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Roger's blog appears regularly in the Scarborough Review. Read his archive of posts here


Endless winter? April 2018

You won’t need me to tell you that the roads have taken a bit of a battering from the wintry weather. Layers of tarmac stripped off, potholes everywhere and drains bursting with meltwater. All that from just a week of snow, ice and freezing winds.

Now just imagine that week of weather lasting a year, or maybe a decade; or how about 100,000 years. That’s how long the last ice age lasted. In just a week the weather gave us a mini-demonstration of how something as apparently feeble as water and wind can, when it’s cold enough, chew up hard stone and throw it around like matchwood. This gives us just a small taste of what happened in the earth’s recent past.

The evidence of those 100,000 years is all around us. Those piles of gravel scoured off the roads are small versions of the huge gravel pits all across the region – best seen at Burton Riggs nature reserve off the A64. The piles of mud and silt that are blocking drains are miniature versions of the fans of debris washed out of glacial channels like Forge Valley and Newtondale.

This month we’ve been seeing geology in action as solid rock and stone is recycled into gravel, mud, silt and sand before being laid down and solidified all over again. It’s a process that goes on along the coast all the time as the sea wears away at the land, and piles up sand and pebbles on our beaches in return. Now we’ve seen the same powerful forces at work inland.

It’s all been going on for a long, long time. Geology students can all quote James Hutton, the founding father of geology, who said that the earth’s cycle of uplift and erosion had ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’. Thankfully that’s not quite true of the Yorkshire winter – even if it feels like it.

Spring is on the way and we can forget about winter until . . . next year.


Rain and rocks March 2018

Everyone knows there are just two kinds of weather in Yorkshire; it’s either ‘a grand day’ or, more likely, ‘a rum day’. The British love to talk about the weather because we’re all in it together, but if you live out in the countryside you’re often in it more than you want to be. This winter seems to be particularly wet – no major floods but the fields are all fairly sodden, with pasture and arable land severely in need of a good dry spell.

When I give talks about local rocks and landscapes, and how they work together, I usually end up talking about water. All that rain has to go somewhere and the presence of becks, rivers and springs has dictated where we put our houses, villages and towns throughout human history. And watercourses depend, to a large degree, on the underlying geology. That’s true along the Yorkshire coast but with an added twist.

Regular readers will know that the last ice age brought massive ice sheets across the North Sea and over the strip of low-lying land along the coast. When the ice melted around 11,500 years ago it left a thick layer of mud stretching from Saltburn down to Filey Bay, and from Bridlington to Spurn Point. This mud effectively blocked the local rivers from draining to the sea, and sent them on new courses inland.

But over the last few thousand years streams have started to carve routes out of the soft glacial mud making new ways to the sea. Because they are so new the gullies they cut tend to be steep and narrow. Villages along the coast were built where there is access to the sea, plus shelter and fresh water, so these steep wet gulleys were ideal. Runswick, Staithes, Robin Hood’s Bay and even Whitby are all tucked into recent river valleys. People flock to experience the atmosphere of these picturesque villages – it’s yet another way in which geology has contributed to the beauty of the Yorkshire coast.

Lumpers and Splitters  February 2018

You will all remember from Gulliver’s Travels the rival tribes of Big-Enders and Little-Enders, fiercely divided by the way in which they opened their boiled eggs.

In the fossil world we have the equivalent groups, known to us as ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’. In this case it’s all to do with how many species a researcher manages to identify. Let me explain.

Say you were given a pile of beautiful ammonite fossils and asked to divide them into groups. You might separate them out by size, whether the coils overlap, the curve or otherwise of the ribs and whether they divide, the presence or absence of a protruding keel, etc, etc. Now comes the tricky part. What if you were then asked how many different species you have in front of you? Bear in mind that members of a species can reproduce with each other but not with individuals from another species, something that’s impossible to check with dead animal groups.

So, are all the differences you’ve identified signs of different species – or are some just variations within a species? If you are a splitter you will say they are all different species, a lumper will declare for as few species as possible. The difference matters crucially because the presence of particular species is used as an indicator of age, environment, ancient geographical position among other things.

The most famous splitter in these parts was SS Buckman whose work on Yorkshire Type Ammonites extended to seven volumes published over a period of 21 years. It is often whispered in fossil circles that the reason for Buckman’s long-windedness was that he was paid a fee for every new species he identified. But that could be just a rumour put about by the lumpers. To split or to lump – the fight goes on!


