There are few family pleasures as simple or as satisfying as finding fossils on the beach. It’s an outdoor experience perfect for children of all ages, and it continues to delight adults, too.
There’s no better place to indulge a passion for fossils than the Jurassic coastline of Dorset and Devon. Now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s made up of 95 miles and 185 million years of prehistoric life, gradually exposed for eventual discovery.
The Dorset village of Charmouth – the gateway to the Jurassic Coast – is pleasantly removed from the blare and glare of other seaside amusements, and is a wonderful starting point for a fossil-hunting daytrip.
The beach itself is a short distance beyond the village, and it has all the amenities – car park, café, souvenir shop and fossil-focussed visitor centre.
The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre has well-presented displays of locally discovered fossils, including the eponymous Charmouth dinosaur – Scelidosaurus.
This was the earliest complete dinosaur fossil to be unearthed in England, and is thought to be the best known species of dinosaur that lived here 190 million years ago.
The first fossils of this four-legged plant-eater, about 4m (13ft) long, were uncovered by Charmouth quarry owner James Harrison during the 1850s. They were sent to Professor Richard Owen of the British Museum, who classified it Scelidosaurus harrisonii.
The staff are as bright and helpful as the displays, and they happily let our children put on the dinosaur head-pieces created by a local artist.
Plenty of time to explore
It’s best to time a trip for just after high tide, with the sea receding, leaving hours to scour the shingle beach for fossils that have come away from the cliffs or been turned over by the tide. The best place is to the right of the visitor centre (facing the sea) towards a section of lumpy, grey cliffs – the result of a landslide in 1959 now known as the Black Ven.
It’s only a mile or so along the beach from here to Lyme Regis but due to landslides blocking the way this is only really accessible at low tide – the centre will have a timetable.
A note of caution: the coastline is very dynamic here, and landslips are common (especially with last year’s wet weather), so make sure the whole family avoid the area immediately beneath the cliffs.
An ancient treasure trove
In any case, the beach itself is both the safest and the best place to find fossils – cleaned and sifted by the sea. Fossil hunting is one of those outdoor pastimes where bad is good: wild weather often reveals
more treasures released from their ancient settings.
Searching soon becomes a happy obsession: a steady stroll, eyes flickering over the stones, occasionally punctuated by a shriek of ‘Eureka!’ and a gathering of the clan as a new treasure is discovered.
This area is no secret location – in fact its attractions are proudly proclaimed, but the beauty of fossil hunting is that there’s room for everyone to fan out and find their own space on the beach, becoming caught up in the thrill of the hunt.
In our experience, fossil-finding success rates are variable, dependant on both individual skill (and patience) and luck on the day, and success can stir easily inflamed sibling rivalries and intra-family jealousies. So you can increase the odds of finding one by heading to the visitor centre, which offers regular guided walks led by a team of enthusiastic wardens.
A two-hour session begins with a talk about what fossils can be found and how best to search for them, followed by a walk on the beach under expert guidance, sharing finds along the way. And if the charm of searching for fossils should ever wear off, they also run other activities such as rockpooling.
One for the mantlepiece
At the end of the day, taking home a fossil or two that you’ve found for yourself instils a great sense of pride and self-achievement, and back home those fossilised finds become touchstones for stories to
be told, and retold, long
after the trip is over.
HOW TO GET THERE
By car, Charmouth is just
off the A35 between Lyme Regis and Bridport. Take the sea road through the village to the beach-side pay and display carpark (£4 all day). There are two First bus services that
run along the coast road and stop at Charmouth Church: X53 from Exeter to Poole,
and 31 between Axminster and Weymouth.
FIND OUT MORE
The Old Bank Café
The Street, Charmouth
Refuel at this colourful, welcoming café that serves award-winning sausages.
Newlands Holiday Park
Charmouth DT6 6RB
This friendly, family-run campsite is only minutes
from the beach.
The Dinosaur Museum
Icen Way, Dorchester
Take yourself back to the Jurrasic with these life-size reconstructions, real fossils and dinosaur bones.