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On the way back down from our adventures in the Orkney Islands, we’ve had several nights in a rustic lodge near Plockton. Plockton is a gorgeous village where The Wicker Man and Hamish Macbeth was filmed and overlooks Loch Carron. Our lodge is on a secluded farm west of Plockton and the views are to die for.

Loch Carron
Loch Carron

We’re based at Craig Highland Farm to get away from it all. The place we are stopping has no TV, no mobile signal, a self enforced digital detox. It’s stunningly quiet and night time gives a fantastically dark sky with the Milky Way clearly visible overhead.

This was our view from the lodge. The first timelapse was taken using a Canon 200D with 300 x 0.5 second shots:

It’s also a great place to explore the Isle of Skye. Visitors to Skye are naturally drawn to its landscape, the sharp ridges of the Black Cuillin mountains, Trotternish and Quiraing and it reminds me of the rock formations and landscapes of Iceland. Who can blame the visitors coming here, after all, Skye is gorgeous and its also pretty popular with the tourist hordes that descend on Sky to leave their mark, and they certainly do leave their mark. A walk to the Fairy Pools will never be in seclusion with paths and grass worn away by the thousands of footprints left from the day.

The tourists are not the only ones to leave their mark, so did the dinosaurs, and the one of the main reasons for our visit to is to go dinosaur hunting, walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs on the Isle of Skye.

Our last journey here dinosaur hunting wasn’t that successful, attacked by midgies on a very wet and misty day and trying to convince ourselves we’d found the famed footprints on An Corran beach at Staffin Bay. Fossils are best found in dryer conditions but Skye isn’t exactly known for its rain free climate, beaches are known for having bodies of water… but today we seem relatively lucky as the sun is out.

plockton
Plockton. The place of Summerisle in The Wicker Man was filmed here.

Returning back to Staffin Bay, the last time we came here it was deserted, this time there a few visitors each with their head down looking for the dinosaur footprints. Lord Nelson remains uninterested in the beasts, and wees quite possibly in the footprints of a beast that wandered past millions of years ago. Eventually we were advised by someone to go and see the newly discovered footprints at Duntulm where they were much more noticeable and giving us very specific instruction on where to find them.

Heading past the Trotternish Ridge, finally seeing the Old Man of Storr and the rock formations of Quiraing, we ahead to Duntulm. Most visitors to Duntulm will head to the castle, the viking stronghold, but wont look to the unremarkable looking beach area to their left. 170 million years ago during the Middle Jurassic period, this area was a shallow salt water lagoon and a much more temperate climate.

In 2015, a study team discovered hundreds of footprints made by plant-eating long-necked sauropods and now we’re standing in the footsteps of these giants, some footprint up to 70cm in diameter. We know we’ve got the right place because there is filming here and the expert attached to the filming team offer to show the prints. The footprints look like large round holes but are in a clear walking line.

Sauropods dinosaur footprints at Duntulm in Skye
Sauropods dinosaur footprints at Duntulm in Skye

Sauropods were the early distant relatives of Brontosaur and Diplodocus weighing more than 10 tonnes and 15 meters in length, the largest animals ever to have lived on land, you wouldn’t want them stepping on your toes. I get a kick knowing that these huge beasts walked here, especially great for kids, even those at 47 years old. If you do visit, just consider that these prints have been happily sat there for the past 170 million years, they’ve survived years without interference and they don’t need you hammering and chiselling the ground to try and claim a fossil footprint for your collection. Leave them alone to let others keep walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs.

Being a bit of an old fossil myself, I find nothing more interesting than looking at other old fossils so I’m at Wollaton Hall (yes, Bruce Wayne’s house in Batman) to see some of the most important fossil specimens in the world showing preserved fossil feathers at the Dinosaurs of China Exhibition, from Ground Shakers to Feathered Flyers. These fossil discoveries from China significantly changed the way we looked at dinosaurs.

The stars of of the show are the preserved fossil remains that show soft tissue preservation with the very obvious feathers, and the upstairs at Wollaton Hall is dedicated to this.