Lucky Skunks January 2018

For those of us who live here the Yorkshire coast is, of course, the centre of the universe. But we are slightly removed from the country’s main arteries of trade and commerce. To me that’s a plus. I look on the coast, the North York Moors, the Vale of Pickering and the Wolds as a distinct part of the world, separated by geography (and of course geology) from the rest. I think of this as my home patch – the place where I feel comfortable. Conversely I feel a bit like a Scarborough Woof out of water once I get anywhere near Thirsk or Hull not to mention the teeming streets of York or the giddy lights of Leeds.

So it comes as a pleasant surprise to find that a lot of other people, from all over the country, similarly hold the Yorkshire coast to be a very special place. I discovered this during a recent trip to Dublin. I was there for a conference of geology museum curators, though my real mission was to seek out some giant reptiles from the Yorkshire coast – more on that another time. Around 60 folk from prestigious places ranging from the national museums of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, to Oxford University Museum and the tiny Horniman Museum in south London were all gathered to hear talks, chew the fat and sink some Guinness.

During the two days a string of people came up to me (I was wearing my Whitby Museum badge) to tell me how much they loved the museum and the Yorkshire coast. Everyone there had spent time on this coast and remained in awe of its beauty and its geology. Because, while some people might think we’re a bit off the beaten track, for geologists we are the luckiest skunks on the planet, living in one of the most beautiful and interesting places anywhere.

Of course we all know that, but it’s nice to have your beliefs confirmed. So when you’re looking for a way to shed the seasonal excess, get out into the countryside and appreciate just how lucky you are.


All is chalk December 2017

To Bridlington this month to give a talk to the venerable society of Augustinians. It always pays to do your research before you get up to address an audience, so I spent some time looking up the geology of Brid, in particular the effects of ice.

Around 3 million years ago the coastline south of Flamborough was quite different from today. The coast ran in a line west from Flamborough past Sewerby – as it does now – but went inland for 30 to 40 kilometres before running south to meet the Humber west of Hull. The line of the old coast shows up in an escarpment that runs in a long arc along the edge the Wolds.

In the last 3 million years 4 successive glaciations have brought huge quantities of boulder clay onto the Yorkshire coast. The bay south of Flamborough was filled with till, pushing the coastline out into the North Sea. By the time the last ice sheet melted away, around 12,000 years ago, the land of Holderness was at its furthest extent. Since then the sea has rapidly eaten away at the glacial mud, bringing the coast further and further west.

The earliest records date from Roman times when the coast was around 20 kilometres further east than today. More recently villages established along the coast have been eaten up by the sea. More than 30 named villages have disappeared from Wilsthorpe in the north to Ravenspurn in the south.

While this is worrying for coastal dwellers, it does mean that rocks and fossils are continually washed out of the mud onto the beaches of Bridlington Bay. Much of this material comes from Scandinavia and Scotland, but there are also remains of ice age animals buried in the till. Not only that, Jurassic material is washed down the coast by longshore drift, so Whitby ammonites can be picked up on the beach at Spurn head.

Coastal erosion is a fact of nature but remains a problem for some; as one Holderness local put it succinctly: ‘You rive all your life and your farm falls in the sea.’

Looking for fossils November 2017

One fine morning earlier this month I found myself on the slipway at Robin Hood’s Bay. I was there to help Will Watts of Hidden Horizons with a large school trip. Will was to take one half of the group of rockpooling for an hour, while I led a fossil hunting session, then we’d swap. So there we were at 9:30 am, marveling at the warm weather and the serene tranquility of the bay at low tide. There was hardly a better place to be in all the world.

Suddenly the calm of the bay was broken by the arrival of our party of 50 revved up 10-year-olds, all desperate to find something exciting on the beach. After a brief intro we headed south along the scar. On every fossil walk this is the most anxious and exciting bit because each walk is different. Every day the tide comes in twice and pushes the rocks and pebbles around. Occasionally it does more than that – it shifts vast quantities of sand and rock, burying some areas of the beach and exposing others; it washes debris onto the scar, rips lumps out of the cliffs and scours the beach. Going to the coast after a big storm is like entering a house after a teenage party – stuff lying everywhere with the guilty party sleeping gently just nearby.

So this could be the trip where all the fossils are buried under sand, where all the pebbles have gone, where the scar is just blank rock. Fortunately it never happens like that. Sometimes you see oodles of fossils straightaway, often it takes a few minutes for everyone to get their eye in. But then, almost miraculously, the fossils start to appear – crinoids and bivalves most commonly, then come the corals and the ammonites, the gastropods and the belemnites.

