There’s no better way for you to experience the Jurassic Coast’s beguiling natural history than taking a guided fossil walk with local experts. This weekend gone the founders of Fossil Coast Drinks Co took a guided fossil walk with forty visitors organised by the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre. Read about what we discovered.
Love Fossil Hunting
The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre (CHCC) is an impressively compact visitor center located at the heart of the Jurassic Coast providing an array of curated fossil exhibits and interactive experiences built upon its Trustees. Wardens and Volunteers unique insight, knowledge and expertise of the local area between Lyme Regis and Seaton.
The CHCC is small charity originally set up in 1985 with the goal to encourage the safe and sustainable collecting of Jurassic fossils from the local beaches.
The Fossil Coast Drinks Team joined an hour and a half guided fossil walk not only to share our experience but also to encourage our customers to support organisations such as the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre who educate and safeguard our coast as well as help us to learn more about the possibilities of fossil hunting the Jurassic Coast safely and sustainably.
The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre website is the first place to visit if you are interested in the availability and booking online your place on either a public or private guided fossil walk. The cost (March 2022) of the public guided fossil walk is £12.00 for adults and £6.00 for an accompanied child. The tours are operated according to COVID-19 guidelines and with social distancing.
The guided fossil tour begins before you even arrive. When you receive your email booking reference you will also receive a YouTube web-link to a 20-minute video (see below) where Ali Ferris a CHCC Warden provides a very insightful introduction to the Jurassic Coast, its fossils and the geology of the Charmouth beaches. It is a highly recommended watch and it certainly prepares and motivates you for the task ahead and it may also just give you a sense of purpose walking in the same footsteps of Mary Anning over 200 years ago.
Charmouth is an enchanting seaside village east of Lyme Regis set in both the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and is an important gateway town to the Jurassic Coast a UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrating in 2022 its 20th year since its inscription.
Fossil hunting the Jurassic period is the stuff of natural wonder especially when the geology and rocks at Charmouth date predominantly from the early part of the Jurassic period (190 - 200 million years ago). This was a time of the pole-to-pole supercontinent of Pangaea and this area of Charmouth lay at this time beneath a warm, shallow sea, closer to the equator and approximately where North Africa resides today.
Both Aileen and I arrived at Charmouth about 10:00 am on a Spring Saturday morning after a short journey from Dawlish. From the Charmouth exit along the A35 coastal road, it’s only a few minutes before we are parked up at the Dorset Council Lower Sea Lane Car Park.
Though other car parks are located at the seafront we are only 2 minutes walk from the beach. This location offers an all-day charge of £2.00 and a toilet. A handy tip is to consider downloading the Just Park app to make payment easier when you arrive if like me you now rarely carry coins. When we were getting ready in the car park it was not too long before we saw the tell-tail signs of others parking up and heading out to fossil hunt with some carrying a geologist's hammer used for chipping, splitting and breaking rocks to uncover the prized fossils.
East Beach | Centre Beach | West Beach at Charmouth, Dorset (March 2022)
The day was sunny, rather fresh, breezy and it was certainly a good decision to wrap up and be cosy as we prepared to roam along the beach for a few hours. Our instruction was to meet the warden at the red lifebuoy at 10:30 am outside the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre. Fortunately, we had ample time to grab a warming tea, coffee and slice of shortbread from the Beach Cafe as we soaked in the spectacular seascapes both east and west already being enjoyed by joggers, families, dog walkers and of course fossil hunters.
There are three distinct areas to the beach at Charmouth. East Beach which is a long sandy and shingle beach with its towering cliffs. Ramblers were already weaving their way up the steep climb of the South West Coast Path to Stonebarrow past the landslip called Cain’s Folly and, in the distance, onwards to Golden Cap the highest point of the Jurassic Coast. East Beach is aAlso a good beach to fossil hunt.
It was this view of East Beach that J.M.W Turner RA one of Britain's greatest and most prolific painters captured as a pencil drawing in his 1811 Corfe to Dartmouth Sketchbook. This artwork is now exhibited at the Tate and forms part of Turner's 1856 bequest to the Nation.
The central beach is characterised by the River Char fuelled by its Char Valley tributaries travelling a few miles from Bettiscombe out onto the beach. Interestingly, Bettiscombe has a strong historical connection with the sugar plantations of Nevis which played an important role in the history of rum.
West Beach, looks out into the distance towards Lyme Regis and The Cobb. This would be our chosen beach today for our guided fossil walk. The main feature of West Beach is the extensive area known as The Spittles and Black Ven landslides that happened on the evening of 6th May 2008.
This landslide occurred after a particularly wet period during winter and early spring when the “Shales with Beef” (fantastic name!) and part of the Charmouth Mudstone failed above the Blue Lias and slid over the cliff onto the foreshore. Over the years the waves have eroded the loose rock in this area and continues to release fossils along with a few other suprises.
