Fossil hunter’s guide to the Yorkshire coast

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Samuel McKie, with Tilly Dalglish (UK)

The stretch of coast from Speeton to Holderness is often forgotten by tourists and fossil collectors alike; certainly compared with places such as Whitby or destinations along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. However, the shore of the East Riding has many beautiful sights and a rich history. From Viking settlements to eighteenth century sea battles, and Neolithic standing stones to Victorian seabird hunting, there is evidence here of humans fighting, farming, hunting and praying spanning many thousands of years.

Fig. 1. Flamborough sponge bed at Sewerby Cliffs.

But the stones of the shore tell a far older story. The coast starts chronologically at Speeton sands, where the Jurassic sandstones found at Whitby, Ravenscar, Scarborough and Filey end with a small Kimmeridge Clay exposure, before giving way to the Cretaceous strata of Flamborough Head. This small peninsular confronts the North Sea around 30km north of the Humber’s Spurn Point. Following the coast southward, exposures from almost the entire Cretaceous period are present (120 to 70Ma old). After this, the glaciation till (or boulder clay) smothers the land from Bridlington southwards.

Fig. 2. Map of Flamborough Head and geological features.

Flamborough has a rich variety of wildlife: orchids flower and seabirds nest on the chalky cliffs in summer, while seals and porpoises shelter in the bay in the winter months. This is recognised at an international level by the site of special scientific interest (SSSI) designation, which prohibits damage to the habitats. The RSPB and The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust also have centres here, which are well worth a visit if you have time, in between hunting for fossils and admiring the geology.

Fig. 3. The northern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella) overlooking North Landing Bay.

During the Jurassic and Cretaceous, this part of England formed a shallow sea, close to an archipelago of islands, just like the sites further up the coast at Whitby. None of the locations bear specimens as plentiful or as dramatic as sites such as Lyme Regis, but there are some fossil beds of national importance.

Fig. 4 Speeton Sands looking towards Bempton Cliffs B beds on the far right.

The most notable site is Speeton Sands, a mudstone deposit from around 140 to 100Ma. Very large numbers of belemnites and ammonites are easy to find but, more impressively, ichthyosaur vertebrae, sharks’ teeth and reptile remains are also, on occasion, washed from the cliffs. The site is famed for its exclusive Speeton shrimp (Meyeria ornate), although other arthropod fossils, including lobsters and crabs, can be larger and more impressive finds. Some of the most common finds are Hibolithes belemnites (Fig. 5) and pyrite ammonites, such as Noricus (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5. Hibolithes belemnite from the C beds at Speeton.
Fig. 6. A Noricus ammonite from the C beds at Speeton.

The Flamborough sponge bed is also of national importance. It is thought to be the most productive of its type in the country and specimens have been displayed in the Natural History Museum in London. Fossils are found throughout the chalk headland. However, southwards from Flamborough lighthouse, the cliffs bear more numerous and diverse finds – including sponges, such as Siphonia and Ventriculites – especially as you approach Sewerby. The sheer size of some of the sponge specimens is impressive.

Some, such as the club-like, Siphonia, are close to a half a metre long, while others, such as the mushroom-like Seliscothon (Fig 7), are well over 3kg in weight. Belemnites and bivalves are also common, the small brown Gonioteuthis is often seen in pebbles on the shore, and imprints of the oyster-like Inoceramus range from centimetres to almost a metre in diameter.

Fig. 7. A large Seliscothon fossil.

There are other interesting geological sites along the coast. The Holderness Clays create a large flat fertile stretch of land from Bridlington to Beverley and Spurn Point. In the last period of glaciation (ending around 10,000 years ago), ice marched down from the pole, scouring the land and depositing these tills, which contain erratics from northern exposures, including Carboniferous corals and Jurassic Gryphaea.

The erratics from these short brown cliffs vary dramatically, with Jurassic ammonites at Mappleton and, further south at Speeton, even a clay exposure. Interestingly, where the tills meet the chalk, a buried cliff can be found, from the Ipswichian/Eemian period (a previous interglacial period.). Fossils from here include oyster shells and allegedly hippo bones.

There have been relatively few major finds, although sometimes mammoth teeth and tusks, as well as elk teeth, are washed ashore from the North Sea, where once the animals of Doggerland flourished. Slightly inland at Rudston is a Neolithic standing stone, which is well worth a visit – the rock, originally from Cayton North Yorkshire, seems to present fossilised dinosaur foot prints.

All in all – despite a general lack of dinosaurs – the coast offers a good range of fossils to find, whether that be by chiselling out chalk sponges or by scouring Speeton for the numerous species of belemnite to be found here. The many beautiful chalk bays, open sandy beaches and numerous wildlife sites make fossil hunting even more enjoyable.

The sites have varying degrees of protection, including restrictions on collecting, so it’s best to check before taking a hammer and chisel. However, whether you visit to add to your collection or admire the geology, the coast of southeast Yorkshire has so much to offer – its beauty, its history and its scientific significance are things you definitely don’t want to miss out on.

The author has written a book on collecting fossils on the Yorkshire coast – A Fossil Guide to The East Yorkshire Coast (2nd ed).

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