Sinosauropteryx

Sinosauropteryx was the first feathered dinosaur to be described and had downy feathers.

Yanornis

Yanorniss from the late Cretaceous, 120 million years ago, was around 40cm long, the size of a chicken and covered with feathers.

Microraptor

Mircoraptor was a small feathered flying dinosaur from the early Cretaceous and a close relative of the Velociraptor.

Protopteryx

Protopteryx was an early bird with teeth and three-fingered hands showing that the earliest birds retained dinosaur like features.

 

Downstairs, we are greeted by the towering display of a huge long necked Mamenchisaurus.  23 metres long from head to tail, it’s taller than the big bloke who stands in front of you wherever you go, its actually taller than 3 double-decker buses on top of each other. Too big to display, it has been mounted in a rearing posture to fit inside the building and at 13 metres high is the tallest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the UK. This long necked, leaf eating, sauropod from the late Jurassic (160 million years ago) would have weighed an estimated 45 tonnes. Truly a ground shaker, you wouldn’t have wanted this stepping on your toes.

Sinraptor

Sinraptor led a violent life.

The one that really catches they eye though is the Sinraptor from the late Jurassic period of 160 million years ago. It looks a fearsome beast and this predator was at the top of the food chain. Over 7 metres long, it was the size of a minibus and not fully grown. Its skull is 90cm long with a set of sharp teeth and has sharp curved claws on its fingers and toes for catching and killing prey.

Guanlong

Guanlong had a delicate ornamental head crest and was an earlier cousin of the the Tyrannosaurus

 

Christmas dinner will never be the same again knowing that I’ve ate the evolved remains of a dinosaur for dinner. Whether that means they tasted like chicken remains unknown, even though we do know that birds are the modern day descendants of dinosaurs. I don’t know about you, but T-Rex doesn’t seem so terrifying now that we know his relatives had feathers, especially when you consider that Velociraptor had feathers and was only around 1/2 metre high. Clearly, Jurassic Park got it wrong.

Dinosaurs of China is not a large exhibition but it is well worth your time. When this exhibition is over, these fossils will be returning back to China.

As I celebrate my 45th orbit of the sun, it would seem appropriate that one old fossil gets to visit some other old fossils, so today finds us extreme dog walking deep into Derbyshire at the limestone deposits of Steeplehouse Quarry by the National Stone Centre. This 50 acre site at Wirksworth on the edge of the Peak District is of special scientific interest for its geological features and quarry fossils.

That’s because approx 330 million years ago, just before the formation of the Pangea super-continent, Britain was much closer to the equator and this area was a lagoon, a shallow sea bed with a much more tropical climate. Today, these rocks are made from limestone (calcium carbonate), carboniferous rocks from the Eyam Limestone Formation (Dinantian age) are full of crinoids and brachiopods, the shelly remains of of billions of animals. carboniferous means coal-bearing and a time when large amounts of coal deposits were formed (you’re burning up your ancestors…).

 

Hollow impressions from Brachiopods
Hollow impressions from Brachiopods

Some of the fossils are more intact with hollows in the rocks that are impressions made by brachipods. They were bi-valve creatures (with two half shells), like a clam where they lived on the calm sea bed away from strong currents and waves. They were once as abundant as shellfish today and there are plenty of broken up remains in the rock face. They became virtually extinct 250 million years ago during the Permian mass extinction, often know as the Great Dying.  The end of the Permian period was marked by the biggest mass extinction event of the last 600 million years of which 95% of all species on Earth died out. C’est la vie. Or not.

 

Crinoid stems from Steeplehouse Quarry in Derbyshire
Crinoid stems from Steeplehouse Quarry in Derbyshire (click for better resolution)

Walking further along the quarry, we come across a mass of of dark grey rock that formed the back slope of a reef that sheltered the lagoon from open sea. Clearly visible in the quarry fossils are the mass remains of Crinoids, a creature related to modern starfish and often called sea-lilies due to their resemblance to plants.  Crinoids are the most common fossil in this quarry and used to feed by sieving seawater with their fronds and filtering plankton. They were attached to the seabed by a long stem and grew in large colonies where their main predators, sharks, attacked their calyxes which was the main body of the animal. Crinoid stems were made up of small rings of calcite known as columnals or ossicles which are preserved more easily, held together by soft tissue like skin and the slope in front of us shows many large unbroken crinoid stems.

