As a Portsmouth-based planetary modeller, David Angus hand-makes representations of the planets and their terrains. In 2001, a childhood dream came true: he was asked to work with the BBC on their Dinosaur Island show.
Long ago on this world, monsters lived and died on the edge of a great swamp, their remains forgotten in the sediment and strata. At the end of these creatures’ reign and during the succeeding age, mighty mountains formed to the south, warping the land northwards, so that level strata became hills and escarpments. The remains of the monsters were exposed, especially at where the ocean was crumbling away the cliffs of an island. This coincided with the rise to dominance of an intelligent but unstable species in no time at all, geologically speaking. They had the capacity for wonder and curiosity, which they exhibited when they found the monsters. And, for at least one among their number, the monsters brought a sense of renewed hope.
I liked the name. It knew what I wanted and had the speed, style and claws to get it. It had attitude. (Get a Fast Cat, cut the crap, and get to the heart of the action!)
The Fast Cat was actually the Isle of Wight passenger ferry; but the name suited the sleek design and rakish yellow white diagonals of this catamaran, as it skimmed across a sunlit sea between yachts and pleasure boats towards Dinosaur Island.
Dinosaur Island! The name given to the Isle of Wight by the BBC. Its coast opposite Gosport was wooded apart from Ryde so if I was fanciful (and I am) I could almost imagine a Conan Doyle-style Lost World dead ahead (see the pterosaurs?)
The producer of the TV series Walking with Dinosaurs wanted me to email him some images. Luckily, I had some Lower Cretaceous Earth ones and sent them. He then phoned me and was interested in hiring a planetary model of my designing! The Dinosaur Farm Museum would be headquarters for the programme. The lady at the Dinosaur Farm Museum sounded nice and a bit overwhelmed by events. She would see the globe when the BBC filmed it.
Now I was on my way, out of the harbour and around the old fortified front of Portsmouth; picking up speed past the Martello Towers which stuck up out of the sea like enigmatic playing pieces on an immense game board.
The last time I’d been this way was in infancy. I had a dim memory of a naval review we’d passed on the ferry; a grey steel mountain of turrets and guns in the sea towering over us. It was a Russian battleship.
The Cat reached Ryde Pier. Still the same long pier with its rails and salty-tangy sea slapping against its structure below, but I had no time for nostalgia or waiting for a train so I quick-marched down its length. As I did so, a train came the other way. It was a London underground one but like none I’ve seen before: cartoon dinosaurs in a landscape of palms, deserts and volcanoes adorned its length. Dinosaurs were a big thing on this island now.
Luck was with me this time. I reached the bus station at the pier’s end to find the right bus there.
‘You made it just in time,’ the driver said. ‘We’re about to leave.’
I paid the fare and climbed up to the top. The bus crawled uphill. I’d heard about this island resembling England as it once was. Ryde had an air of parochial attractiveness not found on the mainland. It reminded me of a town version of the sixties TV serial The Prisoner, too, with the church steeple on top of the hill and the unchanged architecture of the town since I was last here. The travel writer Bill Bryson bemoaned Lulworth Cove not mirroring children’s book illustrations of an idyllic seaside England. Maybe he should have tried the Isle of Wight. It was all for the tourists. The island was still crowded with their cars, along with the trees surrounding small fields and hills all the way to Newport.
The place for the interview was a tourist office for the museums in the town centre. The boss was a small, bearded man and his room was small too, but the ideas and number of projects discussed were far from being on the small side! As he looked at my work we roamed through my making the custom-built relief model, them hiring the globe, buying it, having a copy made, having a series of globes made, having a globe to highlight the fossil mammal beds upstaged by the dinosaurs, having a model of Lower Cretaceous Hampshire or thereabouts, and copyright, including images used in tutorials.
Back on the Fast Cat. Back in comfort through the boat-cluttered sea before me to Portsmouth, then home and telephone negotiations with the BBC in the afternoon. It was a lifetime’s full circle coming back to the Isle of Wight; dinosaurs had been my earliest passion and they were really helping me now; like forgotten, fearsome allies charging up out of childhood to rescue me in hard times.
