Monday, September 27, 2010

On the beach at Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis on the south coast of England is one of my favourite places in the world. Most famous for its fossils, its beach and cliffs are part of the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site which runs along Southern England. Unlike other, tackier, coastal towns whose glory days have long gone, Lyme Regis has retained its charm, vitality and history.

I've been fascinated by the place ever since being taken there as a child and searching for fossils and, later, reading the book and watching the film The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles – who can forget Jeremy Irons first seeing Meryl Streep at the end of The Cobb (the famous harbour wall); her piercing, haunted face with the stormy sea as a backdrop? The author John Fowles lived in Lyme Regis from the late 1960s up to his death in 2005. The Cobb, which dates back to at least the 1300s, also features in Jane Austen's Persuasion.

The child's tongue-twister 'She sells seashells on the sea shore' refers to Mary Anning (1799-1847), Lyme Regis's most famous (yet largely unknown) resident. Fossil collector, seller and palaeontologist, her discoveries were some of the most significant the world had ever seen, and changed the way scientists thought about the history of the earth. Though recognised as an expert in many areas, she remained poor. Some of the scientific community of the time doubted Mary's finds and abilities (she was self-taught) – mainly because she was female and poor.

Mary Anning's trusted companion, her dog Tray, died in a landslide. Like much of England's coastline, Lyme Regis's cliffs are constantly being eroded. In 2008, its largest landslide for 100 years occurred along the beach towards Charmouth. Once the site of a rubbish dump, the landslide revealed garbage from over a hundred years ago.

My daughter, up until now, had wanted me to find her fossils. I found lots – you can't help but stumble across tiny ammonites along the beach – but by this time she was more interested in the contents of the ancient rubbish dump: in particular, coloured china and tiles. But the find of the day was possibly a lead toy monkey.

• Tracey Chevalier's novel Remarkable Creatures is a fictional recreation of Mary Anning's life. It's quite good. As part of Mary Anning weekend at Lyme Regis, Tracy Chevalier, among others, will be giving guided tours and talks about Anning's life and work on Saturday 23th and Sunday 24th October.

1 comment :

Dinosaur Mike said...

Lyme Regis and nearby Charmouth are wonderful places to visit, although you must watch out the cliffs are very unstable and landslides are quite common.