The fall to Earth of a meteorite – a piece of rock or metal from Space – is a rare event. Fewer than thirty have been recovered from Britain and Ireland in more than two centuries, and the last was in 1999 (Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow).
National Museums NI has a modest collection of meteorites from around the world including some from the spectacular fall over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, and has pieces of three of Ireland’s meteorites (Bovedy, Crumlin and Mooresfort) on display in the Ulster Museum. Most of our meteorites have been purchased or acquired from other museums over many years, with several major acquisitions since 2009, but meteorites are so rare that, unlike many rocks and minerals, a museum curator cannot reasonably expect to go out and find one, at least not in the UK or Ireland. Or so it seemed until 2021.
I was born in Cheltenham in October 1960 but I grew up in Bishops Cleeve, a village 3 miles to the north. Cheltenham Racecourse, familiar to generations of Irish punters, lies between the two. It was in Bishops Cleeve that I first developed my intense interest in fossils and geology (blog link) and from where, in my teenage years, I ventured further afield on foot and by bike in search of exciting fossils. The village has become a sprawling suburban labyrinth since I was a child, and I left home in the early 1980s, but I still feel a great attachment to the village and the surrounding hills and fields that saw so many of my childhood adventures. My 95-year-old mother still lives in the village today and so I have always had good reason to return and, until the Covid pandemic, I did just that several times each year.
I was interested in meteorites (and many other things) from an early age, perhaps inspired by my father’s interest in cosmology. I remember when just 9 or 10 years old I dragged my father along to see a ‘meteorite’ that I had found by the roadside on the outskirts of Woodmancote, the adjacent village just 15-minutes walk from home. He recognised it immediately as just a weathered and pitted chunk of the local Jurassic limestone. It was my first ‘meteorwrong’. Meteorites continued to hold a fascination for me but I knew very little about them until a chance event in 2003. Taking my parents for lunch in the pretty Cotswold village of Bourton-on-the-Water, as I often did, I chanced upon some meteorites for sale in a ‘crystals’ shop there. I bought one (several actually) which sparked a passion for the subject that continues to this day. But that is a whole separate story.
Meanwhile, in the outer reaches of the Asteroid Belt far out in the Solar System a rock the size of a small fridge was dislodged from an asteroid orbiting the Sun. This event occurred before that fateful visit to Bourton-on-the-Water, before I was born, long before Bishops Cleeve even existed. Indeed, it probably happened long before modern humans had appeared on the scene but, released from its parent asteroid, the huge gravitational pull of Jupiter disrupted this fragment’s orbit and set it on a trajectory that ultimately would see it land somewhere on Earth.
A meteorite hitting a particular patch on Earth is an astonishingly rare event. It is estimated that on average there is around one meteorite fall per square kilometre per ten thousand years, so the odds of a meteorite coming down on my ‘home patch’ in my lifetime are improbable in the extreme. But improbable is not the same as impossible.
On the evening of Sunday 28th February 2021, at 9.54pm, a brilliant fireball flashed across the sky from west to east, breaking up as it went. Hundreds of people witnessed it, as did many CCTV cameras. Some of these had been specifically installed to record such meteors and determine their trajectory, but there was dashcam and even doorbell footage too. Who would have guessed that doorbells could contribute to planetary science? I became aware of this fireball barely an hour later, but such events are reported several times each year and no meteorites have been recovered in the UK since 1991, so it seemed unlikely that this would be much different. By lunchtime of the following day the experts of the UK Meteor Network had collated data from all of the reported sightings and calculated a ‘strewn field’, the area over which meteorites were predicted to have fallen. Idly glancing at this map on the British & Irish Meteorite Society Facebook page that afternoon I almost fell off my chair. There at the western end of the projected strewnfield was my home village, Bishops Cleeve. The seemingly impossible had happened; a meteorite HAD come down over my home patch. You couldn’t make it up!!
On March 9th media across the UK and beyond announced that several pieces had been found in and near the small Cotswold town of Winchcombe, just 5 miles east of Bishops Cleeve. Remarkably, I was giving a talk to the Caithness International Science Festival about Meteorites and the Solar System (check it out here) that very evening, and so I was able to refer specifically to the newly announced Winchcombe Meteorite.