The upshot was the globe and I were to be picked up in a week’s time for a free trip to the Isle of Wight and the Dinosaur Farm Museum. Not to mention being involved in what I loved (for a change!) Plus adventure, fame, and so on.
At this time I had a Jekyll and Hyde lifestyle in which, like an actor I can get some amazing work, meet interesting people, and after it’s over be just the same as all the other plebs signing on. The Jobseekers’ Allowance man with the critical set to his mouth was impressed by my unorthodox efforts. I would have to register with an employment agency and do a very menial job, the one advantage to this being I could chuck it when something that really mattered in life came along, like a dinosaur hunt.
I started work at a recycling plant (garbage) up near Winchester. I had to get up at dawn and hurtle up the motorway in a worker’s van. Old clothing and heavy duty boots were de rigeur because I’d be sorting through the rubbish on a conveyor belt and dropping newspapers down a chute. I always needed a bath on arrival home. That said, my colleagues there were genuinely interested when I told them I was mixed up with the BBC’s Dinosaur Island and that they now had a star in their midst.
In the midst of all this, an interview with the local paper was arranged. The News was used to Rowner – where I lived – being newsworthy for neglect, drugs, crime and single mothers. So to find someone like yours truly hiding out here and having contacts with television, however tenuously, was unusual, and therefore also newsworthy. I had excellent photos taken of me holding up LC Earth in triumphant Herculean pose on the Teletubbies Hills followed by a generous sized article headed MODELMAKER HAS THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS.
June 8th. Dinosaur Day! The weather was good enough and I guided the crew in via mobile phone. They comprised a vivacious woman called Jill and two guys, one driving a van with just enough room for the globe in the impedimenta within. We became acquainted while we were driving around Portsmouth Harbour. Jill was a production assistant or manager, I’ve forgotten which. The two guys were floor managers. All three were freelance so they had something in common with me, although from their banter it looked as though they were involved with the TV world a lot.
As we were lining up at the car ferry terminal, I voiced my feeling that I was on holiday in some way. This struck a chord with my newfound colleagues, not only because of the setting but because they’d got out of London for the duration of the programme. After an uneventful crossing coffee, sandwiches, and children underfoot, I suggested a route across the island by the back roads but the floor manager joked about us getting lost, winding up in a spooky house and getting knocked off one by one.
From Newport we had to continue to Freshwater at the western end of the island near Alum Bay and the Needles; to check out their hotel location. The scenery continued to be that of the close kind all the way there, though I glimpsed a bare ridge through the trees to the south: the chalk downs traversing the centre of the island. Freshwater. The crew were impressed by the out-of-the-way feel of the town.
On the other side, we reached the coast and a T junction. They were about to turn right but I suddenly realised where we were – the south coast – so we had to turn left. I accepted full responsibility. The road swung round the shoulder of a chalk hill forming a cliff lower down and the scenery opened out into a panorama of rolling wheatfields and copses marking farms, lanes and the odd village. This platform of land ended in crumbling cliffs and a great stretch of sea sweeping away to the right. On the horizon were high hills: the Isle of Wight’s southern point. This part of the island had an untypical element of wildness I revelled in.
‘This reminds me of the Californian coast,’ said one of my colleagues.
‘God I hope we’re on the right road,’ said another.
‘We are,’ I assured them. ‘Chalk hills to the left, high point to our front. The geography fits.’ I was talking like some firm-jawed movie hero.
I also had OS maps printed off multimap so was able to guide them to the farm halfway towards those far hills. Following the road across this landscape, we reached a track with the appropriate sign off to the left, away from the sea. Left of the track were rows of saplings planted in grass, beyond that a small field occupied by a marquee near the main road and heavy duty trailers housing all sorts of equipment. The BBC were here in force.
Van parked across the field, we made contact with people and had a look round. Beyond the field was the museum composed of outbuildings and old small barn on the left of the track, which split into a paved area beyond around a bush-fringed duckpond. To the left from the pond another old barn-like building used as a dovecote. Then, going clockwise, a tearoom, a grassy bank and small undergrowth backed lawn favoured by the ducks, then toilets going back from the pond, a caravan and large modern barn. The track continued to the right through other farm buildings.