And every trip I tell myself not to worry, there will be fossils, and there always are. But a bit of nervous anticipation adds to the thrill of discovery – don’t you think?


What is the Dogger? October 2017

What is the question I get asked most often when I give talks on local geology? Any guesses? Perhaps: ‘Why are there fossil seashells on the tops of hills?’ or ‘Does fracking pollute underground water?’ or ‘Is Whitby jet only found in Whitby?’ Well, I get all these but the runaway winner is ‘What does Dogger mean, and is it the same as Dogger Bank?’

This comes up because the Dogger is a crucial marker bed along most of the Yorkshire coast – so I mention it a lot in my talks. What do I mean by ‘marker bed’? There’s no strict definition but the Dogger is a thin (from 1 to 12 metres thick) layer of very distinctive rock that marks the boundary between the Lower and Middle Jurassic strata. It is visible along the coast from just north of Runswick Bay, south as far as Saltwick.

All the dales in the North York Moors are cut through a layer of hard Middle Jurassic sand and gritstone into the soft shales of the Lower Jurassic beneath. This change shows up brilliantly in every dale from Westerdale to Glaisdale and Bilsdale to Farndale. Why? Because the Middle Jurassic rock is infertile and is therefore covered in heather moorland, while the Lower Jurassic supports pasture. And the Dogger marks the boundary, visible as a straight line between moorland and green pasture.

The Dogger is rich in iron, particularly at Rosedale where it was heavily mined on both sides of the dale. Look closely and you’ll see how the old mine workings are at the boundary between moorland and fields.

So what does Dogger mean? It seems that Dogger Bank is named after the Dutch name for a two-masted cod-fishing boat, while ‘dogger’ is a general English word for, well, a lump. So because our marker bed is full of lumps it is called the Dogger.


Museums of wonder September 2017

Here on the Yorkshire coast we are lucky to have two of the finest geological museums in the country: Whitby Museum in Pannett Park and Scarborough’s very own Rotunda. The Rotunda has been celebrating the anniversary of its re-opening in 2008 – that historic event saw the museum going back to its original purpose as a museum of geology. I was asked to give a talk about all this at the Rotunda, and it set me thinking about what museums are for, and how they have changed over the last 200 years or so.

When the Rotunda was built in 1829 museums had a clear purpose – they were to show the public the latest innovations. These were often mixed in with some objects from ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome, but this was a time of rediscovery of the classical world, so these too were at the cutting edge of knowledge. The Rotunda is a prime example, showing off William Smith’s revolutionary discovery that different rock strata each hold different groups of fossils – and that these fossils are unique identifiers of the rocks. Museums were used for research (the Rotunda had a laboratory in the basement) and science teaching.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 showed British ingenuity to the world and more and more museums continued this theme. The culmination of the heroic age of museums was the opening of the Natural History Museum in London in 1881. The building covered five acres and was built to hold samples of everything that nature could offer.

But by then museums were being overtaken by events. A plethora of discoveries showed that it was simply impossible to contain everything in one building, and gigantic museums were just exhausting for visitors. More seriously research and education moved to schools and hospitals leaving museums as dull spaces without a real purpose beyond preserving the past.

In the last 30 years or so this began to change as museum curators started to understand how to attract, entrance and amaze their visitors. The best have used the hidden riches in their collections to create great experiences for visitors. The Rotunda and Whitby Musuem are now magical places, full of objects of wonder. Go see them while you can.


Cayton Bay is paradise August 2017

The holiday season is upon us. For some it’s a time to relax but if you’re in the tourism business then summer means hard work. That’s not such a problem when work means more time out in the open air on the glorious Yorkshire coast. As soon as the Scottish schools broke up Hidden Horizons started their programme of fossil walks, rock-pooling, forest schools, astronomy and a host of other activities.

So last week I found myself at Cayton Bay with families from Kelso, Perth and Stirling all eager to find fossils. To be fair it didn’t look like a great evening out. When I left home at 5:30 pm there was a light drizzle which, by the time we met up at Cayton, had turned heavy and dreek. Undeterred we walked to the bay and – guess what – the rain stopped and, when we looked around, there was no-one else on the beach. A beautiful vast expanse of sand and pebbles all to ourselves – what a great feeling.

Once we got to work on a bank of pebbles we were soon finding fossil corals, crinoids and bivalves (ie mussel, clam and oyster shells). One fossil that’s often overlooked is the bullet-shaped belemnite. The fossil is the remains of the guard, the internal bony part of a squid-like animal. We found several at Cayton Bay. One in particular still had the phragmocone attached; this is the cone-shaped chamber at the blunt end of the bullet-shape. The creature lived within the phragmocone with its long tentacles extending outwards.

