To celebrate the launch of Fossil Coast's new spiced apple and blackberry rum spirit drink called Kimmeridge - we caught up with Dr Steve Etches (MBE) at The Etches Collection in Kimmeridge (Dorset) to chat all things life and death in the Kimmeridgian seas 157 million years ago during the age of the dinosaurs and huge marine reptiles.
The Etches Collection, Kimmeridge, Dorset
When you make a new product such as a rum there are always going to be a number of risks. Will people like it? Naturally you will always find yourself listening out for feedback. The American author Howard Thurman described this as a desire “in every person for something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine”.
A bottle of Kimmeridge Rum Spirit Drink with an ichthyosaur (replica) back drop
Our story in a bottle
When Fossil Coast® decided to make a rum and whose story was dedicated to the late Jurassic “Kimmeridge Stage” of fossil-rich mudstones and oil shale of the Jurassic Coast. Our challenge, was to create a wonderful flavour profile that married the sense of a warm ‘Kimmeridgian’ tropical sea, local produce and an environment that would become rich in hydrocarbons. After many long beach walks debating flavours and trials we created a quintessentially British pairing of cider apple and blackberry with a hint of warming cinnamon to create what is now known as Kimmeridge Rum Spirit Drink.
Who better to gauge this story in a bottle but the custodian, curator and conservator of arguably the world’s finest collection of Kimmeridgian fossils, Dr Steve Etches MBE.
Meeting Dr Steve Etches MBE
When you first meet and spend some time with Steve you immediately understand why The Etches Collection is not only the Jurassic Coast’s jewel as a visitor centre but it is also an understated national treasure. He is a humble, straight talking and infectiously engaging person whose presence is positively charged when he is sharing his lifelong love of learning.
So, just as Steve graciously and genuinely described our Kimmeridge Rum Spirit Drink in one word, “quality” I would like to return the compliment and describe Steve as an, “artisan”.
Dr Steve Etches MBE at The Etches Collection, Kimmeridge
Steve’s journey is well documented from when he started fossil collecting at the age of 5 and becoming hooked after finding his first flint sea urchin. Like many people, including the Team at Fossil Coast®, an interest in fossils is often fuelled at an early age with a memorable fossil find. Then over the years the passion for fossil hunting may if you are lucky transform into something special.
Over the next forty years Steve would continue to hunt, collaborate and accumulate over 2,000 Kimmeridge Clay and Jurassic fossils including remains of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs and a whole host of Jurassic marine life. During this time, he would be awarded an MBE - a first for palaeontology, gain an honorary doctorate, have a number of new fossils named after him and is still continuously contributing to the knowledge of many paleontological and geological societies and universities around the world.
Its all about the specimens
What may be surprising to know is that Steve was until only a few years ago a plumbing and heating engineer. His culturally and scientifically significant fossil collection was until 2016 housed in his garage.
The Etches Collection and Steve’s donation of his entire collection is now housed in a modern building after receiving Heritage Lottery Funding and the support of the local community.
The Etches Collections is located in the picturesque and ancient village of Kimmeridge and managed by the Kimmeridge Trust.
In January 2022 the Trust appointed Viscountess Cobham CBE as Chairperson, a veteran of the private sector with an enormous wealth of knowledge, expertise, and leadership gained from working in high-profile appointments at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Historic Royal Palaces, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and former Chairperson of VisitEngland.
Throughout the hour and half tour we spent with Steve touring the Collection it was abundantly evident that he has devoted his life to understanding and bringing the characteristics, differences and stories of all the organisms on display to life both large or small.
The main gallery is in itself an immersive experience where Latin names and complex scientific labelling is replaced with simple to understand names, stories and features.
You don't have to have a degree or be a scientist to understand how these creatures of the deep lived. I wont spoil your experience by detailing the displays. You will need to explore these for yourself though there are stories about the oldest lobster found sheltering under an ammonite and the differences in teeth of early crocodiles, fish and sharks. Among the larger specimens are the ichthyosaurs and most special specimens are the ammonites, ammonite eggs, rays, Pterosaur wing and Steve’s 1982 large find of a Pliosaur jaw. You will certainly leave with a new appreciation for the importance of barnacles.
At one end of the main gallery is the workshop where Steve is often working on his latest find.
The way in which The Etches Collection is situated is a testimony to Steve’s artisan approach to his work and especially his field craft that cannot be taught from any book. Whether it is his exclusive access to patrol the 4.5 miles of the Kimmeridge coastline or preserving the integrity of the Kimmeridge Shale as he skilfully uses tools to excavate a fossil. He is a grafter with a mindset, commitment and has the much needed patience to spend hours, weeks and months preparing, cleaning and presenting fossil specimens. In his words, “the priority is always placed on the specimens”.
The Etches Collection, Inside the Main Gallery
In a world that in 2021 saw an eight-metre-long skeleton Triceratops nicknamed 'Big John' sold for over £5 million to private buyer at an auction in Paris and a 39-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed “Stan” sold for US$31.8 million in 2020 to The Natural History Museum in Abu Dhabi. It is good to understand that Steve had never placed a monetary value on his collection or any specimen. His values remain focussed on the voyage of discovery and establishing a public centre of excellence where anyone can be fascinated, educated and inspired.
With the future stewardship of the Trust in hand, The Etches Collection shall lead the way in supporting the role of private collectors, schools, universities and societies in scientific research and be clear in its position that the most complete Kimmeridgian specimen fossils should be kept in public ownership.
Support The Etches Collection
The Etches Collection is a special place and a must-visit for anyone with an interest in discovering the natural world. Nowhere else publicly will you see a collection of fossils curated with as much dedication and devotion by one person with the support of a great team. At this point I need to say a huge thanks to Carla the Museum Operations Manager for making this tour possible.
The Etches Trust is a charitable trust, the museum relies upon the patronage, sponsorship and support of private individuals. To discover how you could help support the museum, become a friend or be involved visit their website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.