These media reports revealed that the meteorites found are a very rare type called a Carbonaceous Chondrite. Unlike many stony or iron meteorites that are relatively tough and can withstand years of the British weather, these Carbonaceous Chondrites are full of clay minerals and highly susceptible to weathering. Left out in the rain they are unlikely to last more than a few months. I needed to get over there as soon as I could to see if I could recover samples for the museum’s collection, but this was less than straightforward during a pandemic. However, armed with a letter of authority from the museum I was able to book a ferry crossing to Birkenhead and hotel accommodation near Tewkesbury, just 5 miles north of Bishops Cleeve, for a week.
From the media reports I identified exactly where in Winchcombe one of the meteorites had landed (unfortunately shattering on impact with a driveway). From pictures in the media I knew immediately that the location of a second find was in a field on the north side of a hill just half an hour’s walk from where I grew up. With two points identified I could get a better idea of the meteorite’s trajectory. Meteorites travel largely in a straight line, so extrapolating this line westwards could help me decide where to look once I arrived in Bishops Cleeve. However, as the meteorite, travelling at many hundreds of mph, broke up during its descent it was quite likely that pieces might veer off this straight line due to their shape or the effect of any spin that they might have. Hence what might have been a narrow straight line became a much broader ‘strewn field’ perhaps hundreds of metres wide. I had my work cut out. Finding a needle in a haystack would be a doddle by comparison.
During that week I criss-crossed roads and grassy areas across Bishops Cleeve and Woodmancote. I wandered back and forth across the hills to the east. And I visited Winchcombe to try my luck on the estate where the first piece had been found and investigate a playing field nearby. For hours every day I stared at the ground, ignoring the late Stephen Hawking’s advice to “look up at the stars and not down at your feet”. That moment had passed two weeks earlier when the meteorite fell.
There are many commonplace objects that can look surprisingly like a meteorite at first glance, and I found many of them – pieces of tarmac, concrete and clinker, rotten apples and conkers, sheep/dog/rabbit/horse poo, fragments of clay pigeons, and even a piece of coconut shell! But I came across many other things, such as golf balls (various colours) and a tennis ball.
There were wildlife encounters too, including a flattened toad, desiccated frog, a dead rat, a skeletal jackdaw, and a very live (not even resting!) parrot. And, inevitably, some fossils. But the meteorites remained elusive.
Part way through the week I met up for a day with my good friend and fellow meteorite enthusiast Graham Ensor to scour some of the fields. Graham has a huge knowledge of meteorites and has provided scientists with specimens for research on many occasions (Meteorites: The Blog from the Final frontier), but he is not the nerdy scientist you might expect. In fact he has very considerable other talents as a highly respected artist (Interview with Graham Ensor). Despite walking more than 14km, eyes to the ground, we found no meteorites that day but it was a wonderful opportunity for us to talk about meteorites. “All day!” as Graham put it just before we went our separate ways.
One report in the media said that a piece had been found in a garden in Woodmancote, the next village to Bishops Cleeve, so I planned to spend my last couple of days looking in that area. The accompanying picture showed Richard Greenwood, a meteoriticist from the Open University, holding the meteorite. Behind him was a distinctive shrub and, since Woodmancote is not that big, I thought it would be easy enough to track this down. But it remained stubbornly elusive. So, I asked a friendly postman, called Phil, if he knew anything about the meteorite.
Remarkably, it was the father-in-law of one of his colleagues that had found it, so Phil was able to direct me to the location a few streets away. Apparently, the owner of that particular garden has trouble with a cat that poos on his very neat lawn. Each morning he goes out to check for cat poos – but on this occasion he found a meteorite instead! When I arrived at the location I did not find any meteorites but I did spot a handsome cat sitting outside the garden. Was this the animal ultimately responsible for this great discovery?
Cat (name unknown) outside the garden from which the Woodmancote meteorite was recovered during a ‘cat-poo cleanup’ operation.
Sadly, after a week of searching I came away with empty pockets. But it had been good to walk around so many of the places I had known as a child, although the Woodmancote estate was just fields at that time. It was a chance to meet Graham and talk meteorites with somebody just as enthusiastic as me. A chance too for me to meet up with an old school friend and to make a surprise visit to my 95-year-old mum. We met (outside) on Mother’s Day, and on four of the following days, almost exactly a year since I last saw her, with generous assistance from Caroline the retirement home manager.
The nature of this particular meteorite is such that it will rapidly degrade if repeatedly wetted and dried – an inevitability in the Gloucestershire climate. Pieces are unlikely to survive in recognisable form for more than a few months, so there is little prospect of finding any on future visits. It would have been nice to find a piece and save it from such an ignominious fate. As Perry Como memorably sang in 1957
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Save it for from a rainy day
For more information on meteorites visit the Collections Story page - Meteorites: Visitors from Space