Alum Bay is located on the most western tip of the Isle of Wight and
is an area of outstanding natural beauty, famous for its coloured sands
and the chalk Needles and lighthouse. Many people flock from the
mainland to view the scenery and visit the Needles Park during their
Ferry crossing from Southampton to Cowes
The ferry crossing takes around an hour (depending on where you
depart from) and then there's a 30 minute drive from Cowes to Alum
The Needles Park is a popular family attraction with tourists,
and provides a variety of sand based activities, including glass
making, small rides and souvenir shops. You can easily spend a good
couple of hours within the park before heading down to the beach,
although for many reading this page, it's more likely to be the
other way around!
From the Needles Park there are a three routes
to the beach; many people choose the chair-lift, as this saves
descending the steps or dirt track. Please follow the instructions
beneath the UK map above to find the dirt track. Alternatively,
steps lead down to the beach from within the Needles Park, towards
the seaward end (clearly indicated within the park).
Left: View over the
visitor chair lift towards the Needles and the lighthouse.
Right: Visitor chair-lift as viewed from the beach.
Left: The chalk
cliffs, Needles and lighthouse in silhouette. Right:
The Needles lighthouse as viewed from a local charter boat.
Although fossils are not the main attraction, the combination of
fascinating geology and stunning views, make this a worthy
destination for individuals and families. It's worth spending a few
hours at Alum Bay and experiencing the chartered boat trip to view
the Needles and lighthouse.
The geology of Alum Bay
The geology of Alum Bay tells a story of significant biological
and physical change, spanning 50 million years. The northern and
middle sections of the bay are comprised of sediments deposited in a
shallow, warm sea between 35-54 mya (Palaeogene period / Eocene
epoch); the southern end comprises towering chalk cliffs,
deposited in deeper water around 80 mya.
View from a charter boat, looking
back towards the southern corner of Alum Bay. Notice the vertical
coloured sands of the Bracklesham Group strata.
Alum Bay is well known for its colourful sands, which are often
sold in glass vessels within the Needles Park and surrounding
tourist shops, and also in other parts of the country too. The sands
are largely derived from the Bracklesham Group, located along the
middle sections of the bay. Although the sediments were originally
lying horizontally, the pressure of continental movement over
millions of years has resulted in localised folding, which is now
evident by the vertical position of the beds.
Geological summary of Alum Bay (click
here to view scene without text).
As you head south along the beach the sediments become
progressively older, and consequently the fossils you find differ
depending where you search. The only consistent geology occurs in
the form of flint pebbles which line the foreshore, which originate from Cretaceous chalk (see
Seven Sisters for evidence of flint depositing).
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Where to look for fossils?
From the beach access point, when facing out to sea, fossils can be
found in both directions - south (left) and north (right). For much of
the year access to the cliff base is restricted in order to protect the
faces from irresponsible hammering/digging. Please observe these
restrictions and remember that this is an fragile, beautiful stretch of
coast enjoyed by many. Alum Bay is the only place in the country where
such a range of sand colours can be viewed in the cliffs; collecting
sand is prohibited.
The best place to search for fossils is at the southern end of
the bay - within the London Clay - just before the Reading Formation
and chalk cliffs. At this point the clay is slumping onto the
foreshore and many fossils can be found protruding its surface; it's
possible to simply pluck specimens (mainly bivalve and gastropod
shells) from the clay (see photo below).
Left: Searching the
toe of the London Clay on the foreshore. Right: A
bivalve within the London Clay on the foreshore.
Fossils can also be found within the chalk exposed on the
foreshore (see foreshore photos below), although the volume and
range of finds is limited by the concentration of fossil material
and also the accessibility of these exposures. For individuals
seeking a greater scientific appreciation of the geology, a close
inspection of these exposures will reveal fragments of echinoids and
bivalves. Unfortunately we have no photos of chalk specimens to
include at this time.
Views of the chalk exposed at the
southern end of Alum Bay.
During your visit to Alum Bay it's worth spending some time
searching the Barton Group of sediments at the northern end of the
bay. Shortly after you pass the chair-lift the Barton Clay slumps
onto the foreshore (see photo below).
Views of the Barton Clay exposed on
the foreshore, north of the beach access.
Lucinda uses a small probe to lift
fossils from the London Clay.
