By Simon Woodhouse
Most hobbies require at least one or two pieces of basic equipment to get started. They may also need a certain amount of space - a nice, quiet room away from everyone else where the hobby can be enjoyed without interruptions. Besides equipment and space, there's also a good chance money will have to change hands. You might need to buy the equipment, or pay dues to belong to a club.
Collecting fossils only has one prerequisite - time. Obviously all hobbies require this, but in the case of collecting fossils, that really is it. Ok, perhaps you need one more thing - an inquisitive mind. So you've got some time on your hands, and a desire to find out about the past, what now? To know where to start, you need to know what a fossil is.
In a nutshell, a fossil is the remains of a creature that lived a long time ago. It's very rarely the actual creature itself, because the fossilization process replaces the original material. What you have in a fossil is rock like minerals that are squeezed into the dead thing over the eons, and compressed by the weight of the material (rock and earth) pushing down on it. Soft, fleshy tissue decays before the fossilisation process can take place; so most fossils are what is left of the animal's harder parts - bones, teeth, shells etc.
In order for the fossil to survive the fossilisation process, it needs to be surrounded by a type of material that won't actually squash it flat or twist it out of shape. Sedimentary rock (sand, clay and chalk amongst others) is the best material for preserving fossils. It's also very easy to dig through, something that's a real bonus when collecting. But because sedimentary rock is so soft, it's very susceptible to erosion. This means it's not all that difficult to find fossils without needing to dig at all. Erosion wears away the rock and brings the fossils to the surface.
So now you know what fossils are, and where you can find them, it's time to start looking. Cliff faces and quarries are traditionally seen as good places to look, but I'd advise against this. By definition, sedimentary rock is quite soft, and so standing beneath a whole cliff of the stuff might not be the wisest idea. To them start chipping away at said cliff with a hammer might encourage part of it to fall down on you. Beaches or freshly ploughed fields are a much safer locale. Before you start, however, you'll need to get permission from the owner if you're going to go onto private land. As a general rule, landowners own the fossils on their land. If you take them without asking, you could be in all sorts of trouble.
For this reason, a beach is probably your best bet. Another good thing about collecting on a beach is that the sea does a lot of the hard work for you. Strong tides and heavy swells expose what's beneath the sand every day. All you need is a bit of patience and you're bound to find something. Whilst you're on the beach though, keep an eye on the tide. It's easy to get carried away with the searching, only to look up and find you've been cut off by the incoming waves. Also, beware of heavy, muddy sands - it's easy to get stuck.
So you're on the beach, but what are you likely to find? Well, that all depends on where you are, but the most recognizable fossils are probably ammonites. These look a bit like a snail's shell, but they're flatter and have more spirals. In actual fact, the animal that used to live inside the shell wasn't a snail at all, but rather a relation of the octopus and the squid. Ammonites come in a variety of sizes, with the smallest being comparable to a coin, while the largest can be as big as car tyres. Thanks to their intricate patterns, ammonites make excellent finds.
As well as needing no special tools or equipment to find fossils, taking care of them is equally as easy. When you get home from the beach, you might want to soak what you've found in water to remove any salt that's encrusted on it. Some people varnish their fossils. This gives them a nice shine and also helps protect them, but it's not absolutely necessary. Storage requires no special considerations, with cardboard boxes being as good a means as any. You might want to label your fossils so you know where and when you found them. This labelling can be the fun part, as it means you might need to do a bit of research to discover exactly what it is you've found. Thanks to the internet, this shouldn't be too difficult.
As your collection grows, you'll probably have favourites. You'll also find that people are quite happy to receive fossils as presents, especially if you found it yourself, and can tell them where and when. So there you have it, the basics of a cheap but interesting hobby - happy hunting.