On an early morning last June, I hit the streets of Lyme Regis dressed in a borrowed pair of Wellington boots and an anorak, hood cinched around my face against a cold wind. Sheets of rain had turned the steep streets of the historic town into rivulets, and the surrounding hilltops were shrouded in a dense, milky fog, known locally as Rousdon Mist. It was high summer on England’s southwest coast.
A frigid dip in the English Channel was out of the question, likewise a run on the rocky beach, but the otherwise dispiriting weather made for ideal conditions for a fossil hunt on the shoreline surrounding Lyme Regis, one of the most fertile fossil-hunting grounds in England, if not the world.
My wife, Flora, has become inured to the novelty of a beach littered with primeval relics. She grew up near Lyme Regis in an old rectory building. Her father was an English teacher at Allhallows, a now-defunct boarding school in Rousdon, the town near Lyme Regis best known for lending its name to the aforementioned fog.
Ever since hearing tales of her adventures and fossil finds on the beach as a child, though, I’ve been keen to try out the local pastime. For a morning-long fossil hunt last summer, my companion was the English novelist Tariq Goddard, a longtime friend of my father-in-law, and one of his former star, if somewhat rebellious, students.
Lyme Regis, in the county of Dorset, sits at the western edge of the Jurassic Coast — a 95-mile stretch of cliff-lined shore that was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2001 for its remarkably rich geological history that stretches back 185 million years.
The exposed cliffs reveal earthen layers of mudstone and limestone, known as Blue Lias. As they erode, which they constantly do, chunks of earth are sent tumbling onto the beach, especially when the weather is wet, and all manner of fossils are revealed — anything from tiny lumps of fossilized dinosaur excrement to the entire skeletons of massive prehistoric beasts.
Despite the inclement weather, Lyme Regis itself is as pretty as an English seaside town is likely to be. Perched on bluffs overlooking the English Channel is the town’s bunting-decked main street, packed with pastel-colored Georgian buildings, fossil shops, cafes, bakeries and fudge stores, all overlooking the town’s most famous feature, the Cobb, a curved man-made harbor wall that dates to the 14th century. (According to the town’s official website, “no satisfactory explanation of the name exists.”)
Old cannons that were once meant to protect the coast against French invasion still dot the town’s higher points. And though popular with tourists, Lyme Regis is still somewhat less subscribed than other English seaside resorts, like Brighton and Whitstable, because of the lack of a direct rail link from London.
The town’s charm was front and center on the day of my visit, but Mr. Goddard remembered it from his boarding school days as “a garrison town” to which he was marched periodically for haircuts, opportunities he also took for a sneaky pint of beer in one of the nautically themed taverns and to buy Pink Floyd and Happy Mondays cassettes at the local branch of the Woolworth department store, which has since closed.
Mr. Goddard regaled me with stories of his school years: the boy who swam out in the freezing English Channel on a dare, needing to be rescued by the Royal Air Force Marine Branch; and the student who ran away and hid out in the undercliff, a verdant wilderness formed by past landslides that sloped from the school’s cliff-top location down to the sea, and was the site of many a pubescent amorous assignation.
When he was a student in the 1990s, Mr. Goddard said there was no interest in pandering to the general public, let alone tourists. “There wasn’t the same desire to preserve,” he said. Now, the mood couldn’t be more different. “The town is much better tended to and cared for. It’s now a living gallery, an outdoor museum of a classic English seaside town,” Mr. Goddard said approvingly.
While Mr. Goddard was keen to see how the town had changed in the 25 years since his school days, my interest in fossil hunting there was piqued by one of my favorite novels, John Fowles’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” in which one of the main characters is a gentleman fossil hunter. It is set in Victorian England, when competing theories of evolution-like processes, along with spectacular fossil discoveries, were beginning to mount a fierce and frightening challenge to prevailing religious beliefs. Fowles was Lyme Regis’s most famous resident until his death in 2005, and my wife — indeed many of locals — fondly recalls when Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep descended on their little town to film the 1981 adaptation of the book.
In the novel, Fowles writes that the earth under Lyme Regis is of a “highly fossiliferous nature and its mobility make it a Mecca for the British paleontologist. These last hundred years or more the commonest animal on its shores has been man — wielding a geologist’s hammer.” This still seemed to be the case during our visit.
Our guide for our fossil hunt that day was Chris Pamplin, recommended to me by my sister-in-law, who described him only as “an eccentric guru who knows where all the best fossils are.”
Mr. Pamplin lived up to his billing. He has been obsessed with fossils since finding a fossil of a type of shellfish known as a “devil’s toenail” — long since lost — while on holiday at the sea in South Wales when he was 7 years old. He seemed to emerge from the mist of the car park at Charmouth Beach, just east of Lyme Regis, dressed in a camouflage rain jacket, a rock hammer fastened to a strap of his backpack, and John Lennon glasses. (The fossil guide is also a D.J. specializing in, you guessed it, “rock music.”)
Because of the rain, Mr. Pamplin gave us a quick fossil tutorial in the public beach’s welcome center and cafe. Over acrid cups of black coffee, Mr. Pamplin explained why marine rocks, like the ones in the cliffs surrounding Lyme Regis, have an abundance of fossils in them. “It is easier to get fossilized when you die if you fall into the bottom of the sea and get covered with mud, where there is no oxygen. Land is a much more erosional sort of environment and things get eaten and oxidized, so it’s not such a good environment to be fossilized in,” he said.
