Peacehaven is a small coastal town of 13,000 people in the Lewes
district of East Sussex, located 6 miles east of Brighton. From its
cliff-top vantage point the town has stunning views of Friars Bay and the English
Channel. At the base of the cliff is a substantial concrete sea defence and
promenade built in stages between 1976-1996 to reduce the rate of cliff
retreat. The robust defences protect the majority of the cliff, however the exposed foreshore is
left unprotected and subjected to intensive erosion, and it's here
that Peacehaven earns its reputation for some of the
most spectacular fossils in the UK.
Left: Stunning views of
Friars Bay and the English Channel from the cliff-top east of the town.
Right: Over 100 steps wind their way down the
Access to the beach is made via a narrow road (track)
optimistically named 'The Highway' which leads from the A259 at the
eastern end of the town (click map above). A small number of parking
spaces are available along the roadside and from here it's a short
walk to the cliff-top. It's a good idea to bring food and drink with
you as the beach lies at the bottom of over 100 steps.
The geology of Peacehaven
The cliffs and foreshore between Peacehaven and Newhaven
represent a period of history dating between 83.5 - 78 million years
ago (mya) -
Cretaceous epoch, Campanian stage. At this time Peacehaven and much
of Great Britain, along with Europe, lay beneath a relatively
around 40°N of the equator, on an equivalent
latitude to the Mediterranean Sea today.
In comparison with present-day conditions, global sea-levels during
the Late Cretaceous were over 200 metres higher. The higher sea levels
likely reflect a combination of extreme greenhouse conditions and
heightened plate tectonics. Elevated plate tectonic activity and the
associated volcanics delivered greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,
fuelling the greenhouse effect. Global high temperatures melted much
(perhaps all) of the ice at high latitudes, introducing significant
amounts of water to the world's oceans. Uplift of the ocean-floor in
regions of active plate tectonics displaced further water onto the
The evidence of higher sea levels is reflected in the white Chalk
at Peacehaven. The purity of the chalk indicates its formation took
place far from land, free of terrestrial sands and
silts that would otherwise have coloured it. The Chalk is
largely comprised of the skeletal remains of planktonic algae
known as coccolithophores which accumulated to form a white ooze on the
seafloor. This soft sediment was later compacted and hardened
(lithified) to form Chalk - a relatively soft rock itself. To
discover more about the Chalk
Today the chalk appears above sea level, the
result of lower present-day sea levels and widespread uplifting caused by the pressure of the European
and African continental plates colliding (generating the Alps), a process that took place at
its greatest extent 30-25 mya. More recently, following the end of the
last ice age and subsequent increase in sea levels (albeit to a less
extent than 84 million years ago), the coastline has moved inland,
exposing the elevated chalk to intensive erosion and sculpting it into a
Summarised geology of the cliffs and foreshore between Peacehaven
The earliest Chalk at Peacehaven belongs to the Lower Newhaven Chalk
Formation and dates from 83.5 mya. This particular unit of chalk,
known as the Old Nore Beds, appears
on the foreshore immediately north-west of the steps and higher up
in the cliff at Friar's Bay (see Figure 1 above). It's from these
beds that the giant ammonite
Parapuzosia is most commonly found.
Moving further up the cliff are the Peacehaven, Meaching and Bastion
beds of the Newhaven Chalk Formation, and the Castle Hill Beds of
the Lower Culver Chalk Formation; each bed is distinguished by subtle changes in
lithostratigraphy (rock type) and biostratigraphy (fossil content).
The Peacehaven beds mark a conspicuous increase in flint from this
point upwards, however for the purposes of this report the overlying
beds can generally be considered very similar.
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Where to look for fossils?
Fossils can be found in both directions from the access point at
Peacehaven steps. To the left (south-east) beyond the sea
defence the cliffs are exposed to sustained erosion, from here fossils
can be collected from the boulders strewn across the beach (see
below-right). To the right (north-west) the cliffs are protected by the
concrete sea defence and therefore subjected to minimal erosion; however the
unprotected foreshore provides plenty of opportunity to view fossils
Please note the beach platform and cliffs beneath
Peacehaven are assigned SSSI
status, which requires visitors avoid damaging (including hammering)
the area. From a fossil collecting perspective this means it's not
permitted to extract specimens that are in situ. Collecting efforts
should be directed towards the loose boulders and pebbles on the
Left: View south-east
towards Friar's Bay where the giant ammonite Parapuzosia can be found.
Right: View north-west from
Peacehaven is famous for its giant ammonites Parapuzosia that appear most frequently in situ on the foreshore north-west
of the steps. Despite measuring over 6 feet across in some
instances, the ammonites are not immediately apparent to passers by.
The best time to view them is at low-tide when the sea is
sufficiently low and the foreshore is well exposed. From a distance
many of the ammonites can be spotted as pedestals raised above the
foreshore (see below). The pedestal shape is caused by the softer
surrounding chalk being eroded by the scouring action of the sea,
leaving the harder more resistant ammonite protruding above the
Left: View across the Old Nore Beds with three
Parapuzosia on pedestals. Right:
Participant crouches behind a partial ammonite Parapuzosia.
A variety of other fossils can also be found in situ on the
foreshore, in particular echinoids, sponges and bivalves. Although
collecting is not permitted a great appreciation for the Late
Cretaceous marine environment can be gained from their observation.
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 frequently seen fossils at Peacehaven are partial
echinoid shells, usually observed in cross-section on the beach
platform and on the surface of fallen rocks. Complete specimens are
less common but can be found with relative ease. Other common
fossils include bivalves, brachiopods, sponges, corals, and
bryozoans, the latter of which can be seen on the outer surface of
echinoid shells in particular. Less common fossils include shark teeth,
fish remains and belemnites. On one
occasion following the recovery of a large ammonite from fallen
rocks at Friar's Bay an exceptionally rare crab carapace was found on the underside (see Robert
British Chalk Fossils for details).
Below are a selection of fossils found over several visits to
Left: Robert, Dee and
Lucinda crouch behind one of many giant Parapuzosia ammonites.
Right: A partly exposed Parapuzosia ammonite.
A further two examples of giant Parapuzosia ammonites exposed on the foreshore, Old Nore
Beds, Newhaven Chalk Formation.
Left: A rare Gonioteuthis belemnite guard protruding above the
surface of a loose flint pebble. Right: Close-up
Left: A large fallen
boulder on the foreshore containing three examples of the echinoid
Echinocorys. Right: Another
Echinocorys echinoid, Old Nore Beds.
Left: The internal flint
mould of an
Echinocorys echinoid, found loose on the foreshore. Right:
A flint Echinocorys echinoid in situ on the foreshore, Old
Left: A flint
Echinocorys echinoid found loose on the foreshore. Right: A flint Offaster echinoid.
Left and Right:
Flint Micraster echinoids, found loose on the
Left: A collection
of Crateraster starfish ossicles (bones of the skeleton).
Right: The inner surface of a Neithea bivalve shell.
Left: A cross-section
through a large inoceramid bivalve. Right: A fragment of an inoceramid bivalve on the
same flint nodule as the coral (shown below).
Left: A small Siphonia(?)
Right: A cross-section
through a Siphonia(?) sponge, Old Nore Beds.
Left: A partial sponge
of undetermined genus on the surface of a loose boulder. Right:
A cross-section through a Guettardischyphia(?) sponge.
unidentified sponge. Right: A small
Parasmilia coral on the surface of a flint nodule.
Left: A public
fossil hunt participant holds his best find, a flint Terebella
- crustacean burrow lined with fish scales. Right:
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
Peacehaven. 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 chalk. 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