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October 31, 2005

Harry Phibbs goes fossil hunting in Lyme Regis

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Harry Phibbs extols the virtues of Lyme Regis - especially its fossils.

At first sight the sleepy seaside resort of Lyme Regis might seem an unlikely venue for a growing craze. But its tourist industry has been boosted by the growing enthusiasm for fossil hunting. When it comes to fossils, Lyme Regis is where it's at. Fossil shops, fossil museums, fossil hunts now dominate the town. UNESCO has decided to designate Lyme Regis a World Heritage Site and to officially designate its seafront the Jurassic Coast. Some locals shrug all the excitement off as a passing fad. They remember when Lyme last became fashionable in the 1970s when Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep rubbed shoulders with local fishermen for the filming of The French Lieutenant's Woman, based on the novel by John Fowles who still lives in the town.

Our taxi driver told us:

You see all these people roaming around the beaches looking very serious with their little hammers chipping away at rocks but I don't see much sense in it.

One man seldom seen without his hammer is Dr Colin Dawes (01297 443758.) He told me:

I've been doing fossil hunting tours for five years and its really caught on.
Visiting Monmouth Beach with him I found his enthusiasm infectious and relentless. He assures me:
I always tell visitors not to be put off by the rain. The water shows up the fossils on the rocks better.
Like all fanatics he is keen to recruit young followers to his cause:
Before we begin with the groups of school children I get them to chant "We are Paleontologists". I help them with the word by saying you add a p to alien and put tologist on the end. Once one child finds a fossil then they all start looking out and it gets quite competitive.
This was where the Duke of Monmouth landed in 1685 to mount his ill fated Protestant rebellion against James II. With all the hammer wielding hordes one finds on the beach these days one could be forgiven for thinking the Monmouth Rebellion was still underway. Each day the waves crashing against the cliffs cause a few more fragments to splinter off and so there is always something new to see.

Colin has an expert eye for which rocks are worth having a crack at. Using the claw of his hammer he slices it like bread, with each slice there is a chance of a fossil. He says, handing me the fragment:
There you are, look Coprolite. At least that's the polite word for it. It's fossilized dung.
After a short pause another lucky find: some Jurassic drift wood is detached from a rock; then another crustacean known as an ammonite. As Colin says:
That won't have seen the light of day for 200 million years, opening them up makes me feel very humble.
He has collected hundreds of fossils and given away countless more. But a couple of his neighbours make a precarious living selling them - one of them, Peter Langham, is expert at extracting them from the stone as well as spotting them in the first place and works for the British Museum. Some fossils that might be pretty and can be polished up as ornaments or jewellery may be less valuable as they are of less scientific curiosity than larger items - such as a whole fish kept in tact.

Of course a situation like this does attract amateurs. As Colin put it to me, having seen the handiwork of an amateur:

Oh, look sledgeman's been here. Someone's been smashing at this with a sledge hammer without a clue what they're doing.
It's not just the beach that's fossilized. The town is largely unchanged although there have been recent problems with mud slides causing a couple of houses to collapse. The hill is steep and the prospect of your hotel sliding into the sea, in the way that happened in Scarborough in 1993, adds a certain excitement to the trip. The problem has come about with the sea loosening the mud the town is built on but a major sea defence project has been approved which should be in time to avert serious damage.

There are several second hand bookshops with a reassuringly musty smell. There is a hat shop and milliners called Pop goes the Weasel (32a Broad Street, 01297 443393). I was most impressed by a children's toy shop, The Toby Jug, (8 Broad Street, 01935 473049) which offered toys made of wood and metal rather than the throw away plastic trinkets which predominate in the toy shops of our big cities. They also (shock horror) still sell gollywogs.

The pubs have mercifully retained their proper names. Rather than being called the Rat and Parrot, there is the Royal Standard and the Volunteer Inn (a regular haunt of Deep Purple singer and local resident Ian Gillan). The pubs all serve excellent Dorset beer from the Palmers brewery in Bridport. The local grocer sells sugar, walnuts and oats by the weight.

The best hotel here is The Alexandra (Pound Street, 01297 442010) where Joan Collins stays when she is visiting her son who lives in the town - one local gossip muttered:

Why doesn't she stay with him? He's got a big enough house.
Also popular is The Bay (Marine Parade 01297 442 059) which is on the sea front. Generally there is something of a shortage of hotels here so it is advisable to book up early. If you can't find a room you could try the self catering alternative which would allow you to polish your fossils in peace. Lyme Bay Holidays (01297 443363) have been doing a roaring trade in "short break" flats and cottages.

Good restaurants include The Fish Restaurant (Cobb Road) and Turles Restaurant (57-58 Broad Street, 01297 445792). If you just want a snack try the fish shop in The Old Watch House on the promenade. A pint of prawns is 3.00.

No visit is complete without a walk along The Cobb built as a harbour and a breakwater. It is hugely romantic. Jane Austen lived in Lyme Regis and sets much of her novel Persuasion in the town - the character Louisa Musgrove fell from The Cobb. Mind how you go if you don't want to do the same. It is on a slant and can be dangerous during the bracing winds and crashing waves but in such conditions a walk along the beach is quite exciting enough. This makes it as good a holiday venue in the winter as the summer.

Despite being a natural recluse John Fowles feels so passionate about the town that he wrote a short history of Lyme and was, for many years, curator of the local museum. In his history he acknowledges the difficult balance between maintaining tradition and attracting tourism:

If this must inevitably remain a narrow strait to sail, there is now general agreement that it is the only course. It is not for nothing that Lyme's medieval seal had a merchant-ship as its principal feature. The town has had to sail dangerous straits of one sort or another all its long life; if the past is any guide, it will survive.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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Sorry to say The Fish Restaurant in Cobb Road no longer exists. The telephone number is now a private number.
Harry Phibbs

Posted by: Harry Phibbs at June 16, 2008 06:15 PM
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