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Catch the fossil bug - In search of a day out that really rocks in Whitby

PUBLISHED: 11:44 22 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:52 20 February 2013

George holding a Hildoceras Lusitanicum

George holding a Hildoceras Lusitanicum

In search of a day out that really rocks, Chris Titley and family went time travelling on the Yorkshire coast

Catch the fossil bug


In search of a day out that really rocks, Chris Titley and family went time travelling on the Yorkshire coast

Byron Blessed doesnt look like a magician. Rather than a sparkly jacket and bowtie he wears shorts and the biggest backpack in the North Riding. But get him on the beach and he can produce something from nothing. He picks up an ordinary grey stone from the sands, taps it with his steel hammer and crack! it splits in two to reveal a perfectly preserved fossil.
Its a trick which beats anything Paul Daniels ever performed, and one which Byron repeats again and again while we tour the Whitby beaches. Thats the great thing about fossils, he says. When you find one, youre the first person ever ever to see it. That creature died, it got buried in the mud and has laid in the rock ready for you to find it millions of years later.
Unlike members of the Magic Circle, who swear to keep silent about their methods, Byron is only too delighted to share his secrets. For 12 years he has run the Natural Wonders shop in Grape Lane, Whitby, selling all manner of fossils, carefully extracted, polished and mounted. Among his satisfied customers is Robbie Coltrane, who bought an ammonite while he was in the town filming Harry Potter.
After establishing the shop, Byron was asked if hed take people fossil hunting on the coast and the tours have been running ever since.
On a typically changeable Whitby morning, Jack, 11, seven-year-old Mia, and I joined a group of more than 20 led by Byron to Saltwick Bay. Once there, he began by going through the golden rules of safety. You cant go about hacking into the cliff its made of crumbly shale and theres a good chance some of it will fall on your head. Keep an eye on the tides too, or you could become trapped; all his tours are scheduled to make the most advantageous tides.
And wear stout footwear with a good grip. Even in my walking boots I was skidding about the seaweed covered rocks like Bambi on roller skates.
Next Byron explained why there was such an abundance of fossils on whats known as the Dinosaur Coast. In this country the two big areas that have a lot of fossils are the Whitby coast and the Lyme Regis-Dorset area, which is now a World Heritage Site.
The rock type here in Whitby is Jurassic in age 180 million years old and had just the right conditions to preserve fossils. All the fossils well find are marine in origin. Anything that died got buried quickly into the sea bed, and there was no oxygen to feed the bacteria that attacks the organic components.
The sorts of fossils found around here include a type of Jurassic oyster whose gnarly shape gave it the graphic nickname of devils toenail. Crinoids, despite being known as sea lilies, are a type of sea animal related to starfish, and leave a star-shaped pattern in the rocks.
Fossilised coral and sponges from Norway and Sweden were dragged down here by a glacier in the Ice Age. We were also to keep an eye open for remains of long-gone marine creatures such as the dolphin-like ichthyosaur and the plesiosaur, a full skeleton of which was found down the coast at Filey in 2002. Belemnites are the remains of a creature resembling the cuttlefish and are distinguished by a bullet-shape that can be mistaken for dinosaur teeth.
Perhaps the most familiar of all, though, are the ammonites. Modern relatives of these coiled up creatures are the squid and octopus, yet they are often known as snake stones. Theres a legend in Whitby that when St Hilda came to the abbey she found it infested with snakes, Byron explains.
She cast a spell on them and turned them to rock, chopped off the heads and threw them over the cliffs thats what we now know as ammonites. They used to carve snakes heads on the top to sell to pilgrims who came to the abbey.
Byrons best find came when he brought a tour party to this very beach three years earlier. He saw what looked like a bone, but didnt think much of it at first. I put my hammer in and it started cracking. It flipped over and it was a complete marine crocodile skull. I thought, ooh thats quite nice.
We all set off in search of something similar, but Saltwick Bay was fresh out of Jurassic crocodiles that day. But plenty of superb fossils were discovered: the youngsters in the party were particularly good at finding the squashed, round, grey stones that Byron had said to look out for.
These were duly taken to him and thats when he did his magic: a couple of taps with the hammer, a clean split in the rock, and both halves showing a coiled ammonite inside. Breathtaking stuff: Jack and Mia were thrilled to find both ammonites and belemnites, which now have pride of place in our garden.
Kids drive the interest in fossils because fossils indicate dinosaurs. All kids at some point are fascinated with dinosaurs. Instead of going to a museum and seeing them behind glass you can get on the beach in the open air and go and look for your own.
Byrons childhood fascination never faded. After his first fossil hunt on a family holiday to Dorset aged five he was hooked, to the extent that he was stopped going through Turkish customs with a hammer and chisel in his hand luggage. He was only nine. Byron went on to take a degree in geology and masters in palaeontology. His dad also got the fossils bug and they teamed up to run the Natural Wonders shop.
As our tour party walked from the bay down under the abbey, Byron pointed out stegosaurus footprints on one rock, and taught us how to distinguish Whitby jet from other beach leftovers using sandpaper (give the stone a rub and if it goes ginger or chocolate brown youre in luck).
As we made our way back up to Whitby town centre, cagoule pockets weighed down with rocks, we agreed it had been one of the best days out for 180 million years.


Tell us about your fossil finds. Email letters@yorkshirelife.co.uk or leave comments and upload pictures of your fossil finds on our website yorkshire.greatbritishlife.co.uk.

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