The Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site is one of the most famous and most popular Jurassic locations in the world, yielding plenty of fossils for the thousands that come collecting every year. And Charmouth is at the heart of it all. This geological guide features both the cliffs of Black Ven and Stonebarrow, and information on the local area of Charmouth.
♦ The beach at Charmouth is easy to access. Just head into Charmouth and then down Lower Sea Lane, where there is a car park next to the sea.
♦ There are also toilets, an information centre and a cafe/food nearby.
♦ At the start, you will need to decide if you want to go to Black Ven or Stonebarrow: there may not be time to complete both ends safely in one tide.
♦ Black Ven will also take you to Church Cliffs (see our guide to Lyme Regis for more information on Church cliffs).
♦ If you are heading to Stonebarrow, you will need to walk over the bridge to cross the river.
♦ Ref: 50.73160°N, 2.88596°W
FIND FREQUENCY: ♦♦♦♦♦ – Charmouth is world famous for its highly fossiliferous cliffs, but also widely known for the being most commercial fossil location in the UK. Sadly, the huge number of commercial collectors, who all battle it out for the best finds, makes collecting limited, unless you are willing to brace the harsh winter storms. In spite of this, there is still plenty to be found.
CHILDREN: ♦♦♦♦ – Charmouth is one of the best locations for children. They can sit on the beach or walk along the foreshore and pick up ammonites and so on.
ACCESS: ♦♦♦♦♦ – The car park at Charmouth is very close to the beach and nearby are toilets, a cafe and the Charmouth Fossil Heritage Information Centre. The location is excellent for children and families.
TYPE: – Fossils are mostly found on the foreshore at Charmouth, but can also be found at the bottom of scree slopes, slippages and occasionally a cliff fall. Hammering the cliff is not permitted because Charmouth is part of the Jurassic Heritage Coastline. Anyway, you are far more likely to find fossils lying on the foreshore.
This site is part of the Jurassic World Heritage Coastline, SSSI and private land. No hammering is allowed on the bedrock or cliffs. Damage has already been caused to the heritage site by people using power tools. This is strictly against SSSI rules and any attempt to ignore them may result in prosecution.
By far the most common fossils at Charmouth are ammonites. Many small ones can be simply collected from along the foreshore. The larger, gold-coloured (pyrite) ammonites can be found at Stonebarrow during scouring tides, exposed in the clay particularly at the far end of Stonebarrow. Or you may be lucky enough to pick up one from the foreshore. Crinoids can also be found at Stonebarrow, by searching along the tide line.
Flatstones at Charmouth can contain well-preserved ammonites and insects, but are unfortunately rare and only a small percentage contains fossils. In the past, several complete fishes have also been found in these nodules, in perfect condition.
Black Ven itself is famous for ichthyosaur bones, which are washed out of the slippages of clay. At Stonebarrow, ichthyosaur bones can also be found, often exposed on the foreshore during scouring tides.
The top beds at Black Ven contain many good fossils, including fish and large nodules that occasionally contain ammonites. These beds are so high up that cliff falls are required, but during extremely high tides, these top beds often fall or slip down to beach level. Many reptiles have been found and Charmouth has been the place of many discoveries of new species.
There is a huge range of fossils that can be found between Black Ven and Stonebarrow. The most common place to find fossils and indeed the easiest is from along the beach. Search in the shingle and on the tide line, especially as the tide retreats. The key is to focus on a particular area, such as walking along the tide line, where you are most likely to find them. You may have to get on our hands and knees to find the tiny ammonites. Look out for patches of dark, gold-coloured grains or small lumps. These are iron pyrites or (‘Fool’s Gold’). Fossils are most common in these areas among this pyrite. You can also search in the clay on the foreshore at Black Ven. This is a good area to find ammonites. The sea acts as a giant sieve and does all the hard work for you. Do not climb the slippages, as they are very dangerous and the effort is pointless – you have a much higher chance of finding fossils on the foreshore.
There are also a wide variety of rocks lying on the beach, some of which contain fossils, with others containing fossil casts. Usually, these can simply be picked up from along the beach.
