Grab your pith helmet (optional), hammer and spotter’s guide – we’re going to dig deep into the past and unearth some prehistoric creatures. With a bit of luck.
Fossil hunting is a great way to get out for the day, and a big hit for family fun. You get fresh air, lovely beaches, rock scrambling and lots of opportunities for learning. So why not pack some sandwiches and a fossil hunting kit bag (more on this below) and set off on the train for a great adventure.
One of the great things about fossil hunting is that you don’t need any kit to start – although there are a few items that are worth having handy. Here’s a bagful for beginners that won’t break the bank, in fact, you’ve probably got some of them already…
Cracking open likely looking rocks is much easier if you take along a small hammer. A brick hammer is ideal – reasonably small and lightweight with blunt and sharp ends.
A stone chisel is useful when you want to crack open a larger boulder, or just to prise something interesting out of a cliff
- Safety Glasses
Watch out for those little chips of stone that fly off while you’re breaking open a rock. Safety glasses are advised.
Really useful for carrying your kit, and for loading up with your finds.
- Magnifying Glass
You’ll be surprised how often you find yourself reaching for your trusty magnifying glass – and not just to do Sherlock Holmes impressions. A good magnifying glass helps you spot potential fossils and makes identification much easier.
- Strips of cloth and rubber bands
Once you’ve collected your precious fossil you don’t want it banging against all the other treasures in your satchel, so wrap it in a piece of cloth and secure with elastic bands.
- Good Spotters Book
The kind of book you need depends on your experience. For beginners and children, we recommend the Usborne Nature Trails: Rocks and Fossils. It helps you identify your finds and comes complete with basic geological information that guide you to hunting hotspots in the first place. Slightly more in-depth and with great illustrations is the Dorling Kindersley Fossils Handbook.
While the monsters you find should be long, long dead, there are a few things to look out for – tides, cliffs and sun. Firstly make sure you know when high and low tide are and don’t get yourself cut off while exploring that little bay at the end of the beach. Second, while fresh cliff falls undoubtedly produce the most abundant crop of fossils, they can also be dangerous – so look out for warning signs in place (that pith helmet might not be such a bad idea after all). Finally, make sure you slap on some sun cream before you head off, and top up regularly. Even on a cloudy day, you’ll be surprised how much UV you’re taking in, especially as it reflects off waves and cliffs.
When it comes to fossil hunting we all know about the Jurassic Coast, an area so rich in fossils that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Jurassic Coast covers a huge area between Swanage and Exmouth. The eastern end is easily accessible by SWR trains.
If you want to do the full-fat tour of the Jurassic Coast region, station yourself in Weymouth and hop on and off the Jurassic Bus which will take you to all the fossil hotspots. This might turn into something longer than a day trip!
As you can guess from its name, the major finds here all come from the Jurassic Period, when this part of the world was deep under the sea. Consequently, nearly all the treasures here are the remnants of marine animals.
The most common finds on the Jurassic Coast are ammonites, those beautiful ribbed spirals that were once a common type of shellfish. You may also find ‘devil’s fingers’ as the locals know them, or dinosaur shark’s teeth to be only slightly more prosaic. If you’re really lucky you could stumble upon a partial or full Ichthyosaur – a kind of prehistoric dolphin.
One word of caution – as the Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site, digging into the cliffs here is frowned upon. So restrict yourself to the wealth of fossils you can find lying on the shore, or by tapping open a few rocks.
Jurassic Coast Highlights
Weymouth and Portland
Train Station: Weymouth
The cliffs around Weymouth and Portland all formed during the Jurassic Era, one of the last deposits being the famous Portland Limestone, much prized for construction works from the 18th century to the present day. Most contemporary quarrying is carried out way underground, but in the past open cast mines were dominant. One, King Barrow Quarry is now a nature reserve and a great place to go for fossils, especially ammonites. There’s even a ‘fossil forest’ here, where the mysterious rings are actually fossilised algae that formed around prehistoric trees.
Train Station: Weymouth
The beaches and cliffs along to the east from Weymouth are characterised by grey clays, yellow sandstones and golden limestones. Hop on the bus and get off at Charmouth or Lyme Regis for some of the richest fossil pickings on the planet. This is ammonite city!
Shell Bay, Studland Bay, Dorset
Train Station: Wareham
Shells are fossils too – well some of them are, and you won’t find a richer treasure of fossilised shells than on this famous bay. Secluded from the pounding of the mighty ocean, the beach is covered with scatterings of the most beautiful and often intact shells. Fill your pockets.
Other hotspots around the area
It’s not all Jurassic Coast, mind. There are other places where fossils can be found within our region. Here are just a few of our faves.
Train Station: New Milton
An ideal spot for a bit of family fossil-hunting, the clay at Barton on Sea is famous for its rich yield of fossilised shells such as ammonites and gastropods. You’ll find those shark’s teeth along the foreshore too. Dig in the clay, or just look for those that have washed free.
Train Station: Sandown, Isle of Wight
Easy to access, and stuffed full of animal, reptile and marine fossils, the best time to visit Yaverland is just after Spring or Winter high tides when the latest batch of fossils will be released by the pressure of the water. If you’re not having much success, you can always check out the nearby Dinosaur Isle museum – they’ve got a wealth of fossils.
Train Station: Chichester, then 51 Bus
Bracklesham is a trek but worth it when you get there. With clay and sand offering up such a generous bounty of shell fossils that it’s actually quite staggering to see. Some estimates put the ratio of fossil to clay as high as 1:3, meaning this beach is in places 25% fossil! So if it’s some guaranteed finds you’re after, the extra effort to get here will prove worthwhile. One other factor – consult a tide table before you go and make sure you arrive at low tide.
Book a train to Weymouth now and get your family and your kitbag off fossiling!