Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset is a place of incredible geology and history, with ancient dinosaur fossils and sea creatures discovered on its beaches. Angharad Moran takes a tour with local experts and explores the beaches to see what else can be found.
As our small group of eager, first-time fossil hunters looked out across the beach at Lyme Regis, geologist Paddy Howe, our guide for the day, was busy explaining that Britain would have been much closer to the equator during the Jurassic period.
Treasures of the Lyme Regis Museum include the ichthyosaur skull found by Mary Anning and her brother Joseph in 1811
“The sea here was teeming with life,” Paddy continued. “We get a range of sea creatures, such as ichthyosaurus and plesiosaurus [both types of marine reptiles]. We also get fish, shells and fossil nautilus, and many more besides.”
Fossils lurk within the stones on the beach…go on a fossil hunt with a local expert
The beaches at Lyme Regis form part of the Jurassic Coast, which stretches along the Dorset and East Devon shores. It is ascribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its important geology and the fossil deposits found within the layers of rock along the coastal cliffs. Here, remnants of over 185 million years of Earth’s history lay hidden, just waiting to be discovered.
A dramatic sunset over Lyme bay, Dorset
“This is one of the best places in the world to find fossils and people come from as far away as Australia,” says Paddy. “We do find a few things you wouldn’t expect. We’ve had 10 land-living dinosaurs found here since 1858. A dinosaur called scelidosaurus, which was an armoured herbivore up to 14-feet long, isn’t found anywhere else in the world, it only comes from this one small area. I’ve been very lucky; I’ve managed to find parts of three of the 10 known specimens, including once during one of my fossil walks about four years ago.
“We do find a few things you wouldn’t expect. We’ve had 10 land-living dinosaurs found here since 1858”
“We also get the flying reptile dimorphodon which was discovered by Mary Anning, the legendary local fossil hunter. That was the first pterosaur discovered anywhere outside Germany. It’s extremely rare. I’ve never found any part of one of those, but I’ve only been looking for 42 years!”
The only essential equipment you need to find fossils in Lyme Regis is a keen pair of eyes as the soft stone that makes up the coastal cliffs is constantly crumbling, scattering its bounty of fossils onto the beaches below.
“You never come back empty-handed,” Paddy assured us. “There are millions and millions of fossils to be found here. Even after 200 years of collecting we’re still finding new species and scientifically important specimens all the time.”
“The Jurassic Coast is ascribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its important geology and the fossil deposits found within the layers of rock along the coastal cliffs”
Paddy talked us through some safety tips to bear in mind when looking for fossils beneath the ancient cliffs and how to try and avoid mistaking rocks known as ‘beef’ – the Victorian quarrymen’s name for the fibrous calcite found amid the layers of limestone – for genuine fossils. With this in mind, Paddy showed us a range of the genuine article to help us understand what we should be looking out for as we made our way across the pebbly beach. Paddy produced a variety of fossils; vertebrae from ichthyosaurs, dolphin-like creatures that would have been up to three-metres long; vertebrae from plesiosaurus, a Jurassic aquatic creature with a long neck and large flippers, said by some to be an ancient relative of the elusive Loch Ness monster! “The plesiosaur vertebrae are relatively rare,” Paddy explained, as he passed the specimen around the group. “For every 40 or 50 found of the ichthyosaurs’ we only find one or two of these.”
Paddy went on to produce other examples of what we might find on our walk, including belemnites, a form of ancient squid; ammonites preserved in limestone and calcite crystal, as well as coprolite, the polite, scientific name for fossilised dinosaur dung, complete with fish scales and the bones of other reptiles.
“The only essential equipment you need to find fossils in Lyme Regis is a keen pair of eyes.”
After running through what to look out for, it took Paddy a matter of minutes to find all manner of ammonites, belemnites and other fossil fragments. The other fossil enthusiasts that had joined us on the hunt were also soon spotting the signature spiral shapes of ammonites amongst the pebbles and rocks that conspire to camouflage them. I, however, remained determined yet unsuccessful as Paddy passed me all sorts of fossils, his trained eye picking out minute fragments mixed in among the beach detritus. Every time I thought I might have found something, it would turn out to be nothing more exciting than good old-fashioned stone.
“It’s a bit too much of a nice day,” Paddy said as the rest of us looked around at the sunlit beach and glistening, smooth sea. “You need it to be a bit stormy to find the best fossils,” Paddy explained. “The tide roughly sorts things into sizes, so if you know you’re looking for something of a certain size it’s easier to pick the fossils out from the pebbles.”
With these extra tips in mind I finally spotted my first fossil, a small circle of coiled ammonite resting among the rocks. No sooner had I scooped up this prized find, than Paddy was dishing out a new challenge. Having spent a couple of hours trying to pick out fossils from among the rocks, we were now tasked with looking for, well, rocks. But not just any rocks: a very specific type known as nodules, the distinctive form of which is likely to yield fossilised ammonites when split open. Having rounded up as many as we could find, Paddy started to chip away at the nodules to see if anything lay encased within them. Although the first few proved disappointingly devoid of ammonites, there were some that revealed the instantly recognisable spiral forms. “The great thing about this,” Paddy said, as we crowded around him to get a closer look, “is that no one has ever seen these particular ammonites before, we’re the very first.”
There was once a time when people thought the skeletons of strange, unrecognisable creatures must be the remains of those that didn’t make it aboard Noah’s Ark. Today, we know much more about the world that predates mankind and the host of creatures that inhabited it until they finally became extinct. Whether you’re particularly into palaeontology or not, it’s hard not to get excited at the prospect of finding a small piece of this ancient world on the Dorset coast.
Guided fossil hunting walks can be arranged through Lyme Regis Museum, where you can also learn more about Mary Anning and the fossils discovered in the area.
Fossil walks regularly take place throughout the year, priced £11 adult, £6 child. Visit the Lyme Regis Museum website for more details. Lyme Regis Philpot Museum, Bridge Street, Lyme Regis, Dorset DT7 3QA. www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk/whats-on/fossil-walks