Last year, my daughter studied Mary Anning in school and was totally inspired by her story. She was fascinated by fossils and ever since she has been desperate to visit Mary’s hometown and go fossil hunting in Lyme Regis and Charmouth which is just along the coast.
If you haven’t heard of Mary Anning, she was a self-educated fossil hunter who lived in Lyme Regis and made some incredible discoveries such as the first complete Ichthyosaur and two complete Plesiosaur skeletons as well as a huge number of other fossils. She was only 11 when she made her first major discovery and her discoveries changed scientific thinking about prehistoric life and many of her finds can be seen in the Natural History Museum in London. Her story is an incredible one, born from a poor family, she made a living from her discoveries but was never given the full recognition because she was a woman.
My daughter would talk endlessly about Mary Anning, about her life, the fact that she was nearly struck by lightning as a child, about how she had to fossil hunt in a dress, about how she nearly died looking for fossils and about her family. It was lovely to hear and I promised her that top of the list this year would be a trip to Lyme Regis, although we did go the Natural History Museum last year too to see some of Mary Anning’s finds and they are really impressive.
So we booked a few days on the Jurassic Coast. I must admit that I was rather naive as I had read a little bit about the area and the beaches and assumed that you would arrive, stroll along the beach and find endless amounts of fossils. Wrong. That is not how it is at all.
Lyme Regis itself is a beautiful town, the harbour known as the Cobb is well-known and takes centre stage as you walk along the seafront. There are four beaches, each offering something different. The two beaches suitable for fossil hunting are Monmouth Beach and East Cliff Beach. Having researched before we left, we stuck to Monmouth Beach as East Cliff can get cut off with tides and the cliffs are known to be unstable, so I didn’t want to take any risks.
Monmouth Beach is fascinating, it is a long pebbly beach with rocks and pebbles of all shapes, sizes and colours. You need good shoes to walk along the beach as it is quite hard work. We had absolutely no idea what we were looking for and just walked along turning over different stones and rocks picking up different ones to see what we could find. A cliff warden told us that the best time to look is just after high tide and to scour the pebbles at the water’s edge as the sea often washes fossils in. As the cliffs often crumble, they strongly urge you not to search near the cliffs so that you are not in any danger.
When the rain stopped us from hunting further, we headed into the quaint town of Lyme Regis which is a real mix of old and new. My daughter was desperate to visit the Lyme Regis Museum. Built on the spot where Mary Anning’s house originally stood the museum tells the story of Lyme Regis throughout the years, with not only lots of information about Mary Anning and her fossils but also about authors who visited and mentioned Lyme Regis in their books, life in the town and more. There are quizzes for children to complete as they explore the museum and they run regular events in the museum too. Admission is £4.95 for adults and £2.50 for children but we received a free re-entry ticket to be used any time within the following year. We used it the following day as my daughter wanted to go back again.
We also visited Charmouth beach which is the neighbouring village. Only a few minutes drive from Lyme Regis, there is a Heritage Coast Centre which is a hub of activity. It is well worth going upstairs into the Heritage Centre as there are lots of things to see and do for the kids, as well as being able to see fossils that have been found there. Admission is free. My daughter loved the centre and even bought herself a proper fossil hunting kit to help her in her quest. Downstairs, there are also shops, toilets, cafes and a very impressive fossil shop where you can also hire hammers. The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre website is really useful as it gives you lots of information about the beach, the Centre, events and more importantly tide times which is really useful.
Charmouth beach is slightly easier on the feet, being a mixture of sand and shingle but again, it is important to stay safe and steer clear of the cliffs due to landslides and the mudflow as people do get stuck in them. This is a very popular beach for fossil hunters. We visited twice and both times, it was really busy but it is well worth it and whether you are looking for fossils or just a beautiful place to explore, I highly recommend Charmouth, it is stunning.
We did also venture off the fossil hunting path to visit West Bay whose cliffs are immediately recognisable from the ITV series Broadchurch. You can climb to the top of the cliffs but I decided to stay firmly on the sand but it is a really nice place to explore and only a 15- 20-minute drive from Charmouth and boat trips from Lyme Regis to West Bay are also available.
So did we find any fossils? We did. A couple just from scouring the water’s edge and endlessly turning over rocks and pebbles and a couple from hammering open a rock and finding some treasure inside. We only found a few but my daughter was thrilled with her new collection and we have vowed to return again in a few months to find some more. It is a great way to get kids out in the fresh air and they walk miles without even realising.
Here are a few tips that we picked up from our first experience of fossil hunting.
Book a fossil walk
Both in Lyme Regis and Charmouth, there are fossil walks available. In Charmouth, you can book them on the Heritage Coast website and in Lyme Regis you can book through the Lyme Regis Museum, this is the cheapest way to do it and the walks last for about two hours with guides helping you. You can also book private fossil walks but they are a lot more expensive. We didn’t do fossil walk as they were booked up but having chatted to a couple of people who had done them, it is well worth it.
Do some research
It is good to research the area before you go, find the best beaches, the best times and more importantly the safest way to hunt for fossils. It can be quite dangerous around the cliffs, especially if you have children with you.
Also, research what you are looking for, find out about the types of rocks that are more likely to contain fossils and clues that can help.
Wear comfortable, practical footwear
It was only as we left the house, that I grabbed by trainers and I am so glad I did. The shingle beaches are hard on your feet and you walk miles, so you need something really comfortable.
Check the tides
As I said earlier, the best time is as the tide is going out, so check out the tide times before you head out.
Winter is best
Apparently, the best time of year to fossil hunt is between November and April as the rougher seas churn up the beaches exposing more fossils.
This is something I said a lot to my impatient daughter. It does take time and many fossil hunters spend hours and hours searching but it is worth it when you discover something as it is like taking a small piece of history home with you.