Ringstead Bay remains an almost forgotten gem along the Dorset Coast. Despite the obvious beauty of the location, the site has never been commercialised. Private ownership of much of the land has prevented companies, such as Pontins or Butlins, from exploiting the area in the past and Ringstead Bay remains much unaltered. The winding lane leading down to the bay is certainly not conducive to heavy traffic. Nowadays, the area is under the care and ownership of the National Trust and despite a fairly busy scene around the beach café and car park on Sunday, the rest of the large bay was characteristically mostly deserted, even on a blisteringly hot summer day, as we found out! A few hundred yards away from the slipway and the peace and tranquillity of Ringstead Bay becomes apparent. A brief talk, by Steve, set a backdrop to the location; the geology, the fossils and the Jurassic coast.
To the west of the bay, the harder rocks of the Corallian sequence form the headland of Bran Point, composed mostly of the Osmington Oolite Series and packed full of the large cockle Myophorella clavellata, which are also evident in the reefs and rock pools at low tide. To the east, the majestic Chalk cliffs of White Nothe form a prominent cliff. In between, the tall, slumped and badly weathered cliffs within the bay are entirely composed of Kimmeridge Clay, which is where our hunt began.
The Kimmeridge Clay here is 151 to 156 million years old and is composed of much degraded mudstone, formed on the Jurassic sea bottom when England once bathed in a sub-tropical climate. In fact, it was probably much the same as the day of our hunt, where the sun shone fiercely and the sky and sea were blue and mostly cloudless.
After an introductory chat, explaining the geology of this part of the Jurassic Coast, the party descended to beach level and the hunt was on. Ringstead Bay suffers much the same as other locations at the height of summer; poor erosion from tides and rain and from tourists. The tourists love fossil hunting in Dorset and consequently the more usual specimens found at Ringstead Bay were in short supply. Local collectors wait for the autumn and winter storms to help stir up the coast replenish supplies of fossils. However, the recent lack of good storms, even over the winter, has also meant fewer cliff falls and fresh material being exposed. The Kimmeridge Clay here was very dry and finding fossils within the hard clay body was not easy. However, the first fossil – a piece of the oyster, Deltoideum delta- was found by 6-year old Sophie de Candole. This was followed by several large complete oysters of the same being picked up by most members of the group.
Pieces of hard shale, which could be easily split by hand, exposed several ammonites and various shells. The largest ammonite remained in an immovable boulder on the beach but Aaron Roberts, aged 11, found a nice smaller specimen. The Sandsfoot Formation, which marks the junction between the older Corallian rocks with the overlying, younger Kimmeridge Clay was exposed in the cliff and formerly known as the Ringstead Coral Bed. Broken ‘chunks’ on the beach revealed little in the way of fossils, although 12-year old Cem Izzet found a good-sized bivalve, named Ctenostreon proboscideum. whose large strongly-ribbed shell is unmistakable and easily recognised.
Halfway along the bay, high in the cliffs, are the visible strata of the Portland Limestone Formation and capped by the basal part of the Cretaceous Purbeck Formation. The folded and faulted rocks, form a spectacular unconformity, with the Chalk dipping to the right and the Portland and Purbeck rocks dipping towards the right.
The day was certainly a success. The majority of the group found various fossils and were very pleased with the outcomes. Coupled with the glorious weather, it was a wonderful day out and encouraged those who had never been to the location before, to return. Many thanks to everyone who came along and UKAFH look forward to seeing you on another hunt.
On Sunday the 25th June, UKAFH attended a hunt at the ‘Mecca of palaeontology’; namely Lyme Regis in Dorset. Lyme Regis is where fossil collecting and palaeontology all began and where, in 1811, Joseph Anning, the older brother of Mary, dug up a skull of an ichthyosaur on the ledges on the beach. At the time, he thought it was a crocodile but the significant find was followed by Mary’s own discovery of the skeleton that accompanied the 4-foot long head and the rest is history, as they say! Mary Anning went on to become the world’s most famous fossil collector and the discoverer of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, fish and countless other fossils from this very location. She undoubtedly paved the way for this newly evolving science at the time.
