Monday, 10 August 2015

Fossil forraging in Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis is a timeless sort of place. It's been here for over a millennium. The Saxons hung out and fished. It's been written up in the Doomsday Book.  Jane Austin came for the sea air, Mary Anning found her many fossils hereabouts and generations of would-be palaeontologists have followed in her footsteps.

In the summer it can get a bit chocker, but the beaches are plenty big enough to allow the masses to spread out and not tread on one another's toes.

My favourite bit of town is the East Cliff Beach which is at the end of the promenade. Carry on past the museum that's been built on the site of Mary Anning's old shop and family home. It extends north east towards Charmouth. In fact you can see the visitor centre at Charmouth and the oddly shaped cliff that sits on the other side of it in the distance.  Out here it feels sort of otherworldly. The colours are strong from the intense green of the abundant seaweed to the dead grey of the crumbling sea cliffs.

Lyme Regis, Dorset, Devon

It's a place where danger lurks. Those drab grey cliffs (called the Spittles) are given to crumbling. A massive mud flow back in 2008 brought the golf course right down onto the beach with the loss of the coastal path that used to run along the top. Old Mother Nature completely swallowed up the right of way that used to link Lyme Regis with Charmouth, and  now they've had to re-route the Coastal Path inland. You also need to think about the tide tables as the beach can get cut off at high tide. In the old days, before they built the promenade, folk who miscalculated ran the risk of being drowned on Church Cliff beach at high tide.

Lyme Regis, Dorset, Devon

I like to descend the stairs from the promenade to Church Cliff Beach with its amazing limestone ledges. This is a sweet spot for a spot of rock-pooling. At high tide these ledges are completely covered by the water, but at low tide the rock pools dotted around are full of shrimp and crabs.

Lyme Regis, Dorset, Devon

When I bring young Emi and his chums down here I let them have their fill of messing around in the rock pools before we get down to the serious business of looking for fossils. I've noticed that all children are fascinated by the little beasties that they can catch in those shallow waters. It seems to tap into something basic and primal in their psyches.

Lyme Regis, Dorset, Devon

And then, when they're done with the rock pools we clamber over the sea wall onto East Cliff beach. It was out here on this beach that a 12 year-old Mary Anning found the remains of her first ichthyosaur way back in 1811. These old cliffs, composed of blue lias rocks date back 200 million years to the jurassic period, and they still throw up fossils to this day. The thing is that you've got to stay well back from the face of the cliffs if you don't want to get buried alive. They are especially dangerous after periods of prolonged rainfall.

Lyme Regis, Dorset, Devon

I equip Emi and his chums with safety goggles, modest chisels and  small hammers. The kit isn't specialist or expensive. It's all been bought from the local DIY store. They enjoy having the props, and the eyewear is important to protect them from any stone fragments that might break off on impact.

Lyme Regis, Dorset, Devon

We look for stones that have visible lines of weakness, where the layers of rock can be easily separated. Sometimes we're lucky; more often we're not, but the children enjoy pretending that they know what they're doing. It's all part of the theatre of their imaginations. Deep down I think they all dream of being fossil hunters, or playing out the Spielberg script and bringing the creatures of the Jurassic back from extinction.

Down in the rock pools that are left behind a falling tide we search for belemnites, the fossilised remains of squid-like creatures that used to swim in these waters back in the Jurassic period when this was a shallow tropical sea.

Belemnites from Lyme Regis, Dorset, Devon

It's not an exciting thrill-packed day out, but I've yet to meet a nine year old boy who wasn't transported to somewhere thrilling and exciting by this place. It taps into a deep and fertile seam in their imaginations that may owe a certain debt to Mr Spielberg and his interpretation of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. But for my part I'm grateful that they can imagine and when, they're bored bashing rocks, they still discuss the rules of the next game they want to play with the words Let's pretend ... .

Lyme Regis, Dorset, Devon

All the best for now,

Bonny x

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a fun outing. I would enjoy finding a fossil and I bet Coleen would love this place. - Not so sure about the dangerous cliffs or getting caught in high tide but other then that being by the ocean would be so cool.