At some stage we got the globe in its bubblewrap inside the museum. The place had the feel of Jurassic Park. People busy everywhere conferring or working with unfamiliar equipment. The old barn housing computers, cables, videos and mega-duty cameras. As for the lab in one of the outbuildings, they were building up a picture of the Cretaceous from fossil fragments with the sort of dedication and expertise showed by the experts cloning dinosaur DNA in the film. You wouldn’t have been surprised to find eggs about to hatch here. The globe was more spectacular than they’d predicted. The producer gave me absolute licence to come and go when and where I pleased, and I found him friendly enough whenever I came across him on the project.
I headed for the lunch marquee at the top of the field where I would find the first of several free BBC lunches waiting for me. I was doing well with free lunches this year.
‘Hey Dave, we’re off to see the dinosaur beds. Want to come?’
‘Don’t I just!’
Halfway down the field from the lunch tent I ran into my friends with the van and off we drove to more adventure. Jill would be working in one of the trailers, one of the floor managers would have the barn. The other guy had the westernmost dinosaur site which we were off to see now.
Following directions, we found a field with the tell-tale signs of cables running up it to the cliffs. The floor manager revealed that he had liked the idea of getting involved with dinosaurs. (Funky cool animals). He’d not only done that but had wound up with the strangest floor he must have managed. From the cliff top we could see that his “floor” was a hummocky terrace on the cliff face. People with hard hats were there and digging a pit near the edge. We descended to the pit. The dark shapes of dinosaur bones were being uncovered. Iguanodon. Our friend had got himself one of the bigger dinosaurs with the Iguanodon site. Iguanodon bernissartensis was 30ft plus; as opposed to the smaller Iguanodon atherfieldensis. The bigger Iguanodons were reckoned to be Belgian because they’d shown up in a coal mine there. I’d seen them in Brussels and had been surprised at their size. Now they were being found on the Isle of Wight too. 120 million years ago they were as numerous as wildebeest on the Serengeti, munching their way through prehistoric vegetation on the edge of the great Wealden swamp which stretched away across France to the Mesozoic ocean of Tethys. The Mediterranean Sea was it’s westermost remnant.
Back on the cliff top, we came across a farmer and stopped for a chat. They had problems with their land disappearing with coastal erosion, especially during last winter. The upside to it was that more fossils were exposed. When I found he was from the Dinosaur farm, I realised the woman with him was the lady I’d contacted the day after I found out about all this. We introduced ourselves.
The floor managers, production assistant and I drove down the coast in the van on a grand tour of the dinosaur sites about to be covered by the BBC. Neovenator: an Allosaurus like carnivore, about as lithe as a raptor, but much bigger. Eotyrannus: raptor-sized but actually the ancestor of Tyrannosaurus. Hypsilophodon: small dinosaurs but why had so many of them died at once? A juvenile Brachiosaurus: juvenile because it was 50ft long. Sauropods started at 50ft. There were teams of people working halfway up cliffs, a digger excavating on a large scale. One of the floor managers remarked it was like a gold rush! And so it was. This feeling of frontier excitement and excavation.
If only more money was involved. Was the Isle of Wight turning out to be a gold field of prospects for me? And all of this in a setting of wild endless beach and jagged cliffs where one could fantasise about being on the edge of a primeval sea and a Ray Harryhausen dinosaur lurching along the beach towards us with a roar! I didn’t want this day to end. I’d had the same feeling on this island when a child. It was a spiritual rebirth.
Meanwhile back at the ranch – sorry can’t resist that – or later at the farm anyway, I wound up talking shop with the palaeontologist museum manager. He was a young dark-haired fellow called Oliver. He was losing me a bit on the technicalities but I knew a bit and was enthusiastic enough to make it worthwhile for him. One thing he pointed out was a Tyrannosaurus skull. Wrong place, wrong time. Tyrannosaurus was American and upper Cretaceous, not lower. But the kids wouldn’t accept the museum as being serious about dinosaurs unless there was a Tyrannosaurus there!
