On the path of Ammonite, fossil looking in Lyme Regis
The critically acclaimed film Ammonite starring Kate Winslet opens in the UK on October 17th. Filmed on location in Lyme Regis, it is a fictional story of the city’s most famous resident, Victorian paleentologist Mary Anning, and her relationship with Charlotte Murchison, played by Saorise Ronan.
R.There is usually nothing to celebrate on the beach, but on the west coast of Dorset between Lyme Regis and Charmouth, the sight of rusted pipes among the rocks makes a fossil hunter’s heart beat faster. “Wherever you find that metal junk that was washed out of the city’s former landfill by a landslide, chances are you’ll find iron pyrite fossils, which are also heavy,” our guide Paddy Howe told a rusty penknife and other scraps of steel . “Heavy parts tend to settle in the same place,” he explained as he streaked through the black sand and, as if by magic, revealed a shiny piece of fool’s gold in the shape of a small shell: an ammonite, a petrified sea mollusc.
Paddy Howe, a geologist at the Lyme Regis Museum, was the geological advisor to Ammonites Director Francis Lee. “It was my job to tell the director what fossils could be found where and in what layers,” he said. And yes, it’s really possible to casually turn a rock on the beach and find part of a giant petrified ammonite, like Kate Winslet does in the film’s trailer.
The Jura cliffs of Black Ven are the site of the largest active landslide in Europe. 200 million year old fossils – crinoids, belemnites, and many ammonites – keep falling on the beach; free but precious souvenirs for those who know how to find them. Thanks to Paddy’s tips, I found some brilliant examples.
Mary Anning became famous for excavating a far larger fossil: the first skeleton of an icthyosaur, or what is known as the “sea lizard,” when she was only 11 or 12 years old. She also sold ammonites and other “cheap tourist fodder” ”- as it is called in the film – from the family’s little shop by the sea.
Paleontology has evolved since then. “The equipment will allow scientists to see what type of fossil is in a rock without breaking it open, scanning it and printing a 3D version,” Paddy said. There are several Mary Anning types in Lyme Regis. Half a dozen residents make their living as full-time fossil hunters, and there are at least four fossil stores. The sliding and tilting cliffs full of hidden treasures still attract visitors. Some prefer to look for more modern items – the evolutionary succession of Marmite jars and the like – that came from the city’s centuries-old landfill.
Although it was October, the day three friends and I accompanied Paddy on a socially distant three-hour guided fossil hunt at low tide, dozens of species poked in the open among the blue lias and the mudstone.
“There is more interest in fossil hunting than ever,” said the 55-year-old, who got the fossil bug when he was six years old while visiting family at the Lyme Regis Museum. “Every new Jurassic Park movie and book like Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures has inspired more people,” he says. “This latest film will attract even more visitors.”
• The best hotels in Dorset
The number of visitors to the city has already increased as a result of the pandemic. B & Bs and hotels are fully booked. “We’re usually never that busy in October,” said our waiter at the elegant Alexandra Hotel, and carried cream teas to our table with a sea view outside, a welcome pit stop after our fossil hunt. “It’s all this Staycation Malarkey.” A new film with critical acclaim and Hollywood stars will give another boost.
A bit of an old fossil myself, I remember filming John Fowles’s 1981 book The French Lieutenant’s Woman. My grandparents lived on Broad Street, which has been thoroughly renovated over two centuries. The bookstore near Nana and Grandpa’s house kept its “temporary” Victorian-style cover for years thereafter. Undoubtedly the fossil store, reinterpreted as “Anning’s Fossil Shop” for ammonites, will enjoy its fame for eons. Aside from prehistoric treasures large and small – a selection of fossils similar to my afternoon’s finds would cost around £ 20 to buy – the shop is a magical portal. “Kate Winslet went through that door into Kent,” said the shopkeeper from behind his plexiglass screen, pointing to a simple wooden door that led into the interior of Mary Anning’s film house near Ashford.
After the French lieutenant’s wife, there was an influx of Grockles – as Nana called tourists – eager to see the famous Cobb harbor wall where Meryl Streep was waiting for her lover.
The Cobb’s curved and tilting walls, encompassing colorful fishing boats and yachts, appear to be exactly like when I first went there with Nana almost 50 years ago. She loved to watch waves crash overhead. When we were soaked it was even more fun. Back then it was rare to see surfers, but this time we saw a dozen hopefuls clad in wetsuits waiting for breakers.
Compared to geological time, 50 years is nothing. The most notable difference over the past few decades is the extensive civil engineering work that has been carried out to protect the city from landslides and the sea. The city beach is now padded with thousands of tons of orange pebbles, almost all the way to the boardwalk and its pastel-colored Georgian and Regency cottages. A few feet deep, the imported gravel suffocates the original beach of smooth gray pebbles where we once had family picnics, a new geological layer of the Anthropocene.
My friends and I put on our swimming gear and hobbled over the irregular stones to the sea, while we left behind our clothes and fossil treasures. It was exciting. A sunburst fell diagonally through the clouds and gilded the sandstone cliffs behind the dark slump of Black Ven and the aptly named Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast. The museum’s glass lantern tower reflected the rays of the sun and lit a beacon for Mary Anning, whose small home and business was there 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 did not accept female members until long after her death.
Ammonite sheds light on their history and women’s relationships in Victorian times. However, when it comes to the hotels, shops, pubs, and museums in Lyme Regis, the guarantee of more grockles is one of the most valuable by-products.
Socially distant guided three hour fossil hunt 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 parts of the kit,” says Paddy. Fossil finds on the beach can be taken away free of charge.