By: Robin Van Auken
When you stroll the beach on the Isle of Wight and the light bounces off a dark shiny object above the tidal line, chances are it is a fossil, not a shell. Pick it up.
It could be from a spinosaur, the largest carnivorous predator to hunt the landmass that eventually became Europe. According to the Natural History Museum in London, the Isle’s spinosaurs are possibly 10-plus meters long—nearly 33 feet long!
We visit Compton Bay on the Isle of Wight on a bright and brisk day in February, about 125 million years after the dinosaur, whose bone I now cradle in my hand. As I turn it over, I see veins of brassy gold and a few boxy crystals. I recognize it as pyrite, a mineral often called “Fool’s Gold.”
I carefully slide it into my backpack and keep strolling the rocky coast of Compton Bay, my eyes scanning from left to right. I search for the famous dinosaur footprints on the sandstone ledge at Hanover Point. I soon find billowy gray casts exposed by the low tide. Cartoon-like, three enormous Iguanodon toes emerge from the sand. Then three more. The tracks march across the beach.
How did such massive dinosaurs end up on a small island off the southern tip of England?
Land Before Time
Scientists discovered more than 20 species of dinosaurs on the Isle of Wight in a layer of sediment called the Vectis Formation. They lived in a subtropical environment. Good for us because those conditions are the best conditions to form fossils.
The dinosaur bones were preserved because they were buried in stagnant ponds with low oxygen. The chemical processes that occur when minerals replace the organic matter create the fossil. During this time, pyrite fills the gaps in the bone. Fine pyrite makes it appear black, while larger pyrite emerges as gold streaks and cubes.
This time is known as the Cretaceous geological period, lasting from about 145 to 66 million years ago. It was during the Cretaceous (not the Jurassic) that the Tyrannosaurus rex arose. Then, over 85 million years ago, T Rex thrived as a top land predator. Now, we see them brought to animatronic life in museums, wearing colorful jumpers (sweaters) at Christmas.
Eventually, our backpacks are heavy, and we’re satisfied with the hours we spent strolling the two miles of Compton Beach. In the distance, the white chalk cliffs at Freshwater reflect the sun’s low angle, and we climb back to the road to catch our bus.
It’s been an exciting day for amateur paleontologists!
Day Tripping to the Isle of Wight
The trip to the island concludes a three-month-long sojourn in England. We’ve traveled to Southhampton, waiting to board the Queen Mary 2 for a trans-Atlantic journey to New York.
Southampton, an eclectic city that rebuilt and reinvented itself after the horrific bombing in World War II, is a story for another day. Today, we’re catching the Red Jet to the Isle of Wight.
It’s a short walk to the high-speed ferry terminal, but the cold wind buffets me, whipping my scarf behind me and bringing tears to my eyes. Once we arrive, we purchase “Day Return” tickets for same-day trips to and from West Cowes. These are about £32 ($40). With our passes in our pockets, we order hot chocolate and await the boat’s arrival. Finally, we trundle aboard for a 30-minute trip across the Solent.
Our ferry is Red Jet 6, the company’s largest high-speed catamaran with a capacity of 275 passengers and four crew. Some passengers bring bicycles with them, some have baby strollers, but most are on foot, like us. Quite a few have their dogs on leashes. The people of the UK love their dogs and take them nearly everywhere.
The Red Funnel company provides a designated pet lounge with water bowls on several ferries. Dogs are always welcome on the outer passenger decks. If you’re traveling with a pet and want to visit the “Isle of Woof,” look at this information from Red Funnel about pet-friendly sites.
Only some people who travel to the Isle of Wight are heading to Compton Bay, as we were. It’s a popular holiday destination with 57 miles of coastline, 20 beaches, and an array of protected woodland and nature reserves. There are more than 50 attractions and places to visit. If you think a visit might be upcoming, you can check Red Funnel’s guide and save up to 25% of your travel costs.
Because we are day-trippers, we follow the well-marked path to the local bus station and await our next mode of transportation. We’ve discovered that Google Maps is an outstanding resource, even better than official-UK transportation apps. In addition, Google gives us detailed information about public transportation when we’re abroad, so we don’t have to worry about cultural miscues or time differences.
We have a while before the next bus to Compton Bay, so we grab a breakfast sandwich and coffee. I should have skipped the coffee. There are no facilities at Compton Bay. During the tourist season, there are food vendors but no bathrooms. After arriving at the beach and walking around for a couple of hours looking for dinosaur fossils, the inevitable occurs. You need a restroom, but none are available for a couple of miles. If you’re an intrepid traveler, you can find a suitable niche in the multi-colored cliffs along the beach. No worries—high tide happens twice a day.
After our day of collecting fossils, we head back to the main road and the bus stop. We have two choices: We can catch a bus back to West Cowes and find a lovely restaurant for dinner before catching the return ferry, or we can walk a couple of miles along the narrow country road to the Sun Inn, a 16th-century thatched free house pub, and order a pint. (In Britain, a free house is a pub not owned by a particular company and can sell whatever beers it chooses.) There’s a second bus stop near the pub.
The road is narrow, and the shoulders are muddy when we have to move for the occasional passing car, but it is scenic. We see quaint cottages and mansions on the hill. We meet sheep who rush to the gate to greet us. Finally, we arrive at the pub, staffed by a calm Golden Retriever, and enjoy a lager. We would love to spend more time here, perhaps even have dinner, but we opt to catch the bus back to West Cowes while the sun is still shining.
Soon we are back at the ferry port and sail back to Southampton, where the choice of restaurants is enormous. But that, also, is another story.
About the Author
Robin Van Auken, MA, RPA, is the CEO of Hands-on Heritage. She is an anthropologist and registered professional archaeologist (National 15069). She specializes in working with communities, galvanizing individuals to contribute their memories, photographs, and artifacts to develop legacy projects. Through in-depth, sensitive interviews, she learns the important stories that connect people through time and space. Robin especially enjoys the challenge of hunting for historic photographs and artifacts that highlight America’s history. As a professional archaeologist, she has directed multi-year public cultural heritage projects, working with hundreds of volunteers and educating thousands of visitors.
All photos courtesy of the author.