During the February half term we went to Lyme Regis, fossil hunting in the footsteps of Mary Anning. My youngest son, had learned about Mary Anning in school, a victorian palaeontologist who lived in Lyme Regis.
Lyme Regis is part of what is called the Jurassic Coast, and discoveries are still being made to this day.
A pioneer palaeontologist
Mary Anning was a pioneer palaeontologist and she was one the first to discover fossils on the beach as well as dinosaur skeletons.
Her discoveries were some of the most significant geological finds of all time. They provided evidence that was central to the development of new ideas about the history of the Earth.
With her brother Joseph, she found the first complete Ichthyosaur in 1810-1811 (Mary Anning was then 12 years old) and over the years further sensational finds were made. New, more complete skeletons of ichthyosaurs were discovered, followed by a complete skeleton of the long-necked Plesiosaurus, the ‘sea-dragon’ in 1823. This was followed by the ‘flying-dragon’ Pterodactylus in 1828 and others.
No one knew what an Ichthyosaurus, was at first and although it was decided to give it the name meaning ‘fish lizard’, the creature was neither fish nor lizard but a marine reptile (as it was understood many years later).
Despite her growing reputation for finding and identifying fossils, the scientific community was hesitant to recognise her work. Even the Geological Society of London refused to admit her – in fact, they didn’t admit women until 1904. Regretfully much of Mary’s work was only fully recognised after her death.
Mary died from breast cancer in 1847. She was only 47 years old, and still in financial strain despite a lifetime of extraordinary scientific discoveries.
Today the Natural History Museum in London showcases several of Mary Anning’s spectacular finds, including her ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur. Much like they did two centuries ago, her fossils continue to captivate visitors from around the world.
A statue of Mary Anning has received the support of Lyme Regis Council, after a school girl campaigned for it and will be erected soon, follow the campaigns latest here Mary Anning Rocks
Mary Anning Museum
The museum is cute, with lots of facts, replica of the dinosaur skeletons Mary Anning found and explanations of the process of fossilisation over millions of years.
This is where the locals told us to go and look for fossils. The beach is 10 minutes drive from Lyme Regis and has 2 car parks, a Heritage Information Centre and a shop with lots of amazing fossils.
Charmouth Beach is Britain’s premier fossil beach. Fossils can be found washed out of the cliffs loose on the beach in the gravel and shingle. The best place to look for fossils is in the loose material on the Beach and NOT in the cliffs.
Lyme Regis sea front
Lyme Regis itself is very pretty, it has a long promenade along the beach, Lyme Regis Parade and Mary Anning’s Museum is part of the sea front (and has amazing views from the top rooms).
I particularly loved the “ammonite” shaped lamp posts, a little touch that added to the “fossil” atmosphere of the city.
As you can imagine, there are lots of fossil shops in Lyme Regis and we particularly loved the “Anning’s Fossils”. They have some amazing, big ammonites and all sort of other precious stones and crystals.
Restaurants and Gift Shops
We went for a meal at a lovely seafood restaurant The Millside. Mussels, tuna, fresh fish are all dishes they serve for lunch and dinner.
The Coombe Street Gallery Gift shop has some beautiful gifts with obviously the sea and ammonites themes all over them. They don’t do order over the website but by email, if you see anything you like you can email them.
Next to the gift shop, is probably the most popular fish & chip shop in Lyme Regis (which of course we had to try since we were by the seaside).
Tips on how to find fossils
Now to the bit about fossils and how to find them on the beach.
First of all there are two main types of fossils that can be found on the beach, ammonites and belemnites. They both come from the family of molluscs (now extinct) and they look different – ammonites are spirals and resemble the shape of shells. Belemnites on the other hand are like a bullet and were originally a type of squid with a hard shell.
When we first got to Charmouth Beach from London (it took us about 3h30 to get there) we weren’t sure and didn’t know what to look for. Ideally having a guide is good but ours had to cancel due to Covid !
Look out for black-ish, spiral or bullet shapes
So we started looking on the beach, in the pebbles, shingle and rocks for what looks like ammonites. We also watched some YouTube videos which helped in particular in terms of the colour of what we should be looking for, black-ish coloured things.
Then (on our 3rd day) we started asking. We could see some people looking as if they knew what they’re doing and so we decided to ask.
Look for shapes or a speckle of golden-ish in the mud
Elliot asked a couple in their 70s who kept looking in the cliffs and they taught the boys how to look for fossils in the mud on the side of the cliffs (not at the top which is dangerous). They started seeing lots of belemnites and some ammonites after doing it for 2-3 hours, buried in the mud.
Keep looking on the beach
In the meantime I kept looking on the beach, underneath rocks, in rock pools and with the parting tide which rolls rocks in and out.
After storms and bad weather is the best time to look for fossils
The best time to look for fossils is in the winter and after storms. The local motto is ‘the worse the weather, the better the fossil hunting’! Also when the tide is out. Following the tide out is the best thing, and something to plan around for your expedition.
Be patient and plan well (clothing, wellies, snacks, water)
The tide goes out slowly, as we discovered and we ended up in little “islands” of rocks outside the tide’s reach while waiting for the beach to be uncovered from the waters.
It is highly addictive, be warned
We ended up spending 3 hours on the beach looking for fossils on our last day (and got wet feet of course) but we loved it, and once you start it is hard to stop. You can just keep going for hours, it can be highly addictive.
You are standing in what used to be the bottom of the sea millions of years ago
For me the most incredible thing was the fact that where we were standing, used to be the bottom of the sea which is where the fossils have been buried for millions of years. The million year perspective and the change in geology, were things that made me connect with a different type of energy and reality.
It can be frustrating and exciting in equal measure for children
The boys were a bit frustrated at the start as it’s quite tricky to spot the fossils and you need to look and look but once they started “seeing” them, they were very excited.
I hope this is useful and as ever if you have any question or are looking for any tips, let me know and I can share. I would love to go back again.