Hull Geological Society
Humberside Geologist Oline

A summary Cenozoic history of the Yorkshire Wolds

by Derek Gobbett


The Yorkshire Wolds are a clearly defined geomorphological unit developed on the Chalk outcrop north of the Humber Estuary. In plan they are somewhat arcuate about a centre to the southeast and have been likened to a segment of an orange lying on its side (Dickens 2002, p.16). Approached from the west and north they rise like an island out of the drift-covered lowlands of the Vale of York and the Vale of Pickering. Northwestwards they link to the higher ground of the Howardian Hills and in the northeast they form the massive cliffed headland of Flamborough. Southeastwards the wold surface falls to be submerged beneath the drift of Holderness.

To understand the present form of the Wolds we need to consider their history since the end of the Cretaceous when there was a major fall in relative sea level and chalk deposition stopped. In what follows I attempt to trace an outline of this history through the last 65Ma. Much of it is speculative and only in the late Pleistocene and Holocene is it possible to be more confident about the processes of geomorphological evolution.

Tertiary events.

Earth movements.

At the beginning of the Cenozoic the western part of Britain was uplifted by basaltic magma rising to form the new oceanic crust of the North Atlantic. The crust of the North Sea Basin continued to stretch and sink. Thus Britain suffered a general eastward tilt. At this time also the Cleveland Basin became everted and uplifted, giving a southerly tilt to the northern Wolds so that a broad synclinal structure was formed plunging SE (Fig.1).

During the Tertiary the Chalk was consequently eroded completely from areas west and north of the Wolds, preserved in the North Sea Basin and partly eroded from the area of the Wolds. The southern Wolds lie over the rigid Market Weighton Block and the Chalk here dips at a few degrees to the east.

Fig.1. Structural features affecting the Yorkshire Wolds.

N.B.  K = Cretaceous

However in the northern Wolds the Chalk was locally affected by movements on underlying faults in the Jurassic and earlier "basement" (Kirby and Swallow 1987). These faults form the east west striking Howardian Hills - Flamborough Fault Belt. The main structures in the Chalk were a series of east-west striking faults and monoclinal folds lying en echelon.

Starmer (2008) concluded that this deformation was formed partly under compressive stresses and partly under tensile ones and took place over a lengthy period from the Palaeocene to the late Oligocene. These movements caused strong cementation of the Chalk which hardened it and allowed it to resist marine erosion to form Flamborough Head.

There is no evidence of any marine incursion into the Wolds area at any time since the Cretaceous. During the 65 Ma of the Cenozoic we must assume that the Chalk was undergoing erosion.

Erosion of the Chalk

The Chalk has a remarkably uniform lithology being almost pure CaCO3. It is highly permeable and surface water is rare. The chalk weathers chemically by carbonation to form calcium bicarbonate which is highly soluble and is eroded by solution.

The CO2 dissolved in ground water is provided mainly from the soil, particularly under a forest cover. In the early Tertiary we can assume that the Wolds were forested under a warm humid climate. From the Miocene there was a change to cooler and drier conditions but a warm temperate climate still prevailed.

The original thickness of the Chalk over the Wolds was probably of the order of 500m. This could all have been dissolved during the Cenozoic at a solution rate of 7.7Ķm per year so it is rather surprising that there is now any Chalk left at all. As uplift continued erosion lowered the surface by internal solution mainly within the phreatic zone where the percolating water would be most aggressive. As the Chalk has a uniform lithology, its surface, as it was lowered by solution, would be expected to remain more or less parallel to the original surface without the development of hill ridges and valleys.

Karst features typical of limestone areas are generally poorly developed on the Chalk. On the Wolds plateau small shallow dolines are recorded in the vicinity of Vessey Pasture [SE8262] (Hayfield and Wagner 1995). Nearby on The Warrens [SE8462] are the Raisthorpe Hollows (Fig.2), a number of elongate dolines running east-west and arranged en echelon (Mortimer 1885, Lewin 1969, p.56). Vertical solution pipes are probably more common on the Wolds than their limited exposure would indicate.