A small steel probe or similar tool will provide a useful
implement for removing specimens from the foreshore clay, although
many specimens are simply lying on the surface and can be collected
with ease. For more information about the features and processes
controlling coastal fossil collecting locations
As with all coastal locations, a fossil hunting trip is best timed to coincide
with a falling or low-tide. For a relatively low one-off cost we
recommend the use of Neptune Tides software, which provides
future tidal information around the UK. To download a free trial
Alternatively a free short range forecast covering the next 7 days
is available on the BBC website
What fossils might you find?
The most common fossils at Alum Bay are bivalve and gastropod
shells, found within the London and Barton Clay on the foreshore. Worn
echinoids and brachiopods can be found within the flint, but these are
rarely of a collectable quality. The following photos show a selection
of specimens gather over the space of two hours.
Left: A small,
partial impression of a brachiopod shell. Right: A
worn and partial irregular flint echinoid.
Left: The partial
underside of an irregular flint echinoid. Right: A
small brachiopod exposed on a flint pebble.
Left: A small
gastropod in situ. Right: A bivalve in situ.
Examples of two common gastropods
found in situ.
Left: A large
bivalve found in situ. Right: A pair of
gastropods, washed out from the clay.
Left: A small
gastropod from the Barton Clay. Right: One half of
a small oyster shell.
Left: A small
gastropod from the Barton Clay. Right: One half of
a small bivalve shell.
Tools & equipment
Left: A steel point
is ideal for extracting fragile specimens from the clay. Right:
A pair of sturdy trainers or walking boots are recommended.
It's a good idea to spend some time considering the tools and
equipment you're likely to require while fossil hunting at Alum
Bay. Preparation in advance will help ensure your visit is
productive and safe. Below are some of the items you should consider
carrying with you. You can purchase a selection of geological tools
and equipment online from
Steel point: In some instances
it's not necessary to use a hammer and chisel to remove the matrix
surrounding the fossil. Sometimes all that's required is some
careful precision work using a steel point. This is particularly
relevant with crumbly matrix, where chiselling may otherwise shatter
a fragile fossil.
Hand lens: A hand lens enables the fossil hunter to enjoy the finer
details of the specimens they find. It's often remarkable how well preserved
some of the most intricate structures can be. We recommend
a lens with x10 magnification that folds away into a metal casing to protect
it from damage.
Strong bag: When considering the type of bag to use it's worth setting aside
one that will only be used for fossil hunting, rocks are usually
dusty or muddy and will
make a mess of anything they come in contact with. The bag will also
need to carry a range of accessories which need to
be easily accessible. Among the features recommended include: brightly coloured,
a strong holder construction, back
support, strong straps, plenty of easily accessible pockets and a rain cover.
Walking boots: A good pair of
walking boots will protect you from ankle sprains, provide more grip
on slippery surfaces and keep you dry in wet conditions. During your
fossil hunt you're likely to encounter a variety of terrains so
footwear needs to be designed for a range of conditions.
For more information and examples of tools and equipment
recommended for fossil hunting
or shop online at
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Protecting your finds
It's important to spend some time considering the best way to
protect your finds onsite, in transit, on display and in storage.
Prior to your visit, consider the equipment and accessories you're
likely to need, as these will differ depending on the type of rock,
terrain and prevailing weather conditions.
wrapped in foam, ready for transport. Right:
A small compartment box containing cotton wool is ideal for
separating delicate specimens.
When you discover a fossil, examine the surrounding matrix (rock)
and consider how best to remove the specimen without breaking it;
patience and consideration are key. The aim of extraction is to
remove the specimen with some of the matrix attached, as this will
provide added protection during transit and future handling;
sometimes breaks are unavoidable, but with care you should be able
to extract most specimens intact. In the event of breakage,
carefully gather all the pieces together, as in most cases repairs
can be made at a later time.
For more information about collecting fossils please refer to the
following online guides:
Fossil Hunting and
Conserving Prehistoric Evidence.
Join us on a fossil hunt
Left: A birthday party with
a twist - fossil hunting at
Right: A family hold their prized ammonite at Beachy Head.
Discovering Fossils guided fossil hunts reveal evidence of life that
existed millions of years ago. Whether it's your first time fossil
hunting or you're looking to expand your subject knowledge, our fossil
hunts provide an enjoyable and educational experience for all. To find