Charmouth to Exmouth on our West Country road trip. Hunting for fossils along the Jurassic Coast and a trip to Lyme Regis.
We headed to the Charmouth Heritage Centre and had a polite look round at the locally found fossils on display. The centre was set up in 1985 to encourage safe and sustainable collecting of Jurassic fossils from the local beaches. They run guided fossil hunting walks on every day except Tuesday. It was Tuesday.
They had an impressive display of fossils, both in terms of size and quantity. So numerous were the 195 million-year-old belemnites that they were just piled in an apparently haphazard manner in a recreation of the sandy shoreline.
The fossil collecting part of the Jurassic Coast stretches from Charmouth to Exmouth in Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset, a distance of about 96 miles. It spans 185 million years of geological history covering the Triassic and Cretaceous periods as well as the Jurassic. At different times, this area has been desert, shallow tropical sea and marsh.
The many sedimentary layers on this coastline are rich with fossils which can be found in abundance as sections of the cliff crumble and landslides occur. Fossil groups found here include crustaceans, insects, molluscs, echinoderms, fish, amphibians, reptiles and even a few mammals.
How hard could it be to find fossils, even without a guide? Just pop down to the beach and pick up a few handfuls. A walk in the park. Well, a walk on the beach I guess.
A stiff breeze blew from the sea and waves were crashing on the beach. Small groups of people were spread out along the shoreline looking down at the ground. Some down by the water following the receding tide and some up by the crumbling cliffs.
I had forgotten to bring the hammer from my toolbox and was too cheap to buy a proper geologists hammer for £20, so we walked along the beach, occasionally smashing two rocks together looking for fossils. I walked a long way down by the water in the hope of finding a washed up belemnite or two. I randomly kicked at pebbles and scraped my shoes through the wet sand. All I got was a wet foot.
I tried searching up closer to the cliff but discovered that the cliffs are mostly made up of layer upon layer of soft mud, silt and clay. Wet this with a drop of seawater and it makes an astonishingly sticky mud that adheres to shoes in an enthusiastic and expansive manner.
After much walking up and down the beach, we realised we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, so we returned to the car and I spent the next ten minutes scraping the mud from my shoes.
After a brief visit to the facilities, I decided one last time to go fossil hunting while Madam waited in the car. I popped into the gift shop and bought a (very small) 120 million-year-old ammonite for 50p, which I presented to Madam with a flourish.
Lyme Regis is smaller than I expected. Unless I missed something it consists of one steep hill with the usual chain stores plus a few gift shops and a single fossil shop.
It is more famous than its size indicates. The harbour wall (The Cobb) features in Jane Austen’s novel ‘Persuasion’, and in John Fowles’ novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. The 1981 film of the latter was partly shot in Lyme Regis.
The town is situated at the heart of the Jurassic Coast. It was in the cliffs nearby that an Ichthyosaur was discovered by self-taught palaeontologist Mary Anning in 1918. She later found a complete Plesiosaur and the fossilised remains of many other creatures. Anning became known around the world for the important finds she made in the fossil beds in the cliffs along the coast. Her discoveries contributed to important changes in knowledge of prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.
As a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society and she never received full credit for her scientific contributions. The gentlemen geologists who published the scientific descriptions of the specimens she found often neglected to mention her name.
To be fair on the Geological Society, when Anning was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1846, the society raised money from its members to help with her expenses. Did anybody say too little too late?
I popped into the fossil shop at the bottom of the hill to fondle a few more fossils while Madam looked in an outdoor shop at Nordic poles. I keep telling her I will never agree to go skiing or hiking over glaciers but will she listen?
We strolled down to the seafront. Along the front was a combination of small cottages, mostly holiday lets, amusement arcades and tourist restaurants. A stone harbour arm at the end of the bay provided a sheltered anchorage. The tide was out and bilge-keeled sailboats were resting on the mud. Two paddle boarders were trying to get through the shallow surf into deeper water. A narrow street ran behind the harbour with gift shops and fish restaurants. The promenade was crowded with visitors walking in the sunshine.
I saw two older men independently wearing Led Zeppelin t-shirts of impressive vintage. Early 1970s tour shirts if I’m not mistaken. Like the mythical elephant’s graveyard where you will find a treasure-trove of ivory, I think I have discovered where old rockers go to die. Somewhere in Lyme Regis there is an enormous pile of valuable Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster guitars just waiting to be found.
Since we were far too young to hang out with old rockers, even if they were Led Zeppelin fans, we climbed up the steep hill to the car and set the SatNav for Exmouth.
Exmouth had more than its fair share of charity shops, bargain everything a pound or less, tanning salons and betting shops. The Conservative Club, squashed between ‘Bargains Galore’ and a gift shop selling buckets and spades and children’s fishing nets, was looking tatty with weeds growing from the roof.
To be fair on poor Exmouth, it also had some pleasant pedestrian areas and leafy squares with more upmarket restaurants. It had a compact well-managed park with thriving flower beds and hanging baskets. We walked around the park admiring the flowers and eventually found a wooden bench. We sat and watched a balding man in his 40s feeding squirrels from a Fortnum and Mason bag.
I looked at Madam and she looked at me. “I think he still lives with his parents,” said Madam.
“I was thinking exactly the same thing,” I said.
While we watched the squirrels a young odd looking couple walked by. Possibly the product of multiple generations of distinctly unbiblical sex. They proudly showed us a large bag of nuts they used for feeding squirrels. They told us in great detail where we could purchase our own bag, how much they cost, and what fun it was.
Some towns have cinemas. Some have bowling alleys. Most have pubs and clubs. Exmouth has nuts.
A tea room nearby was selling Devon cream teas. Not just cream teas, but Devon cream teas.
A cream tea, for those of you disadvantaged by geography, consists of a pot of tea together with scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam. Traditionally a speciality of Devon and Cornwall, cream teas are now offered in most parts of England. If you like to live on the wild side you can have a scone baked with currants or sultanas.
There is a rivalry between Cornwall and Devon as to their cream teas. The Devonshire method is to split the scone in two, cover each half with clotted cream, and then add strawberry jam on top. With the Cornish method, the scone is first split in two, then spread with strawberry jam, and finally topped with a spoonful of clotted cream.
“We need to try a cream tea in both counties,” said Madam, “we can see how they differ.”
Being partial to a scone or two I quite liked the idea and licked my lips in anticipation.
A little later that day she told me she didn’t really like cream teas so I wasn’t going to get one.