Also, keep an eye open for the flatstones, as these can contain some superb fossils, but you will need a hammer. There is also a special way of splitting these nodules. Split them from on the side rather than on the flat top/bottom, because hitting these nodules incorrectly will most likely split the fossil inside or shatter it. Do not attempt to dig these nodules out of the cliff – they can be so big that attempting to do this would put you at danger.
Walking east from Church Cliffs and Lyme Regis, the tall slumped cliffs of Black Ven appear.
The Black Ven Mudstone is broken up into the lower unit, the ‘Shales with Beef’, characterised by laminated shales with bands of fibrous calcite – the ‘Beef’, in its lower part. The upper part contained calcareous concretions, with well-preserved ammonites, also found in the overlying Black Ven Marls, including Arnioceras semicostatum, Caenisites turneri, Asteroceras stellare and Microderoceras birchi. These Birchi Nodules from the Birchi Tabular Beds can be seen clearly in the cliff.
Occasionally, teeth and bones of ichthyosaurs and the remains of other marine reptiles are found, especially vertebrae of ichthyosaurs.
At times of extreme low tide, traces of a submerged forest (including bones of mammoth and red deer) can be seen. The bones have been found close to the western groyne.
The new stratigraphy has not entirely replaced the traditional terms, which will undoubtedly be referred to by many and is best reflected in the diagram below:
It is often the case that landslips at Black Ven will expose these beds and regular tides will keep them fresh. Searching the ledges at low tide is especially worthwhile.
Walking west, you will eventually come to Church Cliffs. For more information on the Blues Lias of Church Cliffs, please refer to our guide on Lyme Regis.
Stonebarrow (East Beach)
The uppermost beds of Stonebarrow consists of Upper Greensand, in which occasional ammonites can be found. A 12m-bed of Gault Clays follows the overlying Eype Clay. 20m of the Seatown Marls (previously known as the Green Ammonite Beds), overlay 23m of Stonebarrow Marl (previously the Belemnite Marls). There are also about 50m of Black Ven Marls that reach beach level here.
Within the ‘Black Ven Marls’, a layer of Flatstone can be seen, which is celebrated for its fine specimens of Asteroceras turneri, often preserved in yellow and brown calcite. Insects (beetles, grasshoppers, water-bugs and dragonflies) and the occasional plant remains can also be found in these flat stones. The shales are also richly fossiliferous, with ammonites, insects and fish remains. The crinoid, Pentacrinites fossilis, is often magnificently preserved within this bed. 10m above this layer is a line of nodules called the Stellare Nodules, in which the common ammonite, Asteroceras stellare, can be found.
The ‘Belemnite Marls’ are bluish-grey in colour and are famous for the eponymous belemnites, although ammonites are also common including, Tropidoceras masseantum, Platypleuroceras brevispina, and Beaniceras luridum. At the top of this bed is a limestone called the Belemnite Stone, which is also full of belemnites, ammonites, bivalves and some brachiopods (Rhynchonellida).
Common sense when collecting at all locations should be used and prior knowledge of tide times is essential. Care should especially be taken at Charmouth of tides, as the sea could cut you off, especially at Black Ven. Climbing slippages is not recommended, as it is dangerous because of the deep mud. The mud may seem hard at first sight, but could be a hazard. The high cliffs at Stonebarrow are also dangerous for falling debris. are dangerious for falling debris.
It really depends on what you aim to collect, as to what tools to take. Collecting is best done on the foreshore, in which case, just good eyes are required. Collecting from the soft clays (especially from the slippages on the foreshore at Black Ven) is best done using a knife or pick and a small spade. If you intend to split rocks, especially nodules, then ideally you need a good hammer and possibly a chisel. Do not dig into the cliff at Lyme Regis, both for safety reasons and because you have a much greater chance of finding fossils lying on the foreshore.
This site is an SSSI and forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage Jurassic Coast. This means you can visit the site, but hammering the bedrock is not permitted. For full information about the reasons for the status of the site and restrictions please download the PDF from Natural England – SSSI Information – West Dorset