Beneath the surface
Geologically, Smallcombe is a microcosm of the rest of Bath. At the bottom of the combe is the 180 million year-old layer of Bridport sandstone, named after the same formation that is exposed on the cliffs of the Dorset coast. Further up are the famous ‘oolites’, which make up the golden ‘Bath stone’ from which most of the city was built.
The ‘oo’ is from the Greek meaning ‘egg’. From about 176 million years ago onward microscopic fragments of sea-shell or rock were rolled around by strong currents in the warm, shallow, seas that covered much of tropical Britain. They accreted crystals of calcium, carbon and oxygen (calcium carbonate) to make tiny egg-shaped spheres less than 2 millimetres across. Compressed and cemented solid under later layers, the oolites account for the strong but porous nature of Bath stone, which can be cut cleanly with a saw and shaped with chisels. The ‘oo’s can be easily be seen with a magnifying glass.
Halfway up, between two of these massive oolite layers, is the curious clay formation of Fuller’s Earth, named after the ‘fullers’ in the wool industry to the south of Bath. The fullers kneaded this wet clay into the weave to ‘fill’ the garments, to remove impurities and to make them thicker, stronger and partially waterproof. There was a fullers’ woollen mill in Twerton and the clothmakers in Walcot would have used Fuller’s Earth from sites around Bath.
This layer of very fine sediment makes it impermeable. Rain passing through the upper oolite layer is stopped by the Fullers Earth from getting into the lower ‘inferior’ layer. The water forms aquifers and can squirt out sideways as springs. This is the reason that the stream that runs down beside the cemetery is surprisingly vigorous for a such a ‘small combe’.
Erosion by rain, wind and ice carved out the shape of the combe relatively recently, about 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. The main ice sheet did not extend to Bath but the weather would have been quite cold enough for water to freeze and crack rock and stone. The Fuller’s Earth mixed with rain water created a slippery layer that caused frequent landslides and the upper rocks tumbled down the slopes towards the Avon valley. This is why Bath is surrounded by landslips. And it is in this jumble of fallen or ‘foundered’ strata that the occupants of Smallcombe Cemetery are buried.