Fairlight is a small village located a short distance from the
coast between Pett Level (half a mile to the north-east) and
(4 miles to the south-west). Over the years
coastal erosion has consumed much of the village outskirts and several
homes have already toppled over the cliff. A recent study revealed the
cliffs had retreated over 100 metres in the last century alone. Until
recently Fairlight was unprotected from the sea, but in the early 1990s
a project to construct a wave barrier was completed (see below-right).
Today, erosion remains a big problem for the local inhabitants, but is
now confined to the stretches either side of the barrier and the
foreshore immediately in front of it.
Left: An abandoned
house stands precariously close to the cliff edge. Right:
The cliffs at Fairlight Cove are now shielded by a large wave
The cliffs and foreshore are comprised of layers of sandstone
and clay, deposited during the Early Cretaceous epoch,
approximately 140 million years ago (mya).
Fossils can be found
along the entire coastal stretch between Pett Level and
Among the finds made over the years include: dinosaur bones and
footprints, horsetail stems and other plants, fresh-water bivalves,
and fish remains. Although dinosaur remains are less common, when
they are discovered their importance is usually very high - please
notify Discovering Fossils or the Natural History Museum in London
if you discover something of importance.
Access to the beach is made alongside
The Smuggler pub at Pett Level.
Access to the beach is made a short distance east of Fairlight
at Pett Level (click on the map at the top of the page for more
detail). From the coast road a small access road (running alongside
The Smuggler pub) leads to the beach. Parking is available along the
main road opposite the pub (as seen above).
The cliffs at Pett Level and Fairlight are extremely unstable,
falling rocks and large collapses occur without warning throughout
the year. Please take care during your visit and avoid standing
directly beneath the cliff. It's recommended to keep at least 8
metres from the cliff base; if your visit requires that you operate
within this we strongly advise the use of a hard hat (available
The geology of Fairlight
Fairlight provides an opportunity to explore part of the
Early Cretaceous epoch, a time in the earth's history dating
approximately 143-139 mya. There are two geologic stages present within
the cliff and foreshore: the Berriasian (approximately 145-140 mya) and
the Valanginian (approximately 140-136 mya), although the precise
transition between the two is not clearly defined (figure 1).
Figure 1: Panoramic
view and detailed stratigraphy of the cliffs between Fairlight and
Pett Level (2008).
The sediments exposed in the cliffs and on the foreshore
between Pett Level and
were originally transported to the area as sands and silts by rivers and streams,
before settling at the base of a large lake or lagoon (predominantly above
sea level). At this time Fairlight and the rest of Britain were part of
the European landmass, located around 40° north of the equator, on the same
latitude as the Mediterranean Sea is today.
For much of the Berriasian and Valanginian stages the climate
was sub-tropical with seasonal changes in temperature and rainfall.
The mostly low-lying terrain was home to a rich plant flora,
revealed by the abundance of fossilised plant material found
throughout the succession. Conifers and related plants were the
dominant tree and cycad-like plants were also present. Grasses did
not exist during the Cretaceous, instead the ground was covered by
the horsetail Equisetites.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the sandstone
is the presence of dinosaur bones and footprints,
including carnivorous (meat-eating) and herbivorous
(plant-eating) species. These dinosaurs would have grazed and
hunted respectively along the river and lake sides, leaving their
footprints in the sediment.
Figure 2: View
north-east at Fairlight Cove. The distinctive scrape marks across
the Cliff End Sandstone are visible along the Haddock's Fault.
Moving along the coast from Pett Level towards Fairlight Cove
the geology becomes increasingly older, assisted by the presence of
two reverse faults: Haddock's fault (Fig. 2 and 3)
and Fairlight fault (Fig. 4). These faults formed suddenly as
energy was released from the pressure built up by Africa colliding
with Europe - a process that created the Alpine mountain chain and
uplifted south-east England into a large dome-shaped structure,
known as the Wealden Anticline (see
Hastings for more detail). As the uplifting took place the
rock at Fairlight was compressed laterally forcing one side to slip
upwards over the other.
At Haddock's fault the cliffs on the south-west side have been
thrust upwards, the lower section of the Ashdown Formation
(Sandstone) is visible at beach level (Fig. 3). Over time erosion
has removed the upper section of the Ashdown Formation. On the
north-east side of the fault the majority of the Ashdown Formation
is below beach level; the overlying Wadhurst Clay Formation is
visible in the middle to upper sections of the cliff face.
Figure 3: View
north-east at Fairlight Cove. The distinctive scrape marks across
the Cliff End Sandstone are visible along the Haddock's Fault.
Since the original Alpine uplifting the land on the immediate
south-west side of Haddock's fault has slipped backwards (in the
direction of its natural position), resulting in a visible
slip-plane across the exposed Wadhurst Clay (highlighted yellow).
