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Fossils are synonymous with Dorset – and for a good reason. The 95 miles of the Jurassic Coast provide endless possibilities for fossil hunting, with countless ammonites, crinoids and even dimorphodon waiting to be discovered. Whether your family is heading out on a Dorset cottage holiday in Lyme Regis or Wareham, dedicating a day to exploring on the beach is the perfect way to keep everyone happy whilst stimulating the kids’ imagination – and your own! But for first-time fossil hunters, there are a few things you need to know. So here is our complete guide to fossil hunting in Dorset!
When you think of fossil hunting, you probably picture blue skies and a summer breeze, but in reality the tourist high season isn’t actually the best time to find fossils in Dorset. Alister Cruickshanks from UK Fossils says, “I would avoid the tourist hot spots, such as Charmouth and Lyme Regis during the summer months”, because they are so full of people scouring the beaches that you’re unlikely to find much of interest.
Instead, winter is the perfect time to find some wonderfully interesting specimen. Jurassic Coast.org explain that “the rough weather helps expose more fossils” in winter, making it the perfect time to search for fossils by the seaside. Dorset is also quieter in the colder months, meaning that you can really get stuck in to looking for different ancient relics without having to fight for space. According to experts, the best time of the year to discover fossils is between November and April.
In an article for The Telegraph, Rebecca Tyrrel says, “I believe that the best time to visit Lyme Regis is in the very early morning”. The morning is certainly a good time for fossil hunting, as the sunlight can be bright, making for good visibility, and the beaches are likely to be quieter. However, any time after high tide is the perfect moment to look for fossils, because the tide will have just swept in and deposited fresh fossils to find! Discovering Fossils explain, “During a falling tide, fossils are deposited between the high and low-water mark, and are easily found with a keen eye.”
If you’re not sure when to head out, there are several events that occur around Dorset throughout the year where visitors can go fossil hunting with experts and meet new people in the process. Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre run guided fossil walks with wardens, as well as fossil roadshows where local collectors show off what can be found in the area.
The entire county of Dorset is a treasure trove for fossil hunters, with numerous sites across the county offering brilliant finds. Discovering Fossils are among the many who recommend Charmouth for first-time fossil hunters or enthusiasts on a fleeting visit to the area. They say, “The area is well-suited to amateur and experienced fossil hunters alike; throughout the year visitors flock in their masses to scour the beach for fossils washed out of the cliffs and foreshore.”
Charmouth is such a popular spot for fossil hunting because it dates back to the early Jurassic period, around 190 million years ago, when the area was situated below a shallow, warm sea closer to where North Africa is today. Now, Jurassic and Cretaceous fossils can be found between Charmouth and Golden Cap. Discovering Fossils explain that: “Life was abundant during the Jurassic period, giant marine reptiles inhabited the seas and pterosaurs flew across the skies. This was also the time of the dinosaurs; however, the presence of sea over much of the area, and distance from any significant landmass, means their fossils are rarely found at Charmouth.”
Jurassic Coast.org concede that Charmouth is “the best and safest place on the Jurassic Coast to try fossil collecting”. But if this destination is too busy for you, take the advice of Alister from UK Fossils and head to Seatown, to the east of Charmouth, which he says is “a wonderful location where you can still find good fossils” without the crowds.
He adds, “Chippel Bay is also another good location to the west of Lyme Regis.” Lyme Regis area is one of the most famous locations for fossil hunting in the world, with specimens dating back to the Jurassic period. The town itself is often considered the home of palaeontology, because it is where scientist and fossil hunter Mary Anning found the world's first ichthyosaur during the 19th century.
Visit Dorset recommend, “Just east of Lulworth Cove is the extraordinary ancient fossil forest and in this area dinosaur footprints and trackways have been discovered.” Of course, you can also see Dorset fossils exhibited at the Dorset County Museum all year round.
If you’re looking for a quieter location for fossil hunting, where you’re more likely to find success, head to areas such as Pirate’s Cove, featuring numerous gastropods, bivalves and echinoids, or Burton Bradstock for shark fins and brachiopods. In Weymouth there is a bounty of giant fossil oyster shells, whereas Watton Cliff is home to fossils such as crinoids, fish, sharks’ fins, crocodiles, amphibians and plants. According to UK Fossils, one of the most plentiful sites is Thorncombe Beacon, which “yields everything from several different species of ammonites, shells (including brachiopods and bivalves), some superb starfish specimens, crinoids, belemnites and much, much more.”
Discovering Fossils explain that common finds in Dorset include pyritised ammonites, belemnite guards and crinoid stems. They advise, “It's also worth examining the clay accumulations at the base of the slumping cliffs; however, this should only be attempted where there's a minimal risk of injury from falling rocks.” For much of the year,” they add, “it's possible to examine the toe (end) of the clay accumulations, without getting too close to the cliff itself.”
What makes fossil hunting in Dorset such a fantastic activity to try on holiday in the area is that almost anyone can do it. All you need is a little bit of background knowledge, a sturdy pair of wellies or walking boots, and a keen eye. However, if you’re serious about getting a collection started, there are a few pieces of equipment you could consider picking up. Geological hammers are used to split rocks open to find fossils without damaging the specimen within, which must be used with safety glasses. With this tool, you can find not only fossils visible on the outside edge of stones, but also ones within the rock that have never been exposed before.
Ordnance Survey suggest that keen fossil hunters pack:
Tide times book to see when it is safe to fossil hunt
Sturdy plastic bags to put fossils in
Old newspaper to wrap up delicate finds
A notebook and pen to record your finds
The first step to a successful fossil hunting trip is to read up about what can be found where you are going. Ordnance Survey recommend, “It is always worth doing your homework before you set out on your fossil adventure. Different beaches have different age rocks and fossils and you can expect to find different things. Knowledge is key, so make sure you know the types of things to look out for so you don’t spend all day looking for the wrong things!”
UK Fossils’ Alister explains that, “As with all locations, you will not find fossils by hammering the cliff face, which is dangerous and illegal. Fossils are best found by walking along the tide line and searching amongst the shingle, and under rocks. If you do decide to collect from Charmouth, collect at the crack of dawn at first light along the tide line, where overnight tides have moved the beach shingle around, giving chance to make finds before the crowds.”
It is important to be aware that some geologically-sensitive areas in Dorset do not allow fossil hunting in order to preserve diminishing species and current habitats. However, as Jurassic Coast.org comment: “Generally there is no problem with responsible fossil collecting along the Jurassic Coast for a very simple reason – if they are not collected they will be destroyed by the sea. It is much better that they are rescued; whether it’s a broken belemnite or a near complete dinosaur skeleton. Even small and common fossils can inspire people if they are allowed to discover them for themselves and the many dedicated and professional fossil collectors who search the coast help to maximise the chances that the most amazing specimens are found and recovered.”
With so many ancient finds waiting to be discovered, Dorset is the perfect location for a family day of fossil hunting. Kids and adults alike will be captivated as they learn about Dorset’s Jurassic prehistory and find some of their very own specimens that no-one else has seen before. Plus, with so many brilliant locations to eat and pick up all of the tools you could need, there is plenty to do in the surrounding area after a busy day of searching. To find out more about fossils in Dorset and how to find them, click here. In the meantime, get ready to dig up something that will make your mind boggle!