Fossil hunting on the Isle of Wight

Earlier this year the Natural History Museum named the Isle of Wight as dinosaur capital of Britain. With the Bank Holiday weekend looming, and fond memories of previous trips to the island, we decided to see whether we could discover some dinosaur bones ourselves.

A browse through Trip Advisor suggested the Fossil Hunting trips run by Dinosaur Expeditions. My inner child was immediately captivated by the name, and putting aside all thoughts of Jurassic Park I booked us onto an afternoon ‘hunt’.

Walking the Tennyson Trail to The Needles
Walking the Tennyson Trail to The Needles

We caught an early morning ferry so had time spare to walk a stretch of  the Tennyson Trail. It was a gentle uphill walk, along a broad trail over West High Down to The Needles. Newly arrived swifts swooped along the trail, and with the gorse bushes smelling of coconut (suntan lotion) it really felt like summer had arrived.

needles
The Needles

The walk ended at a viewpoint over the white cliffs out to The Needles.  A coastguard helicopter was practising below us, adding a touch of excitement to the otherwise serene spot.

Dinosaur fossil hunting
Dinosaur fossil hunting

Back in the car, we managed to fit in a quick picnic at Freshwater Bay before heading over to start our fossil hunt. Oliver, our guide, met us in the car park near Brook Chine on the south coast of the island.  He started by explaining the types of fossil we might find, and handed round samples for us to familiarise ourselves with.  The children listened attentively to the ground rules (no paddling, no cliff climbing and don’t throw stones) before we walked down to the beach to start our fossil hunt.

The group consisted of 6 families, and I’m pretty sure the adults were as excited as the kids, I know I was! We trawled our way through the stones on the beach, picking up anything that looked fossil like and taking it to Oliver for identification.  We quickly became adept at identifying flints, sandstone, fossilised wood and sea sponges.

dinosaurfoot

After a while, Oliver took us on a walk to see some dinosaur footprints. He also explained the geological history of  the beach, and talked about the various strata in the cliffs behind us.  The tide wasn’t quite low enough to visit the footprints, instead he pointed out dinosaur footprint casts. I’d have never realised these were the slimy green rocks we’d been clambering over earlier but it was obvious the minute he showed us!

The walk back along the beach provided more fossil spotting opportunities.  My daughter was desperate to find a dinosaur bone, but sadly it was not to be.  However, at the end of trip Oliver surprised the children with a small fragment of dinosaur bone each.

We rounded off our day with a cream tea at Chale Bay Farm.  Our first of the year, it was a delight to laze in the sunshine, and feast on fruit scones, jam and cream.

Back home the kids had fun washing and sorting their finds.  You might think this just looks like a selection of stones, but we know better!

Not just any old stones!
Not just any old stones!

Kids view:

The dinosaur fossil hunt was very good because the man knew the names of all the things we picked up.

General info:

  • Take a bag or bucket to collect your fossil specimens in.
  • There are no toilet facilities at Brook Chine, so ensure you pay a visit before arrival.
  • The beach isn’t accessible for either wheelchairs or buggies.

Costs:

We travelled with Red Funnel from Southampton to East Cowes; a family day return cost £32. The family ticket for the fossil hunt was £12.50.

wavingatship
On the way home
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A free day out at The Vyne, Hampshire

vyneLast weekend we took advantage of the free entry offer to National Trust properties.  After searching through the suggestions on their website we decided on a trip to the The Vyne, just north of Basingstoke.

The visit didn’t start well, as upon arrival we were faced with traffic queues outside the property and parking stewards telling people the car parks were full.  After sitting in the queue for a while we turned around and were lucky enough to find a spot on a nearby verge, just a short walk from the The Vyne.  We headed up through the NT car park and were surprised to see lots of free spaces, and a rather harassed parking attendant trying to pass on the message to those directing traffic on the road.  The mayhem continued in the cafe, which looked like it had been looted and had little left on the shelves.  Let’s just say it was an unfortunate introduction to our visit!

Daffodils at The Vyne
Daffodils at The Vyne

Luckily after lunch things got better.  We started with the Hidden Realm play area, so the kids could run off some energy before visiting the house.  This is newly built, and consists of a variety of tunnels, a fort and a stream to dam. The stream and resulting wet sandpit area were incredibly popular with the pre-school age group who were having a ball!   The playground is advertised for children up to the age of 10, and my two did have fun even though it was mostly younger children using it during our visit.

The Vyne
The Vyne

The house dates from Tudor times but has some more recent associations with Jane Austen and J R Tolkien.  We don’t tend to visit stately homes much, given the bull in a china shop tendency of our youngest but we decided it give this one a whirl. We were pleasantly surprised.  The assistants were not the usual staid guardians that I tend to associate with such properties, but were keen to point out interesting items in the rooms and engage with the children.  My eldest daughter’s latest school topic is the Tudors so it really helped history come alive for her.

I liked the use of holly and teasels located on the various bits of furniture to stop people sitting on them.  They were an interesting alternative to the usual “Do not touch” signs, although the first time I noticed them was after my son had picked some up and was wandering over to me with it!

