Dinosaur Expeditions from Dinosaur Farm

Not far from Atherfield's Shepherd's Chine on the coastal road from Blackgang to Freshwater is the Dinosaur Expeditions Conservation and Palaeoart Centre at Dinosaur Farm – just a small sign marks the driveway down.

The dinosaur museum part of this farm had been closed for a number of years, but it is open for business again as a group of enthusiasts have formed a Community Interest Company called Dinosaur Expeditions CIC to get it up and running, led by paleontologist Oliver Mattsson.

The fossilised remains of a brachiosaurus were found on land owned by the farm and inside the enormous 17th century barn volunteers have created a life size model of this plant eating dinosaur. At around 55 feet long it is the largest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the UK according to Oliver. Hanging from the roof of the barn is a huge furry pterosaur, called a Quetzalcoatlus, from Texas. The largest animal that ever flew, it has a wingspan of 26 feet and is 19 feet from nose to claws, although part of his long beak has had to be removed in order to fit him in the barn.

Beneath these huge beasts a mock up of how the Island would have looked 130 million years has been built and currently a Polacanthus and a crocodile are sharing the space: all a quarter of the size they would have originally been. The painting behind them is the largest painting ever done by dino artist John Sibbick and the centre encourage paleoart, with children and adult painting activities on offer.

The centre also run regular dinosaur fossil expeditions. Join one of their experienced, professional guides on a Fossil Hunting Trip to one of the Island’s beaches and discover your own fossils and keep all your finds. The two hour trips start at one of five different locations on the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight. Locations include: Atherfield (Shepherds Chine), Grange Chine, Chilton Chine, Brook Chine and Compton Hanover Point Car Park (Shippards Chine). 

Brook beach is possible the best beach for finding evidence of the 120 million year old remains on the Isle of Wight - at low tide, when the dinosaur footprints at Hanover Point are uncovered in the sandstone ledges that appear about 100 yards out from the beach. It's a slippery walk across the seaweed covered rocks and everyone who makes the trek does so at their own risk.

A typical Fossil Hunting Trip will see Oliver, or one of the other guides, take everyone on a walk onto the beach to look for fossilised remains – pieces of dinosaur bone are found on around 90 per cent of his walks he says. He shows everyone an example of a piece of fossilised dinosaur bone and a piece of the petrified forest of wood that is exposed here at low tide. These fragments often have nuggets of 'fools gold' (iron pyrites) in the cracks of the coal-like fossils, which is quite exciting.

Everyone takes their finds to Oliver for him to identify: some he identifies as fossilised sponges, others as petrified wood with iron pyrites and others are, sadly for their finders, just sandstones or flints. And off they go again to find more jewels in the sand to bring back for identification. Oliver inspects each find with care and kindness and passes them back to each new fossil detective with a description.

Many of the group then follow Oliver out across the sandstone and clay ledge to the layer on which the dinosaur footprints can be seen – he refers to these as 'trackways'. Apparently movement in the layers has meant that a new trackway has become exposed. We're not posting photos of the imprints because that would spoil the surprise – you'll need to take a tour!

Ambling back to the shore, Oliver takes his charges to see the casts that have been formed where the dinosaurs left their footprints. These enormous sandstone lumps were made when footprints became filled with debris in a flash monsoon-like flood, hardened and became embedded in the layers in which they lay.

Oliver was once a teacher and this shines through in his informative delivery and his interaction with the children who follow him along the beach as if he is the pied piper. One by one a different dinosaur is discovered with each print – here an iguanodon, there a brachiosauraus and maybe another is a meat eater as it has claws. Everyone is entranced.

This is a fab tour and has had rave reviews on Trip Advisor. We can recommend it, especially if you have children in your party and there are special rates for families.

 The Dinosaur Expedition Centre is open from 10am till 4pm Tuesday, Thursday & Sundays and daily in the school holidays. To book a trip email info@dinosaurexpeditions.co.uk

Jo Macaulay

4 April 2016

By Jo Macaulay in Articles