Although nobody in the UKAFH party found anything as spectacular, the coastline at Lyme Regis certainly sets the scene for any fossil enthusiast. The constantly crumbling cliffs can reveal ammonites and other fossils on an almost daily basis. This, of course, has its drawbacks also because during the summer months, hundreds of thousands of people flock to the Jurassic Coast, especially to Lyme Regis and the neighbouring Charmouth, to chance their arm at finding a fossil. Consequently, with low erosion rates, particularly during the summer and with every man and his dog combing the beaches, it’s never an ideal time. Undaunted however, our party made the most of dry weather and great scenery.
As is usual, we began with a short explanation about the geology and what could be found there. To the west of the Cobb at Lyme Regis is Monmouth Beach and here the famous rocks of the Blue Lias Formation can be seen, extending west to Pinhay Bay. The distinctive cliffs of layered limestone and shale is present, particularly at Ware Cliffs. The rocks are the oldest in the sequence of rocks found along the Jurassic Coast and date from around 199 million years ago. These hard, pale layers of limestone and darker organic-rich shales, also occupy much of the foreshore around Lyme Regis, appearing as a series of ledges on the foreshore at low-tide. The rocks gently dip towards the east and the overlying Shales-with-Beef Member and the Black Ven Marl Member (both from the Charmouth Mudstone Formation) eventually reach beach level, beneath Black Ven and East Beach at Charmouth.
Looking for fossils in the cliffs at this location is both dangerous and pointless. The rocks are under constant attack by the sea and the fossils are washed out of the clays and shales and deposited on the foreshore, between the rocks and boulders on the beach and ledges. Searching in these places is far more productive and members of the party were encouraged to do just that and soon some finds were found. As explained, there is a low frequency of fossils during the peak season and specimens that were picked up were in no way spectacular but they, nonetheless, were representative of the myriad of life forms which were present in Jurassic seas; for this is where Lyme Regis was once located. Then, the current Dorset coast was enjoying a climate similar to the current coast of North Africa and the nearest land mass lie many miles away. Consequently, fossils are mostly of marine origin, despite them being from the time of the dinosaurs. Dinosaur remains and vegetation are rare as fossils at Lyme Regis and such fossils are invariably of those organisms that were swept into the sea, from the nearest land, only to sink into the muds and silts of the ocean floor. However, bones and teeth of marine reptiles, such as ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and pliosaurs are common finds but not during our hunt, alas!
As with most hunts at coastal locations, the best time is to coincide with a falling tide, which is exactly what we did. The walk along Monmouth Beach, traversing rocks and boulders, searching for fossils can be quite arduous and we soon reached the spectacular ‘ammonite pavement, very near to our destination at Pinhay Bay, just as the tide retreated fully. This incredible stretch of foreshore accommodates dozens, perhaps even hundreds of large ammonites among the boulders and in situ on the exposed bedrock. These particular ammonites cannot be collected but their enormous size and abundance makes them worth seeing all the same.
On the way, members of the party found a number of ammonite fragments and in the case of Rebecca Walsh, a complete ammonite. UKAFH Leader Lizzie Hingley found a nodule, which looked quite promising until it was expertly cracked open, to reveal a highly an ammonite badly preserved in calcite within! However, she did find a nicely preserved Gryphaea (an oyster) and a large bivalve from the slumped Upper Greensand boulders found nearer to Pinhay Bay. Serpulids (worms), belemnite fragments, gastropods and various bivalves were also found by the party, so despite the finds being unspectacular and few everyone thoroughly enjoyed a sunny (yes, the sun finally came out!) and informative day, on the stunning Jurassic Coast of Dorset. Many thanks to all who attended and made this a very enjoyable event.
Please note that the site is given SSSI status, as part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, so the cliffs themselves are not to be hammered into.