While they all have roughly the same form, belemnites come in a huge variety of sizes with slightly different shapes – long and thin, short and wide, slightly waisted, sharp ended and blunt ended. This matters hugely to specialists who use belemnites to age rocks, but for the beach walker it’s fun to spot the differences.

For information about summer fossil hunts visit: www.hiddenhorizons.co.uk


Rocks in the rain July 2017

I’ve been out and about this month taking photos. While most people like to snap a good view or a nice sunset, with me it’s rocks. This can lead to some strange moments. A man walking his dog near Allerston stopped to watch me pointing my tripod and camera at a stone wall. ‘Grand day,’ he said, but he probably meant ‘What on earth are you doing?’

Last week there was a lovely forecast for the evening hours, so I set off for Sutton Bank with a boot full of camera, a banana for my tea, and a head full of optimism. Just past Helmsley a bank of grey cloud started to fill the western horizon. ‘Where’s that come from?’ I wondered and I wasn’t the only one. Several farmers were out turning an early hay cut, looking to the skies and scratching their heads.

Undeterred I ploughed on. I parked near a spot called Dialstone, loaded up and walked up to the Cleveland Way at Boltby. The sudden view across the Vale of York was spectacular. Here you’re standing on the top of the Middle Jurassic looking down to Triassic rocks on the valley floor 110 feet below. The escarpment below was gouged by massive ice sheets travelling south, gouging and ripping through the rocks and leaving a great inland cliff.

Unfortunately the bank of grey cloud was turning nasty – I watched the rain over Thirsk and cursed the BBC Weather website – the whole of England was supposed to be dry. I figured I had around half an hour. I turned north along the clifftop for a few hundred yards then ducked down into Boltby quarry, where layers of Middle Jurassic grit are exposed. I just had time to put up my tripod and get snapping when the first drops started to fall. I kept going until the lens started getting spotty, packed up and marched back towards the car. I soon discovered that the rain was being thrown horizontal by a strong wind; by the time I got back I was drenched.

Next day I downloaded the photos onto my computer expecting the worst, but surprise, surprise they were really rather lovely – if you like photos of wet rocks, which of course we all do.


Beadlam Rigg June 2017

Earlier this week I was wandering along a spot called Beadlam Rigg. There’s no reason why you should know it, but it’s another one of those breathtaking landscapes that decorate this part of the world. And, of course, it owes its beauty to the underlying geology.

A narrow road takes you three miles up a steady climb all the way from Beadlam village, just this side of Helmsley. The road winds through pasture and occasionally arable fields. This is the dip slope of the Tabular Hills, all Upper Jurassic rocks in layers of limestone and grit. The pastures are on the lime-based lower slopes. The road comes to an end, as all good things must, and then you walk up for a mile or so into a piece of forest. This forest runs all the way along the top of these hills, in a belt stretching from Scarborough to Helmsley. It is planted on a band of infertile rock known as the Lower Calcareous Grit (LCG). The forests are there because the grit isn’t good for crops or pasture – Broxa, Langdale, Wykeham, Dalby and Cropton Forests are all planted on the same layer of grit.

The hard grit forms a ridge on top of an escarpment that winds across the landscape like a drunken snake. The scarp here is called Rollgate Bank but the same slope has a hundred names, from Jacob’s Mount at Scarborough, to Crosscliff in Dalby Forest, Bluegate Hill at Gillamoor and Rievaulx Bank above Helmsley.

I walked through the belt of forest and there it was: a view north across Skiplam Moor towards Bransdale, east towards Rudland Rigg and Farndale and west to Helmsley Moor and Bilsdale. Standing on top of the Upper Jurassic ridge, peering down over the Middle Jurassic moors, I was looking back over 20 million years of earth history. Then quite suddenly the sun came out – and time stood still.

Ice and mud May 2017

Why did the Holbeck Hotel slide into the sea? Why aren’t there any rivers flowing to the sea between the Esk and the Humber? And why are the pebbles on our beaches full of rocks from Scotland and Scandinavia? One answer will cover the lot – ice. From around 100,000 to just 11,500 years ago northern Europe was gripped by freezing weather; in the coldest periods temperatures were between –20 and –30 degrees C. With each drop in temperature, ice sheets spread southwards from Scandinavia, Scotland and the Pennines, carving their way across the North Sea and the lands of northern Europe.

