2 Mar 2015


Next time you eat a scallop (which you really shouldn't, unless you eat hand-collected ones; scallop dredging is one of the most destructive fisheries going) remember they've been around for a long time. About 190 million years in the case of this one.

26 Feb 2015

My column in the March Dalesman is out.

This month's coast column was inspired by this photo of an ammonite cast on the beach. In almost a decade of taking natural history photos on Runswick Bay beach this is one of my favourites:
The March Dalesman is out now £2.90. My coast column is admirably sandwiched between great things like Yorkshire poet laureate Ian MacMillan (follow his minute by minute twitter poetry @IMcMillan), photographer John Potter's captivation by trees, Chronicles of Kelderdale and Wild Yorkshire where someone has been gazumped by sparrows. I know how he feels; a fulmar threw up all over me once. When that happens you don't wash your clothes, you burn them.

24 Feb 2015

Neap and spring low tides compared.

A neap low tide in January (more pics showing the neap tidal range in this post):

And a spring low tide in February:
January's neap tide exposed 58 metres of beach from high tide mark to the low tide mark. This spring tide exposed 180 metres of beach from the strand line to low water. We are currently being threatened with big, powerful tides because this year the moon is orbiting close to the earth so the lunar gravitational influence on the tides is at its greatest; cue warnings of The End Of The World from some newspapers.

8 Feb 2015

Back end of a belemnite: the experts are baffled.

This is a belemnite guard counterpart (the imprint of a fossil) with something imprinted into the surrounding shale - preserved soft tissue, I wondered? It was picked up from a cliff-fall on the beach north of Runswick Bay.

I sent a pic to the Natural History Museum in London, and their expert referred it on to the uber-expert in this fossiliferous field. His reply was a 'not sure', but it didn't look like the preserved belemnite soft tissue of his acquaintance. I was advised that someone will need to look at the thing in person. It's not the intact pliosaur skeleton (new species, naturally) I've been hoping for, but temporarily baffling expert Ph.D.s and eminent Profs will do for now.

Update: Uber expert says it's not like any fossilised mantle he's seen, and may be nothing to do with a belemnite.

Update 2: This is a repost from 2008, when Google ate a lot of my pics.

3 Feb 2015

Sea view from Staithes.

Occasionally the next door beaches issue invitations to Runswick Bay so today I popped over to Staithes at low tide. The beach between Staithes and Port Mulgrave is a real, wave-lashed high energy beach made up of hard Jurassic jet rock and Staithes sandstone. The only things that can live under these conditions are small; barnacles, limpets, flustra and encrusting red algae. Even the shellfish adapted to defying breakers seemed to favour huddling in sheltered spots. More of my blue-fingered walk between Old Nab and Penny Nab, Staithes in a post later but for now, here's the sea today looking towards Runswick. Once upon a legend, a young man called James Cook - then a shopboy in Staithes - probably looked out at this very scene, with winds every bit as face numbing and waves every bit as violent and thought, 'By Jove, that looks fun! I'd love to spend the rest of my life sailing on that.'

It was a dark and stormy night...at 3.30 in the afternoon.

A few days of northerly winds around force 5 forecast, after which there should be lots of find on the beach.

What to do if you think you've found a good ammonite.

Read this post at Andy's fossils first.

30 Jan 2015

The first Dalesman coastal column is out now.

The best-selling Yorkshire magazine, £2.90 from all newsagents worthy of the name. As well as my 850 words on the wonders of our coast, there are splendid pieces on astronomy, Whitby jet, Yorkshire's borderlands, wildlife and The Leeds Dripping Riots.

14 Jan 2015

Neap tides.

Not all tides are equal; the high and low tide heights vary throughout the lunar month depending on whether the sun and moon's gravitational pull are acting together or against one another. The moon has the greatest influence on the tides, the distant sun's is a kind of gravitational top-up.

When the moon and sun are acting in opposition, the tides are known as neap tides; the tidal range is lower. So today's high tide (1001 at Whitby) is 4.4 metres above chart datum (chart datum is a virtual line around the coast representing the lowest ever tide) and the low tide will be 2.5 metres above chart datum.

Here's what todays neap high tide looks like at Runswick looking towards Kettleness:
And neap low tide...
That was a vertical tidal range of 1.9 metres, which exposed 58 metres of beach from the high tide strand to getting my boots wet at the low water mark.

