Remains of the day

When a fossil hunt in Dorset is rained off, what else is there to dig up?
On the beaches of Dorset, at Kimmeridge, Lulworth or Charmouth, you are ankle deep in history. The place is littered with fossils, geological time capsules crunching under your flip-flops, superb items just ready to be picked up from among the pebbles. A family can spend hours there, the children sorting through the rocks in search of their free-to-take- home prizes, while you read the paper. It seemed the ideal place for an eight year old's birthday treat: take him, two of his mates and his two siblings down there for the weekend, tip them out of the car and let them get on with it as we soaked up the sun.

Last weekend, 30 miles away from the beaches we hoped to pick clean of fossils, the Ten Tors expedition was cancelled due to the worst weather conditions in the event's history. You could see why. At Kimmeridge Bay the May rain cut into the face, driven by Arctic-temperature gale-force winds: the mere process of opening the door of the minibus-sized van we'd hired to transport six hyper-excited fossil-seekers to their goal was sufficient to result in a total soaking.

But, fossil fun was what we had come for, so fossil fun we were to have - whatever the consequences. Wrapped in several layers of insulation, the team descended on to the beach and almost immediately it became clear there were fossils everywhere. The crumbling cliffs constantly spew sheets of thin black rock on to the beach. The strata of these can be separated like slices of Kraft Dairylea, and on every layer there will be the imprint of a shell fragment or, if you are very lucky, a bit of fish skeleton. The pleasure of discovery, however, is somewhat mitigated when you are wet and freezing and constantly demanding of the children that they "will enjoy this treat". So after about 20 minutes, with no more than half a dozen decent ammonites to be scrapped over, we climbed back into the van, had a picnic and, as is traditional, steamed up the windows as we ate.

After an hour's wait, we decided to abandon all thoughts of beach action: the weather couldn't be worse the following day, was the logic, and no one else was going to take the fossils in the meantime. So we headed, instead, for a monstrous new drive-in leisure park outside Poole, offering all-sorts of modern, Americanised pleasure - the diametric opposite of wholesome beach-combing: like Quasar, the laser battle game, staged - importantly - indoors. And if the truth be told, it's more stimulating for participants, young and old alike, than undertaking a palaeontological beach-scour.

Exhausted by endless expensive hours of laser mayhem, that night we stayed in a B&B chosen for its appropriate name: West Fossil Barn in East Knighton near Lulworth. Dorset is stocked with almost as many B&Bs as fossils, but by chance we had chosen a corker. Luxurious, friendly, large and with a room well out of ear-shot in which to deposit the fossil-posse. It also came complete with a breakfast sufficient to fuel a brigade.

The weather, though, was less hospitable. Sunday was wetter even than Saturday. Assuming things would improve in the afternoon, we headed for the Tank Museum at Bovington, a place stuffed with military hardware, where - importantly - all the displays are housed indoors. It is a fine museum, though after a while even junior militarists found one tank merging into another, one howitzer indistinguishable from its neighbour. By the time we emerged from the museum the weather had got really bad. The roads were filled with debris blown down from battered trees, the van wobbled in ferocious easterly howling across the A35, there was more rain in five minutes than fell in Yorkshire last summer.

But with the weekend rapidly running out, we were determined to continue the quest for big, intact, perfectly preserved fossils. And at Charmouth, a long stretch of pebble in the bay next to Lyme Regis, we found them. Absolutely beautiful specimens, great big ammonites, a full fish skeleton the size of a salmon, whole armies of snails marching across a piece of rock. Thank heavens for the Fossil Shop in the car park at the top of Charmouth beach, and its stock of rockery on sale for 25p upwards: pounds 750 for a complete teethed fish of vicious intentions. With the weather now approaching the absurd, getting out the cheque book it was the only way we were going to encounter any fossils that weekend.

Where to stay

West Fossil Barn, Chaldon Herring, Dorchester, (01305 854646)

What to read

Dorling Kindersley's Eye Witness Guide to Fossils (pounds 8.99)

Who to ask

The tourist information office at Lyme Regis: 01297 442138