This is a classic British chalk location and a must for experienced fossil hunters. This guide concentrates on access from Cow Gap to Beachy Head. Over just a relatively short distance, fossils can be collected from the Lower, Middle and Upper Chalk. Please refer to the Eastbourne guide for the Eastbourne to Cow Gap section.
♦ From Eastbourne, take the main seafront road through the town. The road (Duke’s Drive) goes up a steep hill and then reaches a hairpin bend, where there is a prominent information board and a café that is open during summer months. Parking here is free.
♦ Follow the footpath (which is part of the South Downs Way) over the downs, keeping the sea close to your left. This is a long walk, but a very beautiful and interesting one.
♦ Eventually, you will arrive at some steps at ‘Cow Gap’, which give access to the foreshore. For a slightly easier route, read our Eastbourne guide, which explains how to access the site from Eastbourne Parade, along the foreshore. However, this route can be quite rocky and there is a risk of getting cut off by the tide.
♦ As you walk along the beach to the lighthouse, you can stop to examine fallen Lower Chalk blocks for fossils. However, it is advised that you first walk all the way to the lighthouse and start fossil hunting as you head back. This is to avoid becoming caught out by the tide.
♦ Ref: TV 58986 95819 – 50.740222, 0.251864
FIND FREQUENCY: ♦♦♦♦ – Fossils are rare between Beachy Head lighthouse and Birling Gap, so we do not recommend collecting here, particularly due to the dangers along this particular section. They are far more common in the rock falls behind the lighthouse and between the lighthouse and Cow Gap.
CHILDREN: ♦♦ – The walk to the fossil hunting areas is quite long and can involve scrambling over boulders. The rock falls near and behind the lighthouse should not be climbed by children.
ACCESS: ♦♦ – Access to Beachy Head is difficult. The walk is long and in places steep, with a final set of steps at the end. It is even harder during windy or wet conditions. You can access Beachy Head from Holywell Cafe in Eastbourne, but due to the dangerous tides, we have covered this section in the Eastbourne guide. Fossil hunting between Cow Gap and Beachy Head does require climbing over large and often slippery rocks.
TYPE: – Fossils are mainly found in fallen chalk boulders. In addition, you should look out for flint fossils (especially, the heart-shaped Micrasters) in the shingle on the beach.
Although a difficult location, Beachy Head is highly recommended for Chalk fossil lovers. Within a relatively short distance, fossils from the Lower, Middle and Upper Chalk (and also from the Upper Greensand) can be collected – a rare opportunity. Fossils are most abundant weathering out of the Lower (Grey) Chalk and are fairly common in the fall behind the lighthouse. Flint pebbles will also occasionally contain fossils, especially of the heart-shaped urchin, Micraster. There is a wide range of species to be found at this location. Echinoids, brachiopods, bivalves, corals, worm tubes, ammonites and belemnites are all present to varying degrees. This is a diverse location for fossils.
The geology of the Cow Gap to Beachy Head section consists of Upper Cretaceous chalk from what used to be known as the Lower, Middle and Upper chalk (now in this location, the West Melbury Marly Chalk, the Zig Zag Chalk, the Holywell Nodular Chalk and the New Pit Chalk), together with Gault and Upper Greensand (from the Albion of the Lower Cretaceous). The chalk is largely Cenomanian in age, but, at Beachy Head itself, it is Turonian.
There is no way off of the beach between Cow Gap and Birling Gap. We do not recommend visiting the section from Beachy Head to Birling gap from Cow Gap (rather, you should access it from Birling Gap). Fossils are not that abundant and the tide reaches the base of the cliffs. There are recorded instances of people drowning along this section. The Cow Gap to Beachy Head section should be visited on a falling tide. Parts of the beach get cut off up to two and a half hours before high tide – so be very careful. Do not hammer the cliff faces and wear a hard hat if you are near to them. The foreshore can be slippery due to mud and weed, and good shoes or walking boots are recommended. Mobile phone signals are poor or non-existent – make sure you tell someone where you are and what time you expect to be back.
Most fossils at Beachy Head can be found on the foreshore or at the base of the cliffs, which have come from the fallen rocks and scree slopes. You will need a hammer and chisel to get a lot of the fossils out of the chalk blocks.
This site is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI). 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, download the PDF from Natural England.