I have recently spent a few days walking in the Lake District, and was struck by the fact that the three-thousand-footers of that region (Skiddaw, Helvellyn and the Scafells) are all very different in character. Can you explain this? - Anne O'Keegach
May I first say how brave of you it is to make such an admission on these pages. You do, indeed, pose a fascinating question. It has, until recently, been quite difficult to conduct proper geology in Cumbria, since most of it has been built on or paved over. However, the recent "drought" in that region has given geologists unprecedented access to lake floors, allowing them to piece together an astonishing story. Skiddaw, it is clear, is of native English origin: it is of that flat and dreary construction that I understand appeals to some, but the charms of which are lost on me. Helvellyn, however, with its airy Striding Edge, clearly has affinities with the West Highlands of Scotland; and geologists have proven this to be so. It appears that Helvellyn became detached from Scotland (somewhere in the present vicinity of Fort William) during the rifting of the North Atlantic about 100 million years ago. It then wandered rather erratically southwestwards for 35 million years, until it was in danger of providing Northern Ireland with its own three-thousand-foot peak. At this point fate intervened, in the form of the massive asteroid impact that exterminated the dinosaurs, some 65 million years ago. As well as casting up a world-girdling cloud of dust, this impact (at Chicxulub in the Yucatán), also hurled the massive, slaggy boulders destined to become Scafell and Scafell Pike completely across the newborn Atlantic, where they struck Helvellyn island (rather firmly, as one may well imagine). This impact reversed the course of the mountain's wanderings so that, over the next 10 million years, the fused mass of Helvellyn and the Scafells slid briskly down the North Channel, cannoned off the Isle of Man (pushing up Snaefell in the process), and then slid into place south of Skiddaw. As the rocky masses subsequently accommodated themselves to the impact, various other lumps and bumps appeared, creating what we now ironically refer to as the Cumbrian Mountains.
Dr MacDoohey (TAC25, p20) implies that while Helvellyn and the Western Highlands were wandering around the Atlantic Ocean, Skiddaw was simply lying around doing nothing. This is somewhat misleading, since it was in fact submerged beneath said ocean. The force of the impact as Helvellyn careered northwards towards the Highlands caused Skiddaw to rear upwards along with sundry lesser hills now known collectively as the Southern Uplands of Scotland.
Thus we see that if the fourth (time) dimension is considered, then Skiddaw is relatively the highest hill - ie it has grown faster than any other. If this growth continues, then barring further asteroid impact or interference from Scottish Nationalists (same thing, surely? - Ed.), in a few more million years Skiddaw may well become the highest mountain in Britain.
Yours potentially proudly,
Founder, President and current Sole Member of the Skiddaw Fan Club