Fig.2. Raisthorpe hollows. Elongate dolines marked in red. Contours in metres.

Pipes have been recorded from chalk pits no longer extant (Mortimer 1885, Sheppard 1904). A large pipe and several smaller ones were exposed in Flixton Quarry (Gobbett 2009) and similar pipes can be seen exposed on the sea cliffs at Bempton (Fig.3)

Fig. 3 Vertical pipe on Bempton Cliff. Cliff height approx. 80m.

Erosion levels.

De Boer et al. (1958, Fig.5) proposed the existence of two erosion surfaces on the dip slope of the southern Wolds, a lower one at 50  60 m OD and a "less clearly marked" surface at 90  120m OD. In his work on the geomorphology of the Lincolnshire Wolds, Straw (1961) identified a number of erosion surfaces on the dip slope which he classified into five levels. Lewin (1969) did not mention the De Boer surfaces but attempted to identify eight erosion surfaces on the Yorkshire Wolds and tentatively correlated these with Straw s surfaces. No deposits were identified on any of the surfaces. The surfaces themselves were patchy and were considered as probably Tertiary in age. Their origin was briefly considered as possibly wave cut or relicts of successive peneplains. Peneplanation of the chalk by rivers seems very improbable. A number of uplifted wave cut platforms are possible but this implies an alternation of relative sea level rises, during which the platforms were cut, and falls to preserve the platforms as land surfaces. Such sea level changes did occur in SE England during the early Tertiary but there is no evidence of any Tertiary marine deposits in the northeast of England. The individual surfaces identified by Lewin vary in height above sea level to a greater extent than the height differences between them and the lowest three overlap considerably (Fig.4) I consider that they are all part of a slightly undulating dip slope and that the individual surfaces do not exist. Lewin s lowest surfaces, found in the larger valleys, are better interpreted as solifluction terraces.

Fig.4. Proposed erosion surfaces on the Yorkshire Wolds.

The Great Wold Valley.

Although it is now essentially dry the Great Wold Valley differs from all the other dry valleys of the Wolds. It is not only longer, traversing the northern Wolds from west to east but much broader, with far more gently sloping sides and a more gradual longitudinal profile. The head of the valley has relatively gentle slopes and lies at 120m at the only point on the main watershed where the Chalk has been completely eroded away and Kimmeridge Clay crops out. The course of the valley has a moderate sinuosity in an east-northeast direction as far as Burton Fleming. This 23km stretch reaches a valley floor width of 600m and has an average gradient of about 1:300, considerably less than the 1:110 gradient along the same length of the largest dry valley system from Aldro through Thixendale to Driffield (Fig.5).

The Great Wold Valley then turns sharply south to Rudston, seemingly avoiding the mass of Flamborough Head. This deflection may be structurally controlled by a basement fault interpreted by Kirby and Swallow (1987). The valley may have originally continued southwestwards towards Kilham before swinging southeast again to the coast. The valley running east from Rudston to Bridlington has a markedly different character having a narrower floor (c.400m) with steeper sides and a steeper long profile of about 1:360. It appears to be a younger valley cut by the stream which occupies it and which normally flows from a spring at Rudston.

The Great Wold Valley must have been eroded by a sizeable river flowing over an alluvial bed, and it appears to be of considerable age. Tertiary rivers from the Pennines can be assumed to have drained eastwards towards the North Sea before they were beheaded by the Ouse (Reed 1901). One of these rivers, for example the Nidd (Fig.1), may have cut the ancestor of the Great Wold Valley and then abandoned it to be lowered by solution but still retaining its general form. Did such a river eventually sink below Flamborough Head from a large doline between Burton Fleming and Rudston?

Fig.5. Comparative long profiles of two valleys. Heights in metres

Tertiary deposits.

