The historic seaside town of Lyme Regis is nestled in an area of outstanding natural beauty at the point where the rugged West Dorset and East Devon coastlines meet – the heart of the “Jurassic Coast” on the southern coast of Britain. The town and the surrounding coastline have a fascinating history. The cliffs, date from the late Triassic to early Jurassic periods (some 229 million to 176 million years ago), a time when the area was submerged and located closer to the Equator. They contain fossil-rich limestone and shale.
As storms batter the cliffs, the limestone and shale give way to expose ancient marine fossils. Most abundant, in the Lyme Regis area are ammonites, spiral formed animals, distance ancestor of the present day nautilus. But many larger marine species have also been found. I spent three weeks there to experience the beautiful coast and to find out about the “Princess Paleontologist,” Mary Anning. I first learned about Mary Anning from the book “Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier. This is a fictional account of Mary’s life and her friendship with Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil hunter.
Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 and lived there all her short life dying of breast cancer in 1847. She was a self-taught, keen eyed fossil hunter. Legend has it that she was struck by lightning when she was 18 months old. She survived, but the woman who was carrying her died.
Mary and her brother, Joseph began combing the beaches and cliffs as children. They searched for “curies” (as these bits of fossils were called) to sell to tourists, to sustain their poor family in the early 1800s. In 1810 her brother found the first known ichthyosaur (fish lizard) fossil specimen, about 5 feet long. Mary, however, was the one who excavated it. In 1828 she made a remarkable discovery, a pterosaur, a winged reptile.
Over the course of her life, Anning also discovered the remains of several large vertebrates embedded in the cliffs, more ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Many scientists would come from London to have Mary guide them to these gigantic finds. In 1817 the fossils attracted the attention of British fossil collector Lieut. Col. Thomas Birch, who assisted the family financially by purchasing a number of these specimens. Later he auctioned off his collection and donated the proceeds to the Anning family during a particularly desperate time.
Lyme Regis harbor is ringed by a beautiful breakwater known as “the Cobb,” originally constructed in the 13th century and reinforced many times since. Jane Austen lived briefly in the town and the Cobb features in her novel “Persuasion.” More recently, the Cobb is featured in the novel “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by John Fowles, published in 1969. In the 1970s a film was made from the novel starring Meryl Street and Jeremy Irons. Streep walks on the breakwater waiting for her “French Lieutenant.” When I was there, this past summer, I spoke to a local who described the excitement of the spring, when Hollywood, again came to their town to make a movie about Mary Anning, herself, played by Kate Winslet. The movie “Ammonite” will be out later this year. Watch f
or it to see beautiful views of Lyme Regis and the Jurassic Coast.