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Essex Field Club
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Geology Site Account

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Kennington Park and Sandy Lane Pit, AVELEY, Thurrock District, TQ560812, Potential Local Geological Site

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Kennington Park is a former gravel pit of geological interest with potential for promoting geology. There are several small exposures of gravel providing evidence of the former course of the Thames 400,000 years ago. This site includes Sandy Lane Pit to the west (TQ 551 808) which became famous in 1964 for the discovery of the 'Aveley Elephants'.


Site description

Kennington Park was created in the 1990s from gravel pits alongside the Romford Road and the former pits are now attractive fishing lakes. There are several exposures of gravel, particularly alongside the path on the northern edge of the park where it forms low cliffs up to 2 metres high. The gravel is Orsett Heath Gravel, which forms the oldest and highest terrace of the Thames (the Boyn Hill Terrace) and about 400,000 years old. This patch of Orsett Heath Gravel at Aveley exists because it was preserved as a ‘meander core’, in other words it was at the centre of a loop of the Thames and therefore not destroyed when the river was cutting down through its floodplain during the following terrace cycle (Bridgland 1994).

The adjacent pit to the west has been landfilled and west of this was the famous Sandy Lane Clay Pit which worked London Clay but in 1964 produced the Aveley elephants from deposits associated with the Thames. See below for a history of this discovery.


The Aveley Elephants

In August 1964 Aveley received nationwide press coverage following the discovery of the remains of a mammoth and a juvenile straight-tusked elephant in Ice Age deposits channelled into the London Clay in a pit on the north side of Sandy Lane.

The story began on 27th July 1964 when a young local amateur geologist named John Hesketh, after several previous visits to the site, noticed part of a mammoth skeleton protruding from the sloping sides of the pit. He notified geologists from the Natural History Museum in London who carried out an excavation lasting three weeks, during which a museum volunteer camped overnight at the site as a precaution against vandalism and theft. The excavation received thousands of visitors, and staff from the Tunnel Portland Cement Company (owners of the pit) were said to have given up their spare time to control the crowds and keep the queue of people moving across the specially constructed observation platform. There was even an ice cream vendor to take advantage of the attraction! In addition to articles in most National newspapers the excava-tion was also filmed by the BBC.

The mammoth skeleton, some of the bones of the straight-tusked elephant, and about 40 centimetres of sediment beneath them were removed from the site in two wooden crates to be transported to the Natural History Museum for preparation and eventual public display. Together with the mammoth from Ilford they formed a spectacular exhibit in the museum’s Fossil Mammal Gallery from 1970 until 1990. Investigation of the site continued for some time afterwards, which led to part of a further mammoth being found in October 1964 and a further straight-tusked elephant skeleton between February and July 1965. These finds are now also in the Natural History Museum. A party from the Geologists’ Association visited the site in May 1965 (Blezard 1966).

Fossils found with the skeletons clearly indicated that the elephants were living during an interglacial period but the exact age of the sediments has long been the subject of controversy. For some time the interglacial was considered to be the Ipswichian interglacial stage (about 120,000 years old) based on fossil pollen. However, recent research based on the fossil molluscs, beetles and mammals in the sediments has favoured an older date and they are now attributed to the penultimate interglacial (Marine Isotope Stage 7) and therefore about 200,000 years old. In recognition of this site this interglacial stage is now informally known as the ‘Aveley Interglacial’. Rather surprisingly, the discovery has never been the subject of a formal scientific paper but the site and its deposits were later extensively described in Bridgland (1994) and Sutcliffe (1995).

Attempts to conserve part of the Sandy Lane Pit (also known as Aveley No. 2 pit) as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) unfortunately failed as planning consent for landfill had already been granted. The pit has therefore now been infilled. However there may be some undug land on the edges of the pit that could provide scope for future investigation (Bridgland et al. 2003).

The bones of the Aveley elephants being prepared for transport out of the pit prior to their journey to the Natural History Museum in London. Photo © G.R. Ward


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Reference: Blezard 1966, Bridgland 1994 (p. 251-262), Bridgland et al. 2003, Sutcliffe 1995.

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