Thursday, 8 November 2012


I've a new interest in country walks at the moment. Most of the fields near our French house are coming under the plough; the old colza stubble and the fallow is being ploughed under, before the new crops are planted. The landscape glints with grey flint brought to the surface.

Every so often, a fossil turns up. They're sea urchins; some rounded, some more conical, and a very few (a distinct species, micraster) are charmingly heart-shaped. I'm intrigued by the variety; some are in hard white or cream coloured stone, others seem porous as if made of sandstone; very rarely, I find one black as jet or the shining white of quartz.

I've started collecting them. I've also started noting my finds on a Google map (; it's fascinating how some fields turn up fossils every couple of yards, while others are completely devoid of any fossil interest at all. The valley of our little winterburn for instance has almost no fossils; the fields above the marl pits are full of them.

I took a look at the marl pits the other day; there's a little lane goes past them, hardly unused except by dog-walkers and families going blackberrying. The cliff faces, glaring wet white, stand back from the path, separated from it by underbrush and sparse, thin trees. They're pure white, till about thirty centimetres from the top, where there's a single dark streak of flint. It looks about ten centimetres deep; that, I suppose, is where the fossils lurk. The layer is so thin; above and below it, nothing.

There's something a bit magical about these urchins. When you pick one out of the plough, and it's not chipped or fractured by the ploughshare, but complete, well rounded, it has a wholly satisfactory heft and weight to it as you pick it up. It's a perfect geometrical form; if you're lucky, all five radiating lines of spine sockets will be clear and deep. Sometimes, particularly with the micraster, the marks are so finely etched that you can hardly believe they've survived so many millennia; tiny patterns as delicate as snowflakes.

Micraster is a Late Cretaceous fossil; that's 60 to 100 million years ago.That doesn't mean much to me; I can't put it into context. But today, I found a different fossil; a tiny cockleshell attached to a small chip of flint. And suddenly, those years seemed to telescope - a shell in a field, just like the shells I used to find on holiday at Wells next the Sea; living and dead, ancient and modern, held together in a single moment. Strangely, in that single moment I appreciated for the first time the immense age of these fossils.

By spring I'll be laughing at this sudden enthusiasm of mine for fossil collecting. But it's taught me something; something I'd never have found out without a few days' obsession, walking along the furrows with my head down and my eyes open.

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