She seeks seashells (and fossils) by the seashore

High tide at Lyme Regis, Dorest, England

Fishpond Bottom. Thornfalcon. Monkton Wyld. Cricket Malherbie. Beercrocombe. Curry Mallet. Cheddon Fitzpaine. Queen Camel.

MrElaineous and I were heading south, and as I followed our route across the map I couldn’t help but wonder about the subconscious impact of cartography on a nation’s mindset. After all, this is a country that has given the world both Monty Python and Middle Earth, and as the towns and villages flashed by it seemed that local atlases may have been fertile ground as a source of inspiration for generations of comedy and fantasy writers!

Rather than Rivendell, our destination was the seaside town of Lyme Regis. Located just inside the Dorset county border, Lyme is one of the jewels of the 95-mile long Jurassic Coast. This is one of the only areas in the world where it is possible to see three geologic time periods—the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous—on the surface. The coast itself spans a remarkable 185 million years, and during this time it has been desert, tropical sea, and swamp. The plants and animals who once called it home have made their mark: near Lulworth Cove, there are the remains of a fossilised forest, and the fossils of animals ranging from tiny insects to gigantic marine reptiles can be found across the coast. At Lyme in particular, the eroding cliffs have been spilling out fossils for centuries.

Cliff face, Lyme Regis, Dorset, England
Painting of Mary Anning (pre-1842)

Mary Anning: 
A Paleontological Heroine

Indeed, Lyme Regis’ most famous fossil hunter got her start in the early 19th century. Mary Anning was born in 1799 and, at the age of twelve, found an ichthyosaur skeleton. These marine reptiles (not dinosaurs) looked a bit like dolphins due to convergent evolution, and many of the finest examples in London’s National History Museum were collected by Mary from the cliffs at Lyme.

Twelve years later Mary found the first complete skeleton of a plesiosaur and, a few years after that, uncovered the first British example of a pterosaur. Mary was working at a time when people were beginning to question the biblical timeline, investigations into the new science of geology were taking off, and men of learning—or at least those who wanted the appearance of learning—assembled cabinets of curiosities that contained wonders from the natural world.

To cater for this need, Mary ran a shop in Lyme where she sold fossils to individual collectors and museums. Yet she was more than just a shopkeeper: she also scoured the cliffs to look for fossils as they emerged, and she educated herself about extinct creatures by dissecting their modern counterparts. She herself became a tourist attraction, with King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony stopping at the shop, and many of the budding geologists of the day relied on her for guidance and specimens.

Despite being described as someone who “understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom”, she was unable to join the Geological Society of London because she was a woman, and many of the scientific papers that were based on her discoveries failed to mention her. It’s no wonder a friend of hers reported: “These men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.”

Although her contributions to geology and paleontology were not fully recognised in her lifetime, she was named by the Royal Society as one of the most influential British women in science, and it is claimed that the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore” was inspired by her activities in Lyme.

Visiting Lyme Regis Today

While Mary Anning’s shop is long gone, Lyme is still known for its fossils: you can barely walk more than a few feet without stumbling over an ammonite, whether used in a business logo, on the town’s lampposts, or on one of the sculpted pavements outside the town museum. As someone with a small ammonite collection of my own, this is like coming home. Indeed, every few years I wash up at Lyme Regis for a spot of sea, sun (if I’m lucky), and fossil finding (if I’m luckier). However, this was the first time I went on one of Lyme’s fossil walks organised by the museum.

My verdict? Go. In fact, go now. Just check the tide table before you do. I am kicking myself for not doing the walk sooner.

First of all, it’s informative: guides Chris Andrew and Paddy Howe clearly know their geology. Their ability to compress 185 million years’ worth of information into three hours is incredible, and actually being in the location makes it come to life in a way that can’t be captured in a YouTube video. Second, it’s inspiring: Chris and Paddy love what they do. Even though they have probably delivered the same spiel hundreds, if not thousands, of times to the tourists and school children who flock to the shore, their enthusiasm never wavers. Finally, it’s incredible value for money: not only do you get Chris and Paddy’s expertise, but your ticket also gives you free admission to the Lyme Regis Museum. Oh, and did I mention that Chris and Paddy also double as a comedy act? For seaside education and entertainment, it’s hard to beat.

