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The Wight Stuff

November 30, 2011

There Be Monsters? Map of the Isle of Wight by the Dutch geographer Herman Moll 1724

“Isle of Fright!” screamed the page-three headlines in the newspaper that morning announcing the discovery of a new species of ‘vicious’ flesh-eating dinosaur that had been found embedded in the 120 million year-old cliffs of England’s fair and gentle Isle of Wight. Believing this walking nightmare to be the long-elusive great-great-grand-daddy of Tyrannosaurus rex, palaeontologists around the world were hailing it as one of the most significant dinosaur finds in recent years. An artist’s rendition showed it striding, fang and claw, through the swampy landscape that characterised the area at the time, in the company of an iguanodon, a brachiosaurus, and an armour-plated polecanthus, other prehistoric beasties that had also once roamed the island.

It all made for a stirring read over the breakfast bacon and eggs. I’d always thought of the Isle of Wight in gentlemanly terms: yachting regattas at Cowes, America’s Cup, Queen Victoria’s summer retreat at Osborne House, and those fashionable 19th century seaside resorts where England’s well-to-do used to go to ‘take the air’.

It never occurred to me that the island might be a dinosaur graveyard as well, let alone that its Cretaceous sandstones were the final resting place for some of those very same prehistoric monsters whose fossils inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World in 1912 – a novel that would one day provide the inspiration for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. But so it apparently was.

And what’s more, thanks to the wettest winter since 1659, landslides along the coast were exposing fresh new rock faces riddled with the bones and teeth of dinosaurs. Anybody could go looking and, according to the newspaper, just about everybody was. Anywhere below the high-tide mark was Crown land and therefore fair game.

This was a few years ago.  I was new in England then.  And as I read all this, beautiful vistas rolled out before me. I used to love reading The Lost World when I was a kid and always fancied myself as the Edward Malone character, the journalist who accompanies Professor Challenger into the prehistoric jungles of South America. And now here I was, in jaded middle age, twenty-some years into a real-life career in journalism, and with a geology degree to boot, and yet to go on a dinosaur hunt. That was about to change. Here was my chance, not just to go a-dinosaur hunting but to do it in the style of my most cherished boyhood daydreams: sling myself aboard my bike and set off down the street, jaunty and cavalier, my cap set for adventure. How many times had I played out that scene in my head. Now I could do it for real.

The Isle of Wight was less than a hundred miles from my doorstep, and waiting out in my garden shed was a doughty old English-built, black-and-cream tourer, propped against a load of rusty paint tins, looking hopeful, ready to go. Like Oscar Wilde I can resist anything but temptation. I threw a few things together and, like a character in a storybook, set off within the hour with a heart for any fate.

Professor Challenger’s party began their adventures with an arduous journey by steamship to a dangerous South American seaport.  I, on the other hand, had a long, wet and windy ride along the coast to Portsmouth, followed by a short but rather bouncy crossing of the Solent on the Wightlink ferry. I didn’t mind the lousy weather, not for the first few miles anyway. The lashing rain and stormy skies gave a nice sense of drama and danger to the undertaking, but by the time I rolled off the ferry and onto the rain-slickened streets of Ryde, I was more in the mood for hot coffee than cold hardship.

I collected my thoughts over a latte in the steamy warmth of one of the cafes along the seafront, watching the rain streak down on the windows and looking over the brochures I’d picked up at the tourism office, across the street. The best thing to do, I gathered would be to head first for Sandown, five miles away, visit The Dinosaur Isle Museum and get my bearings.

I arrived late afternoon, near closing time, under a cold slanting rain. I browsed amongst the glass-cased exhibits and artists’ renditions of what the island might have looked like in the bad old days of the Cretaceous. There were loads of fossil shells, ammonites, sponges, ferns, insects and chunks of petrified wood on display but they weren’t what I, or anyone else there, was interested in. We were all of us gazing at the bones, teeth and claws of the scarier critters, most particularly the newly discovered Eotyrannus lengi.

As dinosaurs go, Eotyrannus wasn’t terribly huge – about fifteen feet long, a mere morsel for T. rex, which could grow to over forty feet, but still more than double the size of those scene-stealing velociraptors in Jurassic Park. It sported rows of two-inch saw-edged teeth and nightmarish Freddy Krueger-style claws with which it could tear other dinosaurs to pieces. It was fast and agile and considered to be the most ferocious of any of the twenty or so species of dinosaur known to have inhabited the island. It had been found mingled with the remains of a plant eater – upon which it may have preyed – and surrounded by a lot of plant debris, leading to speculation that it may have been caught up in a flash flood.

I took this all on board, bought a where-to-find-fossils guide in the museum bookshop, and dropped another two quid on a waterproof geology map of the island. That night I sat up late in my B&B, in Ventnor, listening to the wind rattle the windows, and worked out a plan of campaign. Most of the new dinosaurs, including Eotyrannus, were being found amongst the crumbling sandstones on the cliffs near Brighstone, on the southwest side of the island. That was the place to be and where everybody was heading. There was even a small dinosaur museum that had recently opened up on one of the farms down there, where excavations were continually turning up interesting bones and where a team of palaeontologists had set up a booth to help amateurs identify their finds.

