This Is Y, January 2013

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GIANTS

DUNCAN CRAIG falls for fossil hunting on Yorkshire’s Dinosaur Coast

IT’S the middle of winter and I’m lying on a beach in Scarborough. Not so much blind optimism as a beginner’s error that afflicts many first-time fossil hunters: I’ve overloaded and lost my footing. So full are my pockets of what I assume to be interesting rocks that should I lie here long enough to be fossilised, future geologists would no doubt assume I was a washed-up suicide case. “Suicide Man”, they’d call me; I can almost picture the maudlin museum exhibit.

My guide, John Hudson, is having no such trouble staying on his feet. Striding the windswept foreshore with large, deliberate steps, torso near parallel to the ground he’s scrutinising, he bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the prehistoric creatures whose trail we’re on. A velociraptor perhaps, albeit a bespectacled one clad in Gore-Tex.

The hardy 64-year-old is doing his human metal detector bit, stopping every few paces with an excited “aaah”. Explanations go unfinished, digressions piling up like geological strata, but John’s enthusiasm is irresistible. One of North Yorkshire’s genuine rock stars, this amiable paleontologist has spent 40 years exploring this coastline, yet always finding something new. The world of fossils, we are to discover, is surprisingly dynamic.

We’d met earlier at the Old Scalby Mills pub at the head of Scarborough’s North Bay. John’s already done a quick sweep of the beach; he can’t help himself. A globule of rainwater clings to the end of his nose as he excitedly shows off his plunder, which includes a mudrock housing our first fossil of the day and some shap granite. The latter, I learn, has followed much the same route as I have from Cumbria, albeit conveyed by glacier rather than aged Nissan.

The footprint was so big that the only way to get it to the museum was to tow it into the harbour by raft

We’re here for the fossils but also what’s termed “trace fossils” – footprints to you and I. The 40-mile stretch from Sandsend near Whitby to Filey, around six miles south of where we now sit, has seen thousands of prehistoric prints discovered over recent decades, earning it the moniker Dinosaur Coast. Our proposed route will take us around the headland to a far corner of Jackson’s Bay known, irresistibly, as “Footprint Corner”.

John works in tandem with Scarborough Museums Trust, custodians of the town’s excellent Rotunda Museum, guiding everyone from geological societies to schoolchildren. He prefers the latter. “They ask the best questions.” His proudest moment? Discovering a rare print made by a “tertiary” dinosaur such as the Megalosaurus, a meat-eating predator that grew up to 40ft long.

“I remember spotting it and thinking, ‘I’ve never seen anything of that size before’,” he tells me as we set off across the beck to the coast path. The only way to get it to the Rotunda was to tow it on a raft into Scarborough Harbour. “Experts had to rewrite some papers after that find,” he adds proudly.

I follow John up the weathered wooden steps of Scalby Ness Rocks. Beneath us, a trio of birdwatchers trains binoculars on the blustery bay, the medieval keep of Scarborough Castle a blackened tooth on the jaw bone of the distant headland. Among the fulmars and oystercatchers, a prized purple sandpiper is causing a stir. Hard to believe, but the twitchers and ourselves are drawn here by related creatures.

“Big, fierce and extinct,” may once have served as a pithy description of dinosaurs, but actually they’re none of those things, at least not exclusively. “You can see a dinosaur fly past your window,” says John. The tridactyl (three-toed) feet; the revelation that some dinosaurs’ had downy feathers. All points to a direct link between birds and the most terrifying animals ever to bestride the Earth. Frankly, to anyone who’s ever tried to eat an ice cream in the company of seagulls, this should come as no surprise.

Our find is an extinct precursor to modern-day oysters and looks anything but aphrodisiacal

We briefly join the Cleveland Way before cutting on to a makeshift path winding steeply down to the beach. It’s wet underfoot and a darkening sky promises further rain. John is insouciant, cheerful even. He’s been out “in weather so cold I could hardly read the notes I’d written”.

The fossils do indeed prove plentiful. Nestling within a cluster of vivid purple ironstone is a fossilised oyster from the Lower Jurassic period (roughly 200 million years ago). It’s an extinct precursor to modern-day oysters and looks anything but aphrodisiacal. Beyond this, a lump of carboniferous limestone containing two different types of coral, staghorn and colonial. The former impales the rock, resembling the entry and exit wounds of a bullet.

