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The Pleistocene terrace staircase of the River Thame, central-southern England, and its significance for regional stratigraphic correlation, drainage development, and vertical crustal motions

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Rob Westaway


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The Thame is one of the principal left-bank affluents of the Thames, the largest river in southern England; it joins the Upper Thames at Dorchester, ∼20. km downstream of Oxford. Its terraces include a younger group of four, which date from the late Middle Pleistocene and Late Pleistocene, are disposed subparallel to the modern river, and represent drainage within the modern catchment. At higher levels there are three older terraces, the Three Pigeons, Tiddington and Chilworth terraces, which are assigned to MIS 16, 14 and 12. With much gentler downstream gradients, these are fragmentary remnants of much more substantial fluvial deposits, indicating a much larger river that was disrupted by the Anglian (MIS 12) glaciation. This interpretation supersedes an earlier view that the glacigenic deposits in the Thame headwaters correlate with the Blackditch terrace, the highest of the younger group, which has hitherto provided an argument that the glaciation in this region occurred in MIS 10. It is suggested that the headwaters of the pre-Anglian 'Greater Thame' river were located near Northampton and that the Milton Sands of that area represent an upstream counterpart of the Chilworth terrace deposits. It is envisaged that this early Middle Pleistocene drainage geometry, located between the Jurassic limestone and Chalk escarpments, developed as a result of the increase in uplift rates that followed the Mid-Pleistocene Revolution (MPR). It is suggested that before this time, including during the Early Pleistocene, the modern Thame catchment and adjacent regions drained southeastward through the Chalk escarpment, but these small rivers lacked the erosional power to cut through the Chalk in pace with the faster uplift occurring in the early Middle Pleistocene, and so became diverted to the southwest, subparallel to the Chalk escarpment, to form the pre-Anglian 'Greater Thame' tributary of the Upper Thames. The post-MPR uplift is estimated to decrease northwestward from 90. m in the Middle Thames to 75. m near the Thame-Thames confluence and to 65. m upstream of Oxford. The post-Anglian (post-450. ka) component of uplift decreases northward from 33. m near the Thame-Thames confluence to an estimated ∼20. m in the Northampton area; the relative stability of the latter area makes feasible the proposed correlation between the Milton Sands and the pre-Anglian River Thame. Limited post-Anglian uplift in the Northampton area is also inferred from the upstream convergence of the terraces of the modern rivers Nene and Great Ouse. These observed lateral variations in vertical crustal motions reflect lateral variations in crustal properties (including heat flow, crustal thickness, and thickness of underplating at the base of the crust) that are known independently. This study thus provides, for the first time, an integrated explanation of the Pleistocene drainage development across a large region of central-southern England. © 2010 The Geologists' Association.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Westaway R

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Proceedings of the Geologists' Association

Year: 2011

Volume: 122

Issue: 1

Pages: 92-112

Print publication date: 14/12/2010

ISSN (print): 0016-7878

ISSN (electronic):

Publisher: Elsevier


DOI: 10.1016/j.pgeola.2010.11.003


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