A unique last-minute stocking-filler: How the Barwell Christmas meteorite put Leicestershire on the galactic map

By Alexander Hodgkins-Jones

Gold, frankincense and…meteorite?

You could gift an unusual piece of Leicestershire history this yule-time, a fragment from a meteor which fell over the unsuspecting village of Barwell on Christmas Eve 55 years ago.

Auction houses, meteorite enthusiast forums and even eBay often offer up pieces from the 44kg space rock which spectacularly exploded before showering the village in 1965.

However, with a typical value of more than six times the cost of gold per gram, perhaps the three wise men had the right idea for stocking fillers.

In 2009 a piece of the Barwell meteorite weighing just under one kilogram sold at Auction for an out-of-this-world £8,000.

A chunk of the Barwell meteorite held at the UoL Provided by Dr Marc K. Reichow

“When you look at the Barwell meteorite it just looks like a lump of rock,” said Dr Marc K. Reichow, a geology lecturer from the University of Leicester.

“But it’s actually something really unique.”

The story behind it is just as extraordinary, beginning at the dawn of the solar system and ending on a chilly December evening.

Shortly after dusk on December 24, 1965, a 4.5-billion-year-old meteor shot across the Leicestershire sky in a blazing fireball before announcing its arrival with a sonic boom.

Dr Reichow said: “People saw it as a big bright star and it was quite a coincidence with it being Christmas Eve.”

Travelling at high speed, friction from the Earth’s atmosphere caused the meteor to reach a temperature of 3,000 degrees Celsius, before fragmenting and showering Barwell and neighbouring Earl Shilton with pieces of various sizes.

“A meteoroid, or asteroid if it is very large, is a space object, when it enters our atmosphere it is a meteor and what is found on the ground is a meteorite,” Dr Reichow explained.

What are meteorites? Provided by Dr Marc K. Reichow

Despite the commotion, many residents were oblivious to the arrival billions of years in the making.

Carol-singer Rosemary Leader remarked at the time about picking up a strange piece of rock before tossing it aside.

“I was out carol singing – I didn’t want to carry a lump of rock around,” she said.

The highly dense space rock was “huge” for a meteor, roughly the size of a traditional Christmas turkey, and the largest meteorite fall recorded in the UK.

“Meteorite falls happen every night. The question is which ones will make it to the surface and the vast majority are really small. The size of the Barwell meteorite makes it very rare,” said Dr Reichow.

It was not until Christmas morning that broken windows and smashed roof slates made it apparent an other-worldly visitor had wreaked havoc upon the small village.

Amazingly no-one was injured, although one Barwell man, Percy England, was left with more than just a broken window, a chunk of the meteorite had struck the bonnet of his brand-new Vauxhall Viva.

His son Trevor, speaking to the BBC in 2015, said: “My dad immediately got on to the insurance, but they came back saying it was an act of God.

“The next thing he did was write a letter to the insurance company which began ‘Dear Mr God’.”

He even visited the local priest, requesting the church pay the damages, but to no avail.

Mr England didn’t get a pay-out, but others were soon cashing in.

“We distinguish between a ‘fall’ and a ‘find’,” said Dr Reichow.

“For science a fall like the one in Barwell is very valuable, because we know it has not been contaminated by our elements and had its composition changed.

“A ‘find’ could have been on Earth for millions of years.”

‘Shooting stars’ are a frequent occurrence. Photograph by Jakub Novacek

With news of the Barwell Christmas meteorite spreading, people from across the country descended on the quiet village hoping to sell or donate any fragments they could find to scientific institutions.

One meteorite hunter, Sir Patrick Moore, graciously donated his discovery to the Natural History Museum.

Dr Reichow’s department at UoL holds a palm-sized piece, which he uses for demonstrations, while the largest fragment, the one found by Sir Patrick, is still housed at the Natural History Museum in London.

The interest was so high because the fragments, particularly the larger pieces, offered scientists an insight into the beginnings of our planet, the solar system and even the universe.

Dr Reichow explained: “We think of meteorites as representing different cross-sections of a planet, the core, the mantle, the crust, they are the building blocks of our solar system, the ‘bread and butter’.

“They can help answer the question of what is beyond our planet? How do planets form? The only way to sample other planets is to either travel there or look at meteorites. They give us a glimpse of what is out there.”

Owing to its size, the Barwell Christmas meteorite was able to withstand the scorching heat which typically burns up smaller pieces and destroys the secrets inside.

“Barwell was fairly unique because of its size, that preserves a lot. The bigger it is the less affected its interior is by the heating process,” said Dr Reichow.

“When you cut open and treat these meteorites, they reveal absolutely beautiful features which are very distinct, you have a really nice metal shine, and these are absolutely amazing.”

The Barwell meteorite has helped inform some of the knowledge about how planets form, putting the little Leicestershire village on the galactic map.

Bob Hutchison, a curator at the Natural History Museum, made a startling discovery when he cut a slice from the meteorite 30 years ago.

“Inside, he found a strange stony pebble that had come from an object with igneous textures. He thought it had come from a differentiated parent body [a planet with distinct layers, like Earth], one that had already melted and formed its metal, silicate and crust like a planet but one that was inside a more primitive asteroid,” explained Dr Natasha Almeida, meteorite curator at the Natural History Museum.

Using the Barwell meteorite Hutchison showed that planets were melting and forming large differentiated bodies prior to the formation of primitive asteroids.

Dr Reichow expects more research and discoveries to come from the Barwell meteorite.

“In the 70s and 80s the techniques were very destructive, these are so rare, so you do not want to be cutting into them. But now we have new processes to analyse meteorites so there’s definitely more to come,” he said.

Although significant pieces of meteorite are valuable, the potential for discovery is “priceless”.

The meteorite has put Barwell on the galactic map (red arrow is the approximate location of the primary fall, although pieces were widespread over Barwell and Earl Shilton)

And if you want to make your own discovery, you could hunt for a fragment of Leicestershire and cosmological history yourself.

Dr Reichow said: “Oh, I’m almost certain there are pieces still out there in Barwell after all these years – how many? Who knows?”

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