Oliver also told me he’d been asked how the dinosaurs got to the Isle of Wight across the Solent. So paleogeographic maps/models were essential. When I was a boy, I had this dream of finding a Dinosaur and having it named after me. Or failing that, a fossil one. I decided that the way to approach Oliver with this idea was to suggest it as a joke. I was struck with the man’s matter-of-fact response. With deadpan expression he reeled off a list of dinosaurs named after various people who’d discovered them; which I found later included a vicar with an armoured dinosaur and a factory worker with Eotyrannus! He was taking my “joke” absolutely seriously. There really was a chance of this happening to me here!
Oliver drove me back to Ryde through the back roads. At one point, where we crossed the chalk downs, I could see it all before me to the north in the evening light. The island receding in low hills to the boat-specked sea, across which were the grey masses of Portsmouth and Gosport, backed by the long ridge of Portsdown, and beyond that the dark humps of the South Downs on the horizon. My new homeland.
Now this was more like the sort of life I wanted! Cross between time traveller and frontier fortune hunter – or dinosaur hunter.
Monday. Back to the Isle of Wight gold fields. Sorry, dinosaur beds. From Ryde I caught the dinosaur underground train down to Shanklin, another part of the island I’d seen so far back I didn’t remember anything apart from it being a seaside town and hilly. Catching a bus from there, I thought it would cut across the north side of the southern hills to dinosaur country. But it turned into the hills at a crossroads and descended into Ventnor, which also reminded me of The Prisoner. Parochial perfection with chocolate box architecture cut off from the outside world by woods, sea and difficult terrain. The thing about Ventnor, though, was that the town was on very unstable ground. Not a level bit anywhere and even as a kid I could see signs of previous landslides on the OS map all over the area. The coast road had gone under a landslide so after wandering around every lane on the hills the bus reached a Disneyfied Black Gang Chine where there were more foggy memories of childhood. At least I could see the SW coast from there. I got to the farm at midday and reached the barn looking for a friendly face.
‘Morning Dave, come and have a look at the crocodile.’
Oliver pulled me into the barn, confused. Just inside the door was a monitor screen. You could say the scene on it was ‘live’ for, just as we reached it, there was a flurry of jaws, fingers and teeth… followed by a shot of a finger dripping blood.
Oliver took me out to the duck pond by the tearoom where there was considerable amusement among the television community. The ‘crocodile’ was clearly a juvenile, can’t have been much longer than a foot. But that hadn’t stopped it making its mark on the fellow handling it who later admitted to loosening his grip to ‘clean something off its jaws.’ The idea here was that they were filming this juvenile star and a hawk to draw parallels between dinosaurs and modern day reptiles and birds. The crocodile was secured again by more fingers. Encouraged by beginner’s luck, its jaws were gleefully agape. The hawk assessed the scene below from its perch with a dispassionate gaze. Devoid of pity for the finger.
That day I stayed at headquarters, chatting, drifting around, checking out the barn. Centre of the action.
There were museum dinosaur dioramas on the walls, somewhat flat and simplistic in style. A memorable one showed a view of these animals in their habitat; a plain-sized maze of mudflats, rivers, stands of trees. The Wealden swamp or perhaps parched floodplain, depending on possible seasons then. At the far end, another wall-sized diorama was being created, and would be while the documentary was in progress. The fellow with the punk rocker hair style painting this one had more sense of depth. Heavy clouds hanging in a hazy blue sky, muted far away hills beyond a bare sandy plain. A line of forest on the right advancing through dark green stands of umbrella shaped conifers and lighter ferny undergrowth to a depression filled with water crossing the scene. A river. One was looking across a foreground of a mudflat, and foliage shadowed under a few stark textured tree trunks of conifers.
Eventually, an Iguanodon would be stuck in the mudflat menaced by a carnivore observed by a pterosaur far above. At the opposite end near the door was a table with unusual looking plants. A paleobotanist explained that they had all been around in the Lower Cretaceous. I recognised a cycad and finally found what the foliage of a gingko looked like. Then there were the computers, banks of them with internet access. Screens displaying other screens. One building up the musculature, look and movement of an Eotyrannus. Brilliant work.
