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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National Trust membership

Five years ago we signed up to National Trust membership in a car park somewhere in Cornwall. We were swayed by the promise of days out and free car parking. Last year we let it lapse. Did we make the right decision?

We started off with great intentions. During our first year of membership we visited the properties local to us, and took advantage of free parking at a nearby beauty spot.  However, over the years we realised we were forcing ourselves to visit places we wouldn’t normally go, just so that we could benefit from the NT membership.  We’re not that keen on historic houses, so we’d tend to only visit the gardens or surrounding woodland, and quite often this would have free access via public footpaths.

Additionally I can’t help thinking we’ve either grown out of, or are too young, for their target markets. Last week I took advantage of the free NT entry offer and visited The Vyne,  partly to see whether our decision was right.  It was full of families with toddlers, all having a great time. The other visitors appeared to be retired.  Our kids, being at primary school,  still enjoyed themselves but we seemed a bit out of place amongst the other visitors.

So last year we didn’t renew.  I still feel guilty about this.  Primarily because I know the membership goes towards preserving these historic homes and and the countryside. As a lover of the great outdoors I feel almost obliged to support this cause.  But with the family membership now costing almost £100 per year I think it’s the right decision. It’s a luxury we’re going to do without from now.

Maybe we’ll find ourselves strangely drawn to membership again in 20 years time!

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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.

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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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On the beach with Antony Gormley

menlookingout
Antony Gormley “Another Place”, Crosby beach

Most people know Antony Gormley as the creator of the “Angel of the North”, but being a southerner I tend to associate him with a solitary statue on top of Exeter College in Oxford.

I was keen to see more of his work so on a recent trip to Liverpool our first port of call was Crosby Beach.  This is the site of “Another Place”, an installation which has been exhibited in Norway, Germany and Belgium but now has a permanent home at Crosby.

Antony Gormley statue
Antony Gormley statue

The kids were initially excited about visiting the beach but when I mentioned it was to see some statues, rather than to go paddling (it’s a non-bathing beach), it lost some of its appeal.  Never mind that it was a freezing cold day with a biting wind!

We took the train from Liverpool to Blundellsands and Crosby station.  From the station it’s a 5 minute walk down to the beach front.  I’d seen quite a few photos of the statues beforehand but even so I was suitably impressed on arrival.

There are 100 statues, along a 2 mile stretch of beach, facing out to sea.   They’re made from casts of the sculptors own body so are realistic to a level of detail which made the kids snigger (if you get where I’m coming from).

A few statues are sunk into the sand and that’s a warning you should heed – the mud is particularly sticky so don’t attempt to walk out to the statues away from those closest to the promenade.

joeandmanSome of the statues have been dressed or painted.  Others are covered in barnacles. Most have a liberal dosing of seagull poo. We visited at low tide so you can see the statues stretching out into the distance.  Every so often your eyes play tricks and you think it’s a real person out on the horizon.

We walked alongside the promenade until we reached the coastguard station, and then followed the signs to Hall Road station, the next stop along on the railway. It’s only as I write this that I realise our tickets were only valid to the stop we got off at. I’ve no idea if there is a price difference but best to check in advance if you plan to do a similar walk!

Kids view:

We liked seeing the statues stuck in the sand, although it would have been better if it was warm and sunny.  The statues must get really cold!

General info:

  • I wish we’d bought a pair of binoculars with us.  In addition to the furthest statues, there are plenty of birds and large container ships to look out for.
  • Wellies might also have been useful. Although the tide was out, and we didn’t venture far from the promenade, we still got wet feet visiting some of the statues.
  • The train takes about 20 minutes from the centre of Liverpool. You can also drive to Crosby and then follow the brown tourist signs to Antony Gormley’s Another Place.
  • There’s not much in the way of facilities en route apart from an ice cream van and a stall selling drinks and hot snacks in the car park at the lifeguard station.
  • The promenade runs alongside the beach and is fully accessible.

Costs:

  • The statues are free to visit.  The ice cream van was  rather pricey, but I guess it’s a captive market.
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