No Tertiary deposits have been recorded on the Wolds with any certainty. The solution of the Chalk during the Tertiary would have left a regolith of insoluble flint with clay from the marl bands. Under a warm temperate climate this would probably be oxidised to a reddish colour. These "clay with flint" deposits are present on the Chalk outcrops of southern Britain because these were not glaciated at any time during the Quaternary. Such deposits on the Wolds would have been largely removed by the over-riding ice sheet of the Middle Pleistocene Anglian glaciation. However small patches of clay with flints have been recorded in solution hollows in the Chalk at Rudston, Willerby Wold and Acklam (Matthews 1977). Some of the flint is weathered to a "sugary" condition suggesting that it may have altered in a warm climate.

Similar material appears to have been preserved in fissures as flint breccias (Mortimer 1885, Fig.4; Sheppard 1904). Recently the large quarry at Flixton exposed a number of pipes, the largest reaching a depth of c.30m. These were filled with angular flint, often stained red, sand-sized grains of yellow quartz and iron oxide, and clay (Gobbett 2009). Mortimer (1905) records the not uncommon siting of tumuli on sand-filled pipes the top of which lay slightly above the chalk surface as low natural mounds.

Well-cemented flint breccias filling pipes and fissures form the weathered-out resistant masses of "St Austin s Rock" and the "Fairy Stones" (Gobbett 2006). Mortimer (1886) mapped other deposits of Fairy Stones on Towthorpe Wold and between Fridaythorpe and Thixendale. Scattered over the Wolds are blocks of similar breccia that could damage the plough and which are thus often removed and left at field margins.

None of these sediments have proved to be fossiliferous so their age is unknown. However Sheppard (1904) recorded the presence of rounded quartzite pebbles in pipe fillings and from the Fairy Stones. These pebbles must be regarded as glacial erratics and would indicate the age of the breccias to be Quaternary rather than Tertiary. Versey (1939) found a diverse heavy mineral assemblage in sand from some of the pipes and also from the Fairy Stones. He concluded that the heavy minerals were probably derived from glacial sediments.

The Pleistocene.

The Pleistocene was epitomised by geologically rapid major changes in climate. During the warmest periods the Wolds would have had a warm temperate climate and a forest cover but in the coldest periods, if the Wolds were not ice-covered, continuous permafrost would have completely altered the process of erosion, summer melt water rapidly eroding the chalk surface to initiate the drainage pattern we see today. To understand the present geomorphology we have to consider that this was largely fashioned under periglacial conditions, the latest phase of which, in the Devensian, would have overprinted any earlier periglacial features.

Before the Devensian the only glacial event affecting the Wolds about which we can be reasonably certain was the Anglian glaciation (MIS12) when lowland ice sheets spread south to Essex and thickened sufficiently to completely cover East Yorkshire . This ice probably eroded any superficial Tertiary and Lower Pleistocene deposits from the Wolds and may have re-deposited them along with erratic material as glacial deposits.

Pre-Devensian deposits.

Small patches of clastic sediments are scattered on the Wolds filling solution depressions (dolines) on the surface. These were worked for clay and sand in the 19th Century at Sledmere, Fimber and Huggate. The meres on the Wolds plateau for example at Fridaythorpe and Fimber seem to be natural features lying in clay-lined depressions. Mortimer (1886) mapped these deposits in the northwestern part of the Wolds and assumed that they were of Tertiary age, actually labelling some of them "Upper Eocene" and "Oligocene". It is likely that most of these sediments were deposited under periglacial conditions and are Pleistocene in age. None are currently exposed but the deposits at Fimber were investigated by Bray et al. (1981). Here an elongate steep-sided depression, about 2 hectares in area is filled with unfossiliferous sand and brickearth over 15m thick. Although the brickearth has a similar composition to the Devensian loess deposits which are widespread on the Wolds (Catt et al. 1974), Bray et al. concluded that the Fimber deposits were probably pre-Devensian as their heavy mineral assemblage differed from that of Devensian sands along the southern margin of the Vale of Pickering.

