The Land of Britain

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Architect: H.T. Cadbury Brown ◦ Theme Convener: Kenneth Chapman
Display Designer: V. Rotter

The land is the beginning of the story, and it is the land that gives the story its continuity.

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Britain was a ready-made island when our forebears stepped ashore. They were practical men with their feet on the ground, but they were also pioneers, men with feet sensitive to the nature of the ground – feet that soon grew so familiar with it that they came to act as roots, exploring it downward and bringing up from it the nourishment and profit that lies beneath. They were pioneers; but they were also craftsmen, and a craftsman’s mind follows his hands and feet. So the stones thrown up by the pioneers from their deep workings have been cracked open and studied like pages torn from a buried book, until now we know the birth pains and the growth of this motherland of ours, and how much wealth lies latent in her still.

Millions of years in the making

This growth has been a gradual and continuous process, in which our present is only an instant. There is continuity in the formation and destruction of land, no less than in the evolution of the life that lives upon it. This is the kind of reality that can best be translated into images by a painter; Graham Sutherland’s mural, then, sets the mood for this Pavilion.

All climates beneath our feet

Britain is not a country of extreme climates, yet buried in the island are evidences of all extremes. Twenty thousand years ago, it was an arctic land, glaciers ground their way down the valleys of the Lake District. Fifty million years ago, the region of the Scottish Islands was burned by volcanoes, which poured lava and scattered ash over the surrounding land and sea. Before that, the region where Birmingham now stands was an inferno of blown desert sand. Earlier still, tropical jungle made Britain look like a South Sea island.

The land in labour

Here in this island is a greater variety and wealth of rocks than can be found in any other area so small. This, too, is the result of a slow, imperceptible continuity of change, of deep troughs formed in past ocean beds being filled to colossal depths by wastage from the land which have then been spewed up as new mountain ranges, piled high above the surface of the earth. These, in their turn, have been eroded away, leaving only their tortured stumps.

Had some magic cine-camera, using time-lapse photography, recorded events during, say, the last five hundred million years, it would seem to repeat itself several times. One such cycle, therefore, can illustrate the labour pains in the building of the British Isles; and a special film has, in fact, been made to illustrate them.

The rocks that were used thus by the vast forces in the earth are now the very wealth of the land.

The rocks are our riches

Our story starts a thousand million years ago when the rocks of north-west Scotland and the Outer Isles were formed. Four hundred and fifty million years ago, west Britain was a seabed blanketed with river mud. From those ancient muds our fine Welsh slates are split.

Later, warm seas stretched out across the northern latitudes, swarming with living things. These, through the ages, crusted the sea floor with their limestone skeletons and now the cliffs of the Avon Gorge, for example, reveal this useful stone.

Two hundred and twenty million years ago, Britain was coated with jungle-swamps, whose giant plants for generations drank in the light, died, decomposed and were covered by mud and sands. They were raised again above the sea – dead forests entombed by rocks. From their rich black coals we unlock to-day the power of the primeval sun.

Later still, there were stagnant seas over north-east England, the salt of which was thickened by hot suns. To-day, these salts are mined from deep down under Middlesbrough and used for table, factory and to fertilise the fields. One hundred and thirty million years ago, the iron ore of Northamptonshire was laid down in a shallow sea.

During the last seventy million years the geography of Britain has changed continually. The land has been dipped like a cloth in the ocean, soaked, rinsed and folded up to dry. For most of the time it was part of Europe. Then, about five hundred thousand years ago, glaciers and ice shrouded the land. To this freezing world came early man. When the ice caps had melted Britain emerged an island.

This is the story of the origins of the land, seen through the eyes of British geologists who introduced a new science to the world. For the British people this land still offers materials ready to hand to challenge their skill; still offers a coastline for seamen, a climate for farmers and a landscape of extraordinary variety.

The Natural Scene

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Architect: Brian O’Rorke ◦ Theme Convener: Kenneth Chapman
Display Designer: F. H. K. Henrion

What is the reason for this extraordinary variety in the British landscape? Why is it impossible to find a photograph or a view that makes you say, “That sums up the whole of the British countryside!” while there are many that could have obviously been taken nowhere else? Part of the answer has been given in “The Land of Britain” Pavilion; for the rest we must look into the private lives of the animals and plants which together clothe the surface of this land.

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Most of our wild animals and plants have colonised the island much as man did – from across the Channel and the North Sea. They have moved at different rates, have chosen different places in which to live and multiply, and different sets of neighbours. Always there has been at peculiar sympathy between us and this untamed living world around us, which nowadays shows itself as a desire to know its secrets. In this Pavilion some of them are displayed.

Life in fresh water

The Lake District, the New Forest and the estuary of the River Stour are three areas that have come in for particular study recently. In all these districts, water as well as land provides the environment; so aquaria are being used for watching the behaviour of the plants and animals more closely.

Through having recreated the real conditions in this way, we now know, for instance, how the fish of the Luke District are dependent for their food on the microscopic plant life of the water, and how this life, in turn, exists at different depths, depending on the penetrating power of the different elements in the sun’s light rays.

The wild lands of Britain

Nothing, however, can so well illustrate the great variety of our natural scene as a rapid journey between some of the most distinctive areas. Nine more scenes, all widely different, are shown in this Pavilion.

