To tell the truth, I was a little underwhelmed by the famous town of Lyme Regis, on England’s ‘Jurassic Coast’, until I met Gryph – small, unpretentious, old and dead. Gryph got me excited.
Lyme Regis is a perfectly pleasant spot and a popular summer beach resort. Jane Austen lived there in 1804, and set her novel Persuasion bang in the middle of this palaeontologists’ paradise, though none of her characters carries a geologist’s hammer.
In John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the forlorn cloaked figure, made famous by Meryl Streep in the film version, stood on the end of the Cobb, looking out to sea rather than back at the shale cliffs. A bit of fossil hunting may have cheered her up a bit.
In an hour of wandering around I felt I’d done Lyme Regis. The Cobb was just an old sea wall, less interesting without Meryl. The beach was pebbly and the sea uninviting. The last resort was fossil hunting.
The beach under cliffs on this stretch of southern England is Britain’s only Natural World Heritage site. The town had several fossil shops offering guided fossil-finding tours – any day except the day I was there, it seemed.So I set out on my own. The signs warned me against it – the tide could come in unexpectedly or a rock slide could engulf me. Perhaps tour operators put the signs there to encourage wimps to seek their professional guidance.
I clambered over the wooden breakwaters holding the beach in place, to where lumps of shale lay at the base of the cliffs. Many were so soft that I could prise the layers apart with my fingers. And after only a few minutes, inside one lump I found a curled striped shell, about four centimetres long. Eureka! Had I discovered a new fossil species – a small Tullochosaurus perhaps?
I knew my discovery wasn’t as spectacular as the find of Mary Anning, Lyme Regis’ most famous fossil hunter. In 1814, aged 15, she and her brother found Britain’s first ichthyosaur. Think of an overgrown crocodile with fins. He’s on display in the Lyme Regis museum. In those days it was nothing new for Lyme people to dig up fossils and sell them to visitors for pocket money, but Mary was the first to study them seriously. Her story is told in the museum, and in Tracy Chevalier’s latest book, Remarkable Creatures.
I proudly carried my discovery back into town to seek identification. In the window of Mike’s Fossils and Minerals I saw several examples of my little chap. He’s a ‘devil’s toenail’, an extinct oyster, gryphaea arcuata. Mike had dozens of his relatives on sale for about two quid each, including packaging. I kept my specimen in my pocket. I didn’t want him to feel cheap.
‘Gryph’ as he now is known to me, lived and died 200 million years ago. Nobody paid him much attention when he was alive. He clung to a rock, passed away and was buried in soft grey mud. Now he’s on display on my shelf at home, and I show him to anybody who’s interested and also to people who are not.
Will Jane Austen, John Fowles or Meryl Streep attract as much interest in 200 million years as Gryph does today? Call me a pessimist, but it seems unlikely. Will anyone be interested in the brief blip in evolution that was once homo sapiens? We’ve only been around about 130,000 years and we could snuff ourselves out at any minute, taking all the palaeontologists with us. Will anything on Planet Earth remember our species in 200 million years? Who knows?
We can only do our best to survive and preserve the planet it’s our privilege to walk on today. And well done, Gryph, for still being around!
TRIP DETAILS: Private transport is the easiest way to get to Lyme Regis, though there is a regular bus service from Dorchester.
Staying there: see dorset-newforest.com
The writer was assisted by Dorset-New Forest Tourism Partnership