Erratic pebbles and boulders are common on the Wolds plateau and slopes of the Great Wold Valley. A collection of these made by J R Mortimer and acquired by Sheppard for the Hull Museum was unfortunately lost in WW2. Stather (1904) recorded large numbers of "quartzite" pebbles from High Hunsley and North Nab in the southern Wolds. His collection was seen by Bisat (1940) who identified Cheviot andesites and silicified Carboniferous limestone. Large boulders of metaquartzite and dolerite, presumably from the Great Whin Sill, are not uncommon. Recent collecting has produced quartzites, vein quartz, greywacke, arkose, red sandstones, Jurassic quartz arenites, haematite, ironstone, basalt, Red Chalk, and Corallian bioclastic and oolitic limestones. These erratics are presumably remaniť from Anglian glacial deposits.

The Devensian.

The Late Devensian (MIS 2) glaciation of Yorkshire is well documented (see Catt 2007) and it is clear that the Yorkshire Wolds, although remaining ice free, suffered periglacial, permafrost conditions. Direct evidence for this is now sparse after millennia of agricultural activity but some evidence of patterned ground is recorded (see Ellis 1981). A detailed resistivity survey by ERAS in 2003 at Newbald Lodge Farm, Sancton Wold, shows polygonal cracks and what appears to be a collapsed pingo (Fig.6). Frost wedging is recorded in Triplescore Dale [SE 9161] near Fimber (Buckland 2001) and ice wedge casts are known from the late Devensian Sewerby Gravel and from glaciolacustrine gravels from Barmston (Evans


During the late Devensian, the Wolds would have experienced tundra conditions. Freeze and

thaw weathering during the summer months would have rapidly broken down the chalk into centimetre-sized angular fragments. Low growing arctic-alpine vegetation would not have completely covered the ground leaving areas of bare regolith composed mainly of angular chalk gravel. Summer melt water from winter snows and from the ice front was unable to permeate the chalk and produced or re-eroded a dense dendritic pattern of steep-sided valleys. These have steep longitudinal gradients and flat floors in their middle and lower reaches.

Fig. 6. Patterned ground and a possible collapsed pingo on Sancton Wold. [SE93103955] - ERAS resistivity survey

These valley floors are covered in rounded chalk gravel and are often faintly ridged longitudinally. The mouths of tributary valleys often show indications of an alluvial fan. All of these characteristics strongly suggest that the steams that produced these valleys had highly variable discharges and produced braided stream channels traversing gravel bars and completely flooding the valley floor for short periods during major thaws.

Summer thaw of the surface layers would initiate mass movement down slope producing screes of chalk gravel resting at a stable angle of 22-25o, slope angles typical of dry valleys presently. Mass movement in this periglacial climate may well also have produced solifluction terraces. Many modern dry valleys are characterised by a narrow terrace along the base of the slopes on one or both sides of the valley floor (Fig. 7).

The short and steep valleys draining north and west from the watershed would rapidly add water to the wetlands of the Vale of Pickering and southern part of the Vale of York, both free from ice. The longer southeasterly flowing dip slope valleys had their flood water impounded by the ice front and thus a series of proglacial lakes was produced which eventually drained south and southwest via the Goodmanham Gap to the Vale of York (De Boer 1945). The lake levels rose until the lowest part of the interfluve was topped and then drained south cutting overflow channels of decreasing height across the interfluval spurs (Pl.1). The Great Wold Valley was blocked by ice at Rudston and the resulting lake probably drained via a col to Kirkham.

Between Kirkham and North Dalton overflow channels are not apparent in the present landscape and have possibly been buried by deposits from a late stage ice advance. South of Middleton the channels are clearly visible in the modern landscape.


Chalk gravel carried as bed load in a braided stream would rapidly become rounded, any flint fragments remaining angular. Such gravels have been mapped by the BGS on the floors of all the modern dry valleys on the Wolds. They are not often exposed but may be seen at Wetwang [SE 936596] (Fig.8) and Burton Fleming [TA 078718].

