Martin Simpson... on fossils, finds & being the 'Dinosaur Man'

Martin Simpson has been leading fossil trips along the Isle of Wight’s coastline since 1987. Based in Godshill, where he has the fossil shop ‘Island Gems’, is the self-styled ‘Dinosaur Man’ of the Island.

“Atherfield, Brook, Compton Bay and Hamstead are great sites for the more serious collector,” said Martin. “Fossil hunting with me, as well as discovering the natural heritage of the Island everyone goes home with some fossils.

“I do walks every day in the season – two hour trips – you just phone up and book. You’re guaranteed to find something but it’s about enjoyment as well as education. We’re not those scientific experts who are above our audience.

“I was born in Cheshire and moved to the Island in 1984. I got interested in fossils when I was nine or ten and went to the Blue John mines in Derbyshire. I studied Geology at Portsmouth University and that’s when I started coming over here. It was very easy for me to whip over so it was a place I had to visit.

“After Portsmouth I went to Glasgow to specifically study the geology of the Isle of Wight – that happened to be where the specialism was. It was fossilised lobsters I got into as there were only six other people specialising in them. As part of that study I spent the whole of 1981 on the Island collecting more material.

“I came back in 1984 and had a ten year plan to collect as many fossils as possible – imagine that! I look back now and wonder how the hell I was going to survive. I opened up the fossil shop at Arreton Old Village in 1986 and from that grew the family and school trips.

“I grew out of that shop and I moved to Blackgang Chine in 1994 and that was very successful, with a family market it fitted in well. I left after 15 years because tourism was a bit on the decline and I set up an exhibition in what was the Dinosaur Farm and had a shop at the Isle of Wight Pearl. After a few seasons at the farm the owners decided to retire and have their farm back.

“Now I’m in Godshill but I’m planning to set up my own museum to show my collection. Mine will be more traditional, something in keeping with the collection. My idea is to have a museum at the Back of the Wight.

“The plan now is to publish all the new discoveries I’ve made – over 50. A percentage of my collection will go to a museum. I’m allocating all the rare types to museums. The holotype will have to go to a museum. If I set up something I want to leave it in trust. I don’t want this collection that I’ve spent 30 years collecting split up.

“You have to stick to the law – you need the landowner’s permission to dig for it (your finds) and to be written up you have to hand it over to a museum.

“In the 1990s I was getting a lot of publicity. After 1993 when Jurassic Park came out there was a massive interest in dinosaurs and other related areas such as amber and the amber prices went up massively. I’ve found amber on the Isle of Wight that’s 125 million years old with bugs in it. That was featured on ‘Live from Dinosaur Island’ in 2001 when the BBC did a week’s live coverage, and were based at the Dinosaur Farm. I found the amber during that week in Brighstone Bay. They had sites all the way from Atherfield to Compton – five miles of cable – it was all linked up.

“The BBC also did the Fossil Detectives series in 2008 and one of the programmes featured me digging up an Iguanodon at Barnes High near the Dinosaur Farm. I never got a chance to dig any more of it up and the rest of it fell off the cliff – we managed to get a few bones out.

“The biggest thing was in 1993 when I was on telly with Michael Palin where I showed everyone that my house is full of fossils, even the kitchen and the toilets. I’ve gone through the collecting stage and I’m now in the custodian stage.

 “There is a voluntary code of conduct for collecting that you have to stick to. There’s nothing wrong with selling a fossil as long as you’ve acquired it legally, have ownership and permission to sell it or compensate the owner – and this is only in the case of very expensive fossils. I’ve never sold anything from my own collection. If I buy anything from Madagascar, America, Morocco or anywhere I make sure it’s been collected legally. If I find a fossil and it’s scientifically important then it goes in my collection. I do swap to enhance my own collection.

“I’ve done a lot of work with Chris Packham – snippets here and there on Inside Out and Anything Goes. I did ‘Wish You Were Here’ once. That was funny, with Judith Chalmers. They plugged the fossil trips on their holiday programme and my bookings went up 20 per cent.

“I did Blue Peter in 1994 and the Golden Labrador cocked its leg on a dinosaur – not live luckily. It was with Diane Louise Jordan and I had to go to Television Centre and I’ve done a few bits there.

“I have two children, Eddie and Emily and I’m trying not to turn Eddie into me. I’ve let him be normal. He is interested, which is lovely.

“If you’ve got a passion you want to pass that on to people. If I didn’t like people I wouldn’t do it. I’m world famous on the Isle of Wight.”

Martin Simpson, Island Gems, The Cottage, High Street, Godshill, Isle of Wight, Po38 3HZ, 01983 740493.