The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 4 – the locations close to Whitby where they can be found
Dr Trevor Watts (UK)
In the first part of this article, I discussed the Middle Jurassic environment in the region of Whitby, on the northeast coast of England at the time when dinosaurs roamed there. In Part 2 (see The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 2 – problems matching footprints to dinosaurs), I looked at how the footprints were formed and preserved, and at the problems in identifying and classifying them. And in Part 3 (see The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 3 – a brief look at the six footprint groupings), I discussed the six major forms of footprints to be found in the area. In this fourth and final part, I will describe each of the four locations close to Whitby, and hope to give an idea of what footprints are there to be searched for.
1. East Cliff Beach
Even on a much-visited beach such as East Cliff in Whitby, dinosaur footprints can be found without a lot of difficulty. This is a variable beach with ever-changing areas of rock platform, masses of sand and boulder fields, punctuated by frequent cliff falls and slumps. Every summer weekend, it is home to hundreds of curious fossil-searching families. It is very easily accessible down a slippery concrete ramp during the lower half of the tide each day.
Over the years, my wife, Chris, and I have found many dozens of fallen blocks with footprints on them along this beach. As well as sauropods and ornithopods, scratch prints can frequently be found here, although it seems as though they appear and vanish from one week to the next. Chris and I have taken careful note of their position and photographed huge (two-metre) blocks covered in scratch prints, only to be unable to locate them a week or two later – moved by the waves or buried by cliff-falls, or by great tide-transported masses of sand and pebbles. East Cliff Beach seems to change its characteristics regularly, from being deep in sand, to heaps of rounded boulders, to a bare rock platform, all within a few tides.
East Cliff comprises a high, mostly vertical, cliff (almost 57m) with four minor headlands and a bay (or bight) between each (there are five such bights). The first little bay, just off the slipway, is appropriately called First Bight. The line of imported igneous and metamorphic rocks makes it an inauspicious beginning to the exploration of East Cliff Beach. However, among the boulders and sandy patches are many small washed-up local stones, some with footprints. It is often necessary to wait here for the tide to clear the first point about 35m away, so it’s a good opportunity to look around an unpromising-looking fragment of beach.
One morning in May 2015, Chris found six small ornithopod, stegosaur and theropod footprints in First Bight. I enhanced their appearance with a little with a touch of plain water or washed-out charcoal, and photographed them in situ – all within half an hour, as we waited for the tide to drop away from the first headland. This little bight holds much more promise than first appears.
After First Bight, the next small bay eastwards is Gravel Bight. It tends to be very productive, with a variety of footprints among new falls and washed-up worn stones for almost 180m. Beyond this, Long Bight has produced some excellent newly-fallen boulders, with large ornithopod and sauropod prints. However, the productivity is the result of cliff falls, which are frequent and dangerous. In early 2015, there was a fall of about two tons, which landed not 20m away from us, sending rocks scattering all around (see Fig. 15 in Part 1).
There are also slabs of varying sizes that display stegosaur prints and, almost always, there are scratch prints to be seen in abundance. These are footprints in which the claws made a long scratch mark, with or without the heel or ball of the toes making any impression. At the base of the cliff, a dull red sideritic ironstone layer forms a ramp at the point between Long Bight and Rail Hole Bight, rising to form a shelf as it rounds the point. This has always been a good place to look for fallen blocks with sauropod, theropod and ornithopod prints on them.
At some time in 2014, there was a fall that brought down several large blocks with very distinct sauropod bulges on them. They are perched on this shelf of rock and are easily seen. As they are bulges not indentations, it is clear that they are natural casts of the actual print which was on the layer below them (see below).
Rail Hole Bight is well worth exploring too, but it is the site of frequent minor falls from the vertical cliffs, with a constant skitter of shale falls – unnerving, but not usually dangerous. The tide comes right up to the cliff base and washes over any fallen blocks, so any footprints on them are soon worn away, or the rocks themselves are broken up and washed away fairly quickly. Similarly, Jump Down Bight is less productive, with most of the cliff face now being Alum Shales. Most finds here have been washed from further along the beach, so are often quite worn. Given time, it is worthwhile to go over the nab into Saltwick Bay where there are more footprints. From there, it is an easy footpath up the cliff and a short walk back to Whitby, giving superb views of the cliffs and beach.
The accompanying photographs are only a sample of prints that we found in 2014 and early 2015 along East Cliff Beach. It should be borne in mind that dinosaur footprints are found on most beaches in this area, and these are certainly not the best ones that have been found either here or on other beaches. They are merely examples of what can be found at any time. For interpretation and photographic purposes, I often dampen the rock surface surrounding the actual footprints. This is sometimes helped by a slight additional darkening with a charcoal and water wash.
