The fossils of Lyme Regis in the south of England have been famous for over 2oo years. Along the dramatic Jurassic coast, you can wander (watch the tide!) and pick up the coiled ammonites, belemites and vertebrae from prehistoric creatures. After every storm the unstable cliffs reveal more treasures from a history written in fossilised form.
Lyme Regis is a quaint old fishing port between Weymouth and Exeter, right on the Devon-Dorset border. Houses cling to the steep roads leading to the sea. A long stone breakwater, termed the Cobb, curves out into the sea, a sight made famous and melancholy by the movie, The French Lieutenant’s Woman,(1981) starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. A poignant scene shows Meryl standing lonely and billowing in black, waiting in vain for the return of her man. Behind her the primness of Victorian society holds her at arm’s length.
Lyme Regis is famous for another woman, in the earlier 1800s, this time a young working class girl called Mary Anning. She collected fossils off the beach as a child, to then on-sell to day trippers from London. While she had an excellent eye for searching out fossils, it was not till she met up with an educated gentlewoman Elizabeth Philpot that her pecuniary interest in fossils had an impact on the merging science of geology. Mary Anning found the first ever ichthyosaur, which confounded scientists and theologians alike. These were the days when science was a man’s domain. The two ill-matched women had to use intelligence and manipulation to obtain both the money and the fame they deserved.
The story of Mary and Elizabeth, and their astonishing prehistoric discoveries, is beautifully told in a new book by Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures. (Chevalier also wrote The Girl with a Pearl Earring).
The South Coast of England is now a World Heritage site. There is a succession of beaches, and rocky coves, cliff paths and tiny villages all facing onto the English Channel. Famous names include Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) , T.E.Lawrence of Arabia and John Fowles , who not only wrote The Magus, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but lived in Lyme Regis and curated at the museum.
To follow the story of Mary Anning is to explore a charming, dramatic, historic part of England, perfect for walking, coastal landscapes. beach combing and fossil hunting.