Ammonites, the spiralling poster boys of the fossil world, are in short supply. For these marine invertebrates, you’re advised to visit Robin Hood’s Bay, a short drive north. I’d spent the previous night admiring this glinting scythe of North Yorkshire strand from high on the forbidding Ravenscar cliffs. From our stylish lodge in the grounds of the Raven Hall Hotel, we could pick out the eponymous fishing village’s trickle of tiny streets on the far shore.

The historic hotel, dating from the late 18th century, has assembled a small fossil collection of its own which even includes a primitive “crocodilian”. From time to time it hosts “Rock and Fossil Roadshows”. Nothing to do with Status Quo, disappointingly.

As we continue, hoods pulled up against the icy rain, my attention is drawn to a black streak in the cliff to our left. It’s the size of a large log. Good guess. A fossilised branch of one of the conifers that flourished here, it transpires. Further on I find some subaqueous desiccation (think a laminated slice of the baked Atacama Desert). Coral? Cracked earth? I can barely feel my face. Something fishy is going on here.

The area around Scarborough, John explains, was a verdant sub-tropical river delta 165 million years ago. Herbivorous dinosaurs came for the bountiful food, carnivores for the bountiful herbivores. The profusion of prints and dearth of actual bones points to this being a gathering – rather than nesting – point. A drive-through for therapods, if you will.

When I spot a dog’s tracks in the mud, I can’t resist some mock excitement. John’s is genuine. Squatting down, he uses his pen to point out the “displacement rings” around the paw marks, the shape the residue forms as it is squeezed out and hardens. This is a key feature of dinosaur prints helping experts to surmise dimensions, and so type.

From time to time the hotel hosts ‘Rock and Fossil Roadshows’. Nothing to do with Status Quo, disappointingly

Nearing Footprint Corner, we come to what was once a point bar – the outer bank of a meandering river. Elevated, and in cross section, the bar’s sandstone and mudstone are discretely layered, with the upper surface drooping in places like a Surrealist’s painting.

These depressions are in fact erosion-enlarged footprints caused by gargantuan Sauropods such as the 80-ton Brachiosaurus. I clamber up and stand at the edge of one, partially filled with seawater from high tide. I half expect to see ripples breaking the surface at ominous intervals. Note to self: stop watching Jurassic Park.

That these footprints are here at all is a minor miracle. At the end of the Jurassic period this entire area was flooded as the continents broke up. Incrementally, over millions of years, the prints would have been buried under more than a mile of marine sediment, before being exhumed by tectonic activity over an equally unfathomable period.

Erosion did the rest, finally exposing the prints for, in geological terms, the briefest of instants. “One year to the next these prints can be gone,” explains John. Interminably interred, fleetingly revealed. We can’t help but feel privileged.

As if to ram home the point, Footprint Corner is not as John left it. A recent rockfall has concealed some prized prints but also disgorged a “new” rock roughly the size of a kitchen table. Across it, spaced around 2ft apart, are three clear footprints. With the rock inverted, these protrude from the surface like upturned jelly moulds.

By good fortune, three prints are the minimum for a find to be classified a “trackway”. From this, smarter men than I can deduce gait and speed of movement of the dinosaur and therefore hope to pin down what it was. However educated, it remains guesswork.

“We can’t say this belongs to, say, a Megalosaurus unless we find it dead at the end of the track,” says John. “The attraction is you’re interpreting an environment by proxy.”

For all his fossil-hunting acumen, keeping track of time is not his forte. We’ve run well over (they do say that “rapid” for a geologist is millions of years). Away to the west a livid red dusk is silhouetting the stark ridge of the Harkness Hills and bleeding across the melancholic expanse of the North York Moors. We scramble up the cliffs, a warming pint uppermost in our minds.

John has the final word. “Someone once asked me what, in my 40 years of coming here, has changed the most,” he says. “Forty years ago, I told him, I’d have been running up these cliffs.”

SCARBOROUGH MUSEUMS TRUST:www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.org.uk