Walton-on-the-Naze is a small coastal town in northeast Essex
and home to around 6,000 people. The town is bordered along its
northern edge by a stretch of rapidly eroding cliffs and foreshore
known as The Naze. Erosion has reportedly caused the cliff to
retreat 0.5 metres per year in recent years, threatening nearby land
Left: The slumping
cliff is often visibly mobile. In this photo the sand can be
seen bulging ahead of the slumping London Clay and Red Crag.
Right: Looking south from near Penny Hole Bay, several
trees have recently toppled over the eroding cliff-face.
The fossiliferous clays and sands exposed in The Naze area belong to the
London Clay and Red Crag formations, and provide
evidence of prehistoric life and conditions 54 million years
ago (mya) and c.2.5 mya respectively. Fossils occur commonly throughout both
formations attracting international interest since the 19th
century. Above the Red Crag and extending to the cliff-top are
several metres of Pleistocene sands and gravels (and recent soil)which although worthy of study, are not the subject of this
Left: Parking is
available at the cliff-top pay-and-display car park alongside The Naze Tower.
Right: The Naze Tower - an 18th century Georgian
Access to the beach is made from the cliff-top car park alongside
The Naze Tower - an 18th century Georgian lighthouse, now a museum and view
point. From the car park a series of concrete steps provide access to the beach and cliff-base. Fossils can be found in either direction of the steps, however the
most productive areas occur to the north (left when looking out to
Left: From the car park
a series of steps lead down to the beach.
Right: Continuing down the steps, the view north
overlooking The Naze cliffs and foreshore.
The geology of Walton-on-the-Naze
Left: Facing north
overlooking the London Clay
Formation exposed on the foreshore and in the cliff-face near The Naze
Right: The Red Crag Formation exposed near the
cliff-top. The overlying paler coloured Pleistocene sands and
gravels are visible at the top of the cliff.
The sediments exposed in situ along the 1.5km stretch of foreshore
and cliff between Walton-on-the-Naze and Pennyhole Bay in the north belong to the
London Clay and Red Crag formations, and are topped by several metres of
Pleistocene sands and gravels (see fig.1 below). Although the Red Crag directly overlies
the London Clay at Walton-on-the-Naze it was deposited 51 million years
later. The sediment deposited in the interim, which included much of the
London Clay, was eroded away and in part contributes to the pebble bed at the
base of the Red Crag. This kind of erosive junction between two beds of
differing ages is referred to as an unconformity i.e. the Red Crag unconformably overlies the London Clay.
Figure 1: A
geological summary of The Naze cliffs and foreshore as seen
in 2010. The extensively slipped cliffs obscure much of the in
The London Clay Formation exposed at Walton-on-the-Naze was laid down
beneath a warm, shallow sea during the early Eocene
Epoch of the Palaeogene Period, approximately 54 mya, see
geologic timescale. For much of this time the nearest
significant landmass was perhaps 10-20 miles away. 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
During the Eocene Epoch 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.
Life during the 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 at Walton-on-the-Naze which includes both
marine and terrestrial organisms, the latter consisting of pyritised
twigs, fruits and the skeletal remains of birds in particular. To date
over 150 bird species had been discovered from the London Clay including
forms with teeth, reminiscent of their dinosaurian ancestors.
As time continued to pass the London Clay increased in thickness and was
subsequently topped by later marine sediments. However, at some
point during the Miocene Epoch 23-7mya, most likely towards the end (prior to the Red Crag's accumulation), sediment deposition
ceased and was replaced by erosive conditions. During this time much of
the London Clay and all of the overlying sediments were washed away,
leaving the more resistant material behind e.g. pebbles, phosphatic
nodules and robust fossils.
At Walton-on-the-Naze the basal Red Crag pebble bed
forms a layer up to several centimetres thick at the horizon
marking the onset of the Red Crag's deposition. This pebble bed is known by many names across the
region but for
the purposes of this report it's referred to as the 'Junction
Bed'. The Junction Bed therefore represents material derived from a window of time encompassing much of the London Clay and
later sediments. Consequently some of the Junction Bed
fossils found loose on the beach today are actually derived from earlier (now absent)
sediments. Due to the extensively slipped cliffs at Walton-on-the-Naze
the Junction Bed is often obscured beneath loose material.
