A word of warning: any palaeo friends (i.e. most people I know in Manchester) might want to stop reading now, as I’m about to reveal the extent of my ignorance when it comes to ancient life.
I’ve always enjoyed the ichthyosaur section in the Natural History Museum as much as the next person, and noted with amazement that many of the fantastic beasts festooning the walls were found in little old England. Obviously I knew there were still fossils to be discovered; however, for some reason, I had imagined that fossil hunting these days would involve hours of drudgery before finding anything- that somehow Mary Anning had managed to hoover up every interesting fossil on the British Isles leaving only a smattering for those who already had their eye in. I’m really not sure how I managed to get this ridiculous notion into my head, but thankfully, it has now been well and truly put to rest. I am proud to announce I am now the owner of fossils that I have found and excavated myself, the results of a trip to the famous jurassic coast of Yorkshire, and an obscure little site situated, of all places, 20 minutes from the centre of Stockport.
We visited the first site, Saltwick Bay near Whitby, on a crisp winter day after a three hour drive from Manchester. The geology here is Jurrasic (because if you’re going to start fossil hunting, you may as well start with the most famous geological period of all time)- and the rocks are packed with bivalves, ammonites, plants and belemnites (extinct relatives of squid which had a hard internal skeleton- this link features a good description of what they looked like). The area is known for yielding some pretty amazing stuff, including dinosaur footprints and marine crocodiles- but a newbie like me was over the moon to find my first ever 3D ammonites and some beautiful imprints, made over 170 million years ago at a time when dinosaurs were still flesh and blood. Knowing that the remains of these creatures had been buried for such an unfathomable amount of time, and that you were the first person to ever see that particular individual, was pretty amazing. I was hooked, and eagerly signed up to the next fossil hunting day on offer- even though, when Stockport was revealed as the location, I was pretty cynical.
It was a drizzly day, the kind where your fingers are clinging to the warm coffee fresh out of the thermos. We delved 100 million years further back in time to the Carboniferous, at a site called Offerton which was within walking distance of Stockport train station. It’s a little river cutting (i.e. exposed bank) hidden in woodland, and is an awesome place to look for ferns and other plants that were alive a staggering 300 million years ago. The woods smelt of wild garlic, and we spent a lovely couple of hours looking for specimens in the shale. The detail that was preserved was just incredible- right down to the veins on the leaves- and we found delicate ferns as well as leaves that resembles modern-day gingkoes. Just think! Those leaves were alive in a world before people, mammals, birds, dinosaurs… a tropical swamp (see pic below) populated by giant insects and enormous scorpions and millipedes that grew to over 2m long. I guess that looking at fossils behind glass had never really brought this home for me, but holding something tangible in your hand was a real eye-opener.
Credit: Meyers Konversationslexikon. http://susi.e-technik.uni-ulm.de:8080/Meyers2/index/index.html–
So, what next? I may treat myself to a repeat viewing of Planet Dinosaur and First Life, and dream about the finds that are still out there. When one has friends that have found ankylosaur scutes and fossilised fish on UK beaches one’s ambition is bound to start augmenting. In the meantime, I’ll be staring fascinated at the small snapshots of a lost world, now sat on top of my coffee table.
N.B. The UK fossils network is a fantastic resource if you’re thinking about going fossil hunting yourself- it lists sites from all over the country, how to get there, what you might expect to find, safety information, and what equipment you should bring. It also will tell you if a site is an SSSI, which might limit where you’re allowed to hammer.