The Shales with Beef are of an early Jurassic age laid over 199 million years ago. They are noticeably dark grey, layered and have organic-rich shaly and dark grey mudstones. Within the mudstone are limestone bands and vertically oriented fibrous calcite crystals called “Beef”.
The Beef is created by a combination of physical, chemical or biological alterations to the shale sediments over-time at relatively low temperatures and pressures that can result in changes to the rock's original mineralogy and texture. Today our guided fossil walk would finish around low tide at lunch time exposing much of West Beaches’ Canary and Bar Ledges (image above) along with the foreshore.
At 10:45 am the group of around 40 people meet up at the red lifebuoy just outside Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre where we are warmly welcomed by Senior Warden Phil Davidson (red bobble hat) and several Trustees sporting their blue high visibility jackets with a white ammonite on thier backs.
What struck me about our group today was the range of ages and the cross-section of people from children, young and older retired couples and families. Having chatted with several of the group my belief remained unchanged. Fossil hunting has a special mystique and allure of inclusivity that simply transcends any stereotypes. Who doesnt love the idea of fossil hunting?
Not all fossil hunters need to be scientists and fossil hunting is I believe good for your wellbeing. What else allows you to be outdoors on the beach breathing fresh sea air and gives you a sense of purpose, excitement and the possibility that anything could happen once you walk on the beach such as finding a fossil or even a fragment of a dinosaur.
Our fossil walk group today could not be in better hands. Phil is a seasoned communicator of Earth Science, local expert and according to the CHCC website a graduate of the University of Portsmouth with a degree in Palaeobiology and Evolution. Both he and the founders of Fossil Coast Drink's have something in common. We have a shared fascination with fossils ever since we were children and this is something that neither of us have ever grown out of even to this day as adults.
Phil and the “dream team” (his words) gives an introduction to the centre, the walk and provides the obligatory health and safety advice – including informing everyone that he has a geological hammer and safety goggles to help anyone safely prise any fossils from rocks.
Today the fossil walk will take place entirely on West Beach. As we head out as a group the breeze and chill in the air seemingly lets-up. Phil stops mid-way along the beach to explain the geology of the landscape in front of us and guides us to the best places for finding fossils along with a few handy tips.
Because of the lowering tide, the best and safest place to search for fossils today was amongst the shingle and exposed foreshore. He explains that the most common Jurassic Coast fossils in this area are Ammonites and Belemnites as well as crinoids, bivalves, fish bones, reptile bones and possibly insects and dinosaur bones - though he is keen to manage expectations that the larger finds are rare but not impossible.
"Find of the day" - A small pyritic ammonite typically a Promicroceras
Phil also recounted his experience of being on the beach several years ago when a young lad found a Mammoth tooth dating back to the ice age. He explanined that the tooth had most likely been washed out from the River Char and the subsequent tides had carried it along the beach. Ice age fossils can also be found but again are extremely rare.
During the next 2 hours, Phil and the Team would make time to chat with everyone and provide helpful advice and insight into the geology and fossils being found.
It’s not too long before the group begins to find fossils in the foreshore including a magnificently small ammonite of solid iron pyrites or "fools gold" (see above).
The youngsters with eagle eyes begin to find numerous Belemnites (image left) and those who came prepared with a geology hammer and chisel begin to eke out ammonites and an assortment of other fossils from larger rocks.
Having spent several enjoyable hours on the beach the group shares its fossil finds. It has been a good morning not just becuase of the cache of several different ammonites, belemnites and bone fragments found but also the knowledge and confidence gained to come back and explore the beaches in the future.
Heading back and before lunch, there was time to visit the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre. It is free to enter and is staged over one upper display floor with some fantastic exhibits beginning with the "Charmouth Dinosaur" or Scelidosaurus an early Jurassic herbivorous armoured dinosaur that took 8 months to prepare.
Moving on there are displays by local fossil hunters with fine examples of a locally found Ichthyosaur (Matt Cape) and a bed of well preserved large ammonites (Chris Moore) with video and information on how these fossils were located and meticulously prepared.
The exhibition finishes with Attenborough's Sea Dragon a 4.5-meter long Ichthyosaur discovered by local collector Chris Moore that took over 1,000 hours of preparation. Before leaving the Centre consider kindly leaving a small contribution or buying something from the gift shop as a memory for the day.
With tummies rumbling after a great day fossil hunting and visiting the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre its time for lunch with both of us having a penchant for scampi and chips.
Our choice today is the Royal Oak on the high street (dogs welcome). A couple of things to consider. During the holiday season do book ahead to avoid disappointment after walking uphill; its the only pub I have visited with a large fossil mounted on the wall and finally, I would recommend the beefy onion rings as a side order - what is it with beef today?.
Today was a very good day. Although weather-beaten nothing can trump being part of a group of people interested in learning, exploring and discovering fossils with the guidance of knowledgeable and very personable people. I would highly recommend anyone visiting Charmouth to make the time to experience a guided fossil walk and also visit the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre. It is a positive life experience that you will enjoy sharing and maybe you will be lucky enough to find a fossil.