Yes, yes. The Natural History Museum is wonderful. But being squashed in a queue with other kids screaming every five seconds as the animated Tyrannosaurus Rex roars does lessen your moment, and then your kids just go quiet with fright, before getting weepy and asking to go home.
Now in Sussex you’ve got a beach where the dinosaurs lived and you can still find their footprints. Every low tide, when the water is pulled out to sea by the tug of the moon over the horizon, you can run your hands over the place where their webbed feet once sank into the mud. You don’t need David Attenborough’s voice to drop magic into your children’s – or indeed your own – imagination.
But before the dinosaurs, the first thing to greet you though once the tide’s gone out is a sunken forest, which lies on the flat sand directly in front of where you first see the beach from the parking by the Smuggler’s Inn, just to the right of the lifeboat launching area. Have you ever wandered around a sunken forest? I hadn’t and found it mind-blowing to walk across around the ghost of a woodland, finding old stumps still sticking out of the shore, and branches and twigs lying flat, turned soft by the constant waterlogging of the tides.
According to the BBC, it dates from about 6,000 years ago and is composed of oak, birch and hazel. All along this stretch of beach you can pick up waterlogged wood with smooth holes bored through it by little beasties. It’s not much to look at, but to imagine the land you’re standing on being a forest – the sea levels were 30 metres lower than today – is quite something. And the scene you can set for your kids is pretty magical too with a bit of imagination. Turn around to your right and look at where the cliffs drop down to the houses. See a little circular cave halfway up? Flint tools were found up there in the early 20th century, suggesting that cavemen used it to watch the woodland area when they were hunting for game, or to cut up their prey once they’d caught it. Suddenly you’re in the middle of a battle scene, while the present-day waves continue to crash on the sunken forest 20 metres further down the sand…
Walk a few hundred metres to the right, or west, and you get to what my three-year-old son calls ‘Dinosaur Beach’. The rocks which now lie at the foot of the cliffs are home to some fabulous dinosaur footprints, as well as actual fossils as well. Iguanodon footprints were found at a recent Discovering Fossils day out. Last time we went, one was lying not so far from the cliffs facing up and surrounded by a small group of adults giggling like children.
And of course, searching for them is half the fun. The setting is magnificent, with the cliffs behind you, the shallow crashing waves in front of you and the sea stretching out beyond. If you check your tides before going (I use the Tides Near Me app) ensure the tide is going out as you walk onto the rocks, meaning you have at least six hours to play with, which is more than enough for anyone.
You can bring a little hammer if you like, and even a bag to put your finds in. But all you and any kids really need is a pair of walking boots or wellies (the rocks can be slippy and the sunken forest especially so and there's also sticky mud) and warm and windproof clothing. Most of the time, you’re basically rock-climbing, rock-pooling and dinosaur-hunting. The tricksy thing is, storms move the rocks round, so a big boulder with a footprint on it may get upturned, or rocks may cover some bedrock with footprints on it. You never know what you’re going to get.
It’s worth looking at the Discovering Fossils webpage (some of their images are reproduced here with thanks) on Pett Level beach to see what they found on a day trip there. It’ll whet your appetite for what awaits.