Once temperatures began to rise around 11,500 years ago millions of tons of mud and rubble, dragged along by the ice sheets, were dumped across this region. The ice sheets and glacial lakes contained vast quantities of water all of which melted, and most of which now lay trapped by banks of mud and boulder clay. The mud still lies in a huge strip along the coast and in other low-lying areas. Look carefully at the cliffs at Sandsend, Saltwick, Cayton Bay and you’ll see how red mud fills in old river valleys.

The layer of mud on the cliff tops produces a fertile strip of land but it has its dangers. Water soaks into the mud and washes it downwards, or forms a lubricating layer which can sending it sliding over the underlying rock. The Holbeck Hotel and the Knipe Point bungalows are some of the victims of this movement but you can see its effects everywhere.

An ice sheet pushed in from the sea into the flat area of the Vale of Pickering. This left a bank of mud at the eastern end that blocked the River Derwent – the result was a shallow lake. Take the train from Malton to York and you’ll spot the steep valley at Kirkham Abbey where the Derwent broke out of its glacial lake. After rising just 5 miles from the coast it takes over 130 miles to reach the sea via the Ouse and the Humber.

The effects of the ice are everywhere from the Mere to Newtondale to villages like Robin Hood’s Bay and Staithes.


Lateral thinking April 2017

Which do you prefer: stacks of bread and butter, or piles of books, or maybe even layers of sponge cake? I’ve used all of these and more to show how the rocks of the Yorkshire coast fit together. That’s what they are, just layers of rock – let’s call them strata – with the oldest at the bottom and the youngest at the top.

What makes this coast so brilliant for geologists is that each stratum of rock extends over great distances. This means you can trace a rock like the Dogger all the way along the coast from Runswick Bay to Ravenscar; the same Hambleton Oolite seen north of Helmsley forms the top of Oliver’s Mount 30 miles away.

And this stacking up of strata makes it easy to trace changes in conditions through time. If a bed of dark shale sits on top of a pale rock then you’re looking at a reduction in oxygen – due to a deepening of the sea or a change in its chemistry. This all works so well because most of the rocks were laid down on level sea floors that extended over miles in every direction – which in turn produces nice level and extensive strata.

But not all the rocks on the coast are like this. In the Middle Jurassic period this area changed from a deep sea to a vast delta – a coastal area with a shifting array of streams, sandbanks, forests and beaches. In contrast to the level, uniform seabed this was a varied and changing environment.

And so, not surprisingly, Middle Jurassic rocks vary from place to place. From Ravenscar to well south of Scarborough the cliffs and scars are a complex mix of river sandstones, beach deposits, shallow sea limestones and gritstones. The rock platforms show a fascinating series of features from the Jurassic delta. River channels, meander belts, even the shifting patterns of streams are preserved in fantastic detail.

The Yorkshire coast is a natural theme park for geologists, having variation from place to place as well as up and down the strata is just one more remarkable feature of this natural wonder.


The Innocent Eye March 2017

How do you spot something when you don’t know what you’re looking for? How do those brilliant people on TV manage to see signs of recent wildlife activity, or buried buildings, or ancient landscapes? How come you never find fossils when geologists like Roger Osborne tell you that they’re everywhere? Well, you’re not alone.

Every geologist’s favourite story about fieldwork concerns Charles Darwin, the most brilliant observer of the natural world who ever lived. In 1831, when he was 22, Darwin travelled to North Wales with his mentor Adam Sedgwick:

‘We spent many hours in Cwm Idal examining all the rocks with extreme care, as Sedgwick was anxious to find fossils in them.’ Wales was a key place for geologists investigating the Palaeozoic era but, as Darwin wrote later, there was something there that they both missed: ‘Neither of us saw a trace of the wonderful glacial phenomena all around us; we did not notice the plainly scored rocks, the perched boulders, and the lateral and terminal moraines. Yet these phenomena are so conspicuous that a house burnt down by fire could not tell its story more plainly than did this valley.’

So two of the most famous geologists in history did not see the history of the landscape right under their noses. They had an excuse: the idea that ice sheets had covered northern Europe in relatively recent times had not yet been suggested. Once the ice ages were proposed by Louis Agassiz in 1837 geologists began to see evidence for ice sheets everywhere – because now they knew what they were looking for.

This is a neat illustration of the impossibility of what philosophers call ‘the innocent eye’. Whatever we look at, whatever we experience, our vision is always guided by what we already know. Except in childhood, we never see anything with an innocent eye. The same landscape will look completely different once you know how it was formed; the same pebble becomes magical once you know it contains a 150 million-year-old ammonite. Learn a little geology and your world can, quite literally, be transformed.


