RogerBW's Blog

The Thames Valley Catastrophe, Grant Allen 13 February 2022

1897 SF short story. A massive volcanic fissure opens in the Thames Valley; London and the home counties are flooded with lava.

Well, that's about it, really; the nameless narrator, who becomes aware of the event while crossing Cookham Bridge (after a premonitory conversation the night before) and flees just ahead of the superheated gas cloud on his trusty bicycle (taking several minutes to mend a puncture), soon gives up any hope of persuading other people to run, and concentrates on staying alive himself, in the hope of reaching his family in London. In some ways it's more fanfiction about the bicycle than it is SF.

But like much nineteenth-century science fiction there's no consideration of why this vent might have happened now even though everyone thought the Thames Valley was limestone and clay… I mean, it's the 1890s; amazing new discoveries that require science to be rewritten are happening every day.

Clearly Allen was working good but limited solid local knowledge when he talks about the formation of Lake Newbury (really?) and Lake Oxford (more likely) – and "the ruins of Magdalen and of Merton may be dimly descried through the pale green depths, their broken masonry picturesquely overgrown with tangled water-weeds"; he was a Merton man himself. I know quite a bit of this countryside from driving, cycling and walking, and I find myself tempted to recreate his route, from the weir at Cookham up to Hedsor, then on to Burnham, Farnham Royal, Stoke Poges, across the valley of Uxbridge to Harrow, then down through Wembley and Willesden, and on to Hampstead Heath. That last climb is definitely the worst…

(Yes, I have used radar altimeter data from space shuttle missions to analyse a cycling route from 1897. I am resisting the urge to build a fluid flow model and plot the actual path of the lava.)

Light; fun; catastrophic; doesn't try to be a tract about God. There's much worse.

I was pointed at this by BigJackBrass ("recommended" would not be fair to him). Freely available from Project Gutenberg Australia.

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