High tide, looking towards Port Mulgrave:
This isn't solely an excuse to publish another pretty picture of the thatched former coastguard cottage; it also illustrates the stress that beach-living seaweeds have evolved to cope with. The seaweed on the exposed rocks below the sea wall (mostly Ascophyllum nodosum, or knotted wrack) aren't covered even at the top of the tide. Some of these may not get a good dunking at high tide for another two or three days. It's very calm today and they weren't getting splashed by breaking waves. In the meantime they are dealing with temperatures of 2 celsius, and in summer during the three or four days of neap tides they will probably be exposed and dehydrated under a hot sun, and will survive. Living in marginal conditions is an evolutionary strategy that is fine if the marginal conditions don't change much. And neap low tide....

6 Jan 2015

Ammonite counterpart as cirri-pied-a-terre (repost from 2010).

This ammonite counterpart has made a rather splendid home for a colony of barnacles. What I love about this is the continuity; about 190 million years ago a 10 cm wide ammonite died and was fossilized in the mud of a warm, shallow Jurassic sea. What happened to the remains I don't know, I hope they are in an appreciative fossil collector's drawer, but the counterpart, the impression left by the ammonite's aragonite shell became home to a thriving community of barnacles, the creatures that Charles Darwin studied in enormous depth between 1846 and 1854.

This eight-year intellectual bodyswerve came at the height of Darwin's interest in 'the species question'; Darwin first privately wrote about natural selection in 1842*, his joint paper (written with Alfred Russel Wallace) was read to the Linnaean Society in 1858 and The Origin of Species was published in 1859. Some have suggested that Darwin's interest in this uncharismatic group of creatures was displacement activity (that he was scared to continue his evolutionary work), others that Darwin knew very well what he was doing, becoming intimately acquainted with a little-researched animal and using what he observed to support his burgeoning ideas about evolution by natural selection.

This apparently peaceful, sessile scene, with a dead ammonite's cast, a couple of hundred barnacles, seven limpets and a stray periwinkle is really one of fierce competition to survive.

2 Jan 2015

Runswick's swirly blue stones (2).

Are blast furnace slag, sometimes called sea slag glass. To the north of Runswick lies Teesside where for 150 years there was an extensive steel industry; in less enlightened times the slag (the impurities that cook out of the molten iron) was simply dumped into the sea. (There was also a derelict ironworks on Lingrow cliffs to the north of Runswick. It opened in 1857 but collapsed into the sea in 1858. Pics to come, some if it is left standing.)

These blue-ish pebbles will have been washed along the coast and rumbled into a state of smoothness among sand and shingle. They are deceptive; they look lovely when you see them on the sand, wet and glistening from an ebbing tide. Pick them up, pocket them and get them home and they dry to a rather drab matt blue or grey. Here's an illustration under the rather drab lights indoors this evening. I grabbed eight pieces of sea slag from my miscellaneous specimen boxes very much at random, soaked four and left four dry.

These don't show the colours or swirliness particularly well; weather permitting I'll go for a walk tomorrow and photograph some specimens wet on the sunlit sand.

Andy from the excellent Andy's Fossils website (which you should visit and bookmark if you are at all interested in the Jurassic fossils found hereabouts) says much the same, and emailed a pic of cobbles made from the same material used on the path to the Cook monument in Whitby:
Skinningrove beach about 7 miles up the coast (which has a steelworks at the top of the cliff) is littered with the stuff.

1 Jan 2015

Swirly blue stones on the beach.

Reader Ruth asks what the blue stones often found on the beach are. At first they confused me, too because I (pretty reasonably, I thought...) looked for them in my geology guides. They weren't there. More later as I don't (yet) have any swirly blue stone pics worth posting.

30 Dec 2014

Razor shells on a (slightly) snowy beach.

A few razor clams (also called razorshells or razor fish, in Latin Ensis sp.) met their maker over Christmas if the shells scattered on the upper beach were anything to go by:

It was a beautiful day...

...but too cold for any serious naturalizing, especially for the youngest field assistant who decided that the hunt for baby crabs was off:

Not sure what that was all about, possibly a celebration of the snowy beach in interpretative dance. A happy new year to all my readers.

14 Dec 2014

The effect of the recent explosive cyclogenesis on Runswick Bay.

Very little, really. The winds were predominantly South Westerly, Runswick Bay faces due North and the cliffs create a wind shadow so the Bay itself was pretty calm.

