Hunting for Fossils in Whitehaven, Cumbria
31 December 2017 | Mri Grout - A Lifelong Vagabond
A wonderful free attraction for anyone who loves rocks, history, or fossils can be found on the northern shores of Whitehaven. For here is one of the best locations for finding Carboniferous plant fossils in the whole of the UK. I would suggest at least two hours for the mildly interested, more for the obsessed. This site is NOT fit for children, the eldery, or people with handicaps; the walk along the southern side of Whitehaven's pier (around the tower) or simply along the northern seaside are better options. NOTE:No tools are necessary to go hunting for fossils in Whitehaven, Cumbria due to being able to find some simply by sorting through the slate (dark grey, thin rock) that has already fallen. If you want to walk up to the bottom of the clif face and find more intact pieces, however, then you must be an experienced hiker and have a good sense of balance as the area is vastly overgrown, full of thorns, steeply sloped, and very loose - both the ground and the cliff face you'll be searching under.
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Life During the Carboniferous Period
During the Denovian Period, roughly 416-360 million years ago, the first lobe-finned fish crawled out of the sea in order to begin a life on land. A major turning point for the evolution of mammals, birds, and amphibians came during the Carboniferous Period, roughly 360-300 million years ago, in the form of the first land-laid egg. So for those on the side of claiming the egg came before the chicken, you can now rub science in the faces of those on the wrong side. Haha. However, the Carboniferous Period isn't defined by this evolutionary mastery, but rather for its ideal conditions in coal formation. During this time, the world sported a warm uniform (non-seasonal) climate, which we can discern due to the lack of growth rings found in the plant fossils of this period. This was most likely due to the exceedingly large amount of water covering the surface of the earth as all of the continents were slowly drifting together to form the famous supercontinent known as Pangea.
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Discovering Carboniferous Plant Fossils in Whitehaven
All of the fossils you'll find on the northern shores and cliff faces of Whitehaven will be of Carboniferous plant fossils. However, there are over thirty different types here, a few of which you can see below. These have been cleaned; they will be darker and harder to see when under the cliffs at Whitehaven.
How to Clean Plant Fossils
Most plant fossils will differ from animal fossils due to the the lack of organic compound that is left behind. Due to this, you cannot clean them with water, and definitely not vinegar!, as it will wash away the black impression you see. Though some will be proper fossils and will survive a liquid poured over them, most will disappear as if they were erased. So to clean a plant fossil, simply gently rub it with a dry cloth. Slate is very fragile and by rubbing it, you can lighten the color by scraping off the top layer, making the contrast between it and the fossil better. However, do not rub or hold it too hard as too much pressure will crack the rock. Afterwards you can use a perserving liquid to stop the impressions from fading and cracking over time.
Directions to Fossil Collection Site in Whitehaven
One can find free parking in Whitehaven at Tesco, however this is limited to two hours. Though the fossils here are relatively similar in appearance and two hours might be enough for most people looking to collect a few items of Carboniferous plants, for those that would love to spend all day here, then there is unlimited free parking available at GPS coordinates: 54.555160, -3.587876 (as shown in the map above). There is a height bar over the entrance of this dirt carpark, however, so any tall vehicles will not be able to park here. I do not know the exact height that is permitted.
From here, walk north along the tarmac path parrallel to the train station. You'll be on the right hand side of it, sandwiched between it and a cliff face. Carry on past the fenced off area warning of loose rock (this was the old Carboniferous plant fossil collection site in Whitehaven) until the cliff nearly slopes onto the path. This occurs before passing the net holding another section from falling. Head right off the path, towards the cliff and carefully make your way up to the horizontal slabs of slate. This bit is NOT for the inexperienced hiker as the area is vastly overgrown, full of thorns, steeply sloped, and very loose - both the ground and the cliff face you'll be searching under. For those that don't want to walk under the overhanging, loose rock (and rightly so), keep an eye out as you walk along the bottom of the slope. There are numerous fossils to be found in the slate that has already fallen down the hill. For those that walked along the beach, head north until you find a tunnel leading under the train station. Note that this drops to a crouching level so if you have back or knee problems, it is not recommended to go this way. You will come out behind a wire fence that you will need to climb over and onto the path. Carry on north until you see the above markers.
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