I marked it on the map. Early the next morning, after two-thousand calories of ‘full English breakfast’, I set out in the wind and rain for Brighstone, about fifteen miles away. I arrived just on low tide. Dismounting at a likely looking spot, I wheeled my bicycle down onto the beach, then propped it up against a rock face at the bottom of a cliff and started prospecting.

Everything I remembered about Cretaceous geology you could just about chisel on an aspirin tablet, but as a setting for windswept drama you’d have to give this spot high marks: a romantic old smuggler’s coast, lashed by storms, with the hollow boom of the surf in your ears and the windows of some old brooding manor house gazing down from the wooded heights nearby.

I pecked around for the better part of two hours without finding anything more interesting than a few faint impressions of shells and some squiggles in the rock that could have been anything. By then the weather was closing in and the tide was on the rise. I was daydreaming about lunch and hot coffee when I turned over an oblong lump of rock and realised, with a start, as I was about to put it down again, that it was shaped uncannily like a butcher’s bone – a tibia, to be precise. The hairs on the back of my neck began to tingle. I hastily brushed off the sand and grit. It was unmistakably a fossil, and its resemblance to the top part of a thigh bone was positively unnerving.

It was big, too; not as big as the ones I’d seen in the museum, but plenty big enough to satisfy me. I cast my eyes greedily around to see if there was any more to this skeleton, but it seemed as though the surf must have messed it all up, because this one chunk was all there was. But that was enough. I hoisted it up and, with a furtive look up and down the desolate beach, to be sure that I was alone with my treasure, I lugged it over to my bicycle and lashed it onto the rear rack with a length of shock cord I’d brought along, just in case. Five minutes later I was on my way, wobbling down the road to the farmstead where the palaeontologists awaited, eager to show off my weighty prize. This had to be seen by experts.

The rain was coming down harder now, with raw gusts blowing in from the sea. They skittered the bicycle some on the wet and slippery road, but the cold and wet couldn’t touch the inner me – warmed as I was by the glow of discovery, and of course the effort of lugging a sizeable chunk of Cretaceous-era relic along a hilly coast and into a stiff breeze. As I pedalled along I tried to imagine the fearsome creature whose leg bone I had found. Maybe it was a young Eotyrannus, a new and vital piece in the unfolding evolutionary puzzle. Maybe it was a bit of a completely new and still more vicious predator. Maybe … but who knew. It could be anything.

I found the farm I was looking for. Despite the atrocious weather the yard was filled with cars; I wasn’t the only one scouring the slumped cliffs that morning, looking for fossils. Inside the barn a knot of people in oilskins and gumboots were gathered around a table, waiting to show their finds to the resident palaeontologist. He was busy sorting through the bucket of stony curios brought in by a local woman. I sidled up, listening in, my altogether heftier specimen concealed by my dripping cape.

The woman’s seemingly shapeless lumps turned out to be rather interesting: a piece of vertebrae from an iguanodon, a bit of armour from polecanthus, and a piece of bone from an unidentified, but undoubtedly flesh-eating, monster. She was so pleased. I had mixed emotions, myself. My own find looked so much more impressive and bone-like, and was so much larger and grander that I hated to spoil her moment.

“Yes?” said the palaeontologist, looking up at me through his half-moon spectacles.

I stepped up, smiling apologetically to the woman whose find I was about to trump, and hefted my great fossilised tibia onto the table. “I found this near the bottom of the cliffs a few miles from here,” I began, striking just the right tone of self-important modesty. “…and I was wondering if it might be of interest.”

His eyebrows arched impressively. “My goodness! You brought that all the way here on your bicycle?”

I nodded an affirmative, and flashed a smile around the room. Anything for science, my good man.

“Hmmm.” He groped for words. Then he found them. “I’m afraid that what you’ve got there, young man, is a rather heavy chunk of flint, with a large fossilised sponge at the end of it.”

It took a few seconds before his words sunk in. I had been prepared to hear that this thigh bone might not actually have come from Eotyrannus lengi, and in fact might not even have belonged to anything carnivorous at all, but had instead been the thigh bone of some harmless moss-nibbling thing – but a sponge? What kind of a sick joke was this?

“Yes, indeed,” he continued, as he examined it more closely. “It’s a sponge all right. And rather badly eroded at that.”

“Uh-huh.” I could feel my face flush. Eyes were on me. “Of course it is. I knew that. I was just hoping you could tell me what kind of a sponge, what species. I’m most curious on the point.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry. That’s not really my area. But there is a palaeontologist here who could probably help you. She’s at tea just now, if you care to wait.”

“Naturally.”

I stepped smilingly aside, nodded knowledgeably to the crowd, easing backwards away from the table then waiting until he (and they) were busy poring through a bucket of someone else’s more interesting specimens before slipping out the door.

I abandoned Spongiferous rex discretely behind a fence post, together with my career as a swashbuckling dinosaur hunter. I saddled up, pushed off and pedalled onward through the rain, sneezing by now, another thirty miles back to Ryde where I caught an afternoon ferry to Portsmouth and the mainland. Conan Doyle could keep his blessed Professor Challenger and Edward Malone and the whole lot of them. The more I thought about it – and I had much time for thinking the next day on the long and dreary ride home – I liked Sherlock Holmes better anyway. Perhaps Dartmoor next time.

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