know is that, whatever its purpose was, it wasn’t easy to construct: Bronze Age people had to dig trenches into the hillside and fill them in with white chalk.
Larger than they look
They may look tiny from the air, but don’t be fooled. Each of these white dots is a northern gannet – the largest seabird in the North Atlantic with a wingspan of up to 2m. When they are breeding, which happens from January through sometime between August and October, Britain becomes home to some 70% of the world’s population. And the largest colony in the world is this one: Bass Rock, a 3ha island just off eastern Scotland in the Firth of Forth, which hosts more than 150,000 birds.
Their numbers at Bass Rock also have recently been increasing – at last count, by 24% from 2009 to 2015. With seabird numbers in decline – in Scotland from 1996 to 2016, the numbers of arctic skua fell by 80%, arctic tern by 72% and kittiwakes by 68% – that is welcome news. In more promising findings, a recent report suggested that in the last four years, the decline has slowed so much that it may even have stabilised.