The Thames Valley Catastrophe
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But what do you say to the earth opening in a huge crack, forty or fifty miles long--say, as far as from here right away to London, or farther--and lava pouring out from the orifice, not in a little rivulet as at Etna or Vesuvius, but in a sea or inundation, which spread at once over a tract as big as England? That's something like volcanic action, isn't it? And that's the sort of thing we have out in Colorado.
You are trying to astonish me with the familiar spread eagle. He smiled a quiet smile. The earth yawns in Montana. There are fissure-eruptions, as we call them, in the Western States, out of which the lava has welled like wine out of a broken skin--welled up in vast roaring floods, molten torrents of basalt, many miles across, and spread like water over whole plains and valleys. The lava oozed out, red-hot--gushed out--was squeezed out--and spread instantly everywhere; it's so comparatively recent that the surface of the rock is still bare in many parts, unweathered sufficiently to support vegetation.
I fancy the stream must have been ejected at a single burst, in a huge white-hot dome, and then flowed down on every side, filling up the valleys to a certain level, in and out among the hills, exactly as water might do. And some of these eruptions, I tell you, by measured survey, would have covered more ground than from Dover to Liverpool, and from York to Cornwall. He eyed me curiously. These fissure-eruptions, though not historically described for us, are common events in geological history--commoner and on a larger scale in America than elsewhere.
Still, they have occurred in all lands and at various epochs; there is no reason at all why one shouldn't occur in England at present. I laughed, and shook my head. I had the Englishman's firm conviction--so rudely shattered by the subsequent events, but then so universal--that nothing very unusual ever happened in England. Next morning I rose early, bathed in Odney Weir a picturesque pool close by , breakfasted with the American, and then wrote a hasty line to my wife, informing her that I should probably sleep that night at Oxford; for I was off on a few days' holiday, and I liked Ethel to know where a letter or telegram would reach me each day, as we were both a little anxious about the baby's teething.
Even while I pen these words now, the grim humour of the situation comes back to me vividly. Thousands of fathers and mothers were anxious that morning about similar trifles, whose pettiness was brought home to them with an appalling shock in the all-embracing horror of that day's calamity.
About ten o'clock I inflated my tyres and got under way. I meant to ride towards Oxford by a leisurely and circuitous route, along the windings of the river, past Marlow and Henley; so I began by crossing Cookham Bridge, a wooden or iron structure, I scarcely remember which.
It spanned the Thames close by the village: the curious will find its exact position marked in the maps of the period. In the middle of the bridge, I paused and surveyed that charming prospect, which I was the last of living men perhaps to see as it then existed. Close by stood a weir; beside it, the stream divided into three separate branches, exquisitely backed up by the gentle green slopes of Hedsor and Cliveden.
I could never pass that typical English view without a glance of admiration; this morning, I pulled up my bicycle for a moment, and cast my eye down stream with more than my usual enjoyment of the smooth blue water and the tall white poplars whose leaves showed their gleaming silver in the breeze beside it. I might have gazed at it too long--and one minute more would have sufficed for my destruction--had not a cry from the tow-path a little farther up attracted my attention.
I am confident this was my first intimation of danger. Two minutes before, it is true, I had heard a faint sound like distant rumbling of thunder; but nothing else. I am one of those who strenuously maintain that the catastrophe was not heralded by shocks of earthquake. I turned my eye up stream.
For half a second I was utterly bewildered. Strange to say, I did not perceive at first the great flood of fire that was advancing towards me. I saw only the man who had shouted--a miserable, cowering, terror-stricken wretch, one of the abject creatures who used to earn a dubious livelihood in those days when the river was a boulevard of pleasure by towing boats up stream. But now, he was rushing wildly forward, with panic in his face; I could see he looked as if close pursued by some wild beast behind him. I glanced back to see what his pursuer might be; and then, in one second, the whole horror and terror of the catastrophe burst upon me.