 

Fragmented crinoid stems and columnals with brachiopod shells in the rock face
Fragmented crinoid stems and columnals with brachiopod shells in the rock face

While we did not collect any actual specimens, it feels a little disrespectful to bash these quarry fossils with a hammer when they’ve been quite happily sat there for the past few hundred million years, aside from the unfortunate Great Dying of course. It’s still a far more successful fossil hunt than our last attempt near here, although we’ve not seen this much stone since our Nerdy Neolithic Monster Megalithic Monument Tour last year. Then again we didn’t have Nelson with us that time and today he’s taught us to never underestimate your dogs ability to sniff out ancient fossils, a mere 330 million years old and wee on them with utter contempt. By the way, fossil, comes form the Latin word fossilis means ‘dug up’ which is what I’ll be in danger of if I drag Mrs C to anymore abandoned quarries.

Bradgate Park, a medieval deer park in Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire, barren, rugged and reputedly the birthplace of the short-lived Nine Days Queen, Lady Jane Grey, before Bloody Mary got ticked off with the Tudor usurper and tried for high treason, eventually losing her head over it, all before the age of 17.  No wonder her house is in ruins.  Not sure what I can give in way of an explanation for mine.

Old rocks and Old John, Bradgate Park in Leicestershire.
Old rocks and Old John, Bradgate Park in Leicestershire.

What we’re really here to do is extreme dog walking.  At least that’s the pretence I’ve used to visit here.  It’s ripe for it though, there are some hills here, helped enormously by the craggy knolls of Precambrian rocks of volcanic origin, we’ve got a dog, usually a decent enough excuse for a dog walk, trees, deer, muddy paths, screaming kids, howling wind and acres and acres of wild grassy spaces.  Note to self: never underestimate dogs ability to sniff out every blade of wild grassy heathland unmolested by others dog’s pee for him to accurately deposit his own it. It’s also got a central focal point atop the highest point in Bradgate Park in the form of a folly called Old John, built in 1784, ideal for when your calf muscles are screaming at you from your extreme dog walking if you can get up the hill.

I’m not suitably dressed for it though, I’m slogging through thick cloying mud in white trainers, and with every step weighing me down by the accumulating peat and marshy mud dragging me ever closer to a boggy demise.  I’m in danger of fast becoming Leicestershire’s very own Pete Marsh (Lindow Man), in fact, if I’d have trodden any further to the east I’d have become Pete-Bog-Horror Man (Peterborough…geddit?….Hint…Google Maps).  And they say french Knights had a tough time with the mud at Agincourt.

Of course, what I really to do, and the whole reason for the pretence of extreme dog walking, is to geek out and look at those interesting rocks, the sliding stone stump breccias and ancient Precambrian rocks.  These Precambrian rocks, 600 million years old, are some of the oldest in the UK and the world.  Now you could argue that all rocks are old, but allow me to divulge. Over 50 years ago, it was generally accepted that life, particularly multi-cellular life, not just your odd single cell or groups of cells, emerged during the Cambrian age, the so-called Cambrian Explosion, where in geological terms, life exploded onto the scene and where most of the major animal phyla appeared as indicated by the fossil record.

Sliding stone stump breccia, Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.
Sliding stone stump breccia, Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.

Scientists had always thought there wasn’t any point looking at these rocks, but in 1956/1957, a few schoolkids found marks and impressions in the rocks. These marks on the Precambrian rocks were eventually checked out by a geologist and new species was catalogued – Charnia, named after the forest in which it was found in and can be seen in Leicester’s New Walk museum.  The first macrofossil to be discovered anywhere in the world in Precambrian rocks.  This led to scientists in other parts of the world to look at other similar aged rocks. These fossils are so old that scientists cannot find the distinction between plant and animal life.