This beach – like the other sites here – yields footprints of the six types I have roughly split them into (see The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 3 – a brief look at the six footprint groupings). There are illustrations of theropod, ‘scratch’ prints and ‘through’ prints from this beach throughout this article. However, East Cliff seems to be especially fruitful in several types.
2. The courtyard, the Inner Pier and Tate Cliff beach
These locations are within the Outer Harbour, below Tate Cliff (also called the Lower Harbour). They can be accessed using a set of steps at the southern end of the town. These lead down from the north end of Church St, just past the Duke of York pub and hotel (near the bottom of the abbey steps).
a) The Inner Pier
The steps end beside a small courtyard, but even from half-way down, it is possible to see two large clear footprints and one smaller one, on the slabs in the little square (Figs. 21 to 25).
The courtyard opens out onto the short Inner Pier. This is now named Tate Pier, but was originally called Burgess Pier when it was built in 1190. I have never discovered any definite footprint traces on the stones here – any that there are, have been walked on for around 800 years. Apart from the views along and across the river, there is little reason to spend much time along this small pier.
b) Tate Beach – the Outer Harbour beach
From the courtyard, going down another half-dozen steps brings us to the Outer Harbour beach. The first 90m or so is deep soft sand until the buildings are passed and the first of the heaped-up boulders and smaller stones at the top of the beach are reached.
Almost unbelievably, dinosaur footprints are found among these sea-defence rocks beneath Tate Cliff. Many of these rocks are imported igneous and metamorphic boulders, but others are ones that have fallen from Tate Cliff in times long past. Although they have been covered with soil, plastic mesh and grass, the waves, rain and holidaymakers’ feet still take their toll. Boulders are being freshly exposed all the time.
Towards the end of May 2009, my wife and I brought a small group of children to look for footprints here and lingered on the lower harbour beach for an hour or so until the tide had receded from East Cliff Beach. In that time, we found 11 good footprints and just as many very worn ones. They included a clear theropod footprint, two blocks with scratch prints and one block with two large worn prints. Six of these prints were especially interesting for their similarity of shape and size (Figs. 39 to 44).
3. The East Pier (the Outer Harbour wall)
Surprisingly, the eastern pier boasts of a varied selection of clear footprints in the great blocks of locally-quarried stone that it is made of. Escorting a group from New Zealand in August 2015, we counted 13 easily-recognisable ones in well under an hour. I also know of probably as many again that we didn’t have time to re-locate.
Begun in ancient times, both piers fell into disrepair with alarming frequency over the centuries, particularly in the 1600s. Major work was carried out in 1710, but the original pier was still lower and narrower than the present one. The pier’s last major reconstruction and rebuilding was completed on Christmas Eve 1814 and the lighthouse was added in 1854. Therefore, the current stone blocks have been walked on for at least 200 years. The piecemeal building, changes of use and repairs are seen in the differing swathes of stonework, types of stone, concrete patches and all the holes where anchor posts for warehouses, gun emplacements and shipping-related buildings were located at various times.
The footprints are found scattered almost all over the pier, but there are particular concentrations along the left (landward) side in the first 45m; and also all around the low shelter wall in the middle of the pier, where there is public seating, including immediately adjacent to the wall. Beyond this, there aren’t many to be found close to the lighthouse, so, if you’re short of time, you won’t be missing a lot if you don’t get that far.
On the opposite side of the river, the western pier does not have any visible footprints because it is now largely a concrete foundation and timber structure, not local stone.
4. West Cliff and beach
On the opposite side of the River Esk, there is West Cliff, below the Captain Cook monument and the whalebone arch. This cliff is not as high as East Cliff, as the land fractured in the past and this west side was thrust downwards relative to the east side. As the fault is a line of weakness, it was eroded quite easily and the River Esk now flows along the fault line. The beds here are the same as those near the top of the East Cliff – the Saltwick Formation – complete with clear wavy beds where ancient watercourses drained the Jurassic deltas. Even with a topping of glacial till, this cliff is little more than half the height of the opposite one with the Benedictine abbey.
Parking can be difficult in summer, but there is a very small car park on the road that winds up the steep hill known as the Khyber Pass. The base of the cliff at the back of the car park is very overgrown, but we found several fallen rocks with well-worn footprints one day. In the far corner, there is a boulder with a double scratch marking and a stegosaur (probably) footprint. However, it is very overgrown and there is a steep drop below.