The position of the Junction Bed represents the end of erosive conditions
and return to sediment accumulation - the Red Crag Formation,
which occurs unconformably above the London Clay. The
Red Crag is a shelly, quartz-rich sand, stained orange with iron
oxides. The formation was deposited in a warm, shallow sea
(c.20m-30m deep), very close to land around 2.5 mya during the
Piacenzian Stage of the Pliocene Epoch, see
geologic timescale. The formation contains a large volume of isolated
bivalve valves; articulated fossils are rare due to the high energy
environment associated with near-shore tidal currents and wave
action present at the time.
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Where to look for fossils?
The rapidly eroding cliffs and foreshore exposures at
Walton-on-the-Naze provide a constant supply of loose material on
the beach in either direction of the access point. The stretch of
coastline north of the concrete steps and fringed by cliffs is
favoured by most visitors, however the areas of foreshore separated
by groins towards the south often proves productive too.
Throughout the year fossils can be found loose on the foreshore
as the retreating tide reveals the latest arrangement of beach
debris. Shark teeth and pyritised twigs are among the most common
fossil from the London Clay, and isolated valves of the bivalve
Glycymeris represent the majority of loose fossils from
the Red Crag.
Left: Searching for loose fossils eroded from the
nearby exposures of London Clay.
Right: A Striatolamia shark tooth found loose on the beach.
At low-tide the London Clay can be observed on the foreshore in
situ. The London Clay yields a large volume of pyritised
material which accumulates as loose pebbles in narrow channels
and holes eroded into the foreshore.
Left: The London Clay Formation observed
in situ on the foreshore and in the cliff-face opposite The Naze Tower.
Right: A close-up of the London Clay - a
concentration of pyrite pebbles can be seen accumulated in the
The upper areas of the cliff provide an opportunity to view the Red
Crag in situ, however such excursions are not encouraged due to the
fragile nature of the cliffs and access should therefore be limited
to study purposes only. The photos below show the Red Crag up
close, the downturned valves of the bivalve Glycymeris can
be seen protruding the sediment. For those seeking specimens for
collection a great number can be retrieved from the slumped
material towards the base of the cliff.
Left: The vivid-orange
coloured Red Crag Formation, observed in situ towards the cliff-top near The Naze Tower.
Right: A close-up reveals isolated
Glycymeris bivalve valves observed
'downward facing' within the Red Crag Formation.
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?
Below are a selection of finds made over several visits to
Walton-on-the-Naze. The best time to visit is during the winter and spring
or following stormy weather when the beach has been churned over and
new material exposed. Among the common finds include, pyritised wood
and fruits, isolated bivalve valves, gastropods and shark teeth.
Left: A sand/wave
worn Carcharocles megalodon shark tooth, found loose on the beach,
originating from the Junction Bed.
Right: A Striatolamia shark tooth found loose among the pebbles on
the beach, London Clay Formation.
Left: A small
unidentified fish vertebra from the London Clay Formation. Found
loose among the pebbles towards the top of the beach.
Right: A fragment of whale vertebra from the
Glycymeris bivalve valves that have come to rest alongside
each other. Observed in situ towards the cliff-top, Red Crag Formation.
Right: An isolated Glycymeris bivalve
valve observed loose in slumped cliff material, Red Crag Formation.
Left and right: Two
examples of Glycymeris bivalve valves originating
from the Red Crag Formation. Both specimen were found loose on the
Left: An isolated
valve of an Cerastoderma bivalve from the Red Crag Formation, found loose among
slumped cliff material.
Right: An unidentified gastropod from the Red Crag Formation, found
loose on the beach.
Left: A Uzita(?) gastropod
from the Red Crag Formation, found loose in slumped cliff material.
Right: Two gastropods - Natica (upper) and
unidentified fragment (lower) from the
Red Crag Formation, found loose among slumped cliff material.
Left and right: Two
examples of Neptunea gastropods from the Red Crag Formation, found loose among
slumped cliff material.
Left: Two children move beach pebbles to reveal a large carbonised tree trunk
in situ on the foreshore, London Clay Formation.
Left and right: Pyritised twigs from the London Clay, found loose on the beach.
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
Walton-on-the-Naze. 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