Chris Andrew, Lyme Regis Museum

Besides the fossil walk itself, I spent several hours looking for ammonites, belemnites (a type of squid), and any other fossils I could get my hands on. I consider myself an intermediate fossil hunter: I grew up finding fossilised sharks’ teeth and other prehistoric bits and bobs while vacationing in Venice, Florida, but the beaches of Lyme Regis require a whole new level of fossil detecting than I am used to.

The sheer number of rocks and their colour are the first things to contend with. In Florida, there’s sand, shells, and seaweed. Anything black in colour has a good chance of being a fossil, and light reflects differently off bone and the enamel of sharks’ teeth. At low tide in Lyme, however, there is mud, black rocks, grey rocks, and everything in between. Added to all of this, a decade ago a landslip brought part of the old town dump crashing down onto the beach. This dropped a generation of detritus—glass bottles and jars, ceramic containers and bits of tile, metal bits and engine parts—right into the middle of a fossil zone. These pieces are being constantly turned over by the surf, leading to unusual shapes that trick the brain into seeing what isn’t there. It is, however, a useful place to look for sea glass!

Ammonite on a beach at Lyme Regis, Dorset, England

So fossil hunting in Lyme can be a challenge, but I also find it meditative. Because you never know what you might find, your focus is purely on the patch of beach in front of you—it becomes the ultimate mindfulness exercise. Worries drift away on the tide and every find, no matter how small, is an encouragement to look for the next. There’s then the excitement of actually discovering a fossil, a piece of the past that hasn’t been seen by anyone in millions of years.

All of that being said, fossils were thin on the ground during this visit. The best time to go hunting is after the winter storms when the sea washes more of the cliffs onto the beach below. But for enjoying the ambiance of a seaside town during the off-season, September proved to be ideal. The crowds were practically non-existent, and most of the people present were locals walking their dogs along the shore. Indeed, I came to the conclusion that it is a requirement to own a dog if you live in Lyme Regis as it is a town that seems more pet friendly than most (and most are pretty welcoming!).

There is also more to Lyme than just fossils. MrElaineous and I took advantage of the free entry to the Lyme Regis Museum and, while much of it is dedicated to the local geology and fossilised flora and fauna, it also provides a useful reminder about other aspects of the town’s cultural history. For example, Jane Austen set part of her novel Persuasion in Lyme, and the medieval jetty known as the Cobb plays a pivotal role in the plot of this underappreciated romance. For a romance of a different sort, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is also set in Lyme, and the award-winning film adaptation used the town as a backdrop to the movie.

All too soon it was time to leave Lyme, and we retraced our journey home past Queen Camel, Cheddon Fitzpaine, Curry Mallet, and the rest. If you’re curious, the name of Lyme itself originates from being at the mouth of the River Lim (a.k.a. Lym). It was granted a royal charter in the 13th century, allowing it to use the term Regis (literally “of the king”, or the King’s Lyme). Whether you’re looking for a seaside escape or a journey back in time, Lyme Regis is the spot: you don’t have to be royalty—or a camel—to enjoy it.

Sunset at Lyme Regis, Dorset, England
[ As the days get shorter and nights longer, I will be travelling and blogging less. However, I am working on a new project that I am looking forward to sharing with you as soon as it’s ready, and I will also be continuing to share daily photos on social media. Consider following me on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to see more MissElaineous images of the UK, and sign up using the form below to have the blog posts emailed directly to you.]

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Wiltshire Round Up

If you have ever watched any television series, you’ll be familiar with the phenomenon of the clip show. These often string together the best segments from previous episodes, or perhaps are built around a particular theme. Welcome to the clip show in blog format!

This past summer I’ve been exploring closer to home and enjoying the wonders of Wiltshire, but in the not-too-distant future I will be heading off slightly further afield. Until I have a chance to share that trip, I thought I would collect all of my miscellaneous writings about Wiltshire into one place.

Take a seat, Manor House Hotel, Castle Combe, Wiltshire

To the Manor Born (published by Professional Travel Planner): I think everyone has a “happy place” they call upon when stressed, bored, or simply daydreaming. That location they mentally return to again and again to reminisce about good times, and which serves as a reminder to revisit in person as soon as possible. I consider myself fortunate to have several such places; some are located halfway around the globe and are more difficult to get to on a regular basis, but there is one that is practically on my doorstep: the Manor House in Castle Combe.

Exploring What’s on Your Doorstep (published by Visit Wiltshire): And speaking of doorsteps, it was wonderful to discover new places and revisit an old favourite this summer. From the Devizes Marina Café to Bowood House and Gardens, this trip was a great reminder that you don’t necessarily need to travel great distances to have a great time.

Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire

Discovering Historical Salisbury (published by Visit Wiltshire): I loved exploring the different time periods on offer in Salisbury, from the far distant past at the Salisbury Museum to the heights of the medieval cathedral to the Victorian architecture of Fisherton Mill (and its modern and very delicious cakes). If you have ever daydreamed about hopping aboard a time machine, Salisbury is the city for you.

Seduced by Salisbury: I enjoyed Salisbury so much I wrote about it twice! These are the immediate thoughts I jotted for social media that got “slightly” longer than anticipated.

Wiltshire Wonderland: This is a slightly different blast from the past. A few years ago MrElaineous and I went out to look for bluebells one evening and instead found a captivating countryside bathed in golden hour light.

Wiltshire Wanderings: Not only did we find bluebells during this early morning trip to the beautiful West Woods, but we also paid a visit to the standing stones at Avebury. While less well known than its counterpart at Stonehenge, it is an incredible place to visit—just watch out for the sheep!

Avebury, Wiltshire
Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire

Around Lacock: I first stumbled across the National Trust village of Lacock on television, standing in as Jane Austen’s Meryton in the famed 1996 production of Pride and Prejudice. Since writing this blog post, I am pleased to say that it has become part of my walking routine.

Delightful Devizes: One of the things I love about travelling is how it one trip often leads to another. A visit to the quaint market town of Devizes sparked even more explorations this summer, from the rolling fields of Somerset Lavender Farm to picturesque gardens in the heart of Somerset.

If you enjoyed this glimpse into the wilds of Wiltshire, please consider signing up to the mailing list to get the free eBook Off the Beaten Track: 7 Wiltshire Walks (a.k.a. The (Mis)Adventures of a Novice Walker). It is full of even more photographs of the English countryside … and a few outings that didn’t go quite according to plan!

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Summer, Shakespeare, and Sightseeing

National Trusts The Courts, Holt, Wiltshire

It was Shakespeare—and a very dedicated English teacher—who brought me to the UK in the summer of 1999. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a number of plays (and the odd musical or two) in gardens across the country. This is because once the weather warms up, outdoor spaces are converted into open-air theatres for local amateur dramatic groups and professional touring companies.

It was one of the former that I had the opportunity to catch this summer at the Glove Factory Studios in the nearby village of Holt. I was familiar with the quality of Holt’s productions from past performances: from murder mysteries and 18th century plays to Jane Austen and Shakespeare, they are willing to tackle it all. This production happened to be one I was unfamiliar with, Shakespeare’s  Measure for Measure.

 

The Glove Factory Studios, Holt, Wiltshire

This is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because of the abrupt shifts in tone, from dark drama to comedic word play (even Shakespeare wasn’t above making a bum joke!), yet it is also a work that seems specifically written for the #MeToo era. For a modern audience, the play cannot be neatly pigeonholed into comedy or tragedy, but is something rather different: complicated and thought provoking. The cast did a fantastic job handling this difficult material, wringing laughs from centuries old jokes while also underscoring that abusers and their victims have been locked in a battle for belief for centuries. This was brought home with a line from the corrupt Angelo:

“As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.”

Beyond getting acquainted with one of the Bard’s more difficult works, this also served as my introduction to the Glove Factory, which houses studio space and a café in converted historic buildings (their original use is in the name). My curiosity was piqued; I decided to make a return visit to check out the café properly and spend some time in the lovely gardens at The Courts, a National Trust property in the very heart of the village.

It was a good decision. The Field Kitchen at the Glove Factory was a great place for a bite to eat, with fresh, local food and a fantastic atmosphere. The only downside is that it is slightly too far away to visit on a regular basis; otherwise, my laptop and I would have a reserved table as it’s the perfect place to work in.

It is only a stone’s throw to The Courts, which was built in the early 18th century for a wealthy cloth merchant. However, it takes its name from its secondary use: serving as a village court of law for local weavers to settle disputes. Two centuries later, the owner was influenced by famed landscape architect Gertrude Jekyll to create a series of “garden rooms” that flow into each other while retaining their own character. This makes it a wonderful place to explore and, at seven acres plus an arboretum, there is plenty to see in the course of a visit.

Although most of the flowers were slightly past peak when I was there, not helped by the summer’s heatwave, the raised pond was spectacular. Water lilies and their reflections added bright spots of colour to the surface, and darting here and there above the water were colourful dragonflies and damselflies. The dragonflies in particular were making the most of the beautiful day to court, mate, and lay their eggs in the water. The ravenous nymphs of both species will overwinter in the pond before emerging as adults, with the dragonflies potentially taking several years to reach maturity.

