Walking with dinosaurs

10th February 2006 at 00:00
It may be a haven for serious fossil hunters, but it's Charmouth's fossilised dinosaur poo and vomit that fascinates children, as Sarah Scally uncovers

As I wait for Year 6 children from Charmouth primary school in Bridport, Dorset, to arrive, I watch a couple of fossil hunters donning waterproof gear to brave the crashing waves and rain, heading out to explore the beaches. I'm still watching them as the class appear, wrapped up against the winter weather.

Immediately, Meirel Whaites, senior warden at Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, launches into her welcome to the group. Children are allowed to wander around the centre, holding the fossils, looking at pictures and using the touch-displays to obtain further information.

In the middle of the room is a circular table piled with various rocks and fossils, including ammonites, crinoids and belemnites - all found locally.

The pupils are encouraged to pick them up and feel the various fossils. The whole centre is welcoming, with no "Do Not Touch" signs anywhere, which is liberating for the children. The centre offers a range of programmes to suit all ages and will tailor talks to meet individual requirements, covering subjects from travel and tourism to biology and earth sciences.

Charmouth beach, just outside the door, is one of the country's primary sites for Jurassic geology and fossils and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, "Jurassic Coast", a fabulous backdrop for this learning centre. Meirel leads the children around the centre, explaining the exhibits. We are even shown some fossilised dinosaur poo and Ichthyosaur vomit, which the pupils find fascinating.

Having completed a PGCE, primarily to obtain an understanding of what teachers need to support the curriculum, Meriel's enthusiasm rubs off on the children. Luke picks up a Fools Gold ammonite and tells me that the section of beach along Stonebarrow and Golden Cap, the highest cliff on Britain's south coast, is a good place to find Fools Gold. He also shows me a picture of Black Ven, the site of the largest coastal mudslide in Europe.

"That's over there," he points in the opposite direction, towards Lyme Regis.

As part of the visit the children watch a short film in the small cinema, which explains the science of fossil formation and how the earth looked 185 million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled. There are two films depending on the ages of the visitors, which last 10 to 15 minutes.

"I absolutely love this job," Meirel says. "People of all ages and abilities visit and I try to incite an interest in science and nature in all of them. When they go away chattering about what they've seen or learnt, well, you get a real buzz from it."

This buzz is now extending to the others in the room as they spot several animals in seawater tanks, and call their friends over.

The beauty of the centre is that it covers so many aspects of the curriculum, and there are fantastic fossils just outside. There is rock pooling at Broad Ledge, where the children can learn about science with the sea and its contents. History can be explored by discussing Mary Anning (1799-1847), a woman from Lyme Regis who became a famous fossilist.

There is plenty of inspiration for art projects, and as Lisa Burridge, the Year 6 teacher, says: "We have recently used this beach to talk about poetry; I brought a class here to sit on the beach and think about what they could see and hear, to try to incorporate it into their writing. It's absolutely beautiful and all areas of the curriculum can be linked to this coastal environment."

We head outside to try our luck on the beach. The rocks around Charmouth are full of fossils of animals which swam around in the Jurassic seas. As the cliffs are worn away and material falls down onto the beach, the fossils reveal themselves among the pebbles and sand, and eagle eyes are needed to bag the best finds.

www.charmouth.orgMeirel Whaites is senior warden at Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre and can be contacted on, tel: 01297 560772; email: info@charmouth.org www.jurassiccoast.orgDr Anjana Khatwa is education co-ordinator for the Jurassic Coast World Heritage site, email: a.khatwa@dorsetcc.gov.uk

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