Battle of Hastings: Fossils
Thursday, 06 June 2013

Midsomer Murders

Sam Taylor discovers the beach has more bodies than Midsomer Murders

Written by Sam Taylor
If you go down to Hastings beach today, be sure to carry a hammer and chisel. And a copy of your beginners’ guide to dinosaurs. Yes, because unless you are an amateur palaeontologist, you may not be aware that this shinglecovered corner of East Sussex is one of the only places outside the Isle of Wight where the bones of prehistoric monsters can be found. In fact the area appears to be riddled with ancient remains: crocodiles, reptiles, bivalves and gastropods have all been packed into knapsacks and taken home as seaside souvenirs.

As yet, there is no legislation to stop lucky hunters from keeping their chunks of evolution, but it can’t be long before the men from the council apply a levy. As it is, reaching the best hunting grounds now involves an assault course. The bodies are mostly buried among the collapsed boulders on the foreshore at the base of the cliffs and while the unstable nature of these sandstone edifices means there are regular drops of new material, it does make this particular hobby rather risky.

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To reach the best spots, you walk through the Rock-A-Nore seafront car park (do cars need a sea view?), then climb over the bar across the derelict steps at that end of the beach. It’s not an easy climb, and you are warned that you are doing so at your own risk, but the rewards can be life changing. Squeals of delight are occasionally heard from hardy types, who, after months of searching, have been rewarded with a three-toed Iguanodon dinosaur footprint.

Diehards admit that finding one of these prehistoric signatures is rare, but that after a high tide it’s not unusual for hammer-happy children to be rewarded with a set of ancient fangs incarcerated in hard rock.

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The cliffs that make up this coastline were formed some 50 million years ago and the palaeobotanical and vertebrate palaeontological fossils here are considered to be some of the best examples of their type in the world. I say this with a mixture of pride and newly acquired knowledge, mainly gleaned from an afternoon loitering in Stone Corner on the High Street.

Like fashionistas drawn to designer-handbag shops, ‘fossillistas’ gather here to coo over rare finds. I couldn’t find anyone to tell me much about the 7ft-long internal cast of a gastropod found during roadworks in 1921, and given the glorious name Dinocochlea ingens (terrible/huge unknown snail). But I did find lots of cleaned up and labelled specimens ready to take away. Perfect for those of us reared on the Blue Peter mantra: ‘And here’s one I made earlier’.

Next week: Hot water...


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