On Day 4, I went on a solo expedition to Lyme Regis, having booked a fossil walk with Lyme Regis Museum. Lyme Regis lies along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, known for being extremely rich in fossils. The most prolific rocks close to Lyme Regis date from around 200 million years ago, when the area was under a shallow sea – the layers of rock slope slightly from west to east, meaning that older Triassic rocks are exposed to the west and younger Cretaceous rocks to the east.
The most common fossils around Lyme Regis include ammonites (squid like creatures with curled shells) and belemnites (which had bullet-shaped shells). If you’re lucky, you can find a vertebra from a marine reptile – an ichthyosaur or plesiosaur. The rocks also feature at least one dinosaur, an armoured herbivore called Scelidosaurus which has been found nowhere else – presumably it was washed out to sea and drowned.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Lyme Regis was home to one of the great early fossil hunters, Mary Anning. She discovered the first ichthyosaur and first plesiosaur to be scientifically described, as well as the first British pterosaur (flying reptile). Mary Anning is buried by St Michael’s Church, along with her brother Joseph – it was notable that her gravestone appears well maintained while most of the others are barely legible.
Looking around the museum before the fossil walk started, I found that Lyme Regis has seen a lot of interesting history. It was placed under siege in the English Civil War and managed to hold out against the Royalists; the Duke of Monmouth landed there before his failed attempt to take the throne from King James II; and Jane Austen lived there for a time.
Eventually, I joined a group of a few dozen people as three palaeontologists led us down to the beach. Due to the construction of a new seawall, we had to take a difficult path which involved some clambering and careful stepping over seaweed-covered rocks – made all the harder by the fact that it was high tide.
Finding fossils actually wasn’t too difficult, provided you concentrated on the ground and knew what you were looking for (the palaeontologists kindly showed us examples). Indeed, some were lying on the beach in plain view, like these exposed ammonites. (Only the outside of the spiral is intact as the inside tends to cave in when the animal is buried.) The palaeontologists noted that conditions weren’t the best, as stronger weather is needed to expose new fossils. But all the same, I picked up three ammonites, three belemnites, and a brachiopod!
For the final day, I wanted to visit RSPB Arne in the hopes of spotting some reptiles. This area, on the western side of Poole Harbour, is around the Dorset Heaths, and all six of Britain’s native reptile species (grass snake, smooth snake, European adder, common lizard, sand lizard, slow worm) can be found here.
Unfortunately, none were in evidence when we went walking around. It was a bit too overcast for basking, and occasionally a light rain fell too. There weren’t even that many birds around, though we did see the reserve’s herd of Asian sika deer.
So the weather throughout the week wasn’t the best, but I got to see plenty of new and interesting things in five days – Dorset was a great place to spend half term!