I have been fortunate this summer to enjoy a little of everything that Wiltshire has to offer, from quaint market towns, grand houses and gardens, and the spire of Salisbury (and beyond). However, stay tuned: I’ll be venturing a bit further afield soon, and going a lot further back in time.

Waterlily reflections at National Trust The Courts, Holt, Wiltshire
Pond reflections at the National Trust's The Courts, Holt, Wiltshire

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Down the Garden Path

National Garden Scheme, Somerset

Although I have lived in the UK for nearly 15 years, I am still discovering new things on a regular basis. One such recent discovery has been the National Garden Scheme. While I had been vaguely aware of their existence before, I have to admit I had never actually visited one of the participating properties. What a mistake that was!

After visiting my first open garden earlier this summer, I was hooked: seeing how people had transformed their patch of land into an urban paradise was incredibly inspiring and photogenic—what’s not to like? The NGS website makes it easy to find any open garden in a given location, so after our trip to Somerset Lavender Farm, MrElaineous and I continued onwards to the nearest property.

The journey along this road is one we make on a regular basis since it was the way back to his hometown. It is, dare I say it, a bit dull. But at a certain stop sign the SatNav advised us to proceed straight ahead instead of turning right along our usual route. We did as instructed and it was like the car had driven through a portal to Narnia or, at the very least, ye olde England.

The winding road took us through picture-perfect villages, provided lovely vistas across fields, and, as we approached the village of Stratton-on-the-Fosse, we caught glimpses of a large church that seemed to have landed from outer space. I found out later that this was Downside Abbey Church and School, a Catholic boarding school and Benedictine monastery in the middle of the Somerset countryside.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons

The Fosse referred to in the village name is not a river, like in Stratford-upon-Avon, but rather the Fosse Way, the path of a Roman road that once cut a fairly straight line from Ilchester to Lincoln, a distance of over 180 miles. Fosse is Latin for ditch, and it’s thought that a defensive ditch once ran here after the Roman invasion of 43 AD to mark the western boundary of the Roman Empire. Today it serves as district or parish boundaries in places, and some modern roads still run along its path, including the one that carried us through Stratton, past Downside, and even deeper into unfamiliar territory.

The garden that the NGS website was leading us towards was very different from the suburban garden we had explored in Devizes. The Fosse Way gave way to narrow country lanes, and we found arriving at our destination was no less magical than the journey that preceded it. Perched on a hillside with a smattering of houses in either direction, the venue boasted three gardens in one location: a modern garden designed around a period property; a formal garden that looked like it came from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and a shady woodland walk.

The modern garden was a labour of love developed by the householder over the past three years, and a photograph album showed the transition from an empty, muddy field to its current state. Large beds of bright flowers, a household vegetable patch, and cosy seating areas had been incorporated around a charming stone house, the combination of antique and modern working well together.

National Garden Scheme, Somerset

From there we drifted into the neighbour’s property, which revealed a carpet of green lawn and beautiful formal borders. The Queen of Hearts and her croquet game would not have been out of place – it was easy to imagine the same English garden scene appearing anytime over the past 150 years. A short walk then brought us to a bubbling brook at the bottom of the property, and on such a hot day it was a relief to enjoy a walk in the shade through a small woodland.

I feel that there is a theme running through much of my writing this year, that of discovering new things practically in my own backyard. While technically further afield than Devizes or Bowood, this trip into Somerset was yet another good reminder that sometimes you need to step away from the established route and see where a new path can take you.

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Seduced by Salisbury (Part 2)

Mosaic Heart, Salisbury Museum

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

This famous quote by writer L.P. Harley opens his novel The Go-Between, and I think it gets to the heart of why I enjoy history so much: it’s just like travelling, but in your imagination. There’s the same excitement of learning and discovery, of figuring out how things work, of finding similarities, and of celebrating differences.

And, as with any foreign travel, it is often useful to have an interpreter to hand. Salisbury City Guides fits the bill admirably, and runs regular walking tours over the summer leaving from the Information Centre. This is where MrElaineous and I headed first thing in the morning to meet up with our guide, Diana. She was able to reveal a different side to the city, from colourful stories that may (or may not) have been true to landmarks that are long since gone. She also took us to visit places that weren’t even on our radar, like the incredible St Thomas’s Church. Throughout the tour we learned that every building in Salisbury comes with a ghost or three, which probably isn’t much of a surprise considering the city’s age!