Is it all for us?   February 2017

A touch of frost can reveal all kinds of hidden delights. A couple of weeks ago I spotted a spider’s web stretched across the outside of our kitchen window. Reaching from the top middle to the bottom corner of the frame, it measured around a metre in each direction. The moisture in the air had stuck to the web and frozen, and now the morning sunlight was turning it into a dazzling open tapestry of extraordinary delicacy.

My immediate thought: such an amazing piece of work was surely not made just to catch flies. Or was it? Are the drifts of mayflower that cover our hedges just there to attract bees? Is the thrill we get from seeing a humpback whale breaking surface, or a cloud of starlings making patterns in the sky just an accident of nature, a piece of human self-indulgence?

Our ancestors thought not. They believed that the world and all its creatures had been made for the pleasure and delight (as well as the cooking pots) of human beings. And it was this belief that caused a major crisis in human thought, brought on by the discovery of some extraordinary fossils.

In the early 1800s bones of enormous reptiles were being discovered all across Europe. A Frenchman called Georges Cuvier became famous for his skill in putting the bones together, and soon these giants were given the name ‘dinosaurs’. However, by this time Captain Cook and others had sailed to most corners of the world and they weren’t seeing dinosaurs anywhere! Nor were they seeing giant plesiosaurs, like the fossils from the alum quarries of the Yorkshire coast. And authoritative classical authors like Aristotle and Pliny didn’t mention these animals at all.

The logical conclusion was that these giants had lived on the earth in the distant past but had died out before humans (or at least educated humans) had appeared. This was hard to swallow and a movement called Scriptural Geology was formed to combat the idea. Things came to a head at the inaugural British Association meeting in York in 1831. The mayor George Hudson, the famous railway king, was asked by the Dean of York Minster to bar geologists from the meeting, prompting Hudson to declare that, after much thought ‘We’ve decided for Moses and the Dean!’ It was a short-lived victory for the scripturalists, and once Darwin showed that extinction was an essential part of evolution they melted away.

So, it seems that the world was not created for the delight of humans, and is quite able to rumble along without us being there to see it. But in another way the Scriptural Geologists have proved correct. It is, after all, human ingenuity that has unearthed the fossils of extinct creatures and re-imagined the worlds in which they flourished.

And all this we have done so that extinct creatures that died out millions of years before we existed can, after all this time, bring us pleasure and delight.

Experience the Joy   January 2017

Hot-foot this month from a tourism seminar. You probably know the kind of thing: arrive for coffee at 9:30 and spend the day feeling your backside going numb while a series of people try to keep awake with Powerpoint. Except this was quite different. A fascinating look at how people these days are more interested in experiences than possessions [OK not everyone] and want the same on their holidays.

So the trend-setting tourist of today and tomorrow wants stuff to do and to remember. And so do we all. Try this test: Do you want to lie on a sunbed reading Jeffrey Archer and turning into a cooked lobster, or would you rather go out on a boat from Staithes and catch a lobster to bring back for your tea? Do you fancy a pub where the staff wear uniforms and name badges and the beer is OK; or one where the landlady owns the place, greets you by name, serves fantastic beer brewed in Scarborough, and wants to know what you think of it?

What’s all this got to do with rocks and fossils? Well it so happens that the Yorkshire coast is teeming with ready-made experiences thanks to our landscape, which means our geology, plus we have the best fossils. If you want things to remember on holiday then finding your own fossils is right up there – it doesn’t get much more real than holding a Jurassic creature in the palm of your hand, after all this guy was alive around 180 million years ago. As one of the speakers pointed out: put a photo of your new sofa on Facebook and no-one’s impressed, but post a pic of little Louise with a socking great ammonite she’s just found at Cayton Bay and world flips over.

Thankfully the world is beginning to take notice and more and more people are coming to our coast in search of real experiences – those of us who live here can have them all year round.


Experience the Joy   December 2016

Hot-foot this month from a tourism seminar. You probably know the kind of thing: arrive for coffee at 9:30 and spend the day feeling your backside going numb while a series of people try to keep awake with Powerpoint. Except this was quite different. A fascinating look at how people these days are more interested in experiences than possessions [OK not everyone] and want the same on their holidays.

So the trend-setting tourist of today and tomorrow wants stuff to do and to remember. And so do we all. Try this test: Do you want to lie on a sunbed reading Jeffrey Archer and turning into a cooked lobster, or would you rather go out on a boat from Staithes and catch a lobster to bring back for your tea? Do you fancy a pub where the staff wear uniforms and name badges and the beer is OK; or one where the landlady owns the place, greets you by name, serves fantastic beer brewed in Scarborough, and wants to know what you think of it?