Fig.7. Minning Dale showing a terrace along the base of the slope

The regolith which covers the chalk bedrock on the plateau and valley heads and sides consists of angular chalk gravel with a silt matrix underlying a thin soil horizon (Fig.9), (Neal 2006, 2010).

The near presence of ice would have produced strong easterly winds carrying large amounts of silt to be deposited as loess. Catt et al. (1974) record that silty drifts are widespread on the Wolds and are locally thick enough to have been worked as brickearth. These authors have shown that this material has a grain size distribution typical of loess and a mineralogy similar to that of silt in the late Devensian glacial deposits of East Yorkshire.

The Postglacial.

By about 15 Ka BP the ice had retreated from around the Wolds and the climate began to ameliorate, albeit in a fluctuating manner, over the next 5000 years. The gradual rise in sea level and the resultant aggradation of valley floors produced considerable thicknesses of gravel in the lower courses of the dry valleys, up to 30m in Wetwang and Garton Slacks.

Fig.8. Chalk gravel showing imbrication.Wetwang Slack

Fig.9. Recent soil overlying loess-rich chalk gravel on cryoturbated chalk. East Hestlerton Wold [SE 932745]

During this time the permafrost thawed allowing water to drain progressively into the Chalk. Steeper slopes became unstable and major landslips were formed wherever the Chalk overlay clays along the Wolds escarpment, producing a degraded slope up to 1 km wide (Fig.10). In addition, deep rotational slides, where large masses of rock became detached and slid down on a curved plane rotating the beds to dip steeply towards the hillside, formed low hills along the base of the slope. An excellent example is to be seen at Stack Hills [SE 875714] (Fig. 11). Other examples are Staple Howe [SE 898749] and Vessey Hill [SE 834622]. These features were later stabilised by increasing plant cover, climaxing possibly in ash woodland.

Fig.10. Landslips on the Wolds escarpment south of Kirby Underdale [SE 806578]

Fig.11. Stack hills

Surface Drainage.

During the Holocene, rates of erosion of the Chalk decreased and were once again dominated by solution. However, the water table may well have been higher before humans started to extract ground water and at times may have been sufficiently high to cause streams to flow in some of the dry valleys as "winterbournes".

The present drainage may be divided into four types (Fig.12)

Fig.12 diagrammatic section across the Wolds to show types of surface water. Fluctuating water table shown by blue lines

1. Springs from the base of the Chalk

These springs have eroded short steep valleys along the western margin of the Wolds. Some of them have cut back into the top of the escarpment so convoluting the line of the watershed. Presently only the lower parts of the valleys have permanent streams flowing over clay subjacent to the Chalk but in the recent past a higher water table may have extended the stream headwards.

On the dip slope the springs from the base of the Chalk give rise to permanent streams at the head of the Great Wold Valley between WharramLe Street and Kirby Grindalythe and wet the floors of dry valleys at Thixendale and Burdale. Further east the base of the Chalk dips increasingly below the topographic surface.

2. Springs fed intermittently during periods of high water table

These springs are present at a number of places on the floor of the Great Wold Valley and along the southeastern margin of the Wolds. They produce copious amounts of clear water for a few weeks and are capable of flooding the valley floor and villages like Burton Fleming. The strong temporary flow is known as a "gypsey" and the stream channel the "gypsey race". "Gypsey" is probably derived from the old norse "gypa" meaning a gushing spring (cf. geyser). A gypsey may disappear down a sink hole (e.g near Burton Fleming [TA 078718].

On the southeastern edge of the chalk Wolds the sites of these springs are called "pit holes" as at Tancred Pit Hole [TA 069664] and Hen Pit Hole [TA 028657] near Kilham. Smith (1923) records water spouting from Hen Pit Hole to form a arch under which a rider on horseback was able to pass.

