My father wanted me to study law. He was concerned there was no money in palaeontology, and there was always pressure from my family and peers, so I did a law degree. But when I was 26 and living in London, I started a degree at the University of London in environmental science, majoring in geology.
To support myself while I was studying, I took a job in a laboratory that did asbestos analysis, anthrax testing and surveying. I got the job basically because I knew how to use a microscope! After a while I was promoted to head of the laboratory. The increase in salary made it more difficult to think about pursuing a career in palaeontology but I went on to do a postgraduate degree in environmental change to keep my options open.
During this time, I was promoted again to quality manager and head of department; I did ISO 14001; and I got married. It was by then difficult to give up my management role, which I enjoyed. I had two options: to do a PhD or to pursue palaeontology as a hobby. In the end, whenever there was a time in my life when I could have enrolled on a PhD, something happened to stop me – either I didn’t have the time, or perhaps I didn’t have the courage at the right moment – so palaeontology became my hobby.
I used to travel to the Dorset coast – to Lyme Regis or Chesil Beach – every weekend, looking for fossils. I love the smell of the open air, the smell of the rocks. It’s a fascination with things that are old. Most people don’t understand it; they will say: “Rocks are so boring.” But when you open up a rock and see an organism inside that populated Earth millions of years ago, it’s amazing. When I moved to Kent, I started going fossil collecting on the Isle of Sheppey, and my wife and first child would come with me sometimes.
I have three children now and once a month we go to the Natural History Museum. I first visited the museum 17 years ago, and I’ve probably been 200 times. But every time I go I still have a childlike excitement.
Seven years ago we moved to Cheltenham in Gloucestershire when I took a job in the area. We’re surrounded by the Cotswolds, which are hills from the Jurassic period 201-145 million years ago. I live near Cleeve Hill, and I spend a couple of hours there every weekend. What I enjoy most is the excitement of rediscovery: putting the puzzle together; imagining what the environment would have looked like.
If you want to go fossil hunting, the best time is just after a storm when the rocks are exposed
I’m now a QSHE [quality, safety, health and environment] professional, and I use my knowledge of reading rocks and apply it to what I do at work. It’s a way of thinking; it’s about being analytical. I look at the bigger picture. I look at each facet of a problem to reach a conclusion. I think: Why? How? Where? If you speak to a lawyer, they might think in terms of years and decades; an archaeologist or historian might think in terms of thousands of years. But if you speak to a geologist, they think in terms of millions of years. We look at the whole picture: the people and the environment.
If you want to go fossil hunting, the best time is just after a storm when the rocks are exposed. In Dorset or on the Isle of Sheppey you can easily find something interesting. Exposed bivalves and ammonites are everywhere; it’s down to luck what condition they are in and their size.
What is funny is that I have never found anything memorable. Yet, whenever I go with a friend, they always find something. In 20 years, despite my knowledge, my friends or my six-year-old child will just stumble on a perfect trilobite (extinct marine arthropods that first appeared about 540 million years ago).