“You are about to see what no-one has seen for 200 million years...”
As build-ups go, this one is so loaded with suspense and thrilling expectation, I’m expecting a drum roll.
The fossil man had evaluated the smooth, rounded stones in my outstretched hands in a matter of seconds. Three had been casually tossed to the beach from whence they came. Just one held promise.
After a flash of geologist’s hammer on granite, the fractured rock is back in my hands and he’s uttering that immortal line.
I part the neatly-sliced sections of what seconds before had been one of sea-slicked thousands languishing in rockpools the length of the beach.
All along, this one has contained a treasure of nature. I can’t help but gasp, with childlike delight (essentially, fossilling is finding buried treasure) at the intricate, spiralling perfection of an ammonite, a sea creature which lived and died on what is now Whitby’s shoreline at a time when dinosaurs walked the earth. I have seen ammonites in museums like the one right here in Whitby, which has one of the UK’s finest displays of Jurassic fossils. But now something 200 million years old is mine. And it was free.
Truth is, ammonites like mine, only a couple of centimetres across, are ten-a-penny. Much larger and rarer ones are the ones that are prized, as fossil man Byron Blessed can vouch.
Palaeontologist Byron owns Natural Wonders in Whitby town and sells pieces to collectors worldwide. His best find came five years ago. He discovered, in the sand not far from where we are standing now, the entire fossilised head of an ancient marine crocodile.
He was leading a trip at Saltwick Bay just like the one we are on; that particular group of enthusiastic amateurs lucked out when the tiny nub of stone Byron noticed sticking out of the sand eventually revealed one of the finest specimens found locally since the 1800s, when an entire fossilised crocodile was revealed in the cliff face by allum shale miners.
No one heads for the towering cliffs these days. Too treacherous; rocks can fall at any time. It’s those unremarkable grey, rounded stones that clutter the beach that hold secrets.
Beware, though; one you have found one fossil, you are destined ever more to walk the sands head-down.
n During our time in Whitby we stayed at the elegant country retreat the Raithwaite Estate, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Originally a shipping magnate’s 19th century country haven, it is now a luxury hotel set within 100 acres of countryside and gardens.
The spa, complete with infinity pool, proved an enveloping cocoon on a wet and wild North Yorkshire winter’s day and our room, with its own veranda and the most comfortable bed imaginable, was a classy little hideaway. Plus the food at Raithwaite is fabulous; we dined in The Brace, one of two restaurants, from a stunning à la carte menu artfully created from Yorkshire’s finest produce – much of it from the briny sea where ammonites once lived.
24 hours in Whitby
Fossil-hunting: Morning fossil-hunting trips are dependent on the tides, so dates and start times vary, take three hours and depart from the Natural Wonders fossil shop on Grape Lane, near the Captain Cook Museum. Expect a half-hour walk across the cliff tops and a steep descent to the beach, plus a two-mile walk on the sands. It’s not suitable for under fives. Cost: £10 adults, £5 under 16s. Family tickets £25. Book at www.fossils-UK.com or call 01947 821363
Stay at: The Raithwaite Estate, Sandsend Road, Whitby, North Yorkshire, Y021 3ST, Tel: 01947 661661 (www.raithwaiteestate.com). Prices start from £129 for a standard room with breakfast and VAT. A Luxury for Less package costs from £92.50 per person (based on two people sharing)f or three-course meal, overnight accommodation in a Club room, a full English breakfast and VAT. Availability is limited, so book early. (Not available December 24-26).