She sells seashells by the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure.
So if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.
Lyme Regis is your typical British seaside town in many ways, yet it is also wonderfully, eccentrically unique. In the 19th century, a savvy young woman, named Mary Anning, earned her crust by scouring the town’s cliffs and beaches for fossils, allegedly inspiring the above tongue twister written by Terry Sullivan. Her tireless efforts contributed to great discoveries, changing the way scientists thought about prehistoric life. The town has been shaped by Anning’s legacy. The house where she and her family sold fossils has gone, and in its place stands the Lyme Regis Museum. Fossil shops are two a penny, selling everything from rough beach finds to cut and polished, jewel like specimens. Even the lamp posts, shaped like ammonites, echo Anning’s work. Lyme Regis is a fascinating place, and one I was keen to spend a day getting to know.
I felt as though I had earned a day off. I had, after all, walked quite a long way. I left my weighty rucksack and hiking boots at a campsite, gleefully laced up my featherweight trainers and set off on a three mile walk into town. To walk without the weight, and the pressure to cover so many miles, reminded me of the joys of walking. I practically skipped along the road, as the morning sun shone through the trees, scattering light in fetching patterns on the ground. I branched off at Ware, towards the coast path. At a kissing gate, I met a gentleman and his grandson, out for a morning stroll. I use the term gentleman because he was the most perfect example. We chatted for a while, exchanged the usual pleasantries about the weather and how lovely it was to be out in it. It was an utterly forgettable conversation by all accounts, yet something about it felt special. I was having a very English moment. Then, two lycra clad hikers pushed past us with a look of disdain. The gentleman made a little joke about being the gatekeeper, but it was lost on them. He turned to me and said,
“Some people are people people, and some people are not.”
With that, we said goodbye and I continued my jolly wander into Lyme. It was still early, but the beach was busy with the sound of rock hammers and children whooping with optimism as they hunted for their own pieces of prehistory. I couldn’t beat them, so I joined them.
I didn’t feel like spending a small fortune on a rock hammer (or to give it its common name a hammer) and safety specs, so decided to look for the most recent rockfall and try my luck the old fashioned way. There seemed to be a range of tactics to fossil hunting. Most of the children had the proper gear and dutifully chiselled away at rocks with their hammers. The dads were the best to watch, as they picked up the biggest boulders they could manage and hurled them to the ground, in the hope of smashing them to pieces. Then, there were the pros. The pros wore utility belts, dangling various tools for what looked like house renovation. They walked straight past the children, past the dads and past me. They knew where the real gems were to be found. I half watched a group, led by one young man, making a living by guiding tourists to fossil success. He took them to large boulders where you could clearly see well preserved fossils and hacked them off for the punters to take home. It seemed, to me, less rewarding than painstakingly searching through mounds of shingle, but still, a nice little earner I bet.
I searched for hours, sifting through handfuls of rock. All around me I heard cries of “I’VE GOT ONE!” from excited children. How were they so infuriatingly good at fossiling? At long last, one tiny, well preserved ammonite caught my eye. Mary Anning I was not, but I could at least go home having found a fossil in Lyme Regis, which seems like one of those things everyone should do at least once. I took a photograph of my precious find and hastily zipped it into my pocket, away from the jealous glances of the beach. After that, the fossils started rolling in until I had a giddyingly rich haul of three – two ammonites and one belemnite. I was well on my way to securing my place in the paleontology hall of fame now, surely.
I filled my pockets with interesting stones and headed back into town. I noticed a few Cornish shops that were sneakily creeping in, and went into browse a ‘Cornish Bakery’. Sure enough there were hot, golden pasties on the counter. I was still quite a long way from Cornwall. I had yet to enter Devon, but a little taste of home was too hard to resist. I bought myself one, paying through the nose I might add, and took it to the seafront to enjoy, as I watched the water. Like an idiot, I had failed to properly take in my surroundings, as one should always do when in possession of something valuable. Reclined on the shingle, I held my pasty in front of my face, preparing to take an absolute classic for my instagram. What a fool I had been. Just as I went to press the shutter, an absolute monster herring gull came haring over my shoulder, sank its beak firmly into my pasty and wrenched it from my grasp. I had read about this in newspapers. It happens all the time, but NEVER to a Cornishman. Not to be defeated, I stretched out a leg and caught the thief on his rear end, shouting, ‘YOU FUCKER!”. To my amazement, and also the gull’s, he dropped my pasty and fled the scene. I, having drawn quite a bit of attention to myself, also fled the scene to eat my precious pasty in a safer environment. Never take your eye off the prize, and never take a pasty off a Cornishman.
My next stop on the Anning trail was her final resting place. I imagined a grand monument to her, considering that the entire town appears to be living off her legacy, but when I found her grave, it was most modest. The small churchyard was home to around twenty or thirty headstones. Most were worn and unreadable. Mary Anning’s grave, somewhat disappointingly, was a shared plot. She was buried with her brother, Joseph Anning, who was also a fossilist, although he never had a tongue twister written about him. At the foot of the grave, people have left their own finds in tribute to the fossilist family, along with a few flowers. I suppose there is no need for a grand monument, as the town really is a monument in itself.
I went back to the seafront to find a postcard for my wife. I found myself in the National Trust shop, staring at books I couldn’t possibly carry and steel water bottles I didn’t need, that cost the earth. I often find myself in National Trust shops, inevitably leaving after ten minutes of staring at books and the same steel water bottle. Perhaps one day I’ll actually buy it. This time however, I bought one postcard. It was one of those jigsaw cards that you write on, then break into pieces for the recipient to put back together. I took my card to a pub to write my message, over a pint of Dorset Dinosaur or something like that. I’m fairly sure the glass had a fossil on it. I wrote my message, broke the card into pieces, then put them in the envelope, along with the ammonite I had worked so hard to find. I would later discover that Royal Mail would deem my postcard unsendable, demanding I collect it from the post office at once and pay several whole pence.
I was once again enjoying myself and in the morning would be walking into Devon, the last of the foreign lands.
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