Living on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, my kids are keen fossil hunters and love nothing more than chipping away at rocks and stones in the hope that they will find some prehistoric treasure.
One of the best locations to go fossil hunting is Kimmeridge Bay, where fossils occur commonly throughout the Kimmeridge Clay, in particular the shells of ammonites and bivalves which are easy to spot as you walk along the beach.
We were invited to visit The Etches Collection this weekend, the finest single collection of late Jurassic age fossils ever assembled in Britain.
The brand new multi-million-pound museum showcases a collection of Jurassic Coast fossils, the life’s work of local collector and expert, Steve Etches.
The state-of-the-art space includes a new town hall for the villagers, a class room for school / colleges and an exhibition gallery with CGI projections on the ceiling that transform it into an aquarium of the past in the blink of an eye that tells the story of life and death under the seas of Kimmeridge over 150 million years ago.
The kids were presented with an activity sheet on arrival for them to identify the creatures they saw on the large screens above our heads. It wasn’t the easiest of tasks as some looked quite alike, but it generated lots of discussion.
Looking at fossils can be confusing, especially for young children, but seeing them brought to life on the screens really helped their understanding and they were fascinated by how they could see the fossils in stones and rocks in the displays. The information about each exhibit was clear and had a handwritten look which made the museum seem more personal, as if you had been invited around to see a friend’s collection.
We were lucky enough to enjoy a tour by Steve Etches himself and his enthusiasm and knowledge inspired everyone around him. He also took the time to ensure he answered everyone’s many questions too.
The fossil specimens are presented and interpreted to bring to life their individual stories, however, I would say that you cannot really spend any more than an hour inside looking at them. To make a full day of it, I recommend going for for lunch in the quaint Clavell Cafe opposite the museum, followed by a trip to Kimmeridge Bay to do some fossil-hunting yourself.
The natural limestone ledges extending out into the bay also make it a wonderful location for rockpooling.
Kimmeridge Bay is also a superb location for a variety of watersports. The shallow, warm waters are excellent for snorkelling and diving in the summer, with easy access to excellent dive sites such as the Underwater Nature Trail and I really want to try glass bottomed kayaking as the lack of sand means the water is crystal clear.
If you are feeling energetic it is well worth walking up to the Clavell Tower, a Grade II listed Tuscan style tower built in 1830, which offers commanding views over the bay – you can even stay in it. There are also some Dragons Teeth tank traps on the beach to prevent invasion by German tanks from landing craft during the Second World War which are perfect for the kids to play games with!
Entry to the Etches Museum costs £20 for a family ticket with free parking available on the site. If you do head down to Kimmeridge Bay in the car, access is via a toll road and car parking charges apply depending on the size of your vehicle. (£5 for my car.)