What’s all this got to do with rocks and fossils? Well it so happens that the Yorkshire coast is teeming with ready-made experiences thanks to our landscape, which means our geology, plus we have the best fossils. If you want things to remember on holiday then finding your own fossils is right up there – it doesn’t get much more real than holding a Jurassic creature in the palm of your hand, after all this guy was alive around 180 million years ago. As one of the speakers pointed out: put a photo of your new sofa on Facebook and no-one’s impressed, but post a pic of little Louise with a socking great ammonite she’s just found at Cayton Bay and world flips over.

Thankfully the world is beginning to take notice and more and more people are coming to our coast in search of real experiences – those of us who live here can have them all year round.


The York Pineapple   November 2016

How would you celebrate making one of the most important discoveries in scientific history? Maybe you’d jump out of your bath shouting Eureka, or perhaps open a bottle of champagne, or quaff a few pints of Yorkshire ale. In 1794 William Smith – the man behind Scarborough’s famous Rotunda Museum – chose instead to eat a pineapple. And here’s why.

Smith was a surveyor working for a canal-building company in Somerset and the Midlands. He was in demand for his skills in recognizing different types of rock, including knowing where to dig for coal. In 1794 he travelled with two colleagues across the midlands and through Yorkshire to learn new surveying and engineering techniques. But Smith was also developing ideas about the types of rock he was seeing. Up until then it seemed that different rocks occurred across the country in more or less random fashion – to know what was under you feet you had to dig, and keep digging. This made finding coal or iron ore a haphazard business.

But in his travels Smith began to notice that rocks occurred in a regular pattern across England. To the north and west were old sandstones, then going south there were limestones and coal measures together, followed by red sandstones and marls, eventually succeeded by chalk. This, he realised, was because the beds were all dipping to the south and east bringing younger rocks to the surface in great arcs sweeping across the country.

Smith had seen this pattern in southern England but his trip to the north was a chance to see if it was universal. Arriving at York Smith climbed to the top of York Minster tower with his companions and looked southeastwards. There he saw the round green hills of the Yorkshire Wolds – an unmistakably chalk landscape. His theory was right – and from that day on the study of rocks stopped being guesswork and became a science.

Smith and his companions repaired to the Black Swan in Coney Street to mark the event. They chose an exotic fruit then grown in hothouses by English aristocrats – the birth of a new science celebrated with a pineapple!


Jurassic Messages  October 2016

About ten years ago a friend came to visit with her children. Her son, aged about ten, started to rummage through the pile of fossils outside our back door. He picked up a big piece of rock stuffed full of lovely rhynchonellids – fossil brachiopods common in Jurassic rocks. I told him I’d found it in a field nearby and prattled on for a while about the wonders of fossils. But I could see there was something bothering him. Eventually he came out with a question: ‘How come there are seashells in that rock when we’re nowhere near the sea?’ (You need to know that I live nine miles from the coast.) I pushed the question back at him: ‘What do you think?’ He turned the question over once in his mind and then said ‘Is it because this field used to be covered by the sea?’

He was right of course and our 30-second conversation effectively covered the first 3,000 years of human thinking about fossils. In fact his question was an echo of Leonardo da Vinci, writing in 1508: ‘Why do we find the bones of great fishes and oysters and corals and various other shells and sea-snails on the high summits of mountains?’

In ancient times Chinese sages wondered if fossils found in mountains were birds that had been trapped and turned to stone, while fossil bones and teeth were surely evidence of dragons. But some Chinese writers argued that every so often the world went through huge changes, in which areas of land became sea. European Renaissance scholars found this hard to believe and preferred the idea that fossils were some sort of practice creations or signs from God that we needed to interpret.

Now we accept the startling truth that the earth is continually changing, and that we live in what is just the latest in a succession of worlds. So the fossils that we find on the Yorkshire coast are messengers from those other worlds bringing news of events from 180 million years ago. It’s one way of keeping up to date.


Treasure from Europe  September 2016

We all love our visitors but for the good citizens of Scarborough autumn comes as a bit of a relief. No more traffic queues (we live in hope) and miles of lovely empty beaches. This summer we have been taking people of every age, size and type out to the beaches looking for fossils, now there’s space for everyone to have a look. Mooching through banks of pebbles soon brings bucket-loads of fossil corals, oysters, mussels, ammonites, gastropods and belemnites. They’re all there – you just need to know what to look for. Most of these fossils are from the Jurassic rocks of the coast. But the Yorkshire coast has other treasures to offer.

