Herne Bay is a small seaside town on the Kent coast, located
approximately 9 miles north of Canterbury. The cliffs and foreshore between Herne Bay in the west and Reculver
in the east provide an opportunity to explore a prehistoric marine
environment dating from 56-54 million years ago. Fossils occur commonly
throughout the year especially following stormy conditions when they can be found
in large numbers among the pebbles and clay on the foreshore.
Left: View east across the foreshore at Beltinge
towards Reculver Towers. Right: A fossilised sand tiger shark tooth
loose on the foreshore.
The best place to access the beach is at Beltinge - a small suburb of
Herne Bay located a short distance east of the town. Parking is
available at the end of Reculver Drive from which a concrete path
provides access to the beach.
Left: Parking is
available at the cliff-top at Beltinge. Right: A
concrete path descends from the car park to the beach.
Fossils can be found in either direction of the access point,
although the most productive areas occur on the foreshore
beneath Beltinge and towards Reculver in the
As the retreating tide allows access to the foreshore the iconic
Reculver Towers can be seen towards the east (shown below). The
towers are all that remain of a 12th century parish church that
stood within the remains of an earlier Roman fort. The towers
continue to provide a visual navigation marker for ships travelling
within the Thames Estuary area.
Left: The ruins of
Reculver Towers can seen in the distance from the foreshore at Beltinge.
Right: Reculver Towers up close.
The geology of Herne Bay
The sediments exposed between Herne Bay and Reculver encompass around
two million years of history dating from the late Palaeocene and early Eocene
epochs of the Palaeogene period, 56-54 million years ago (see
geologic timescale). At this time southern England was
located approximately 40°N of the equator, 10°S of its present latitude, comparable to Spain today. The average
annual temperature across
southern England at this time was approximately 23°C, compared with
the present-day figure of around 10°C.
The prehistoric evidence reveals Kent (including Herne Bay) lay
beneath a warm, shallow sea, the nearest
significant landmass was perhaps 20-30 miles away for much of
this time. As a result conditions on the seafloor were relatively
undisturbed, allowing fine particles of sediment suspended in the water column
to gradually settle; however short-term fluctuations in tidal currents and
sea level introduced sand (and pebbles) to the area throughout this
Life during the late Palaeocene and early Eocene was abundant, the
nearby land was covered by lush tropical vegetation, providing habitat
for mammals, birds and insects, whilst in the sea marine life flourished.
The diversity of life is represented in the fossils found at Herne Bay
which includes both marine and terrestrially sourced organisms, the
latter consisting largely of pyritised twigs, seeds and in rare
instances insects that were transported by tidal currents.
The earliest deposits belong to the Thanet Formation (Thanetian stage of the Palaeocene
epoch) and are best observed on the
foreshore and in the cliffs towards Reculver (see figure 1 below).
Travelling from east to west the strata dips at a gradient of 3°
bringing progressively later (younger) deposits to beach level including
the Upnor and Harwich formations, and the London Clay, although the
latter is largely obscured beneath sand at beach level.
Figure 1: A
geological summary of the cliffs and foreshore between Reculver in
the east and Herne Bay in the west.
Fossils occur commonly throughout the various formations, in
particular the Beltinge Fish Bed (Upnor Formation) which appears at
beach level opposite the access point at Beltinge (below-left). This
fossiliferous bed is the source of many shark and ray teeth,
bones and pyritised twigs.
Left: The Upnor
Formation clay exposed on the foreshore at Beltinge. Right:
Sandy clay belonging to the Thanet Formation containing fossilised
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Where to look for fossils?
Fossils can be found loose among the pebbles and clay exposed on the
foreshore at low-tide, especially after stormy weather when the rough
seas have scoured the beach. If possible it's best to coincide a visit
with a spring-tide when the sea retreats to its greatest extent,
exposing areas of the beach that are otherwise inaccessible. 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
click here. Alternatively
a free short range forecast covering the next 7 days is available on the
The most productive area of the beach occurs immediately opposite
the access point described and continues for c.100m towards the west.
Fossils can also be found towards Reculver in the east where the sand has been swept
away and the Thanet Formation is exposed.
Left: Fossils can be
found loose among the pebbles and clay on the foreshore (Upnor Formation
A small bag is ideal for teeth and bones.
Although fossils are common they're often difficult to distinguish from
the sediment, especially if they've been exposed for some time. The
photos below demonstrate a typical example, in this instance a partially
obscured shark tooth - it's common for just the tip or root to be
Left: Loose fossils,
especially shark teeth (as shown), tend to be obscured by sand
and weed. Right: A sharp eye and patience are required
to locate them.
What fossils might you find?
The most frequently exposed fossils belong to marine vertebrates, in
particular the teeth of Lamniform sharks which hunted in the shallow
seas. Although shark teeth occur in large numbers the volume is more
reflective of the thousands of teeth a shark may loose in its lifetime.
Other fossils include the crushing pallets (usually fragments) of eagle
rays, pieces of turtle carapace, twigs, and a variety of benthic fauna
including bivalves and gastropods. Below are a selection of finds made
during several field trips between Herne Bay and Reculver.
Left and Right: Sand
tiger shark teeth Striatolamia, Upnor Formation, found loose on the foreshore.
Left: A sand tiger
shark tooth Striatolamia, Upnor Formation, found loose on the foreshore.
An unidentified partial shark tooth, Upnor Formation, found loose on the foreshore.
Left: A fragment of
eagle ray palate Myliobatis, Upnor Formation, found loose on the foreshore.
Right: A fragment of Chimaeroid fish dentition
Formation, found loose on the foreshore.
Left: A fragment of
turtle carapace, Upnor Formation, found loose on the foreshore.
Right: A partial fish vertebrae, Upnor Formation, found
loose on the foreshore.
Left: A piece
of carbonised wood, Upnor Formation(?) found loose on the foreshore. Right:
A pyritised twig, Upnor Formation(?) found loose on the foreshore.
Left: A collection of
bivalve shells Arctica, Thanet Formation, some in situ and other loose on the
Right: A pair of bivalve shells Arctica, Thanet
Left: A single valve of
a bivalve shell Arctica, Thanet Formation, found in situ.
An internal pyrite mould of a bivalve shell Arctica, Thanet Formation, found loose on the foreshore.
Left: A gastropod shell, Thanet Formation, found
in situ. Right: A flint
pebble (Late Cretaceous Epoch) containing the impression of a regular echinoid
Tools & equipment
It's a good idea to spend some time considering the tools and
equipment you're likely to require while fossil hunting at Herne
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