Updated: Oct 18, 2022
On a warm Friday morning in mid-July my wife Nancy and I boarded the Exeter bound train out of London’s Waterloo station for three nights at Lyme Regis. The town is located along England’s southwest coast at the western edge of Dorset, right on its border with Devon. For the first time ever, an extreme heat warning had been issued by the UK’s weather office for the weekend.
Lyme Regis has been a tourist destination since the 1700’s. This hot weekend would draw large crowds to its beach. “The Pearl of Dorset” is known for its scenic walks, literary allusions, historic harbor on the English Channel and its old village. In 2001 Jurassic Coast, which includes Lyme Regis, became a World Heritage Site for “the outstanding universal value of its rocks, fossils and landforms.”
As our train sped southwest a man sitting across the aisle from us sketched the Danish tourist sitting next to me and once he had her outlined to his satisfaction, he began to draw me. Being observed like this reminded me of a scene in the famous John Fowles novel set in Lyme Regis, ‘The French Lieutenant's Woman’. In that novel John Fowles, ever the magician, wrote himself into several scenes including one in which he appears in a railway carriage on this same train route -- although in the 1800's. While his character, Charles Smithson, dozed, Fowles sat across the aisle and reviewed his thoughts about Charles’s situation and future. Being stared at and drawn made me feel a bit like poor Charles.
Another scene I remember from that novel, or perhaps from the popular movie of it starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, takes place on the Lyme Regis breakwater, the Cobb, that makes its harbor. John Fowles described this breakwater as...
“...quite simply the most beautiful sea-rampart on the south coast of England. …a suburb fragment of folk art. Primitive yet complex, elephantine but delicate… ”
Jane Austen also knew Lyme Regis and its Cobb. It appears in her novel, ‘Persuasion’.
"There was too much wind to make the high part of the new Cobb pleasant for the ladies, and they agreed to get down the steps to the lower, and all were contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight, excepting Louisa; she must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth. In all their walks, he had had to jump her from the stiles; the sensation was delightful to her…”
After Louisa’s second dare-devil jump from the high part of the Cobb, she misses Captain Wentworth's arms, falls onto the stonework and is knocked unconscious.
Where the Cobb is unyielding, the local coastline is changeable – known for great slips, landslides into the sea. The nature reserve to the west of Lyme known as the Undercliff is the result of one of these slips. It was formed on Christmas Eve in 1839 when acres of farmland ‘went over the cliff’ and slid down onto the beach. A smaller and more recent slip of land lies east of Lyme Regis at the Black Ven.
As these slips and other acts of erosion spill soil and rock onto the beach and the sea waves begin to wash and remove the soil, new fossils are uncovered. The most common fossils here are of the ammonites from the early Jurrasic. Ammonites are extinct marine mollusks. Although they resemble the modern day Nautilus in appearance, they are more closely related to modern cuttlefish, octopus and squid. It is thought ammonites swam in the sea controlling their buoyancy with gas filled chambers in the segments of their spiral shells.
Other fossils found near Lyme Regis range from smaller marine animals to large marine reptiles such as the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. In 1812, a local woman, Mary Anning, found the first fossilized body of an ichthyosaur along a Lyme Regis beach. Her brother, Joseph, had found its head months earlier. Mary Anning is unique among the fossil hunters of the era in that she was a woman. Born in 1799, she came from a humble and impoverished family. Her father had taught her to collect fossils which the family sold from a table in the street and later, from a small shop. Fossils were known then as curiosities or curios. People collected these curiosities and displayed them in their living rooms. Mary and Richard are both buried in the churchyard of St Michaels on Church Street.
Religion at that time in that place disallowed the idea of extinction. To explain the existence of fossils in a biblical context, and to avoid contradicting Genesis, fossils were said to be antediluvian, i.e. they came from the dim prehistoric period before Noah’s Flood. The church maintained that once a creature was created by God, it would continue to live on. Species did not die out. Extinction was heretical thought. Extinction implied God had created an imperfect being, one which could not survive and this lessened the greatness of God. Ammonites were thought at that time to still be alive, but living in undiscovered corners of the earth. Just out of sight.
As Mary Anning and others uncovered the bizarre remains of more new, larger, and ever more divergent creatures, scientists began to understand that the strata of the earth was populated with the fossilized remains of a progression of animals. Thinkers of this time were coming to an “awareness …” as Christopher McGowan explains in ‘The Dragon Seekers’
“... that fossils were the remains of organisms that once lived on the Earth, in a world quite different from the present one.”
Mary Anning came to know some of the leading scientists of the era and sold them the fossilized remains of ichthyosaurs, a plesiosaur and eventually a pterodactyl, among other finds. Mary learned geology and paleontology. She performed dissections on modern fish and other creatures to compare their modern anatomies with those of her fossils. Her occupation was revolutionary for a woman of the period. Although she was respected as a fossil expert, she was excluded from the London Geological Society which accepted only men. Today Mary Anning is celebrated on a plaque in London’s Natural History Museum beside the skeleton of a plesiosaur she discovered. During her lifetime it was only after she lost her savings that several of the UK’s prominent scientists arranged for her to receive a government stipend.
