Searching for natural history is easy when you know where to look. Sarah Farley joins the hunt
Hunting for fossils can become an obsession, scouring patiently over stones and pebbles until suddenly your eye lights on a shape that might be an ammonite or echinoid. But if you choose your site carefully, the frequency of finds is high and the thrill of uncovering the remains of a creature that possibly existed million of years before the dinosaurs became extinct is an experience that is rewarding and memorable.
"Realising that the fossil they have just picked up from the beach could be over 350 million years old is an experience that fills children with awe and wonder," claims Luci Algar, co-founder of the website Discovering Fossils.
"Partly the reason for the excitement is that the experience is contextual.
You are discovering the fossil where it should be found naturally, on the beach, where the rocks have been eroded by the sea and the fossils have been exposed as part of the natural process. It is so much more interesting than seeing exhibits in a shop or museum."
When searching, you are free to take home specimens you find on the beach, as long as they are not a rarity such as a dinosaur bone. If in doubt, take your find to the nearest visitor centre for identification. Hammering pieces out of the rock face is forbidden and extremely dangerous, given that the cliffs on such beaches are often unstable.
Discovering Fossils has a section on safety and equipment, how to get started and where to look. Most popular beaches have visitor centres nearby, where local experts will advise, or arrange fossils hunting visits.
As well as the coast, quarries and woods are also good sources for fossils. Rockwatch, a club for the young run by the Geologists'
Association, will suggest places for schools to visit and put teachers in touch with local groups. If requested, a geologist will talk to children beforehand about fossils and how they are formed, including information about local rock and how they have been used in local buildings and city centres.
Fascination with fossils can start very young.
"Roy Shepherd, my partner in Discovering Fossils, was given his first echinoid when he was four years old, and he has been hooked ever since," says Luci. "It's an activity that suits all pupils from early years up to A-level."
On the beach at Littlehampton, West Sussex, Luci regularly finds snakestones (ammonites), the petrified remains of snakes; Shepherd's Crown (echinoids), a sea urchin fossil that witches collected for their magical power, and Devil's Toenail, the remains of the bivalve.
Further west along the south coast is the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre on the Jurassic Coast, a world famous site for fossils. Along a 95-mile stretch, the rocks tilt gently eastwards so that the coastline takes you through a rock sequence covering 185 million years of history.
At low tide at Lyme Regis, masses of large ammonites can be seen in the ledges of limestone, while on the beach near Charmouth, you can also find the pencil-like remains of belemnites and plant-shaped crinoids in abundance. Sometimes the fossils are to be found in iron pyrite, fool's gold, which gives them a pretty sheen.
Dinosaur fossils are some of the most thrilling to be found, connecting the present with creatures of pre-history. Susan Brown, chairman of Rockwatch, recalls visiting Ardley Quarry, Oxfordshire, to look at the fossils of dinosaur footprints. "The prints are very clear and the children were amazed when they realised they had been made by a meat-eating megalosaurus.
We dusted the prints and measured them and the distance between prints. We were able to calculate a movement and see from the prints that it had probably seen its lunch in the distance and begun to run," she says.
On the Yorkshire Dinosaur Coast, you can observe the prints and remains of dinosaurs and marine reptiles, such as teleosaurus, a giant crocodile.
"The best time to come to look for fossils is mid-winter, but it can be dangerous then, so spring or autumn when the weather is not too bad is a better bet for schools," says Will Watts, Dinosaur Coast project officer.
"By this summer, we will be able to help schools arrange a visit and make the most of what we have to offer here."
www.discoveringfossils.co.uk includes info on Ardley Quarry; www.jurassiccoast.com; www.dinocoast.org.uk; www.rockwatch.org.uk