On the trail of Ammonite, fossil hunting in Lyme Regis

On 17th October the highly acclaimed film Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet, opens in the UK. It was filmed on location in Lyme Regis, and is a fictionalised story of the town’s most famous resident, Victorian palaentologist Mary Anning, and her relationship with Charlotte Murchison, played by Saorise Ronan.

Rubbish on a beach isn’t usually something to celebrate, but on the west Dorset coast between Lyme Regis and Charmouth, the sight of rusted pipes among the rocks makes the heart of a fossil hunter beat faster. “Wherever you find this metal stuff – washed out of the town’s former rubbish tip by a landslip – there’s a chance you’re going to find fossils of iron pyrite, which is also heavy,” said our guide, Paddy Howe, as he pointed out a rusty penknife and other steel scraps. “Heavy bits tend to settle in the same place,” he explained as he brushed through the black sand, revealing, as if by magic, a shiny piece of fool’s gold in the form of a little shell: an ammonite, a fossilised marine mollusc.

Paddy Howe, geologist at Lyme Regis museum, was geological adviser to Ammonite’s director, Francis Lee. “It was my job to advise the director what fossils might be found where, in which strata,” he said. And, yes, it really is possible to casually turn over a rock on the beach and find part of a huge fossilised ammonite, as Kate Winslet does in the film’s trailer.

The Jurassic cliffs of Black Ven are the site of Europe’s largest active landslide. 200 million year-old fossils – crinoids, belemnites and lots of ammonites – are constantly tumbling onto the beach; free but precious souvenirs for those who know how to find them. Thanks to Paddy’s tips, I found several shiny examples.

Mary Anning became famous for digging out a fossil far larger: the first skeleton of an icthyosaur, or ‘sea lizard’ as it was called, when she was just a girl of 11 or 12. She also sold ammonites and other “cheap tourist fodder” – as it says in the film – from the family’s little seafront shop-cum-home.

Palaeontology has evolved since then. “Equipment allows scientists to see what kind of fossil is in a rock without even breaking it open, scan it and print a 3D version,” said Paddy. There are several Mary Anning types in Lyme Regis. Half a dozen residents earn their living as full-time fossil hunters and there are at least four fossil shops. The slipping and tilting cliffs full of hidden treasures are still a big draw for visitors. Some prefer to search for more modern items – the evolutionary sequence of Marmite jars and the like – discharged from the town’s century-old rubbish tip.

Although it was October, there were dozens of outdoorsy types poking among the blue lias and mudstone the day that three friends and I accompanied Paddy on a socially distanced three-hour guided fossil hunt at low tide.

“Interest in fossil hunting is bigger now than ever,” said the 55-year old who first got the fossil bug at the age of six on a family visit to Lyme Regis museum. “Each new Jurassic Park film and books such as Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures have inspired more people,” he says. “This latest film is going to bring even more visitors.”

Hotels such as the Alexandra have already been experiencing a staycation boom of late

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The town has already seen an increase in visitor numbers as a result of the pandemic. B&Bs and hotels are fully booked. “We’re never usually this busy in October,” said our waiter at the elegant Alexandra Hotel, carrying cream teas to our outdoor sea-view table, a welcome pit stop after our fossil hunt. “It’s all this staycation malarkey.” A new film with critical acclaim and Hollywood stars will be a further boost.

Being a bit of an old fossil myself, I remember the 1981 filming of John Fowles’ book, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. My grandparents lived in Broad Street, which underwent a thorough makeover back in time over two centuries. The bookshop near Nana and Grandpa’s house retained its ‘temporary’ Victorian-style fascia for years afterwards. No doubt the fossil shop that has been reimagined as ‘Anning’s Fossil Shop’ for Ammonite will dine out on its fame for aeons. As well as prehistoric treasures great and small – a selection of fossils similar to my afternoon’s finds would cost about £20 to buy – the shop is a magical portal. “Kate Winslet walked through that door into Kent,” said the shopkeeper from behind his perspex screen, pointing to a simple wooden door that led to the interior of Mary Anning’s filmic home, near Ashford.

In the wake of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, there was an influx of grockles – as Nana called tourists – eager to see the famous harbour wall, the Cobb, where Meryl Streep waited for her lover.

Embracing colourful fishing boats and yachts, the Cobb’s curved and tilting walls seem exactly the same as when I first walked there with Nana nearly 50 years ago. She loved to watch waves crash over them. If we got soaked, well, that was even more fun. Back then it was rare to see surfers but this time we watched a dozen wetsuit-clad hopefuls waiting for breakers.

Compared to geological time, 50 years is nothing. The most notable difference in recent decades is the extensive civil engineering that has been undertaken to protect the town from landslips and the sea. Town beach is now bolstered with thousands of tons of orange pebbles, almost to the level of the promenade and its Georgian and Regency cottages in pastel shades. Several feet deep, the imported gravel smothers the original beach of smooth grey pebbles where we once had family picnics, a new geological layer of the anthropocene.

My friends and I changed into our swimming things and, leaving our clothes and hoards of fossil finds, hobbled across the irregular stones to the sea. It was bracing. A sunburst slanted through the clouds, gilding the sandstone cliffs beyond the dark slump of Black Ven and aptly named Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast. The glass lantern tower of the museum reflected the sun’s rays, shining a beacon for Mary Anning, whose small home and shop was on that spot until it was demolished in 1889 to make way for the museum.

Mary Anning received little recognition for her work at the time and was often ignored by male scientists. The Geological Society didn’t even admit women members until long after her death.

Ammonite highlights her story and women’s relationships in Victorian times. As far as the hotels, shops, pubs and museum in Lyme Regis are concerned however, one of the most valuable spin-offs is the guarantee of more grockles.

Socially distanced guided three-hour fossil hunting trips for bubbles of no more than five cost £125 per group.  “Good shoes, a hat, drinking water and a bag are the most important pieces of kit,” says Paddy. Fossil finds on the beach are free to take away.

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