The effect off Sandsend (Whitby piers in the background) was more pronounced, with the wind tearing the crests off waves:

Explosive cyclogenesis happens when a low pressure area deepens by 24 millibars over a 24 hour period, making the circulating winds more powerful. Meteorologists' shorthand for such a system is a 'bomb', something gleefully seized upon by the media last week. We need some Northerly gales to send in a couple of days of large waves, tear up the seabed, strip away sand and bring down some cliff falls. That's when things get interesting around here.

8 Dec 2014

In the Yorkshire Post tomorrow...

I'm writing about dinosaurs. So here's a Tyrannosaurus rex to cheer up your Monday.

T. rex, a Cretaceous dinosaur was the poster-dino front-cover skull on the original Jurassic Park book and in the film adorned the gate to the ill-fated park. Runswick, having Jurassic geology didn't see any of these creatures but there is evidence of large, bipedal predators stalking what has become the Yorkshire coast in the late Jurassic. The sandstone rocks hereabouts are the remains of a delta (where a river spills out across the coastal plain) and fossilized trackways with the footprints of large two legged carnivores have been found between Ravenscar and Scarborough. They were probably Ceratosaurs, more of which from Brian Switek on Smithsonian.com.

3 Dec 2014

An urchin and its not-often-found-mouthparts (repost).

A sea urchin top (or 'aboral' to the initiated) view, found on Runswick Bay beach. Urchins are echinoderms, and exhibit pentamerism; five fold symmetry.

Its mouth parts.
And the mouth in which they were loosely attached when the shell was found. They fell out on handling. An urchin's mouth has the charming name 'Aristotle's lantern'.
 Ur-urchins have been with us for about 450 million years. Some people think that eating urchin reproductive organs is a good idea and call it 'Uni'. Crabs, lobsters and sea otters are natural predators of urchins. Be careful if you find a live one, some species can sting.

24 Nov 2014


is an ammonite found hereabouts that can easily confused with Eleganticeras. To avoid this palaeontological faux-pas pop over to the ever excellent Andy's Fossils and peruse To be or not to be - a Harpoceras.

15 Nov 2014

Time and tide waits for no artist (repost from 2008).

 A new type of fauna was spotted on the beach last Sunday: an artist.

 John Hall (website: suncage) wanted to finish his canvas and painted - my spies tell me - until the water reached his waist. Here he is suffering for his art, merely toes-deep.

Runswick in (digital) real life, reflected in the water and on canvas:

Birds and waves.

The great herring pie feature

will be online at the Yorkshire Post website from Monday.

10 Nov 2014

Runswick blogger in the Yorkshire Post on Wednesday...

with a feature on herring pie. In September we took a wander to the neighbouring village of Staithes for their Festival of Arts and Heritage, and there the field assistants each pestered me out of £2 for a herring pie. The North Sea used to teem with herring, and herring pie used to be a Yorkshire coast staple, making use of the 'silver darlings', Clupeidae harengus that would come ashore by the million, caught by herring drifters. The pies were delicious, the story behind their resurrection is intriguing and much though I dislike the phrase 'superfood' herring is pretty much up there; loads of omega 3, vitamin B12 and magnesium, all of which are sadly lacking in modern diets and metabolisms.

So get your Yorkshire Post on Wednesday.

Above: Ted Gush, resurrector of the herring pie and all round good chap, with a ceramic herring (courtesy of local artist Rex Aldred) and real herring pie at Staithes Festival of Arts and Heritage 2014. Staithes, for those of you not lucky enough to live hereabouts, is the next village up the coast from Runswick Bay. It boasts Captain James Cook as one of its former residents, it inspired the 19th century Staithes School of painters (it is an insanely beautiful village) and has the wonderful Staithes Festival of Arts and Heritage each year. 

More of Staithes in a later post; while it's not strictly Runswick Bay, it's not often you go fishing with a man who shared his office with a coelacanth.

8 Nov 2014

Alum quarry remains, Kettleness and a plesiosaur (repost from 2008).

Kettleness was the site of one of the alum quarries which shaped this coast in the 18th and 19th centuries. Local woman had noticed that clothes washed in streams that ran off the cliffs hereabouts didn't lose their (expensive) dyed colour. Therefore, they theorized, there must be something in the water that helped fix the dye to the cloth. They were right; aluminium salts were washed out of the Whitby mudstone alum shale and made the water a dilute mordant; a dye fixative.

