How fossil secrets sparked a mining boom

SCRATCH beneath the surface of a pictureque Chilterns village and you’re never quite sure what secrets you might discover.

That’s certainly the experience of local travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje as she ventures into Shillington village, just north of the Barton Hills in Bedfordshire.

LOCAL LANDMARK: All Saints Church in Shillington PICTURE: Mary Tebje

The ancient village church is such a prominent landmark that it’s perhaps predictable that a visitor’s thoughts turn to the past, and how this former Saxon monastery has survived the weather, natural disasters, war, decay, plague and pollution for so long.

Perhaps more surprising is how this village, along with many others spread in a line towards the Suffolk coast, grew rich through the unexpected mining and selling of coprolite: the fossilised remains of land animals caught as sea levels rose 90 million years ago.

Why get so excited about dinosaur poo? These droppings of bear, lizard, wildebeest, fish or dinosaur contain the fossilised teeth, claws, scales and bones of all sorts of dinosaurs, marine lizards and other animals, not just filling the shelves of excited 19th-century geologists but spawning something of a mini-gold rush once the phosphate content was fully appreciated as an important fertiliser.

THIRSTY WORK: Shillington no longer boasts a dozen pubs PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Mary discovers how Shillington’s population exploded as locals cashed in on the lucrative trade, with weary workers packing the village’s dozen pubs.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.