Scenic Saturday: Lyme Regis

Cliffs west of Lyme Regis where Mary Anning collected her fossils

Cliffs west of Lyme Regis, Dorset. August 2011.

A post by Anne Jefferson
Two-hundred years ago, a young woman by the name of Mary Anning walked along this shore, using her keenly self-trained observation skills to spot fossils eroding out of these cliffs. The cliffs are the blue Lias, Jurassic mudstones filled with ammonites, belemnites, icthyosaurs, and plesiosaurs. Mary Anning found and prepared her first ichthyosaur in 1811, when she was just 12 years old. Later she found the first plesiosaur.

Anning's first ichthyosaur

Mary Anning's first ichthyosaur, part of the collections of the Natural History Museum in London, and now on display at the Lyme Regis museum to honor the bicentennary of its discovery. August 2011.

As a woman, Mary Anning was kept out of formal scientific circles, and as a poor woman she was doubly excluded, because she couldn’t even claim to be a gentlewoman hobbyist. Instead she earned money by finding, preparing, and selling her fossils, become a valuable source for leading scientists and collectors of her day. Many of these discoveries and preparations were not properly credited to her at the time, but today she is recognized as a leading figure in paleontology for her collecting and descriptive skills.

If you go to Lyme Regis now, as I did this summer, you can explore a lovely chock-full museum on the very site where Anning’s house stood along the sea wall. Later, when the weather cooperates a bit more, you can walk along the same shoreline, and see if you have the skill or luck to make a discovery as Mary Anning did.

As the cliffs frequently have landslips and are battered by the sea, the process of erosion is continually exposing new fossils. Several ichthyosaurs have been found in the past few years, including one exposed when the town was repairing the seawall in front of the amusement arcade. I was told, however, that the best time to make a vertebrate discovery is just after a big storm when the newly eroded material is fresh and the serious collectors are out looking.

On any day whatsoever, a stroll along the cobbly beach at the base of the cliffs will reward with countless ammonites and belemnites. At first I exclaimed over the small ammonites, especially the ones with exquisitely preserved details.

Ammonite near Lyme Regis

Ammonite near Lyme Regis. August 2011.

Then I started to see the “ammonite pavements”…

Ammonite pavement

Ammonite pavement. August 2011.

Finally, I spotted some of the really big ammonites. The one below was my favorite. A young boy had turned over the rock and discovered the fossil, and he and his family were standing around in bewilderment. Collecting is allowed on the beach, but how in the world were they ever going to get that thing home?

Anne with Ammonite

Anne's favorite ammonite. August 2011.

Categories: by Anne, fossils, outcrops, photos
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Comments (7)

  1. Kinardo Flores says:

    Greetings from Mexico, I saw your ammonite photos. If you are interested to know the scientific name and age, I have a very good friend who is an specialist on it.

    With my best regards


  2. Jim says:

    For those of us who aren’t experts, it’s worth pointing out that the museum in Lyme runs fossil collecting trips along the beach (times vary because of the tide) ( ). That way you’re more likely to see stuff other than the obvious ammonites, since they’re run by someone who is
    1) qualified
    2) walks the beach every day and has their eye in.

    The ideal time to go is after a big storm, when the cliffs have eroded some more and the tide has had a chance to wash off the mud.

  3. Don Strong says:

    Deare Anne: Spectacular post! I will share it with my introductory biology students.
    warm regards, Don

  4. Elli says:

    Nice to learn something new about Lyme Regis, since my only exposure to it was from Jane Austen 🙂 I have to ask, did you walk along the Cobb?

  5. Kinardo – Thanks for the offer. I know the ammonites are from the Lower Jurassic, and there’s probably information on-line somewhere about the species found in this famous locality, but if your friend wants to provide additional information, he would be most welcome.

    Jim – Yes, thanks for the pointer for those in the area and interested in doing some looking. We weren’t able to do a guided walk on the day we visited, but we would have loved it. We did see some fossils that I think were belemnites and there were definitely things I couldn’t identify, so I recommend a guided walk if you can get one.

    Elli – We did not walk along the Cobb, alas. But we did walk past it and the little harbor it encloses. Had you ever noticed that Lyme Regis is one the few real places that Austen describes?

  6. Elli says:

    Austen wrote about what she knew and Lyme Regis (as well as Bath) were some of the few “tourist” places that she actually visited herself. I guess if she had been interested in rocks, she might have mentioned the ammonites, but instead Jane probably enjoyed her sea bathing 🙂

  7. Sara says:

    Nicely written article. I enjoyed it. 🙂

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