After a certain amount of experimenting, a process was discovered that allowed the mordant to be separated from the rock.  The shale was quarried, piled into a conical pyre with layers of brushwood and set alight. The oil content in the shale allowed the pyre to smoulder away for months. The burned shale was then boiled in vats of human urine until the alum salts crystallized out of the liquor.

The quarrying left the coast hereabouts looking rather strange: in places Kettleness looks almost lunar:

Gutters carved out of the local sandstone carried runoff into the sea.

There isn't much left to see; when the alum works closed the buildings were  probably cannibalized by the locals, some of what was left will have have fallen into the sea. Here are what looks like floors and walls of the alum works now close to the cliff edge:

A view over some of the ruins, Runswick in the distance.

This stone-lined tunnel that runs into the hillside (purpose unknown).

The quarrying resulted in some 20 million tons of Jurassic shale being hacked out of the cliffs hereabouts which of course caused some fine fossil finds, this one - Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni - now adorns the Natural History Museum in London:

6 Nov 2014

Should an albino ratfish be washed up on Runswick beach? (Repost from 2008*)

Because I found this one washed in by the rising tide on Runswick Bay beach this afternoon. Any ratfishologists out there who can tell me whether I should be excited by finding one of these looking suspiciously albino in the North Sea? Either leave a comment or scroll down to find the email link.

I know enough of the local fish to know that I didn't recognize it, so decided to bring it home. The sight of me carrying the thing by its whip-like tail caused a certain amount of interest among the kids on the beach and I should like to apologize to the parents whose kids I allowed to hold it: it turns out that the dorsal spine is venomous (Only mildly so - I hope the ammonite I gave them makes up for it.)

These creatures are called chimaeras and the Wikipedia page about chimaeras shows this to be an interesting find: for a start it's a cartilaginous fish but with some characteristics of bony fish, and normally found in temperate oceans (the North Sea's surface temperature is currently 6 centigrade).

They are also normally coloured black or brown, with the exception of one albino fished up in Puget Sound last year, and unique among the University of Washington's 7.2 million specimens. The Runswick Bay ratfish is pretty white, too. Someone on the beach speculated that it should have been darker and suggested that it had been dead a few days. I doubt that - the crabs and lobsters hereabouts about would have made short work of it and it's not at all chewed up. The order dates back to Devonian times (416-359 mya).

And finally here's a face only a mother could love:

* Some years ago Blogger inexplicably ate a lot of my photos. I've just found the archived photo library and will be restoring photos to posts as and when I can.

Four years of erosion.

Boulder clay cliffs 2010:

Boulder clay cliffs 2014:

A lot of the cliff has been washed away or has slumped onto the beach on the last four years. One victim of the erosion was an abandoned beach hut (the undercliff here has a dozen or so scattered through the scrub) that was demolished and removed by the Council before it fell onto the beach. Two more look likely to succumb in the next 12 months despite the best efforts of the owners to reinforce the cliffs with DIY rock armour. The cliffs here are boulder clay, deposited in the last ice age and wave erosion at the base of the cliff is only part of the erosion problem; the clay is prone slippage. It goes through a cycle of drying and cracking in summer then in wet weather water building up in the cracks and causing chunks of the cliff to slide down to the beach, carrying grass, trees and, sadly for some, beach huts to a watery end.

A cigar smoking ammonite.

Well if anyone out there has any better ideas, I'd be delighted to hear them.

21 Oct 2014

There goes the beach....

Sand beaches have summer and winter profiles. After a very calm early autumn, the gales came in and stripped about three feet of sand off the beach overnight:
Runswick winter profile © P. McGrath 2014
Scouring so much sand off the beach exposes what the youngest field assistant calls 'the interestings'; rocks and fossils that have been covered in sand all summer:

Interestings © P. McGrath 2014
Among the interestings was this belemnite guard and phragmacone (a dead squid's bum, the youngest field assistant was delighted to learn). It looks like some of the internal structures have been fossilized:

And next to it, a couple of belemnites and a heavily-eroded ammonite jumbled together in a ball of fossilized ick. It's probably a midden; a ball of icthyosaur vomit or poop. Ammonite shells would have been almost impossible to digest and were probably either excreted or vomited back by the Jurassic marine predators.