Book review: Walking the Jurassic Coast and some thoughts about e-book versus printed versions in guidebooks

Walking the Jurassic Coast: Dorset and East Devon: The walks, the rocks and the fossils


Ronald Turnbull, Cicerone 240 pages. ISBN 9781852847418 £12.95 (e-Book also available)


An award-winning outdoor writer publishes a guidebook through a specialist publisher renowned for their guidebooks and the result is superb. The volume follows the standard walking guidebook formula of most Cicerone volumes of having a general introduction to the area with an overview map, with subareas outlined and then individual walks numbered as a reference. An overview of transport and accommodation and safety considerations in the area, ranging from tides to tank firing ranges, in the area follows.


However, this is also a geological guidebook, so the volume includes a concise overview of the geology of the Jurassic World Heritage Coast, complete with stratigraphic column and an additional index to the walks by geological topic. Turnbull gives advice about fossil collecting and does point people to the example of how geologists work on the coast: spending as little time near the cliffs as possible and collecting material from the beach. A lovely line in relation to collecting is ‘if you find two (fossils), leave one for someone else’.


Each individual group of walks is either united by geological theme (e.g. Devon’s Red Beds) or a particular area (Golden Cap) and the individual walks are laid out in the familiar guidebook format giving start and finish points, distance, ascent, approximate travel time, the terrain the route crosses, advice about OS map coverage and the all-important parking. A short text-box then describes the highlights of the walks and a summary of the geological units encountered.

A detailed set of points of interest, or navigational importance, then guide the reader round the walks. Where relevant, Turnbull includes digestible but detailed sections on the geology, landscape and activities of geologists, quarry workers and palaeontologists. Turnbull becomes ‘author as a raconteur’ in many of these sections, which has always been a feature of his writing. However, his discussion and diagrams of Bindon landslip also show attention to the facts.

Turnbull has a background in geography but in recent years has published two large-format, beautifully illustrated books on the geology of the British Isles for outdoorsy types and a notable feature of his recent walking guides for Cicerone is the appendices on geology and geomorphology. His self-stated aim is to write books to try and understand the rocks he has walked, scrambled and climbed on over many years. While this may be taken as a chiding of the Earth Sciences community, he is free in his acknowledgements of his sources, both published and online, which are recent and very relevant. A glossary of technical terms is also included in an appendix. The research on the book is so up-to-date that it includes the soon-to-open Kimmeridge Fossil Museum to be opened to house Steve Etches collection in the list of museums in the area.

The physical book is printed at the usual guidebook size, with a plastic cover, and is the right size to put in your rucksack or jacket pocket, as I have done on many a dreich Scottish mountain day. The paper is high quality and the spacing and wide margins do make the text very easy to read. The producers of natural history field guides, would do well to look at the production techniques and layout. I can think of only two of my many birding field guides that match up to the design quality of printing and physical production for a book designed to be used out-of-doors. My only question is how clear the green on white text used for figure captions is for some readers. All the photographs and geological diagrams (I have a sense that Paul Gannon’s diagrams in his Rock Trails books have set a standard for easily understood geological diagrams for non-specialist outdoor publications) are cleanly and clearly reproduced. A very few typos slip in (Beominster for Beaminster in a photograph caption) and a grumpy stratigrapher could complain about the use of Tertiary but overall, it is a magnificent volume that should hopefully generate interest in the Jurassic Coast and its fossils.

The e-book was a departure for myself, as I have never bought a walking guide in e-book form before. After cursing having to pay VAT, I was able to take some time to consider the pros and cons of an e-book version. Cameron McNeish, the well-known Scottish mountaineer, wrote a piece in Scottish Walks made me consider the use of e-books more widely in outdoor work in the light of the appearance of tablets, high-quality waterproof cases and improved charging devices. I used the book (public libraries remain handy) in July for @FossilBlitz but was able to do a lot of planning with the e-book. Being able to search for terms, just as in any electronic document, is very useful. I can also imagine the ability to zoom in and show the book on a screen being very useful in a range of circumstances. The ability to print would allow the e-book user to reproduce hard copies of the geological cross-sections, which Turnbull suggests those interested in the geology might carry with their topo maps, after cutting them out of the printed book. Having since gone on to buy a walking guidebook in e-book form, my conclusion is that geological/palaeontological guidebooks and walking guides to large, non-technical (i.e. no scrambling or rock-climbing) areas work well. Will we see Palaeontological Association Field Guide e-books?

I am a palaeobiologist in my early 40's carrying out research work. I am based in Scotland.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Geodiversity, Geological Walks

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