My globe was to be mounted in the centre of the barn. Next to this was a computer station displaying paleoclimate. The weather report of a day in Lower Cretaceous Britain would take place here. I felt I recognised the man running it. He felt likewise and we realised we’d met back in the nineties at his unit in Reading University. Back then he’d showed me a rough computer paleoclimate world map of the upper Jurassic. The landmasses were drastically simplified as an arrangement of lines. The fact that these lines resembled a box straddling the tropics with an open end facing east raised a question in my mind. Hurricane belts were north and south of the tropics. The hurricanes would move west at least in the northern hemisphere and it looked as though they were all fired up with nowhere to go. As “Jurassic Britain” was at the north west corner of the box would they have swung north and pulverised the area like Florida often is now?
‘Well it’s funny you should say that,’ he replied. ‘The Upper Jurassic rocks in Oxfordshire show increased oxygen content.’
‘Well they’re marine, so that means there was more oxygen in the water than normal, and since the sea was shallow that could easily mean increased surface turbulence.’
‘So there were storms!’
‘In a word: Yes. Hurricanes would do, in fact.’
He said that the climate was one of intense wet and dry seasons which explained the sandy plain in the diorama. Probably underwater in the wet season. He would also give the forecast as intense heat building up in the day to 40oC with terrific thunderstorms in the afternoon. I thought 40o excessive, remembering the Sahara and then there was the humidity, but he was the expert. Also this was a world hospitable to Dinosaurs, not man.
The globe was mounted and admired. Only problem was a Lebanese cameraman who assured me there was Lower Cretaceous land strata in Lebanon; so why was Lebanon underwater on the model? I didn’t mind this much because I loved research and it might provide an excuse for being paid for more work. I talked shop with a geologist from Worcester presenting Lower Cretaceous geography, relieved that he felt the part that mattered around southern Britain was accurate. There was a sizeable river coming in from the west but that would only be as long as my fingernail. He was impressed enough with my knowledge to want me on hand as a consultant. The producer happily agreed.
With half an hour to go before they went live, we worked out the present position of Britain on the globe which would be roughly where northern Greenland was then. At this point I should explain that rifting was definitely taking place in the lower Cretaceous forming the far north of the Atlantic, separating North America from Europe, so Greenland, Norway and Britain were beginning to take shape.
There were stars there such as Bill Oddie whom I never actually talked to. There was Adam Hart-Davis, a large fellow with fair curly hair and an incredulous manner who was summed up by the words he often used: ‘gosh,’ ‘wow’ and ‘fantastic.’
They were about to shoot. I decided it was time to get out but was encouraged to stay by my floor manager friend as long as I was quiet.
Real film studio stuff. Adam Hart-Davis started by the diorama and progressed around the barn, inspiring wonder after each expert had answered a question. He was given a quick guided tour of the relevant part of my globe. So there it was having its moment of glory in front of the nation. Hart-Davis honoured it with a ‘fantastic’. Then he said, ‘here is the daily weather report for Lower Cretaceous Britain.’ I loved it all. To get involved with something like this was worth more than money to me. It made life worth living.
My father had a cousin living in Shanklin. Dad hadn’t seen him for ages and the only other time he’d met me was when I kept him awake one night as a baby. Despite this, he’d offered to put me up for the night for free when I contacted him and told him about my latest adventure.
After the filming of the globe, I followed the track through the farm and hiked through the sweet evening light down the back lanes to a B road several miles north where there was a bus route. Copses concealed beautiful cottages, oasis-like in the wheatfields. On the outskirts of a picturesque village I was making for, I passed a stately home. The bus showed up. I got to Newport and linked up with one to Shanklin; filling in the hour’s wait with a well-earned pint in a snug pub, chatting with the barman about the programme.
Dad’s cousin lived on a road towards the sea from the bus station. Working my way up from the crossroads I found his place to be one of the first houses. An old man, smaller and slimmer than my father, and his ladyfriend, welcomed me. They’d just seen the dinosaur programme with my globe on it. I apologised for keeping him awake all that time ago, and was led into the back parlour where a large dog kept making me wet offerings of all her toys. There was plenty of beer the way I like to drink it: from the can. Plenty of catching up to do. He’d heard a lot about my African adventures from my folks so we talked about that, the war, America, dinosaurs. The beer complimented my healthy rambler’s fatigue at the end of what I’d call a memorably good day. It set me up for sleeping like a log in the spotless bedroom set aside for me.
