July 13, 2024

Wwhen Richard Forrest walked along Lyme Regis beach on the Jurassic coast in Dorset, he carried in his small rucksack a pointed pick, a geological hammer and an old kitchen knife. But he uses them very little until he’s back home with a stone or two to work on. “The most important thing to take with you is your eyes,” he says. “And learn what it is you seek.”

Forrest is a fossil hunter and has spent more than 50 years on Britain’s beaches looking for evidence of the country’s prehistoric past. The Jurassic Coast, which stretches 95 miles (150 km) across Devon and Dorset, is world famous for its treasure trove of ammonites and other fossils that lie conspicuously beneath visitors’ feet in many places. Others are hidden within the cliffs, exposed only after heavy rains cause one of the frequent landslides. “The best feeling is when you find something that you think is potentially interesting and then you get it home and discover that wow, it’s really interesting,” he says. “That feeling is incredible.”

On the day we walk along the beach, the sun dips in and out behind a blanket of pale gray clouds and there is a fresh breeze in the air. A dozen people in raincoats wander slowly over the rocks, crouching down every now and then to examine what is at their feet.

The coast attracts thousands of visitors a year who descend on the most popular fossil beaches of Lyme Regis and Charmouth, often with picks and hammers. Some of them come to find what they believe to be prehistoric treasure, others to follow in the footsteps of Dorset’s famous daughter, Mary Anningwho became famous around the world for the discoveries she made here in the early 19th century.

But few have the level of expertise of the truly dedicated fossil finder. Walking with Forrest is like turning on the lights in a shop full of jewels – suddenly seeing treasures all around you.

Recalling the first time he came to Charmouth as a teenager with his then-girlfriend’s brother, Forrest says: “I remember him saying ‘hit that rock and there’s an ammonite in it’. So I hit it and a beautiful ammonite appeared and he said ‘it’s the first time it’s seen the light in 180m years’. It felt like fireworks going off. It was really extraordinary for me.”

  • Richard Forrest holds a fossil sponge, which is around 100m years old, and carries a pick, used to excavate rocks, opposite Lyme Regis beach

Even the most experienced fossil hunter is not always successful, as the small piece of rib framed in Forrest’s lower toilet attests. The words around it read: ‘Total finds from four days’ collection at Lyme Regis and Charmouth. Sometimes it’s just the beer that makes it worth it.”

“It’s always frustrating to come back empty-handed again and again,” he says. “But you learn to deal with it because what matters, at the end of the day, is the number of hours you spend out there searching.”

For Forrest, finding fossils is much more than a pastime. It helped him recover from a deep personal tragedy, which left him depressed which came back to haunt him later in life.

He found a love for fossils thanks to a paleontologist at his local museum, Arthur Cruickshank, who took him under his wing and encouraged him to piece together a plesiosaur, bone fragment by fragment. Forrest later became one of the nation’s leading experts on the marine reptiles, writing academic papers and giving lectures on his findings.

Watch the trailer for Max Miechowski’s documentary Fossils – video

Once hours have been shaved off the beach, we head to Charmouth to see Forrest’s friend of 20 years, Chris Moore. A fellow fossil hunter, Moore is a long-time friend of David Attenborough who has made two documentaries with him, Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster, which aired earlier this year, and Attenborough and the Sea Dragon. The latter is about an ichthyosaur that Moore and his son Alex discovered, and whose carefully reconstructed bones are now in the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.

The Moores have a workshop, an extraordinary place, hidden behind the modest facade of a house like any other in its row. Father and son spend hours preparing fossils embedded in rock. The adjacent shop, with rough stone floors and walls, is an Aladdin’s cave of paleontology. Everything for sale is from small ammonites at £30 to £40, to skeletons fetching several thousand pounds.

Moore, a Mancunian, was drawn to the Jurassic Coast when he decided to make a living out of his hobby. Like Forrest, he taught himself. “Despite the fact that people tend to think fossils just pop open and are there, revealed, they actually take between a few hours and hundreds of thousands of hours of work to prepare,” he says.

The work can be laborious and you can’t “go crazy with it”, says Moore, or you’ll damage the fossils. When he first began fossil preparation, he had a hammer and a sharp point. Now he has equipment that includes compressors, micro sandblasters and air chisels. The pair became world famous for their art, with specimens exhibited in Tokyo’s Science Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum. Moore senior even discovered his own new specimen of icthyosaur, which now resides in the Natural History Museum, and which bears his name in Latin: Leptonectes moorei.

On the sand and shingles of Charmouth beach, Forrest contemplates the sky as the heavens open. The water from the clouds and from the sea is a constant medium for change, resulting in continuous and often significant changes to the coastline over time.

Places that Forrest used to look for fossils have now completely disappeared, he says. For a fossil hunter, this brings mixed feelings. “If someone’s house slips into the sea, of course you feel very sorry for them. But at the same time it [the erosion] exposes new information for us to find.” It is this constant shifting of earth, rocks and sand that brings the same people back to the same part of the Jurassic Coast again and again. “You never know what you’re going to get,” he says. “And to me, that’s the exciting part of it.”

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