Some of the tales called to mind Terry Pratchett’s fictional city of Ankh-Morpork, and it was easy to picture him getting inspired by these vignettes of times gone by. Once a healthy dose of imagination and magic were added to the mix, you could see how a whole new world could develop, perhaps with great tower of Salisbury Cathedral serving as the model for the Unseen University—just with wizards instead of clergy sneaking over the walls!

Upon leaving Diana in the Cathedral Close, we journeyed to the far more recent past, although still quite a foreign land to me as it involves British politics. Nearly directly across from Salisbury Cathedral sits Arundells, the home of former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath. The house is more or less as he left it, and being surrounded by his collections of art and memorabilia made it feel like visiting the home of someone who had just popped out for a moment but was anticipated to return soon.

Bringing the rooms to life even further were incredibly knowledgeable and friendly stewards who were happy to share information about the collection, architecture, and the man himself. There was also an opportunity to literally reach out and touch the past in a way that is seldom experienced when visiting historic properties. For example, I was able to sit in Sir Edward’s “teapot” chair in the library, so called because of its fabric pattern, but I could also easily imagine settling in with a cuppa as it was quite comfortable. MrElaineous was able to play the piano and test out the acoustics in the living room.

Arundells, home of Sir Edward Heath, Salisbury
Arundells, home of Sir Edward Heath, Salisbury

Although the day was rather grey and overcast, the garden of Arundells was still a wonderful place to explore. Consisting of two acres of ground leading down to the river, it has to be one of the most tranquil places in all of Salisbury, with perhaps the best view of the cathedral itself. The back of the house also reveals the six different time periods that make up the property, ranging from the original medieval canonry to the 18th century Queen Anne style that gives the front façade its symmetrical dollhouse appearance.

After viewing it, I wondered if this mix was perhaps a metaphor for Heath himself, who not only served as Prime Minister (1970-1974), but also put in 50 years as MP, became a world-class yachtsman, AND was a keen musician, conducting orchestras across the globe. And I thought I was juggling a lot of activities!

Next up was a building literally around the corner, the National Trust’s Mompesson House. Upon our arrival, we saw that the Woodford Ukulele Group was performing in the garden and headed out to investigate. Hearing “Karma Chameleon” in a walled garden played by a band of ukuleles has to rank as one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had while travelling!

The house itself was built in 1701 for Charles Mompesson, and for much of its history served as a home for a number of families before ending up in the hands of the National Trust in the 1970s, when the property was refurnished as it might have looked at the height of the Georgian period. Reflecting this time period, Mompesson also houses items such as the Turnbull collection, an assemblage of nearly 400 drinking glasses from the 18th century. The intricacy of these vessels is amazing, from fancy twisted stems to engraved images. If you hate washing dishes, spare a thought for the conservators who painstakingly clean each glass.

The architecture is just as intricate, with beautiful plaster work decorating the stairway and ceilings, and the staircase itself having a lovely carved balustrade. Yet despite this ornateness, Mompesson is much more homely compared to some other National Trust properties, and it is much easier to picture it being lived in as family home … just one with fantastic view of Salisbury Cathedral from the bedrooms.

Elaborate plasterwork in the 18th century Mompesson House, Salisbury
Dahlia in the garden at Mompesson House, Salisbury

We finished the day where we began, at the Rose and Crown for an afternoon tea overlooking the river. With melt-in-your-mouth scones and tasty sandwiches, this was the perfect way to reflect on our visit to Salisbury and refuel for the trip home. The only downside? We didn’t have enough room for the cakes! This was a problem easily solved by a doggie bag, and we bid a fond farewell to the Rose and Crown before returning to Chippenham.

Over the past few months I have been trying to make more time for Wiltshire and the sights that are on my own doorstep. After all, being close to home—in the same county, let alone the same country—doesn’t mean you can’t approach travelling like a tourist. It doesn’t have to be a foreign country for you to immerse yourself in the people, the past, or the experiences on offer, and being willing to see the familiar from a new perspective is incredibly rewarding … and avoids jet lag!

Afternoon tea at the Legacy Rose and Crown, Salisbury
Click here to view PART 1 and check out this week’s daily posts on the MissElaineous Facebook page for a few videos from Salisbury. For even more scenes from Wiltshire, go Off the Beaten Track with my free eBook! ]