Out with the new and in with the old – welcome to FossilBlitz!!

Lucy Gaze - media intern with Bristol Natural History Consortium

Contributed by Lucy Gaze

Steve England and I came up with the idea of FossilBlitz over coffee in Cookies Cafe, Lockleaze.  Borne out of the more familiar BioBlitz – where members of the public work with expert naturalists to find as many species of wildlife in an allotted time, FossilBlitz aimed to do the same thing, only with ‘dead stuff!’  What a crazy idea!  I knew Steve was interested in fossils, and so was I, and he knew of an ideal spot on which to run it, while I was game for something a bit out of the ordinary to showcase as part of Bristol99.  And so a date was set!

In preparation for the event, Steve, a keen fossil collector, took me on a walk through the lovely Frome Valley at Snuff Mills where he found many of his specimens, which are currently housed in the local Glenside Hospital Museum. He had guaranteed I would find fossils, which I had to raise an eyebrow at. Fossils are notoriously difficult to find, we all know that! However, within minutes of turning up, I had indeed found a fossil. And another. And another. Steve was chuckling to himself, “I told you!”. There had to be a reason why they were so prolific? So Steve explained how the whole area had previously been mined for coal. Anything that was of no use was discarded, thrown back, and piled into slag heaps either side of the river, which remain to this day. The slag heaps are now grown over with vegetation, but scratch the surface and you can unearth fossils galore; mainly plants and trees from the carboniferous period, 300 million years ago.

On June 8th, the most glorious, sunny day imaginable, we ran the event. A gazebo was set up on the grass, and Steve brought along some of his fossil collection, together with photos and newspaper cuttings, telling the story of Bristol’s prehistoric past and how he has helped uncover it. We met our group of about 12 in the car park at 11 am, and walked them down to the gazebo where Steve gave them an introductory talk and showed them his fossils, an indication of what was to come.

The plan was to walk along the valley, allowing Steve to point out some large permanent fossil features in the rocks. However, he didn’t count on the caliber or enthusiasm of the participants! Two young children were simply astonishing! In particular, a 6-year-old girl, who, with her long black plaits, reminded me of Pocahontas!  Incredibly, she had been collecting fossils since she was 3 and seemed to be able to spot them from 20 yards away.  She tirelessly ran up and down the steep slag heaps, pulling fossil after fossil out of the ground, running back to hand them to her father, who fortunately was equipped with a rucksack large enough for the job. The lad was the same. I was curious about these two children, in an age of technology and instant gratification, who were doing something so, well, old fashioned??

Steve showed the group huge fossils; squashed tree branches in great lumps of bedrock with clearly discernible features, and perfect examples of giant horsetail.  He talked about the geology of the area, describing in detail how different it would have looked all those millions of years ago.  Children and adults alike were engrossed, fascinated – and surprised – all this on their doorstep and so unpublicised?

The highlight for most had to be, of course, the chance to find their own fossils.  And when they were actually given permission to do so, the adults easily matched the enthusiasm as the children earlier.  Steve showed everyone the best places to go and then they were off.  Specimens were brought back to the picnic bench, washed off and placed in piles according to finder.  No one seemed to mind that the fossils they found were all vegetative, no one was disappointed they didn’t find a dinosaur, or at the very least, an ammonite.

And so, at the end of the event, it was a very satisfied group that left Snuff Mills.  Everyone had learned something and everyone had a memento of the event, and a piece of Bristol’s history to take home with them.  Everyone bar me.  Do you know, I didn’t find a single fossil that day!!!!