Ordinarily, the sight of sunlight, blue skies and calm seas at a classic British seaside resort would gladden the heart. Not, however, if you’re fossil-hunting in Lyme Regis, pre-Storm Alex.
‘There’s much more to find after storms,’ explains my Lyme Regis Museum guide Paddy Howe, as we venture onto pebbly East Cliff beach amid an unfortunately-clement morning.
Rough seas churn up rocks, he continues, causing the local geological formation, Blue Lias, and mudstone cliffside to erode and thus expose ossified remains of extinct beasts.
For this reason, Lyme Regis is already one of the UK’s ‘fossiling’ hotspots, part of a prolific 96-mile seaboard that extends through Dorset from Studland Bay, and then into East Devon.
This is the Jurassic Coast, a Unesco World Heritage Site formed during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods and offering about 185 million years’ worth of geological history.
Where is Kate Winslet’s new film Ammonite filmed?
Lyme’s about to become even higher-profile, however, thanks to the release of Ammonite in cinemas from October 16.
Francis Lee’s award-tipped movie sees Kate Winslet portray the real-life figure of Mary Anning, a 19th-century fossil collector, dealer and palaeontologist.
While Anning’s romance with Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) in the film is fictitious, Lee is otherwise mostly true to his main character: her criminal lack of recognition, her pioneering discoveries – including the world’s first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton – and her residence in Lyme Regis, where the movie was shot.
Three places to view Mary Anning’s finds
Natural History Museum, London
Only the skull of Anning’s full ichthyosaur – a carnivorous, dolphin-like lizard – is now on show, alongside two more of her prehistoric reptile skeletons: a long-necked plesiosaur and flying pterosaur, nhm.ac.uk
Lyme Regis Museum
On the site of her former home and shop, Lyme’s small, smashing gallery has a permanent exhibition displaying Anning’s fossil hammer and finds, lymeregismuseum.co.uk
Oxford Museum of Natural History
Much of the juvenile ichthyosaur skeleton found by Anning can be viewed here. It’s so well preserved that the remains of prehistoric fish are still visible in its stomach, oumnh.ox.ac.uk
I don’t find any complete ichthyosaurs, sadly, but Paddy does help me turn up two still-joined pieces of their vertebrae, plus numerous coiled ammonite – extinct marine molluscs – shells and parts of the guards of squid-like belemnites.
He then summons a ‘geologist’s hammer’ and chisels open some rocks to reveal still more ammonites. Sifting among the foreshore for treasure proves much fun in an absorbing, peaceful way, and Paddy is terrific company – funny, informative, interesting and, crucially, unpatronising.
The beaches for his daily walks are chosen according to prevailing conditions; another week, we might have gone west on to Monmouth Beach, where a natural ‘ammonite pavement’ scored with shells up to 70cm in diameter awaits beyond the iconic Cobb – Lyme Regis’s ancient, curving harbour wall.
I recognise it from scenes in the film; ditto old parts of Lyme at Broad Street’s basin. Used by Lee’s set designers to portray Anning’s house, number 7a has since become Anning’s Fossils, complete with faux-weathered frontage and, like many shops here, impressive petrified finds to buy.
Yet this is no town of old fossils in the demographic sense. Its pastel-shade corniche beach huts might be a bit tatty yet Lyme itself feels vibrant and alive.
After resisting busy Red Panda’s Asian street food, I peek into sharply designed clothing, fudge or homeware boutiques.
The old watermill hosts a tourable microbrewery and seaweed pressers Molesworth & Bird’s shop-cum- gallery.
Back on Broad Street is The Pop-Up Kitchen, which hosts chefs for residencies of days, weeks or months. You’re as likely to encounter paella as pizza.
Metres away, its most successful ex-resident, Harriet Mansell – also seen on 2020’s Great British Menu – will open her permanent venue, Robin Wylde, on October 28. The tasting menus will champion West Country produce.
I’m more than content to eat at The Alexandra, with the British food here uncomplicated yet impressive. My main of venison alongside shallots, cavolo nero, mash and a truffly jus proves pleasingly autumnal.
So, a day later, does the weather, now squally and foreboding as a taxi ferries me to Axminster’s train station, the nearest. Paddy will be chuffed.
Three-hour Fossil Walks cost £125 for groups of up to five, and can be booked directly or through The Alexandra.