The house also has a room dedicated to the ring that may have been an inspiration for Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  Whilst I found it an interesting, but tenuous, link I think it could have been presented better.  The exhibition was word heavy and neither of my kids bothered to read any of the information, despite them both loving The Hobbit.  They had a quick glance at the ring on display but were in and out of the room in minutes.

walksvyne
Which walk?

Back outside again and we decided to take advantage of the fabulous weather.  We walked by the side of the lake, spotting some huge fish, until we reached Morgaston Woods.  The NT have signposted several walks through the woods, including one which takes you along a concrete track that was built during the Second World War.  Its purpose was to act as a decoy for enemy bombers, and to distract them from a nearby munitions depot. We had great fun imagining what it would have been like back in war time.

Geocaching at The Vyne
Geocaching at The Vyne

I’d read on the website beforehand that the woods had a geocache trail.We weren’t organised enough to plan this in advance but whilst on one of the woodland walks I checked the geocaching app on my iPhone and it picked up the NT geocaches. The kids had an enjoyable time running around and searching for them. Both of the ones we found were pretty easy to locate, but that’s better than not being able to find them at all!

So, in summary, the day didn’t start that well but things got better. I’m surprised how interesting we found the house, but as always it’s the outdoor things we enjoyed the most.

Kids view:

We liked the geocaching best.  It was boring whilst we had to wait for somewhere to park.

General info:

  • Check opening times carefully before you visit.  Not all parts of the property are open, particularly out of season.
  • The property and grounds have reasonable accessibility, and good family facilities.
  • Further details: National Trust website.

Costs:

We visited on a free weekend so didn’t have to pay. The usual price of a family ticket, including gift aid, to the house and gardens is £30, entry to NT members is of course free.  Would I pay this to visit again? Er, probably not!

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Queen Elizabeth Country Park, Hampshire.

We’d originally planned a day trip to the New Forest but whilst browsing for inspiration came across the Queen Elizabeth Country Park and decided to change our plans.  The park lies at the western end of the South Downs and includes a large managed wooded area and chalk downlands.

Running through the woods
Running through the woods

We visited over a busy Easter weekend and were initially put off by the large number of visitors.  However, we soon realised that the majority were only there for the Easter egg trail around the visitor centre, and egg rolling on Butser Hill.  Away from these areas the trails were pretty quiet.

After a look round the centre and a drink in the cafe we decided on three activities – the Juniper adventure trail, orienteering and a walk up Butser Hill.  There’s plenty more to do in the park though, including  mountain bike and off road cycle trails which looked good fun.

Juniper adventure trail

Juniper Adventure Trail
Juniper Adventure Trail

This is a large circular course with lots of obstacles for older children. It has a variety of rope nets, logs to balance on and chains to hang from.   The kids raced round it a few times, and declared it awesome.

There are several picnic tables, and barbeque sites dotted around the trail.  There’s also a seasonal kiosk which sells hot drinks, ice cream and a small selection of snacks.

You can drive up and park almost next to the trail, which is handy if you’re bringing a large picnic.  However, we walked up from the lower car park.  Be warned, it’s a steep climb up through the woods!

There’s a smaller playground near the visitor centre for the under eights.

 Orienteering 

Orienteering at Queen Elizabeth Country Park
Orienteering at Queen Elizabeth Country Park

The park has three permanent orienteering courses, with varying levels of difficulty. We purchased an orienteering map from the visitor centre, and decided on the ‘yellow’ course.  This is the easiest of the three, and involves finding eight controls which are generally visible from the main paths.

The leaflet explains how to complete the course. I recommend taking some time to  decode the colours as they’re different from what you’d see on a normal OS map.  The  scale is also larger than usual, so the map includes a lot of detail.

We didn’t make a great start as we couldn’t find the starting marker in the car park! After a while we gave up looking, and started on the rest of the controls. Fortunately these were all straightforward to spot.  When you find a control you need to mark the number and letter onto the section on your map. If you complete your course you can download a certificate when you get home.

The kids really enjoyed the trail, and it was just the right level for them.

Butser Hill

We finished our day with a walk up Butser Hill, which is signposted from the visitor centre.  It’s difficult to get lost – just head towards the large radio mast on top of the hill!  Alternatively you can drive over  to the car park towards the top of the hill if you’re feeling less energetic.

View from trig point at Butser Hill
View from trig point at Butser Hill

Our kids were getting tired so there were a few moans as we headed up the bridleway to the 270m summit. Butser Hill is one of the highest points in Hampshire, and from the top there’s a great view over the surrounding area.  It was pretty cold and windy on the day of our visit though so we headed down quickly once we’d had the obligatory photo stop at the top.

Kids view:

The orienteering was great fun as you got to run around the woods. It was quite hard climbing the big hill at the end.

General info:

  • You’ll need to bring your own bikes with you if you’re going to ride one of the trails as there’s no cycle hire available.
  • You should pre-book if you want to use the on site BBQs.
  • The visitor centre and cafe are wheelchair accessible, but the surrounding terrain is pretty hilly and the woodland paths are not suitable for those with limited mobility.

Costs:

A bargain! £2 to park all day.  We also chose to spend £1 on an orienteering trail and £1 for a map of the park.

More info: http://www3.hants.gov.uk/qecp

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