Mary Anning’s statue now stands along the pathway to a beach east of Lyme where she collected. Tracy Chevalier describes the view along this part of the coast in ‘Remarkable Creatures’, a wonderful novel about Mary Anning and her friend Elizabeth Philpot.
“... East past the Annings’ house, at the end of Gun Cliff, the shore bends sharply to the left so that the beach is out of sight of the town. It is flanked for several hundred yards by Church Cliffs, which are made up of what is called Blue Lias--layers of limestone and shale with a blue-gray tint, forming a striped pattern. The beach then curves gently around to the right before straightening out towards Charmouth. High above the beach past that curve hangs Black Ven, an enormous landslip that has created a slanted layer of mudstone from the cliffs down to the shore. Both Church Cliffs and Black Ven hold many fossils, gradually releasing them over time onto the shoreline below.”
On our Saturday in Lyme Regis it was hot and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Midday we met about twenty others for the fossil walk which began just outside the Lyme Regis Museum. The museum sits in the heart of the village on the spot where Mary Anning's house once stood.
Our fossil walk guides from the museum were the well-known Chris Andrews and Richard Edmonds. With humor and obvious expertise they explained the nature of the local rock strata, described the kinds of fossils found locally and passed examples of each to us, showed us a stone nodule and how to crack it open with a hammer and warned us about the danger of the eroding cliffs. Mary Anning only just escaped an avalanche here, but her dog, Tray, was buried and killed.
Chris Andrews lowered our prospecting expectations. Summer is a quiet time along this coast, without the winter storms whose waves and rain tend to expose more new material, we probably would not uncover a plesiosaur out there in the July sun. Despite these warnings I think we were lucky. I came home with most of one ammonite fossil - from a creature that lived 200 million years ago - and gave another one away.
Sunday in Lyme Regis we spent the entire morning exploring the museum and then had a pint of ale and delicious lunch at The Lyme Bay cafe next door. Then I set off out the door to head west on a very hot very un-English summer afternoon. Only after I’d left the beach crowds behind, walked past the lawn bowls, past the string of bathing cottages and gone right to the end of stony Monmouth Beach, did I begin to spot fossils among the rocks. The tide was low so I could make my way well down the beach to where I finally found open expanses of layered but flat gray stone underfoot all packed with the remains of ammonites: the ammonite pavement. I was alone on the pavement except for one couple and their children.
John Fowles described a fragment of this pavement as : “It was a very fine fragment of lias with ammonite impressions, exquisitely clear, microcosms of macrocosms, whirled galaxies that catherine-wheeled their way across ten inches of rock…”
Aside from the flat pavement-like area the beach was made up of stones - large and small. Mostly smoothed and rounded by the sea. In them I began to see bits of the ammonite form, here a spiral, there a scalloped node or a wavy line - different cross sections of the lighter fossil material peeked out the edges of the gray rock nodules.
An ammonite fossil is a totem of memory, a glimpse back into the eons before. It is a visitor from another time, a clue to past life and a remembrance of the enormity of time itself.
In her memoir, ‘Dancing Fish and Ammonites,’ Penelope Lively describes a few special objects from her life including several ammonite fossils.
“ Fossils. Two little curled shapes, an inch across, that hang in the gray ocean of a sea-smoothed flat pebble of blue lias, itself just larger than an opened hand. I picked it up on the beach at Charmouth, in Dorset, long ago. I have other ammonites - exquisite polished sections, but bought from the fossil shop at Lyme Regis, which is not nearly as satisfying as the one you found yourself. They amaze me, these small creatures that expired together once, in just such proximity, suppose, so many million years ago, and remain thus, propped on my bookshelf. ”
Monday morning we began to make our way back toward London. Monday was forecast to be the hot day, the latest extreme example of global warming. Some joker at Axminster train station had turned the heat in the men's room way up - so it was even hotter than the stifling air outside on the sunny platform. The early train to London was canceled but we caught another mid-morning that for fear of heat-warped rails moved at a reduced speed past fields and hedgerows which now all looked unusually brown, burned by the sun. Despite some limited air conditioning, the train was hot.
That ammonite fossil now stowed safely in my luggage is probably from the early Jurassic. During the Jurassic the atmosphere was rich in carbon dioxide. There were no ice caps. Ammonites swam in warm seas. Most of the earth was water. It was a lot warmer. It’s chilling to think our own climate might be approaching that period’s warmth.
Sometimes looking into the past is just like looking into the future.
Maybe that’s why the ammonite shell spirals round and round.
Chevalier, Tracy. Remarkable creatures. New York : Plume, 2009.
Fowles, John. The French lieutenant's woman. Boston : Little Brown & Co., 1969.
Lively, Penelope. Dancing Fish and Ammonites. New York : Viking, 2014.
McGowan, Christopher. The Dragon Seekers. Cambridge, MA. : Perseus Publishing, 2001.
Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site https://jurassiccoast.org
Lyme Regis Museum https://www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk
Virtual Fossil Museum http://www.fossilmuseum.net