Walking with dinosaurs for a stroll along Runswick Bay

Runswick Bay was recently voted the best place in the country for beachcombing. Chris Bond went along to find out why.

YORKSHIRE'S coastline may not have the glamour of Cornwall, or be as popular as Blackpool. But when it comes to beachcombing there's no better place.

According to a recent list compiled by Miranda Krestovnikoff, one of the presenters of the BBC series Coast, Runswick Bay is the best place to go foraging for fossils, shells and rare stones.

So what makes Runswick Bay and this stretch of coastline such a treasure trove for would-be beachcombers? Roger Sutcliffe, a geologist who lives in nearby Whitby, says one thing in particular stands out.

"What makes this coastline special is that this whole area, from Redcar down to Scarborough, consists of Jurassic rocks. So virtually the entire dinosaur era is represented in this coast."

But anyone hoping to find traces of a T. Rex or a stegosaurus will be disappointed.

"There are dinosaur footprints but you won't find one of the big dinosaurs on this stretch of the coast, here you might find marine animals like plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and Jurassic crocodiles. In fact, an ichthyosaur was found near Scarborough just six months ago," he says.

An ichthyosaur was similar to a dolphin in shape only much larger and you wouldn't want to stumble across one in the water.

"They were predators and the biggest one found was about eight metres long, which makes our Great White Shark look like small fry."

You might think such discoveries are only made by experts, but that's not always the case. In 2002, a 13-foot plesiosaur was discovered near Filey by Doncaster electrician Nigel Armstrong who spotted a vertebrae while out fossil hunting and traced the skeleton up the cliff. Such dramatic finds don't happen every day, obviously, but there are more dinosaur bones out there waiting to be discovered. "There's an area just north of Scarborough where there's a particular band of sandstone where dinosaur footprints occur and a number of footprints of Turkey-sized dinosaurs have been found there," says Roger.

"For me a dinosaur footprint is amazing because it represents a footstep in time, you're looking at one second 160 million years ago, and it's amazing that something so insignificant can become so important."

Roger is a part-time geology lecturer at Hull University and is involved in the Dinosaur Coast Project, a scheme funded by the Heritage Lottery to conserve Yorkshire's geological treasures. He says it's very easy to get hooked on fossil hunting.

"It's a bit like a treasure hunt, it's not just a case of finding fossils you can take it further and identify them and learn about the history and at the same time you can enjoy this wonderful scenery."

He's been coming to Runswick Bay for the past 40 years and says fossils such as grypheas, similar to oysters only 185 million years old, and brachiopods, marine animals similar to clams, can be found among the pebbles washed up on the beach. If you're lucky, you may also find an ammonite, whose fossilised shells resemble coiled rams' horns.

"They're a bit like a burger sandwich in appearance," says Roger. "You have grey rock on the outside and if you crack it open successfully you have this perfectly formed fossil inside. Ammonites were like cuttlefish but they were quite remarkable creatures because they could fill their shell with water and sink, or fill it with gas and rise, which is exactly the same principle of a submarine only they did it 185 million years ago."

Many of us would probably think such an object was just another pebble and throw it away, but Roger says with a little bit of knowledge trips to the beach can be transformed.

"Something like an ammonite can easily be identified with a reference book but also if you find one you're the first person to have seen it in 185 million years, which is incredible.

"From just finding simple things on the beach you can learn about the history of the planet, or, of course, people can just collect them and put them on their mantelpiece."

As well as being rewarding it's also an inexpensive hobby – all you need is a bag, a stick and a pair of comfortable shoes.

"The material on the sea floor gets churned up every time there's a storm so you don't need to go hammering at the rocks and it's among the pebbles that you're most likely to find

things.

"There's lots of different types or rock and the fossils will be in the grey stones and they tend to be paler than the shale. Along this coast you can go out for just an hour-and-a-half and you should find something."

It's not only fossils that you can stumble across during a stroll on the sand. Shells, shark eggs and semi-precious stones have all been found at Runswick Bay.

"There's all sorts of historical bits and pieces and the most common things are Second World War bullets, or bullet casings. This was one of the areas used to practice in the run-up to D-Day so a lot of munitions were shot out to sea and get washed up. You also find teeth from bison and rhinos that date back to the Ice Age getting washed up here, or getting caught in fishing nets."

But while beachcombing can be fun, Roger points out it is important to plan any visit around the tide.

"There's two key things to remember, firstly the tide doesn't come in at the same time every day so you really need to be back in you car two hours before high tide. The best thing to do is follow the tide out and at the point of low tide start making your way back again."

We spend the best part of an hour combing the water's edge and we aren't alone. Nearby, an elderly gentleman makes his way slowly through the pebbles using his walking stick to identify objects, while further down the beach others are doing the same thing.

"The best time to come is just after a storm when everything gets moved around," explains Roger. Straight after the school holidays probably isn't the best time to come, but we still find a gryphea embedded in a stone. We've only moved 10 feet off the sand and we've found a fossil which is at least 180 million years old. We also find a piece of rhomb porphyry, solidified lava, which was brought here with

ice flows from Norway millions of years ago. So does Runswick Bay deserve its beachcombing title?

"If you want to find things of monetary value then the answer's no. But from a geological and historical point of view I would say 'yes'.

"If someone came along with a metal detector the only coins they'd be likely to find would be dropped by tourists, you won't find Roman coins. But you will find fossils and stones from millions of years ago."

And if, like us, you don't manage to find an elusive ammonite or a dinosaur footprint it's not the end of the world, there's always next time.