TO some it is nothing more than a squelchy stretch of stinking sludge – a slimy pit of oozing, not-so-glorious, horrid grey mud, albeit one that has sadly proved a death trap for many a hapless cow that had ventured into its mucky midst, never to be seen again.

To others, however, it is such a wonder, such a unique phenomenon that it deserves the same lofty status afforded to the planet’s greatest geological and natural wonders: The Great Barrier Reef, The Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Giant’s Causeway...

Twenty years ago the market town of Wootton Bassett, long before it acquired its Royal prefix, was bubbling with excitement and no little controversy over what was considered – depending on your standpoint – a magnificent marshy marvel or a smelly old bog.

The Wootton Bassett Mud Springs was the talk of the town, either in terms of excitement or derision, and there were equal dollops of both. Why? Because two decades after it was accidentally “re-discovered,” a group of learned scientists were finally set to probe its significance.

These were, as one local councillor put it, “exciting times” for Bassett. Emerging from the depths of the malodorous mud pit was a regular supply – indeed, a veritable conveyor belt as one palaeontologist described it – of “fantastic fossils” dating as far back as 165 million years.

Not only that, but the mud itself, which bubbled and occasionally spurted forth, allegedly contained rejuvenating, spa-like qualities that would keep an assortment of ailments at bay while helping to sustain health, vigour and wellness… not to mention doing a doing a pretty decent job on spots.

Wootton Bassett “Jurassic mud packs”, it was reckoned, could become a tool in the kit of beauticians everywhere.

“They can do it in Israel with mud from the Dead Sea, so I don’t see why we can’t do it here in Wootton Bassett,” proclaimed prominent local councillor and retired biology teacher Eric Hodges, who added by way of a dramatic flourish, that it could provide “the elixir of youth.”

We’re sitting on a potential goldmine, he declared. Or a diamond geyser, if you like.

Interest in the springs inspired more than 50 studies, several by eminent geologists in publications such as New Scientist and Geology Today.

It also prompted the town council to draw-up an ambitious bid for its mud bath to be inscribed as – gulp – a World Heritage Site.

They were heartened by reports in The Independent which hailed the springs as “a weird, beguiling and natural phenomenon” that steadily disgorged “the most exquisite fossils” amongst its “viscous grey ooze”.

It seemed to be unique, argued the paper, “not just in Britain but in the world.”

Turn the clocks back to 1974 and a group of sewage workers are busily clearing a small stream called Hancock’s Water in Templar’s Firs when they are surprised by “a terrifying blow out.”

The earth shook and “slime jetted high in the air” plastering the surrounding trees, which began to shake, with oodles of grey liquid mud.

“Large gobs of more solid material including peat-like vegetable matter, sticks, stones, fossils, cow bones and artificially sharpened stakes” were expunged from the pit.

Dr Willie Stanton of the National Rivers Authority verified the site’s importance. But there was no Eureka moment. It took years for experts to fully check it out. Everyone who visited, though, and knew about these sort of things, became excited.

The springs comprises three large mud blisters, around 30ft long and several feet high, with liquid mud “oozing from splits in the skin.”

They became a local curiosity which slowly piqued the interest of experts such as Neville Hollingworth, a senior geologist with the Swindon-based Natural Environment Research Council.

Probing it since the early Nineties, he said: “I discovered to my amazement that the stream (next to the blisters) was littered with fantastic fossils. There is a conveyor belt of fossils coming up from a depth of 100ft. It is the only site in Europe that yields fossils like this.”

They included ammonites – little molluscs still with their original mother of pearl shells described as “with a lustre and hue which made them look like strange jewellery.”

Also emerging from the murky, muddy depths were Jurassic shrimps and the vertebra of an ichthyosaur, a gigantic sea reptile.

On an early fossil-hunting expedition, Dr Hollingworth almost went the way of a many a farm animal after he plunged into a vent and ended up chest-deep in slime. “I was absolutely terrified.”

Councillor Hodges also narrowly avoided vanishing into the quagmire, having misjudged his step while showing some journalists around. He was dragged out but one of his wellies was irrevocably sucked into the mire – which may or may not have re-emerged by now.

In 1990 around 100 tons of rubble was tipped into the most active spring in an apparent bid to make it safe – but swiftly vanished without trace.

Five years later, in the autumn of 1995 the Adver reported: “Experts are hoping to probe an apparently bottomless pit that oozes slime and swallows farm animals.”

They found that it was indeed ultra-rare, possibly unique and the Wootton Bassett Mud Springs were in 1997 designated a Site of Special Scientific Significance (SSSI.) Councillor Hodges surprised many by claiming: “In Georgian days, Wootton Bassett was a spa town. People would drink the water or bathe in the mud and get cured of gout, backache and even the plague.”

New Scientist, meanwhile, ran a story saying “Iridescent fossils rise up from volcano.” Wow, volcanoes in Wootton Bassett, who’d a thought it?

Wootton Bassett Town Council in 1998 recommended that the springs be nominated by English Nature as a World Heritage Site. “If successful the Mud Springs will join Avebury and Stonehenge as areas within Wiltshire recognised as sites of unique global importance,” it revealed.

Such status would “help preserve the area for future generations and allow the Mud Springs to remain as a remarkable natural feature of rural Britain.”

The notion was not without detractors with some locals, including David Large and David Hillier claiming the site was no more than “a smelly old bog.”

The World Heritage bid sank like Eric Hodges wellie but years later plans were still afoot to deploy the oozing mud to boost tourism with the possibility of erecting viewing platforms and displaying some of its “pristine fossils.”

“If they can make geysers in Yellowstone Park a safe attraction we can surely do the same with the Wootton Bassett Mud Springs,” said town clerk Jonathan Bourne in 2006.

But nearby resident Georgina May responded: “I can’t understand the fuss. It’s just mud. What are they going to do – build a Ferris Wheel next to it.”

  •  TODAY the Wootton Bassett Mud Springs remain strictly off-limits, the privately-owned site enclosed by barbed wire along with bright yellow signs warning of “risk of entrapment.”
    But you can see the mud “in action” on YouTube.
    The town council remains keen to highlight the “rare hydrogeological phenomenon” while warning people off from actually visiting it.
    Its tourism blurb goes: “There are very few examples of mud springs in Britain, and the Wootton Bassett Springs are the ones which have been most closely studied.
    “The fossils which are pumped up from these springs and found in nearby streams are much admired by palaeontologists.
    “Unlike the hot, bubbling mud springs of New Zealand and elsewhere, the Wootton Bassett mud springs ooze liquid mud slowly and they are usually cold.
    “The mud flows all year round, but particularly in the winter and about a month after it has rained heavily.
    “The emerging mud dries around the vents forming domed blisters several metres across and up to five metres high, covered with a matted veneer of vegetation. When these are prodded or breached the mud oozes or gushes out.”
  • BACK in ’96 beautician Amanda Hamilton, of local salon Helen’s Unisex Hairdressers swore by the therapeutic properties of the mud.
    She managed to acquire several globs of it for the benefit of customers – reviving a tradition that apparently existed in the town during the 18th Century.
    “I’ve got a waiting list of people who want to use it,” she said. “It’s fantastic. It’s great for getting rid of spots because it is slightly astringent.
    “It makes the complexion quite tight which gets rid of wrinkles and it gives a cleaner and brighter look to the face.
    “The mud is gritty, making it a bit like an exfoliant and it rinses off easily once it has set.”