Its whole horror and terror, I say, but not yet its magnitude. I was aware at first just of a moving red wall, like dull, red-hot molten metal. Trying to recall at so safe a distance in time and space the feelings of the moment and the way in which they surged and succeeded one another, I think I can recollect that my earliest idea was no more than this: "He must run, or the moving wall will overtake him!
It was just like the blast of heat that strikes one in a glasshouse when you stand in front of the boiling and seething glass in the furnace. At about the same point in time, I was aware, I believe, that the dull red wall was really a wall of fire. But it was cooled by contact with the air and the water. Even as I looked, however, a second wave from behind seemed to rush on and break: it overlaid and outran the first one.
This second wave was white, not red--at white heat, I realized. Then, with a burst of recognition, I knew what it all meant. What Ward had spoken of last night--a fissure eruption! I looked back. Ward was coming towards me on the bridge, mounted on his Columbia. Too speechless to utter one word, I pointed up stream with my hand He nodded and shouted back, in a singularly calm voice: "Yes; just what I told you.
A fissure-eruption! They were the last words I heard him speak. Not that he appreciated the danger less than I did, though his manner was cool; but he was wearing no clips to his trousers, and at that critical moment he caught his leg in his pedals. The accident disconcerted him; he dismounted hurriedly, and then, panic-stricken as I judged, abandoned his machine. He tried to run. The error was fatal. He tripped and fell. What became of him afterward I will mention later.
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But for the moment I saw only the poor wretch on the tow-path. He was not a hundred yards off, just beyond the little bridge which led over the opening to a private boat-house. But as he rushed forwards and shrieked, the wall of fire overtook him.
I do not think it quite caught him. It is hard at such moments to judge what really happens; but I believe I saw him shrivel like a moth in a flame a few seconds before the advancing wall of fire swept over the boat-house.
The thames valley catastrophe (English Edition): sporanwinzieful.ml: Grant Allen: Books
I have seen an insect shrivel just so when flung into the midst of white-hot coals. He seemed to go off in gas, leaving a shower or powdery ash to represent his bones behind him. But of this I do not pretend to be positive; I will allow that my own agitation was far too profound to permit of my observing anything with accuracy. How high was the wall at that time? This has been much debated.
I should guess, thirty feet though it rose afterwards to more than two hundred , and it advanced rather faster than a man could run down the centre of the valley. Later on, its pace accelerated greatly with subsequent outbursts.
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In frantic haste, I saw or felt that only one chance of safety lay before me: I must strike up hill by the field path to Hedsor. I rode for very life, with grim death behind me. Once well across the bridge, and turning up the hill, I saw Ward on the parapet, with his arms flung up, trying wildly to save himself by leaping into the river. Next instant he shrivelled I think, as the beggar had shrivelled; and it is to this complete combustion before the lava flood reached them that I attribute the circumstance so much commented upon in the scientific excavations among the ruins that no cast of dead bodies, like those at Pompeii, have anywhere been found in the Thames Valley Desert.
My own belief is that every human body was reduced to a gaseous condition by the terrific heat several seconds before the molten basalt reached it. Even at the distance which I had now attained from the central mass, indeed, the heat was intolerable. Yet, strange to say, I saw few or no people flying as yet from the inundation. The fact is, the eruption came upon us so suddenly, so utterly without warning or premonitory symptoms for I deny the earthquake shocks , that whole towns must have been destroyed before the inhabitants were aware that anything out of the common was happening.
It is a sort of alleviation to the general horror to remember that a large proportion of the victims must have died without even knowing it; one second, they were laughing, talking, bargaining; the next, they were asphyxiated or reduced to ashes as you have seen a small fly disappear in an incandescent gas flame. This, however, is what I learned afterward. At that moment, I was only aware of a frantic pace uphill, over a rough, stony road, and with my pedals working as I had never before worked them; while behind me, I saw purgatory let loose, striving hard to overtake me.
I just knew that a sea of fire was filling the valley from end to end, and that its heat scorched my face as I urged on my bicycle in abject terror. All this time, I will admit, my panic was purely personal.