The beach is accessed down a slipway and, having rounded the short stone-built promenade, there is a bare cliff face with a lot of fallen boulders at its base. This is where the footprints start. This part of the cliff continues for about a 100m to a small headland known as First Nab. New falls are rare here because council workers inspect the cliff face regularly for possible fall sites and take action – there are too many holidaymakers here to take chances on having any crushed.
The vertical lower part of the cliff has been extensively reinforced with stonework between the two nabs, but there are still good exposures for perhaps 200m. Footprints can readily be found on loose rocks among the sand, holidaymakers and donkeys. They are also sporadically scattered from very close to the slipway all the way to Sandsend. Most footprints are on loose boulders among the fallen rocks within 45m of the slipway, where there is easy, all-tide access and a cafe. A short visit in August 2015 yielded nine very presentable footprints almost immediately and temporarily enthused three teenagers to search for them. This site appears to be particularly good for stegosaur and ornithopod footprints.
After the first little headland, there is another shallow bay about a 100m long. The cliff here is heavily reinforced and protected with stonework, but there are boulders at its base. They have been washed along the beach and are generally very worn, but occasional ones bear footprints. This bay ends at another headland, imaginatively named Second Nab. This is the site where footprints are almost always found, although they are weathered and the boulders need to be searched diligently sometimes.
Beyond Second Nab, the vertical rock face fades away and becomes, in turn, a grassy slope, a concrete wall and a low cliff of glacial till overburden that frequently slumps onto the beach.
There are short patches where there is a small cliff of rocky buttresses, scatterings of beach boulders and boulder-strewn stream beds. These locations tend to yield more ornithopod and stegosaur footprints among the rounded boulders, sand drifts and flotsam. While some are bare and clear, others are thickly covered with seaweed. However, there is a chance of finding footprints all the way to Sandsend, a walk of about an hour and a ten-minute bus ride back to Whitby.
Should we collect footprints?
The great majority of footprints that are found in this area are just that – single footprints. They are not lines of footprints, trails or tracks. Such trackways do occur – further south in Cayton Bay, for instance, or Scalby Bay, but they are uncommon in comparison with individual prints. If the footprints are set into the bedrock of the rock platform or in the cliff itself, it is possible to search for more prints in the same direction they are pointing. It is also possible to look for an estimate of their age (that is, juvenile or adult) and perhaps the speed at which they were moving (that is, if they were travelling alone and so on).
The fact that they are individual is a nuisance as far as researching the dinosaurs’ behaviour, movements, speed and social habits is concerned. You can’t tell if it is part of a lengthy track, part of a herd or a loner passing through. It’s impossible to be exactly sure where the rock and print came from unless the rock is very recently fallen from an obvious fresh scar on the cliffside. It has likely been broken by the fall from the cliff and worn by tides and other boulders rolling over it. However, if it is a good print that is worth preserving, then a single print is more easily portable than a great slab of bedrock.
To leave a brilliant footprint on a beach does not do it any favours – it will be eroded to nothing recognisable within months, if not days, if the rock is soft or the tides violent. Chris and I have seen boulders with as many as 17 good prints cutting across them weathered to a featureless slab of rock within a year or two and so lost forever. There is nothing illegal about taking a fossil from a beach as long as you do not hammer it from the bedrock or the cliff (which is very dangerous anyway).
Thousands of people descend onto East Cliff Beach at Whitby every summer armed with hammers and rucksacks, intent on finding and removing fossils of whatever kind they can find. They include families and individuals, paying groups of holidaymakers, student parties, local amateur collectors, fossil dealers, research groups and people claiming to be working for a museum or other “official” society. Many people collect along the beaches very frequently, sometimes following almost every tide as it ebbs away. None of them has any more legal right to search for, claim or remove loose fossils than any other member of the public.
Hammering the bedrock and cliff faces is contrary to guidelines, personal safety and probably various byelaws. It also speeds up the erosion of the cliffs and the abbey, church, farms and homes above them. However, taking a loose stone with the impression of an ammonite, belemnite, fern, starfish, coral head, burrow or footprint is none of these things. It is very common and not frowned upon by anyone except those who wish they had found it first. By all means inform the local museums what you have found, or one of the university research groups. I used to do this from time to time with the more unusual finds, but generally encountered a complete lack of interest, no reply, or a mention of the find in a journal under their own names.
Therefore, enjoy the fruits of your labours when you get them home – it’s better than allowing them to be smashed up by the next tide. In any case, a new lot will be tumbling out the cliff before long.
Dinosaurs of the British Isles, by Dean R Lomax and Nobumichi Tamura, Siri Scientific Press, Manchester (2014), 414 pages (softback), ISBN: 978-0-9574530-5-0.