Part 5 of a 5 part series: for part 4 click here!

Banner image: Ammonite fossils found by Duncan Willox at Millennium Country Park

Let's journey to the Millennium Country Park's very own marine Jurassic Park...!

By Duncan Willox ǀ Local geology enthusiast and poet

“That’s all very well, Duncan, but cut the coprolite - when can we see some Oxford Clay fossils?” Well, you may not have to go very far for a glimpse of some!

As you walk round the lakes at Millennium Country Park - particularly the Pillinge in the Wetlands area - small areas of bare Oxford Clay are exposed, and sometimes you’ll see a fragment of the oyster Gryphaea (or other shell fossil) lying on the surface. There are also light blue limestone nodules, sometimes gathered together in piles beneath small trees or bushes. Where they’ve been broken up by the frosts you often see the fossilised small white shells of the bivalves that lived on the Oxford Clay seafloor. Occasionally there are also specimens of the coiled shelled ammonites. Please be in awe but leave such geological gems for others to admire.

The Higgins Museum in Bedford is the most local museum at which to see Oxford Clay fossils. Their small display includes ammonites, belemnites, shell fossils, a small fossil fish and a few marine reptile bones etc.

The Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences in Cambridge, Oxford University of Natural History and Peterborough Museum all have large, scientifically important, collections of Oxford Clay fossils mainly collected from the past or present brick pits near to those cities. I haven’t myself seen those collections but I understand that you’ll see some pretty impressive marine reptiles, some with jaws ferocious enough to scare even the most work hardened dentist! As a fossil collector, I’ve found that to train the brain and eyes to spot fossils, there is no substitute for having looked at the real thing.

For identifying fossil finds from all the geological time periods a good starting point are the classic Natural History Museum’s 3 volumes of guides, whilst the Palaeontological Association has a growing series of excellent fossil photo identification guides devoted to rock stratas of various ages. There is one for the Oxford Clay but that is unfortunately I think out of print. I guess it may well be obtainable secondhand, as almost everything imaginable seems to be for sale on the internet (some years ago I was inspired by a newspaper article to write a poem about a boy trying to sell his grandmother on Ebay!)

The Sedgewick Museum in Cambridge has a fossil identification service, as does the Natural History Museum at South Kensington in London (which of course also has many fossils on display including dinosaurs).

Getting stuck in…

Some of you might even feel inspired to look for fossils yourselves, but may be wondering where you can go from here -the good news is that help is on hand, and having suffered some of my jokes, the even better news is that the help isn’t from me!

For the adults there is the Geologists’ Association. You can choose the membership category to reflect the degree of scientific challenge that you want to set yourself. I am happy being just an ‘Associate’ member. The GA magazine has interesting articles on geology and fossils and they run field trips, so that if you are prepared to travel you can, with expert guidance, explore geological and fossil sites at the coast and at quarries, some of which you wouldn’t be able to access on your own.

For children there is Rockwatch (the junior branch of the GA). This fun and very active club includes magazines, museum visits, activity days etc. Membership also gives children an opportunity to get down and seriously dirty on beaches and in quarries, exploring and learning about the geology and hunting for fossils, again with an expert on hand to explain and identify etc. These field trips are generally suitable for youngsters from age 7 to 18 years. The other news, which adults might view as good or bad is the requirement that children must always be accompanied by a parent/responsible adult (even if it’s cold and raining!).

For those who don’t want to join a club but would like some fossil collecting guidance on a holiday, there are hardy welly-clad souls poised to take their fee at some of the famous coastal fossil collecting sites such as Lyme Regis and Charmouth in Dorset and Whitby in north Yorkshire. Especially during peak periods, you may need to book in advance to “avoid disappointment”. One of my friends provides such guided fossil walks at Lyme Regis. These guides are usually highly knowledgeable, very enthusiastic, very patient and sometimes enjoyably slightly eccentric.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed our time travelling adventure and for those who’ve been with me all the way I thank you for your determination and indeed bravery!

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