Back at the farm I joined in the dinosaur hunt after another free lunch. The closest was the Hypsilophodon dig and I could reach it on foot. Out to the main road, over a rise and down the other side, a stroll towards the sea though a holiday camp then down a steep track to the beach. The site was along to the right. It wasn’t easy walking on the beach because of the shingle. I could see the site in the distance and a procession coming towards me a long way off.
When we met, it became clear they were the personnel of the Hypsi site on their way to lunch. I was welcome to start digging there on my own. The site leader seemed a personable fellow so we talked shop again. The site was bounded by a rampart thrown up seawards. Within was an area scraped clear of shingle with signs of the top layer – under a foot – being removed in several places; with canvas erected for shade and tools scattered around. The first thing I did was go for a skinny dip. The day was hot by British standards and there was no one around. It didn’t take long because the sea was freezing.
Refreshed, I started to chip away. I found nothing of much consequence by the time they returned, but I was bitten by the bug, the palaeontological version of gold fever, and kept going with a will all afternoon. Just because this site was named after Hypsilophodons didn’t mean all one might find were small herbivores. Anything in the Lower Cretaceous was on the cards and that could mean that undiscovered dinosaur! The jackpot for me would be an Armoured Dinosaur. They were as rare as Iguanodons were common. But to find any dinosaur would be great.
Memories of that afternoon:
There was a rock that, because it had three points to it, was thought to be a theropod footprint a foot across. That Ray Harryhausen carnivore! The dinosaur’s weight had likely compressed the mud and made a kind of cast.
Someone else thought a depression in the rock was a sauropod footprint. It was often hard to tell because so many dinosaurs could walk across a primeval swamp that their footprints could become as indistinguisable from those of cattle in farmyard mud.
The site leader, a doctor of palaeontology, disagreed. He was a controversial guy, but interesting. We discovered we both loved the Professor Challenger Lost World story and he’d actually been to the area it was based on in Venezuela. He told me my globe was inaccurate because there was a land bridge between Europe and Africa. Further discussion clarified that Baryonx, the 30ft carnivore with a head like a crocodile, was found in North Africa as well as Europe hence the land bridge. However, I built the model in 1987 and the first signs of this were not found until 1988, and not proved until last year! He was sorry about pulling my globe to pieces but I assured him I didn’t mind. I really enjoyed research and a chance for more work I enjoyed, and who knows, might even get paid for! Anyway the globe was still basically right.
There were students there from Portsmouth University and I worked quite a bit with a girl student. Lots of bits and pieces found could here could help to build up a picture of what it was like on the edge of the swamp.
A TV crew turned up and we were live for a while but I was at the other end of the dig with the girl student. It was decided that the rock was a theropod footprint cast.
There had been a signs of a mass graveyard of Hypsilophodons here which indicated they swarmed around in herds. Why had they all died at once. A flash flood was one answer, remember the wet and dry seasons. The same climate could produce fires and there was something of a charcoal or carbon layer one dug through to reach the Wealden clay.
I spent the last hour manfully swinging a pickaxe to break up more ground. I enjoy a spell of manual work as long as there’s an end of it. I wanted to get into this Dinosaur hunting by getting my hands dirty too. I’d been told that if I struck something hard it was either conglomerate of Dinosaur bone! With five minutes to go, ‘I’ve struck something hard!’ It was enough to make the pickaxe jar in my hands. Had I struck gold? My Armoured Dinosaur?
No. It was conglomerate which was still good for minor fossils but mine was a barren piece anyway. Still, the thrill of it all.
I got a lift back in a Landrover with the students all the way to the end of Ryde pier. Back again on the Fast Cat to a well-earned piss-up with the the local science fiction group.
A couple of girls brought the globe back in a van after the documentary was over. Both my mother and a friend had videod the programme so later I saw my globe as it appeared on TV. I followed the rest of Dinosaur Island with affection. A dog became interested in the bones at the Iguanodon site. The trouble was it didn’t really lead to more dinosaurs. The Iguanodon bones petered out. It’s rare to find a whole skeleton. The Hypsilophodon site was flooded out. And so on. Oh well, that’s fossil hunting for you.
‘Lower Cretaceous Earth’ image copyright David Angus 2018