Days out: Fossil hunting in Lyme Regis

Where 'Jurassic Park' meets Jane Austen

Visitors to the Dorset resort of Lyme Regis find more than just fossils on the beaches these days. The ancient mudflows now also yield pairs of Wellington boots – abandoned by those who became stuck in the Jurassic quagmire while in search of a piece of the past.

Visitors to the Dorset resort of Lyme Regis find more than just fossils on the beaches these days. The ancient mudflows now also yield pairs of Wellington boots – abandoned by those who became stuck in the Jurassic quagmire while in search of a piece of the past.

Last year, one girl had to be airlifted naked after helicopter rescuers prised her from her clothes to free her from the bog into which she had been sucked.

In an effort to preserve my dignity (and my footwear), I booked myself on to a guided fossil walk run by Lyme's Philpot Museum. Geared to small groups, it offers a real opportunity to learn about the geology of this coast.

The area is part of a 95-mile stretch of dramatic coastline that represents England's first natural Unesco World Heritage Site. Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous rock is exposed in a near continuous sequence, from the 245-million-year-old red cliffs of Exmouth in Devon, to those around Old Harry Rocks in Dorset, youngsters at a mere 65 million years old.

In Lyme itself the geology dates back 195 million years to the Lower Jurassic period. Whole dinosaurs have been discovered here, and vast numbers of new fossils are continually exposed by erosion. It's on the beach where they are most easily found, having been washed free of mud by the waves.

It was drizzling as we set out from the museum on to the sand towards Black Ven, believed to be Europe's largest constantly active mudflow and the source of many finds. Our tattooed palaeontologist guide, Paddy Howe, was delighted with the weather. "The rain drives most other people off the beach," he told us, "makes the colours stand out and the fossils easier to find."

Our walk lasted two hours and, thanks to Paddy's expertise and keen eye, we all ended up with pockets full of treasures: vertebrae from an ichthyosaur (a porpoise-like marine reptile), pretty spiral shells of ammonites (extinct molluscs), belemnites (ancient squid-like creatures with tentacles) and even fossilised dinosaur droppings. One of our group, nine-year-old Robert from London, said the walk was the best thing he'd done all holiday.

Back at the museum, an exhibition told the story of Mary Anning, who nearly 200 years ago, aged just 12, discovered the first ichthyosaur on these shores. She went on to find a plesiosaur and pterodactyl.

Anning made her living selling fossils, a trade that continues in Lyme today. In The Old Forge Fossil Shop on Broad Street, a complete ichthyosaur was priced at £20,000, while a 2ft-wide ammonite was expected to fetch around £5,000. Other magnificent specimens can be found in the Dinosaurland Fossil Museum.

Content with my own somewhat smaller finds, I worked my way through the narrow streets towards the ancient Cobb harbour, where a cloaked Meryl Streep famously shouldered the storm in The French Lieutenant's Woman. (Photographs taken during the filming can be seen at the Marine Aquarium.) John Fowles, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, still lives near the harbour. Many other artists and writers have been attracted to the town: James Whistler and Beatrix Potter had connections with Lyme, and Jane Austen set part of her novel Persuasion here.

Having seen enough fossils for one day, we decided to follow the South West Coastpath towards Golden Cap, which at nearly 600ft is the highest point on England's south coast. A tip for anyone doing the same: remember to empty your pockets of the day's heavier finds before attempting the long, steep climb.



More information



The Philpot Museum (01297 443370, www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk): guided fossil walks cost £8 for adults, £5 for children, including entry to the museum (entry normally £1.60 adults, 60p children). Marine Aquarium (01297 33106): entry £2 adults, £1.50 children and OAPs. Dinosaurland Fossil Museum (01297 443541): entry £3.50 adults, £2.50 children. Lyme Regis Tourist Information Centre can be contacted on 01297 442138 or www.lymeregistourism.co.uk. Buses to and from Lyme Regis run hourly Monday to Saturday and every two hours on Sundays and bank holidays from Dorchester and Axminster, where there are direct train links to London. Call Travel-line South-west on 0870 608 2608.

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