We begin in the extreme west, on the island of St. Kilda, which is cut from volcanic rock, way out in the Atlantic, far remote from the Scottish coast. For centuries man has struggled for a foothold here and failed. The island remains the breeding place of seals and myriads of birds.

The Scottish Cairngorm mountains, high and cold, are another remote area, but one that is on the mainland. Here is a fastness of rare animals, and the small plants are those that can tolerate acid, peaty soils.

But height and cold are only two of the factors that may limit the abundance of plant and animal life. In parts of the Pennine Hills the country rock is limestone. This is a rock whose structure encourages the water to tunnel underground rather than flow in normal fashion on the surface. On these dry heights plants do not grow large and thick. They are short tufted and give little cover to protect insect life from the upland winds. This means less food for birds, which by consequence are rarer here than on moors, where heather and the like provide shelter for this smaller life.

The downlands

In the North Downs is the scenery so often spoken of as “typically” British. The word implies that here, at least, is permanence; in fact, the animals and plants are on the move, actively re-colonising the land. Much of the downland was once cultivated or grazed by sheep: but for over a century now the slopes have been abandoned by the farmers for the richer soils of the lower-lying land. Now these chalk downs are in the process of acquiring a new natural vegetation cover.

A new natural scene

Except in the most wild regions, then, man is the most important single factor in determining the natural scene, and giving the signal for its change. His presence alone may not be intolerable to wild animals and plants; but his works will upset their earlier agreed associations and bring about communities that are new. The natural history of contemporary London shows this clearly.

Birds, trees and grasses

There is, however, in these islands another wealth of great variety – the large numbers of different species of animals and plants that are not peculiar to one area, but are spread throughout the country. Such a plant is grass, yet to many of us it is nothing more. But examples of nearly forty different forms of grass are not difficult to find, and this by no means exhausts the British list. Think, too, of the number of different shapes of leaves that make up the verdure of the country scene, of the repertoire of bird-songs that provide accompaniment, and of the butterflies that, for a season, lend moving colour to its décor.

The twelve examples shown in this Pavilion of widely different landscapes derive from the natural scene on which our forebears got to work when they started to herd stock and till the land.

How they have farmed this primeval land with conscious intention is related in the next chapter of this story of the British isles.

The Living World

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Theme Convener: Kenneth Chapman ◦ Display Designers: Austin Frazer and Stirling Craig

In the foregoing sections of the Dome we have shown something of man’s achievement in exploration from the earth downward, outward and upward to the extremes of outer space where only intellect and imagination can carry him. The results are ever-increasing knowledge, and that knowledge is Science.

But this British desire to explore expresses itself in yet another way – as a probing deep inside nature to discover the secrets of the processes by which it works. Those who concern themselves with inanimate things are the physicists and chemists; the explorers of the world of living things are the biologists. The researches of these men and women are no less explorations than the journeys of Livingstone or the voyages of Cook. They do not necessarily have to travel far in pursuing their discoveries, but it so happens that some of them have been explorers by land or sea as well. A number of our own leading men of science to-day have been members of expeditions, for example to polar regions, the tropics or the Himalayas.

In exploring the living world, our biologists have been eminent in studying animals and plants as they occur in nature, why and how they live as they do and how they have come to be what they are. Here, in science, they have shown a trait characteristic of the British as a whole – a peculiar sympathy and understanding of the animals and plants around them. It expresses itself in many ways – not only in the work of our early naturalists but in stockraising and the English garden – to mention only two.

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Our early biologists

Of the early British biologists, three have been chosen to illustrate three of the directions from which the living world can be explored. They are John Ray who studied animals and plants so that he could classify them in their natural orders, Robert Brown, a laboratory scientist who was interested in their structure, and Gilbert White who made long and patient observations of the ways in which animals and plants live in their natural environment.

Charles Darwin

Dominating this section, just as his work still influences all modern biology, is Charles Darwin. The results of his work and thought, all through the world, are incalculably great. He had within him the sympathetic insight of the countryman, an accurate memory of distant explorations, the discipline of a naturalist and biologist and, above all, an intellect that could analyse and range his myriad observations into a theory that brought about a revolution in the scientific world. This was Natural Selection.

Associated with Darwin in the displays are the more notable of his contemporaries such as Huxley and Wallace, whose work also was strongly influenced by travel and exploration abroad.

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Modern research

The section culminates in a number of examples of modern work and research in biology – all of them showing an acceptance of the evolutionary principles that Darwin formulated, but pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge even further – study of mimicry in butterflies and the evolution of their form, to investigation of learning in birds. Pursuing the subject of learning, contemporary research on the brain and nervous mechanisms of octopuses and squids is demonstrated. The results of this have applications far beyond these creatures themselves and bear upon the working of the human nervous system.

Other displays are concerned with the mechanism of inheritance, with the intimate relationship between animals and their environment, migration, and the evolution of mankind. Taken together, all these examples show how the work of Charles Darwin has influenced the approach of those who to-day explore and discover in the Living World.

The visitor may notice that certain of our outstanding biological achievements with practical value are not included in this section. These are shown in those Pavilions to whose stories they particularly contribute. Pest control, for example, is in “The Land”, science in agriculture is in “The Country”, medicine and physiology are in the “Health” Pavilion.