The perfect trip: Yorkshire
Staithes to Bempton Cliffs: Best for coast
It’s only a couple of hours after dawn, but Yorkshire’s fossil hunters are already out in force. Armed with rock hammers and magnifying glasses, they scan the beach for signs: a fissure in a rock, the sparkle of a mineral, a swirl inside a limestone shard. Slowly, the sound of tapping hammers begins to echo across the beach, mingling with the cries of gannets and the rumble of surf smashing on the shoreline.
Stretching for 45 miles along the county’s eastern border, Yorkshire’s coastline is one of Britain’s richest hunting grounds for fossil collectors, second only in prestige to Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. A combination of sandy soils, geological shifts and rapidly eroding cliffs have uncovered some of the nation’s most impressive prehistoric finds here – from giant, spiral-shaped ammonites to fossilised dinosaur footprints.
‘One of my best finds was a prehistoric crocodile,’ says Byron Blessed, a fossil collector and palaeontologist who runs a geological shop in the nearby harbour town of Whitby. ‘I saw the tip of its snout poking out of a rock, and when I looked closer, I couldn’t believe my luck. Finds like that are incredibly rare – for a fossilhunter, it’s a bit like winning the Lottery!’
He points out a few other prize discoveries inside his shop’s cabinets: a giant shark’s tooth, a trilobite the size of a dinner plate, the fossilised jawbone of a mammoth dredged up from the North Sea. ‘It’s really just a question of knowing what to look for,’ Byron continues. ‘Once you’ve learned the basics, you’d be astonished how many fossils are out there just waiting to be found.’
The Yorkshire coast’s other claim to fame is as the birthplace of the globetrotting explorer Captain Cook, who fell in love with the sea while working in a grocer’s shop in the little fishing port of Staithes, and whose childhood home in Whitby has now been turned into a museum. Just as in Cook’s day, much of Yorkshire’s coastline is still a working landscape, home to bustling seaside resorts and big fishing fleets. But away from the harbours and coastal towns, traces of wildness still survive in many areas, from the quiet cove of Runswick Bay to the craggy Bempton Cliffs, which harbour some of Britain’s largest colonies of gannets, kittiwakes, puffins and guillemots.
For Byron, Yorkshire’s coastline is special. ‘This is one of Britain’s most important prehistoric landscapes,’ he says, turning over a huge ammonite in his hands, its polished surface glinting gently in the sunlight. ‘Every time we pick up a fossil, we’re actually looking millions of years into the past. It’s a bit like having access to your own time machine. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.’
He grins and steps outside his shop, as clouds of chattering gulls wheel over Whitby’s granite harbour, and a fishing boat bobs slowly out across the North Sea.
Where to eat
Famous throughout Yorkshire for its fish and chips, the Magpie Café also serves sophisticated seafood (mains from £10.95).
Where to stay
Raithwaite Hall was built in the 19th century, but it's been given a full modern makeover, complete with sleek rooms, minimalist décor and swish restaurant. This sprawling stately home is surrounded by 80 acres of grounds just off the Whitby coastline, and there are self-contained cottages if you feel like prolonging your stay (rooms from £79).