All this happening where we are walking now.  While Leicester has often given me the impression that it is devoid of life, I have worked near here after all, there are certainly a few old fossils here.  Sadly the fossils are not easy to see on these rocks and we didn’t get to see any.  Even worse is the fact parts of these Precambrian rock faces have been vandalised, carved with graffiti and souvenir hunters have tried to hack away for a keepsake.  They are not the kind of rocks where fossils will come out, they just shatter.  For this reason, the site is kept secret although groups may request in advance with the Bradgate Park Trust.  Something I’m still keen to see.

You can see my earlier attempts at fossil hunting here.

Sporting my new geology hammer and chisel I’ve gotten for Christmas from Sam, its time to field test them and go fossil hunting in Derbyshire.  Now I’m not expecting Jurassic Park or to find the intact remains of a T-Rex or for dog to dig up the bones of a Pachycephalosaurus (easy for you to say) but it would be nice to see the ancestors. Even if they are only spineless simple sea creatures. No change there then.

The world's most inept fossil hunter.
The world’s most inept fossil hunter. Slightly advanced sea creature.

Getting dressed up for the weather, all the gear-no idea, I look like the shittest version of Indiana Jones you’ve ever seen.  In fact I don’t look anything like him, I look more like a serial killer with a pointy hammer, ready to deliver the coup-de-grace to anyone unlucky enough to stumble across my path.  At this point I should probably mention that we’re in an abandoned quarry, so I could probably get away with it….

Brachiopods, bivalves, crinoids and choral markings at Hall Dale Quarry near Matlock. Click for a much larger picture to see the "evidence."
Brachiopods, bivalves, crinoids and choral markings at Hall Dale Quarry near Matlock. Click for a larger picture to see the “evidence.”

Do you know what we found fossil hunting?  Nowt, nil, zilch, bugger all.  Too much bleeding snow to see anything.  No signs of life, this is Derbyshire after all.  Probably didn’t help when Sam lost the new chisel down some rocks and boulders, trying to weave our hands through gaps in the boulders and rocks like Inspector Gadget trying to retrieve it only for it to go the way of the dinosaurs. Instead, we had to batter away at some rocks with the geologist’s pick. Had a few of what we thought were tantalising glimpses of life now and again.  Had more false positives than the Allan Hills 84001 meteorite (ALH84001).  Quite apt considering our current snowy conditions and that it was found this day 20 years ago in Antarctica.

Brachiopod from the Eyam Limestone Formation of the Dinantian age 327-340 million years age
Brachiopod from the Eyam Limestone Formation of the Dinantian age 327-340 million years ago.  This was from our previous fossil hunting visit in September.

Looks like we’ve banging our heads for nothing during this fossil hunting expedition, which is a bit like what Pachycephalosaurus used to.  Headbangers the lot of ’em. The nearest thing we’ve seen in dinosaur evidence is the remains of the Turkey we ate on Christmas Day.  The way this is going, I’ll end up like Otzi the Iceman by the murderous looks Sam is giving me, her feet are freezing, I’m in serious in danger of being overkilled with the damage she’s intent on dishing out on me.  Even dog is giving the evils.

Hall Dale Quarry near Matlock in Derbyshire. Even dog was getting fed up of the cold.
Hall Dale Quarry near Matlock in Derbyshire. Even dog was getting fed up of the cold.

Still, the day isn’t entirely without success, we do have some very small finds, it really isn’t the weather for it.  We’ve been bashing at the dark grey carboniferous limestone rocks in Hall Dale quarry near Matlock in Derbyshire.  These blocks of rocks from the Eyam Limestone Formation of the Dinantian age 327-340 million years ago (Lower Carboniferous) have the most common types of fossils to be found including bivalves, brachiopods, corals and crinoids.

You can find out more about fossil hunting in Derbyshire and the UK here.

You cand out more on Pachycephalosaurus and other dinosaurs by taking this fantastic course here.

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