3. Springs fed by groundwater from the Chalk aquifer below glacial drift

Numerous springs arise along the margin of the glacial drift which overlies the Chalk to the southeast of the Wolds. Here the peizometric surface may lie above the water table in which case the flow is artesian. These springs are known as "naffers" well seen at Nafferton and Little Driffield. They give rise to permanent streams which drain into the river Hull.

4. Surface water after heavy rain

Cloud bursts over the Wolds may produce surface water more rapidly than it can permeate into the chalk. This water will descend the steep slopes and flood the "dry" valleys. Exceptionally, but not rarely, intense storms produce raging torrents destroying crops, hedges, haystacks and removing soil down to bedrock. Where valleys converge on villages catastrophic floods are recorded (Hood 1892, Wright 1997). Langtoft was flooded to a depth exceeding 2m in 1657, 1888, 1892 and again in 1910. The 1910 flood seriously affected the town of Driffield (Marley 1991) as well as the Great Wold Valley between the Luttons and Butterwick.

Eye witness accounts record tornadoes, referred to as "waterspouts", which appear to gush water and tear rents down hillsides, depositing fans of chalk gravel (Hood 1892, Cole 1901, Sheppard 1903). These erosion features are common on the Wolds and will be referred to here as Torrent Scars.

Torrent Scars

Superimposed on the steep slopes of dry valley sides and the escarpment are narrow incisions running straight down the slope. A large example is Snevver Scar on the Wolds excarpment overlooking Flixton [TA 033787] (Fig.13). This was interpreted as a glacial drainage channel by Foster (1987) who also interpreted the contour-aligned hollows behind landslips as glacial drainage channels. Smaller torrent scars are common. They appear to be cut during periods of heavy rainfall, by water gushing out of the hillside, rapidly eroding a rough channel, some 1-2m deep and 2-4m wide in minutes and then drying up. The scar is subsequently grassed over. Such a feature was visible in October 2010 about a day after it was formed in Wraydale [SE 883628] (Fig.14)

Fig.13 Snevver Scar

Fig.14 Torrent scar, Whaydale

The head of the scar was below the top of the steep valley side. Sheets of water must also have poured over the slope from the potato field above, combing down the long grass and scattering potatoes all over the slope. Neal (2006) records a water cut gulley and alluvial fan in Cowlam Well Dale [SE 972652] and Foster (1978) has described gulleys on arable land at Elmscott Wold [SE 997614] which were probably formed in a similar way.


Since their uplift after the end of the Cretaceous the Yorkshire Wolds have remained a landscape undergoing erosion. Throughout the Tertiary this has been a slow process of chalk solution producing a sloping plateau with dolines and pipes and a regolith of clay-with flints. An eastward flowing river from the Pennines may have eroded the Great Wold Valley during this time.

Climatic fluctuations in the Lower and Middle Pleistocene initiated the dry valley systems of the Wolds. In cold periods under a periglacial climate erosion was dominated by freeze and thaw. Spring and summer melt water cut the valleys. During the intervening warm periods the water table normally lay below the valley floors and they remained dry.

Ice sheets may have been present on the Wolds during some of the coldest periods but the only glaciation we can be sure about was the Anglian, about 450 Ka ago. This ice would have removed most of any regolith or sediment from the Chalk surface except possibly where it lay protected in fissure fills.

During the last, Devensian, glaciation the current dry valleys were re-eroded in a permafrost environment. Water was ponded along the ice front to the east and drained by a series of overflow channels south and west into the Vale of York.

In the early post-glacial extensive landslips and rotational slides were developed on the Chalk escarpment and to a lesser extent on the valley sides. Once the permafrost had completely thawed water was again restricted to gypseys, naffers and short-lived torrents which produced scars on steep slopes.Plate 1

A. Sketch map of the Wolds in the Devensian summer


B. Details of glacial spillways in the southern Wolds


I am indebted to Rodger Connell and to Prof. Pete Rawson for their helpful comments on this paper.


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