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 UK towns 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
Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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MissElaineous Travel Blog: Escape, Explore, Discover, Enjoy