It’s very difficult to go hunting for fossils on the Isle of Wight without any prior knowledge of the subject because you can end up picking up quite a lot of things that have no fossil remains in them at all. For this reason it is a very good idea to book onto a guided fossil walk – which take place all year round across the Island. These walks will give you a basic grounding in what to look for in the different locations around the Island.
Dinosaur bones are most often found where the Wealden beds are exposed and this is at two places on the Island: down the west coastline between Compton and Atherfield and at Yaverland beach on the east coast.
Bear in mind the fact that anything above the high water mark is owned by the landowner and for most of these locations that is the National Trust. It is illegal to dig fossils out of the cliffs without the owner’s permission but some of those leading walks have arrangements with the landowners, and this is another good reason for going on one first. The south west coast is all designated SSII and if you go up the cliff with a shovel you will be arrested.
Picking up fossils from the beach is not generally frowned upon and you’re unlikely to be challenged, although loading up buckets and wheelbarrows is not acceptable. But if you start chipping away at the bottom of the cliff you are in dangerous territory - you could be apprehended or the cliff could fall on top of you. Beware!
Compton Beach is a good place to start a fossil hunt because there are several types of fossils that you can find on the beach. One of the easiest to find is a grey rock embedded with seashells that is strewn all over the beach so needs no digging. You are also likely to find fossilised wood from the forest that once stood at Hanover Point – it looks just like coal and is often layered with ‘fool’s gold’ a mineral called iron pyrites that looks like crystals of gold. They will gradually decompose into a green dust when exposed to the air, but it looks quite exciting when you first see it – especially for children.
You can also find fossilised oyster shells here on the beach. They look just like the oysters of today but are much larger, harder and often embedded in the clay or rock. They work themselves out and get taken out by the sea, washing up on the beach and looking suspiciously like common oysters until you pick them up and feel their weight. Sometimes you will find two or three stuck together.
Dinosaur bone fossils do also fall out of the cliffs and end up in the sea. The abrasive action of the other stones they get tumbled with in the sea batter these bones into fossil ‘pebbles’ that can be recognised by their consistency. They will be black or brown with evidence of the honeycomb of holes within the bone that will have filled with minerals – sometimes iron pyrites. If you pay a visit to one of the fossil shops or Dinosaur Isle they will be able to point out what a dinosaur pebble is likely to look like – so again an organised walk is a good place to start.
There are certain layers in the cliff that are more likely to hold dinosaur bones and these are the clays rather than the sandstones – the grey bits rather than the orange ones. But this doesn’t mean they will be exclusively in these areas. Look along the edge of the cliffs at the things that have just emerged or at the low water mark where new things will have been washed up by the last tide. Anything in between is likely to have been checked by other fossil hunters and there are a lot of them on the Island.
There are a great choice of guided fossil walks on offer from the Isle of Wight’s three key Dinosaur Experts; the Island’s own dinosaur museum, Dinosaur Isle based in Sandown opposite Yaverland beach, Dinosaur Expeditions, Conservation & Palaeoart Centre near Brighstone on the Islands south coast and Martin Simpson, known on the Isle of Wight as 'the Fossil Man'.
Books that can help you are:
‘Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight’, edited by David M. Martill and Darren Naish. This book is published by the Palaeontological Association, and so contains information on every single dinosaur and pterosaur ever found on the island, except the new velociraptorines and Caulkicephalus.
‘The Geologist’s Association Guide (No 60) to the Isle of Wight’, written by Allan Insole, Brian Daley and Andy Gale. It features walking guides to see the geology, but does not focus much on the dinosaurs found at each locality and it is also a bit out of date.
‘The Shaping of the Isle of Wight – with excursion guide’, by Eric Bird.
There are also two books on south coast fossils published by the Natural History Museum: British Mesozoic Fossils and British Caenozoic fossils and both have extensive drawings for identifying finds. These books were recommended by Trevor Price at Dinosaur Isle and most are available in the museum’s shop. There is also a good book by Martin Simpson called ‘Fossil Hunting on Dinosaur Island’.
If you’re really keen there are various groups you can join like ‘Rockwatch’ that go all over the country on guided walks/hunts for fossils. There’s also the Geological Society and the Natural History and Archaeological Society.
So to recap, stick to the laws of the land and if you find something interesting take it to a museum where they will (hopefully) be able to identity it for you. But try and get someone who has some knowledge of fossil hunting to take you on a guided walk first and if you don’t know anyone then book a walk from Dinosaur Isle, Dinosaur Expeditions or Martin Simpson.
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’, the self-styled ‘Dinosaur Man’ of the Island is commemorating his anniversary by adding a few more locations to his itinerary.
“The extra locations will be Atherfield, Brook, Compton Bay and Hamstead for the more serious collector,” said Martin. “I’m also doing fossil breaks with ‘Seven’ in Brighstone. People will come in on Friday and have two nights of bed and breakfast, a boat trip if weather permits. There will be fossil hunting with me and discovering the natural heritage of the Island and everyone will go 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 and 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.