Where to see dinosaur footsteps and hunt for fossils in the UK
Do you know your ammonites from your ichthyosaurs? This winter, head out to these four fossil-rich stretches of the UK coastline for palaeontology tours, bracing beach walks and quirky museums.
The first dinosaur to be scientifically described and named was found in Oxfordshire. The discovery of the large carnivore, Megalosaurus — unearthed by geologist William Buckland in 1824 — marked a pivotal moment in our nation’s fascination with palaeontology. (Interestingly, some 30 years later, its replica became part of the lineup at Crystal Palace’s dinosaur sculpture park, the first such attraction in the world.) The riches of subsequent digs in the UK and overseas have educated and amazed museum-goers throughout the country ever since.
But there are also treasures to be sought in the great outdoors, away from the crowds. The UK offers fertile ground for responsible fossil-hunting. The relics of the Mesozoic Era are revealed by the natural eroding of cliffs and coastlines, their stories at constant risk of being lost to the sea. It’s why you’ll find fervent fossil collectors scouring beaches — take Daisy Morris, for example. The five-year-old Isle of Wighter’s curiosity led to her groundbreaking 2009 discovery on the island’s Atherfield Beach: a new species of pterosaur (a flying lizard). The prehistoric beast was thereafter named Vectidraco daisymorrisae, in her honour.
More recently, in June 2021, a storm unearthed the footprints of six different dinosaur species in Folkestone, near Dover's white cliffs. Discovered by palaeontologist Philip Hadland, they're believed to be traces of ankylosaurs, theropods and ornithopods — and the last dinosaurs to have roamed the UK some 110 million years ago.
With such exciting finds at our fingertips, it’s no wonder certain parts of the UK are sought out by those with a penchant for prehistoric treasure. And, with winter meaning thinner crowds and more turbulent weather, this season provides a peak opportunity for fresh discoveries. Here, we recommend four of the greatest regions in the UK for retracing the lost world.
1. Jurassic Coast, Devon and Dorset
Tracing 95 miles of dramatic Devon and Dorset shoreline, the Jurassic Coast — the UK’s only natural UNESCO World Heritage Site — has no shortage of Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Period spectacles, some revealing over 185 million years of natural history. Entire skeletons have been found here, including those of ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs and plesiosaurs.
Beachcombers should head to the stretches of sand between Lyme Regis and Charmouth for the best chances of spotting a freshly unearthed fossil. Ancient fragments of marine reptiles’ backbones and fossilised seashells, urchins and belemnites can all be glimpsed, as well as lumps of iron pyrite (a mineral also known as fool’s gold). Budding collectors can arrange a guided fossil-hunting walk at the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.
From Lyme Regis in the west to Poole in the east, the South West Coast Path — a popular hiking and cycling route — traverses the region’s geological highlights, including its most-photographed icons, Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door.
Latest discovery: In December 2020, a 'sea dragon' was discovered by palaeontologist Joe Davis, who was leading an excavation at the time. The ichthyosaur is the biggest and most complete skeleton of its kind found to date in the UK.
2. Isle of Wight
The island isn’t just the UK’s dinosaur capital, it’s also renowned as one of Europe’s richest grounds for dinosaur activity. Over 20 species from the Lower Cretaceous Period have been found here, including remains of the baryonyx, polacanthus, iguanodon, mantellisaurus, valdosaurus and pelorosaurus, which existed between 145 to 100 million years ago. A number of the species discovered on the Isle of Wight haven’t been found anywhere else in the world.
The majority of the island’s dinosaur treasures can be found along the southwest coast, with footprints and casts to be seen at Hanover Point, Compton Chine, Sudmoor Point, Chilton Chine and Cowleaze Chine. Fossils dating from the Lower Cretaceous period are littered along this stretch, but for abundance, set your sights on Compton Bay. Here, look for black fossilised dinosaur bones and teeth, iron pyrite, brachiopods, ammonites and lignite (a type of fossilised wood). At low tide, head to the bay’s eastern end to see the three-toed footcasts of an iguanodon etched into stone.
Professional guides at Dinosaur Expeditions host fossil-collecting walks and rockpool rambles that scour the beaches of the south-west coast on a two-hour tour.
Latest discovery: In September 2021, two new species of dinosaurs were discovered here. Nicknamed the 'riverback hunter' and 'hell heron', the spinosaurids are thought to have roamed the region around 129 million years ago.
3. Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan
Jurassic Period fossils are frequently exposed on the foreshore of Penarth by the coast’s eroding cliff-face — beachcombers seek out such items as brachiopods, ammonites and gastropods littered along the bay. An important dinosaur trackway can be spotted on the coast between Barry and Sully, a Site of Special Scientific Interest — as well as the area where, in August of 2020, new dinosaur tracks may have been discovered, pending verification.
At Lavernock Point, the bones of a 200-million-year-old theropod dubbed the ‘Welsh Dinosaur’ were discovered in 2014. The discovery of the prehistoric beast, a distant cousin of the Tyrannosaurus rex, is Wales’ most significant find to date, and its remains can be seen on display at the nearby National Museum Cardiff.
Latest discovery: Back in April 2020, a trackway thought to have been trodden by sauropods or prosauropods was uncovered by youth worker Kerry Rees. More than 200 million years old, they're thought to be evidence of a gathering.
4. Dinosaur Coast, North Yorkshire
Brooding cliffs and golden sand form a dramatic backdrop for fruitful beach wanders. Whitby, Port Mulgrave and Robin Hood’s Bay are popular spots for fossil-hunters, with the Jurassic Period relics found here matching those of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. Among the more unusual finds are the region’s well-preserved fossilised plants, scatterings of which are most numerous on the bays of Filey Brigg, Gristhorpe, Hayburn Wyke and Cloughton Wyke.
Scarborough’s Rotunda Museum, founded by ‘father of geology’ William Smith in 1829, is a must-visit when in the region — the Ancient Seas of the Yorkshire Coast exhibition showcases local fossils to paint a picture of ancient marine life. Down the coast, Robin Hood Bay offers a more intimate gallery experience at the diminutive Yorkshire Coast Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, which is free to enter.
Latest discovery: In April 2021, the largest dinosaur footprint ever found in Yorkshire was unearthed by archaeologists Marie Woods, who was collecting shellfish at the time. It's thought to be the footprint of a large meat-eating dinosaur of up to 9 metres in length.
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