Time travelling rocks at Compton Bay and Downs

Look at the different coloured cliffs in Compton Bay on the Isle of Wight. From right to left (east to west), the rocks become younger.

A couple explore the beach in the sunshine at Compton Bay
Crumbling sandy cliffs at Compton Bay with a rock-strewn beach

Explore the cliffs

The oldest orange rocks to the right were formed in rivers and lagoons. But the younger white chalk to the left was formed in a gradually deepening warm sea, formed at a time when the North Atlantic Ocean had started to widen. The types of the rock and the fossils we can find in them have come about because of this change from dry land to open sea, as the land sank and the sea level rose. This process started long ago in the Permian age 250 million years ago, and the changes happened over a very long period. The rocks we see today around Compton Bay date from 126 million years ago – in the centre of Brook Bay – to about 67 million years with the youngest chalk over Tennyson Down.

A cliff collapsse at Compton may expose new fossils

Stay safe when exploring Compton Bay

** Cliffs are unstable, rocks can fall at any time ** Don't climb the cliffs ** Don't sit too close to the base of the cliffs ** Take great care clambering over rocks, especially when wet

A huge footcast, probably of an Iguanodon dating back 125 million years

125 million years old

Footcasts like this one from a giant plant-eating dinosaur have fallen out of a hard layer of siltstone in the crumbling cliffs. This area may once have been a dinosaur migration route, with herds of dinosaurs following the muddy banks of rivers, looking for plants and water. Their footprints have been filled in with silt and preserved.

125 million year old footcasts of a meat eating dinosaur at Compton

125 million years old

It's rarer to find footcasts of meat-eating dinosaurs on the beach but they’re always worth looking out for. These dinosaurs were generally smaller than the lumbering plant eaters and tended to have narrower and more pointed toes.

Two dinosaur fossils found on the Isle of Wight

125 million years old

You may be lucky enough to find a small piece of dinosaur bone on the beach. Look out for the honeycomb structure. Don’t confuse bone with lignite – lignite (which is wood that has fossilised) leaves a black mark when scraped on rock, but fossilised dinosaur bone does not.

Fossilised wood, called lignite, dating back about 125 million years

122 to 126 million years old

One of the commonest fossils found on the beach, lignite is a piece of wood that has been fossilised. It looks like impure coal and it is black, due to the way it has been mineralised. Sometimes you can see the grain of the wood in the fossil, or even impressions of the bark.

A rusting wreck from 70 years ago in Compton Bay

70 years old

The tug Carbon was being towed from Portland to Southampton for salvage when the towing line broke off the Needles in 1947. The ship drifted into Compton Bay and went aground on the rocks. It was decided it wasn't worth recovering her and so she has remained a familiar landmark, slowly rusting away so there is less to see each year.

Part of the National Trust car park above Compton Bay has broken away towards the sea

1-10 years old

Atlantic storms sweeping into the English Channel mean that the south-west coastline of the Isle of Wight is eroding fast. Car parks and roads will not stop this natural process – our car park at Hanover Point loses parking bays at regular intervals. Along the beach at Compton you may find parts of the car park surface, which sometimes get mistaken for rare dinosaur bones.

Family on the beach at Compton Bay, Isle of Wight

0-1 year old

We organise The Last Castle Standing sand-sculpture competitions at Compton Bay during the summer. You may spot the remains of some terrific sand constructions.

Rubbish mostly dumped at sea ends up on Compton beach

0-1 month old

Lots of rubbish, usually plastic of some sort, ends up on the beach at Compton Bay. Some is left by visitors, but most is swept ashore, having been dumped at sea. As well as being unsightly, it can be dangerous, so we need regular beach clean-ups. The surfers help us keep the beach clean.

A very recent beach find at Compton Bay, a whelk's egg case

Since last high tide

Whelk egg cases are commonly found on the beach, washed up by tides. Each case may originally have held over 1,000 eggs, but only a few would have hatched, with the others proving food for the small hatchlings.