This should not be confused with the earlier large-scale movement
which was in the opposite direction.
At the opposite end of Fairlight Cove a second reverse-fault
(Fairlight Reverse Fault) can be seen (Fig. 4). Here the
underlying Fairlight Clay (belonging to the Ashdown Formation) can
be seen in the slumping cliffs and foreshore south-west of the
fault line. These clays were formed by fine sediment transported by
rivers and streams then deposited in deeper parts of the
lake/lagoon. Some authors have attributed the finer sediments to
periods to reflect periods of reduced rainfall during which erosion
of the source rocks was less.
Figure 4: View west
across Fairlight Cove towards the Fairlight Fault, marking a change
from sandstone to clay at beach level.
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Where to look for fossils?
Fossils can be found throughout the rocks at Fairlight and
Pett Level, although the volume of finds tends to be relatively low
compared to neighbouring coastal stretches. It can take several visits
to Fairlight, without expert guidance, before a sufficient number of
fossils have been observed in order to build a picture of how this
prehistoric environment may have looked.
The best place to search is
on the exposed foreshore and among the boulders and shingle. At
low-tide, provided shingle isn't covering its surface, the exposed
Ashdown Sandstone can be viewed on the foreshore (see photo
below-left). During a recent Discovering Fossils event a number of well
preserved dinosaur footprints were located in situ at this location.
Left: View from
Fairlight Cove - the Ashdown Sandstone is exposed on the
foreshore. Right: Ashdown Sandstone at Pett Level.
Occasionally dinosaur, crocodile and turtle bones can be found
loose among the boulders and shingle, these bones tends to be
dark brown, with a slightly pitted surface. The best technique to
find bones is to walk very slowly, carefully scanning your
eyes for suspect rocks; they're not easily found, but not impossible
to find either.
At Pett Level some of the fallen boulders,
originating from the upper part of the cliff (Wadhurst Clay
Formation), are comprised of a course conglomerate, known as the Cliff
End Bone Bed. The photo below-left shows a split fragment of bone
bed containing a circular tooth belonging to the fish
Lepidotes; a small rectangular piece of unidentified bone can also
be seen. Other finds include teeth belonging to the freshwater shark
Hybodus and even small mammals.
Left: A fragment of
the Cliff End Bone Bed containing a small bone, possibly rib, and
fish tooth (Lepidotes). Right: A close-up
reveals broken quartz pebbles.
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 commonly found fossils at Fairlight and Pett Level
are collections of the bivalve Neomiodon, which are visible on the
surface of many foreshore boulders. Plant remains are also common, in
particular roots belonging to horsetail plants. Although dinosaur
remains are rare the most frequently found include teeth, jaws,
vertebrae, ribs and limb bones of the large bipedal (two-legged) Iguanodon.
Left: A dinosaur
footprint (Iguanodon), visible on the exposed Ashdown Sandstone at Fairlight Cove.
Right: A second print nearby.
Please respect the footprints and do not damage or attempt to
collect any part of them. We wish to remind visitors that these are rare
and scientifically important, as well as protected.
Left: Participants on a
Discovering Fossils fossil hunt examine a large theropod dinosaur
footprint (Baryonyx perhaps?). Right: Close-up.
Left: A collection of
small bivalves (Neomiodon) on the surface of a foreshore
boulder. Right: A close-up.
Left: A small
unidentified plant fragment. Right: A close-up.
Left: A rolled beach
pebble from the Ashdown Sandstone containing fragments of
carbonised plant material.
Right: A fragment of the Cliff End Bone Bed containing
a small unidentified bone and fish tooth (Lepidotes).
Left: An isolated
fern pinnule, found within the Fairlight Clay.
Right: A large well preserved bivalve
(Pseudunio valensis) from the Fairlight
Left: A member of
Discovering Fossils holding a large piece of carbonised wood, found
within the Fairlight Clay. Right:
Tools & equipment
Left: A well
equipped group of people on a fossil hunt at Fairlight. Right:
Walking boots are recommended as the terrain is rocky and slippery.
It's a good idea to spend some time considering the tools and
equipment you're likely to require while fossil hunting at
Fairlight. 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
A strong hammer will be required to split prospective rocks. The
hammer should be as heavy as can be easily managed without causing
strain to the user. For individuals with less physical strength and
children (in particular) we recommend a head weight no more than
Chisel: A chisel is required in conjunction with a
hammer for removing fossils from the rock. In most instances a
large chisel should be used for completing the bulk of the work,
while a smaller, more precise chisel should be used for finer work.
A chisel founded from cold steel is recommended as this metal is
especially engineered for hard materials.
Safety glasses: While
hammering rocks there's a risk of injury from rock splinters
unless the necessary eye protection is worn. Safety glasses ensure any splinters are deflected away from the eyes. Eye
protection should also be worn by spectators as splinters can
travel several metres from their origin.
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