Yorkshire’s Jurassic rocks are from 200 to 150 million years old, but in the last couple of million years ice sheets have moved south over this area bringing mud, rocks and pebbles from across northern Europe. When the ice melted all this debris was left behind – a swathe of glacial mud covers the coast in a wide strip reaching from north of Staithes down to Flamborough.

The mud is regularly washed onto the beaches by rain from above and waves from below; the mud gets dissolved and the rocks and pebbles get left behind. So we end up with a dazzling variety of pebbles from all over northern Europe: granites and gneisses from the Lake District and Scotland; reef corals from the Pennines; porphyry and volcanics from Scandinavia, as well as semi-precious carnelians and garnets.

The ice sheets brought big boulders as well, known as glacial erratics. There’s one at the corner of Valley Road and Royal Avenue, and another at Crossgates. So next time you’re on the beach at Cayton Bay or Filey or Reighton Gap have a good look at the pebbles – you’ll find local fossils but also exotic stones from across northern Europe. For a guide to pebbles on this coast see our Beach Finds on the Yorkshire Coast, available from the Bookshelf on Victoria Road and from Woodend Workspace.


Lunch, interrupted August 2016

How would you feel if, around 150 million years from now, someone discovered your half-eaten dinner and put it on display in a museum? Keep hold of that thought while we found out how geology can capture moments as well as eons.

A couple of years ago Whitby Museum had a major reorganization that included a brand new store for its 6,000 or so fossils. (You should know that this collection, which began in the 1820s, is of world scientific importance – when geology was being created as a science Whitby and Scarborough were leading centres and their collections remain irreplaceable.) As the voluntary curator it fell to me to arrange the collection in its shiny new cabinets.

I soon realised that I needed some expert help. A few weeks later I sat down with Peter Robinson who has been collecting and cataloguing ammonites on the Yorkshire coast since the 1950s. Together with Alan Staniforth and Steve Livera we spent a several days working our way through the Whitby ammonite collection, with Peter putting species names to every specimen. On the morning of the second day he held up a beautiful ammonite and pointed to a curved section missing from its shell. ‘Evidence of predation’ he said. ‘What does that mean?’ said I. It turned out that this was a bite mark in the ammonite shell, probably from a passing ichthyosaur looking for a quick snack. This then was an event that lasted no more than a few seconds, and has preserved for around 160 million years – the fossilized leftovers of an ichthyosaur’s lunch.

A few weeks later at Cloughton Wyke, Steve Livera pointed out a bed of crevasse splay sandstone in the cliff. This two-metre thick bed was created by a flash flood spilling sand and silt out of a stream and covering the surrounding flood plain. It took just a few hours to create and is still there millions of years later. Another instant in time made timeless.

The most magical evidence of brief events preserved for eons is the multitude of dinosaur footprints found along the coast – the slightest moment in time captured and preserved. Geology looks at millions of years of earth’s history, but time is made up of moments and when we see the record of a single moment from so very long ago then we surely must experience a deep sense of wonder.


Yorkshire Time Travel  July 2016

Let’s face it folks, the Yorkshire coast is the best place in the world for quite a few things. The best fish and chips, the best weather, the best sandcastles and, beyond doubt, the best rocks and fossils. Due to a quite wonderful quirk of nature (the earth was obviously designed by a Yorkshire woman) the rocks of the coast slope gently southwards, so that in a 70-mile stroll from Saltburn to Flamborough it is possible to take in 120 million years of earth history. Yes, time travel is here already.

Not only that, but those 120 million years cover the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods – the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and when the seas were home to giant ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, ammonites and coral reefs.

If that wasn’t enough the changing conditions during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods are reflected in the rocks and fossils along this beautiful coast. So, in the north around Staithes, Whitby and Saltwick there are deep-sea creatures preserved in dark shales; around Scalby Mills and Scarborough there are plant fossil and footprints left by dinosaurs in mudbanks. Further south we’re back to fossil sea creatures like ammonites, gastropods and corals.

Add in the contrast between towering cliffs and sandy bays, and the fascinating remains of the alum, jet and iron industries and you have what amounts to a natural geological theme park.

Lots of people – visitors and residents – are waking up to the natural treasures on their doorstep and the Yorkshire coast is getting more widely known for its rocks and fossils. I know because I’ve been drafted in to help cope with the huge demand for fossil trips with Hidden Horizons. We always find lots of fascinating remains and it sure beats sitting at home. So don’t miss out, get to the website and start doing some Yorkshire time travel.

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