The Isle of Wight’s geology is something that it’s easy to see – so much of it is on display at the edges… and we’ve got lots of edges. What’s more, there’s a massive variety of it, and it includes those all-important dinosaur fossils that make the headlines and draw the tourists. Most dinosaur-hunters end up going to the spectacular south-west coast of the Island, maybe to see the famous dinosaur footprints at Hanover Point, for example. A less well-known attraction is the petrified forest in the north end of Sandown Bay. Locals have long known that at very low tides, fragments of petrified wood can be found washed up on the shore.
This week, I was lucky enough to find one. The walk north from Yaverland beach up to the toe of Culver Cliff is one that I have taken since childhood. There have been some great finds on this beach; bits of pterosaurs, crocodiles and dinosaurs. I never found any of those, but my shelves have a small selection of interesting stones and fossils from everywhere I’ve been; and the majority come from this short, fascinating stretch of beach. Pretty much every stone on the beach tells a story – and is worthy of further study.
Petrified wood is a strange type of fossil, as it appears to a casual inspection more-or-less the same as real wood. Bits of wood often get washed around by the sea, and end up looking like blackened, smoothed chunks. But sometimes, when you pick one up in certain special places, you find it’s made of stone. Instead of being 40, 50 or maybe 100 years old, it’s 100 million years old. And yet it looks the same, and you can hold it in your hand just like any other bit of wood. Despite them having hung around for millions of years, I learnt when I was much younger that the quickest way to bring the time of these particular fossils to an end is to take them home. Taken away from the sea, in a few months they oxidise and decay to a foul-smelling sulphurous dust. For some time I had a few choice bits of wood I couldn’t bring myself to abandon in a pickling-jar full of seawater. They survived longer than those exposed to air, but somehow it seemed wrong to keep them thus. Eventually, I took them back to the beach I found them on and ‘set them free’. So it was a pleasure to find another fragment – and quite a large one. It sat at the very lowest part of the strand, where the tide was just turning. I picked it up, washed the sand off it, and felt the grain of the timber with my thumb. A knot was clearly visible (you can see it at the top of the picture above) where a branch had been, and I couldn’t help but picture this piece as a part of a big tree, in some ancient forest. This wood had broken cleanly at either end and looked for all the world as though somebody had cut it with an axe – of course, they couldn’t have.
Over us towered the white cliffs: chalk formed at a rate of 1cm per thousand years. Time weighed very heavily and visibly upon this beach: we humans and indeed this petrified wood was something of relatively recent origin compared with some of the old rocks we walked past as we returned to the car park for a cup of tea, our pockets full with little stones and fossils. The petrified wood, however, stayed where it was. I put it back into the sand and let the incoming tide take it. It might be another long wait before it sees the sun again.