As my daughter and I prepared to look at London colleges, my husband gave us a page he had ripped out of his Science News with an article called Hunting Fossils in England. “You should go there. I would if I were you,” he said wistfully. It was an article about Lyme Regis, a small town of under 4000 on the southern coast of England, along their Jurassic Coast. The rocks in the cliffs there are 200 – 60 million years old and the fossils within the layers regularly wash out onto the beach. If you find one, you get to keep it! And, it’s a real English beach town, complete with pastel colored beach huts and a Marine Parade.
With my newfound fascination for beachcombing, I talked my daughter into this detour. It’s my reward for traipsing around with her for a couple of weeks. I prepared myself by reading Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, the historical novel about Mary Anning, the young girl who found the fossils that set off a revolution in the way people thought about the age of the earth and evolution. She continued to make fossil discoveries throughout her life.
We found an AirBnB flat one block from the beach and right across the street from the church where Mary Anning is buried, bought our train tickets on-line, booked the Fossil Walk at the Lyme Regis Museum, and were all set even before we left Hawai‘i. When we hit the cold weather in London where we were wearing two pair of pants, socks, shirts, etc., I began to have second thoughts and recollections of beachcombing in the wind and rain of the Pacific Northwest last autumn. (See Blown Away – Damon Point and Ruby Beach). But it’s too late to change plans. On we marched.
We were to be on the lookout for ammonites, the most common fossil found here or belemnites or even fossilized sea lilies. Mary Anning and her brother found the first ichthyosaur skull in 1811, and she secured its body in 1812 at age 13. She also found the first plesiosaur twelve years later. We’ll be walking with Paddy Howe or Chris Andrew from the museum on the Fossil Walk.
The train from London took about 3 ½ hours to reach Axminster, the closest town. We hopped a bus for the 20 minute trip into Lyme Regis and sat on the upper deck in the front row. As we drew closer, a fire truck roared past us and we could see black smoke billowing into the air at a distance. About a half mile away from our bus stop, on the erroneously named Broad Street, the police had set up a roadblock – the town cinema was on fire. Indeed, we could see it. (Later, I tried to show my photo to the guy from the BBC but he wasn’t interested.) After waiting for about 15 minutes, we decided to hop off the bus, and walked to our flat.
On the way there, we passed a fish house and stopped in for lunch. I asked if they had heard that the theater was on fire, and about eight anxious voices in the shop arose in alarm – “the theater! I thought it was the cinema!” Stupid American butchering the English language. (Later when my daughter and I needed a good laugh, we’d just look at each other and exclaim, “The Theatre!”)
The apartment was so cute, and on the first (second) floor. We’ve hoisted our suitcases up many flights on this trip, so we were relieved it was only one flight. After scoping out the apartment, we immediately walked the two blocks down to the Lyme Regis Museum to pick up our tickets for the Fossil Walk tomorrow morning. I bought a box of fossils (British fossils, mind you) so I could give one to all my friends who insisted I get a fossil for them. Don’t tell them I didn’t pick them up on the beach myself. And then, finally, late in the afternoon, we reached the beach. It was the wrong beach, but we had fun anyway.
Nothing could have prepared me for this – a beach so thick with rocks that anything small would have fallen through the cracks. But the stones were so beautiful it was hard to keep from choosing them all. And it went on forever! Multi-colors, with red, yellow, white, black, gray, even pink. I think most are agates, but I’ll find out for sure tomorrow. (Turns out they are called Lyme Bay Agates but all are flint.)
We stuffed our coat pockets full, then our pants pockets, then crammed them into every spare space in my purse. We couldn’t stow one more thing. Who needs fossils when there are so many pretty rocks? I was definitely channeling my inner child, collecting pretty stones along the shores of Lake Michigan.
My daughter decided to rest while I finally made it to the water’s edge on the other side of a cement structure. The beach changed abruptly from full of rocks on one side, to sand on the other. On this sandy side, I found the quiet sound of water just lapping at the edge of the beach, soaring seagulls, and the Cobb, the structure that creates the man-made harbor, in the distance. People walked their dogs, moms made sandcastles with toddlers and kids wearing wellies, insulated vests, and shorts dug for treasure. The faint smell of campfire hung in the air; then I realized it was the cinema still burning.
As dusk settled, l walked along the water’s edge and found fossils! Well, I think they might be fossils. I found four pieces that looked like bones, and one that I am convinced is a piece of prehistoric poop. But we’ll ask Paddy tomorrow. (Nope. None of them were fossils – all flint.) And we’ll bring a big bag…each.
Meanwhile, we paused to sort through our rock selections and return some to the beach. We have weight limits on what we can take home on the plane.
To be continued…
For other Lyme Regis essays, see:
For a very different beachcombing experience on this same trip, see Glimpses of New York – Thinking like a Marble on Staten Island.
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