July 26, 2009
Paid my first ever visit to Fairlight on the East Sussex coast, today. It is about 4 miles NE of Hastings and is famous for its fossils. The cliffs there were formed by sediments – clays and sandstones – that were laid down in the Early Cretaceous period, around 140 million years ago. At that time the land was low-lying and swampy with lakes and pools, but also rather warm. What is more, there were dinosaurs around!
As the tide goes down, the evidence reveals itself in the rocks – fine layers of sediments overlaying each other; fossilised ripples; and would you believe it – the first thing I found – the fossil cast of an Iguanodon footprint! I actually feel a little guilty at having such outstanding Beginner’s Luck.
The fine impressions in the footprint, sadly, are not the dinosaur skin but small shells that must have been littering the muddy lake shore underfoot.
On the foreshore at Cliff End, the remains of a much younger submerged forest are revealed at low tide. The trees are not fully fossilised but preserved by the salt water and the mud arresting or at least slowing, the process of decay. the forest originally grew below the cliffs at Pett some 6000 years ago at a time when the sea level was about 30m lower than today. It is likely that our Mesolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors would have hunted and foraged here.
I did some foraging of my own. Up on the beach there were clumps of Sea Kale (Crambe maritima). In the hearts of these, a few young leaves continue to emerge throughout much of the year. By taking only one or two from each plant over a wide area, Bardster and I gathered enough for a couple of meals. Some leaves taste bitter at this time of year, but I balanced up the flavour by cooking them in a mustard cheese sauce!
There was also to my delight, some Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum). Only a little was fit for eating as it was coming in to flower, but at least I didn’t have to dangle over a cliff to get it.
Finally, as the tide receded there were winkles and mussels a-plenty in rather silty conditions. I resisted these, but harvested some of the abundant Carragheen or Irish Moss seaweed, instead. The mud simply washed off. At home I dried it on a rack in the fan-assisted oven at about 80°C with the door open. It took about 20 minutes.