Fascinating things are out there ripe for discovery amongst the beaches of the UK coastline. The beauty of beachcombing is that what you can find will vary immensely from one beach to the next. From sea grapes to skulls and bones, mermaids’ purses to acorn barnacles, there is plenty to spot as you amble along the seashore at low tide. Read on for tips on how to beachcomb, together with our pick of the best places for UK beachcombing.
What is beachcombing?
Beachcombing involves scouring the shoreline, seeking out objects of interest. From shells and egg cases to intriguing fossils, you never know what you might find when the tide is out.
If you’re planning a beachcombing trip, be sure to check the tide times and weather forecast. Getting stranded is not something you want on your agenda. By the same token, a great time to go beachcombing is just following a storm when pickings can be all the richer.
What kit does a beachcomber need?
Warm clothes are a must unless it’s the height of summer. Pack your camera, bags to stash your finds, a magnifying glass and some wipes or hand gel to keep clean. A good book to help you identify finds is The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline. Pack that too.
Never venture out without a fully charged phone, just in case you get caught unawares. And know your best practice. Always remember that natural things form habitats and food sources, so keep your collections to a minimum. Lastly, whilst you’re scanning for unusual finds, you may want to do your bit and collect a bit of litter while you’re at it, so stash a pair of disposable gloves and a biodegradable carrier bag.
What treasures to look out for when beachcombing?
There are so many fascinating things to look out for on a beachcombing trip. Here are some of our favourites.
Typically found on the rockier coastlines, acorn barnacles lead quite peculiar lives. Once the drifting larva locates a somewhere place to settle, it cements itself head-first to the surface. Then it constructs walls and, astonishingly a trapdoor. When high tide comes, it throws out delicate, feathery limbs that sweep the water for food. Absolutely captivating.
Mermaid’s purse (dogfish or cuckoo ray egg case)
There are two mermaids’ purses to look out for. The first is the egg case of a dogfish, the second is a darker one with a horned appearance. This one is the egg case of a skate or ray. The Shark Trust runs the Great Eggcase Hunt. Check it out for some helpful resources. You can also record your finds to assist with tracking potential nursery grounds, all in the name of shark conservation.
Peek inside a clay pebble and you may spot a while shell-tip of a piddock. What’s this you may ask? It’s a mollusc that drills into the pebble, drawing in water as it goes. Once inside, there it stays. What’s so outstanding about it is that it’s bioluminescent, quite unusual for a mollusc. Back in 77AD, Pliny the Elder wrote, “piddocks shine as if with fire in dark places, even in the mouths of persons eating them.”
Sea grapes (cuttlefish eggs)
Sea grapes sometimes wash up on the shoreline during spring and summer. These almost black spheres are cuttlefish eggs stained with ink. The very same ink that Leonardo da Vinci used to pen ideas in his notebooks.
Skulls and bones
Seal skulls and whale and dolphin bones are some of the most common you’ll find. Here’s a great guide to help you identify mammal bones on UK seashores.
Where to go beachcombing in Britain?
There are so many amazing places to go beachcombing in the UK. We are truly blessed with enchanting coastlines! Here are some of the best.
Durdle Door and Lyme Regis, Dorset
The Jurassic coast of Dorset is speckled with fossils, precisely why it’s been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Just be aware though that as this is a World Heritage site, it’s not possible to take any of your finds with you. Take only photos! Durdle Door is a spectacular natural feature, well worth the short walk along the South West Coast Path. Lyme Regis hosts an annual Fossil Festival every spring, featuring guided walks and the chance to meet scientists from the British Antarctic Society, as well as to purchase fossils and fossil-inspired arts and crafts at the Fossil Fair.
Herne Bay, Kent
Visitors clock to Herne Bay in their droves to forage amongst the fossil beds. Look out for shark teeth amongst other fascinating treasures. Head for Beltinge beach on the east side of Herne Bay, and stick to the lowest tides for the best chance of spotting shoreline suprises.
The small Essex coastal town of Walton-on-the-Naze has been pulling in fossil aficionados since the nineteenth century. Due to heavy coastal erosion, significant numbers of fossils are turning up. Head for the eighteenth century Naze Tower then follow the steps down to the beach. Typical spots will be shark teeth, pyritised twigs and bivalve shells. Steer clear of the cliff edges though as they can be a bit shaky following volatile weather.
West Runton, Norfolk
In 1990, a local couple taking a stroll along West Runton beach fell upon the fossilised skeleton of a steppe mammoth. We’re not saying you’re going to find one of these yourself, but the sand and pebble beach is brimming with fossils like belemnites and sponges, especially following a high tide or storm. There are plenty of rock pools too, ripe for exploring living environments.
Excited about what you might find? Get planning your coastal trip! Check out this guide to discovering fossils, packed with intel on the best locations, excellent resources and info on where to join your local fossil hunt. Enjoy!