When the fossil-rich mudstone cliffs get wet from the rain, Mr. Pamplin said, “the mud flows come down and the sea washes away the mud and the fossils are released onto the beach.” There, novice fossil hunters like us can seek them out amid the beach’s many rocks and stones.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the dramatic weather, the Jurassic Coast is, in its own way, as beautiful a stretch of coastline I’ve encountered. (Mr. Goddard declared he wasn’t sure whether the gloomy scene looked prehistoric or post-apocalyptic.) Only the lower half of the obsidian-hued cliff faces were visible, fog shrouded the rest. A grass pathway leading to the top of the cliffs ascended from the parking lot, beyond which a dozen padlocked navy and light-blue wooden cabanas, or “beach huts” as they are known in England, sat on a shore the color of slate.
Amid the general grayness of the beach we could just make out the hunched figures of other fossil hunters. Mr. Pamplin handed us a small rock hammer and a pair of safety goggles. We both chose not to wear the goggles, feeling that they were deeply uncool and there was no real danger of eye injury.
At this moment, it was hard not to think of Mary Anning, the celebrated Victorian fossil hunter who, accompanied by her mutt, Tray, braved the crumbling cliffs and fast rising tides of Charmouth Beach day in and day out to harvest the beautiful fossils that she would sell to beachgoers and geologists to survive.
Despite having no formal education and being unwelcome in the all-male scientific community of her time, Anning corresponded with some of the leading lights of Victorian geology and managed to make some of the most significant paleontological finds of her era, including the first known Ichthyosaur and Plesiosarus — both giant marine reptiles that lived in the Jurassic era. (She is also reported to be the inspiration for the tongue twister “she sells seashells by the seashore.”)
The scientific community did not name any of Anning’s finds after her. Here’s Fowles on Anning: “One of the meanest disgraces of British paleontology is that although many scientists of the day gratefully used her finds to establish their own reputation, not one native type bears the specific anningii.”
Mr. Pamplin patiently explained to us that while fossilized Ichthyosaur skeletons were known to emerge from the subterranean Blue Lias strand exposed by the crumbling cliffs, we were more likely to find the bullet-shaped inner shells of squid-like creatures called belemnites, or beautiful fan-shaped ammonites. Both are extinct species of small cephalopod mollusks and are in abundance on Charmouth Beach.
Most of what we’d find simply needed to be spotted amid the plain old stones, but Mr. Pamplin also showed which rocks — the disc-shaped ones — were likely to contain Ammonite fossils and how to split them open with the rock hammer to check by striking them along the edges.
We had patchy luck with the hammer, preferring to search by simply trying to spot fossils on the beach. Before our eyes became accustomed to picking the little fossils out amid the countless rocks, Mr. Pamplin had quickly eyed several ammonites, which he handed to Mr. Goddard and I, before revealing he was partial to them above all. “They’re just such beautiful things to look at and I never cease to be amazed when I find one on the beach,” he said.
There were a few people Mr. Pamplin recognized as regulars taking their chances climbing up the earth piled at the foot of the cliffs, left there by the still active and perilous landslides, which were announced by a deep groaning sound. Mr. Goddard and I stuck to the front of the beach, where the sea licked the rocks.
We had the most luck searching in the small, clear rock pools left behind by the retreating water. In about three hours on the beach, we each found about 20 fossils, mostly belemnites and some beautiful ammonites, but also a few stones with cross sections of the star-shaped Crinoids, or “sea lilies,” a still existent animal that, when alive, resembles a tuft of flowers.
Our clothes were damp and our backs sore, but we were pleased that we’d come on a day when Charmouth Beach was generous. Mr. Pamplin agreed. “There are easy days and hard days and the last couple of days have been really easy, actually,” he said. But whatever was found recently, there is always renewed hope for another big find. “We’re not going to run out of fossils,” Mr. Pamplin said, indicating the Blue Lias. “It goes all the way up to Yorkshire.”
The sun came out and the air warmed up as we headed back up to Lyme Regis for lunch and a look around. We ate crab salad sandwiches and sausage rolls on a public bench before browsing the fossil shops and sampling the local fudge. Full, we hiked down to the town’s harbor and to the Cobb, the harbor wall which provided shelter for about 100 moored small fishing and recreational boats.
Jane Austen visited Lyme Regis twice and set a crucial scene there in her last completed novel, “Persuasion,” in which one of the main characters, Louisa Musgrove, falls from the Cobb during a holiday in town, badly injuring herself. Several television adaptations of the fall have been filmed on the Cobb, which is to this day a treacherous climb. The town also is host to a yearly Austen pilgrimage.
Austen’s description in the novel of our route to the shore could almost still apply today. She wrote of Lyme Regis’s streets “almost hurrying into the water,” and “the walk to the Cobb, skirting round the pleasant little bay, which, in the season is animated with bathing machines and company; the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of town are what the stranger’s eye will seek.”
In high summer, there are no more of these 19th-century “bathing machines” to accommodate seaside etiquette in Lyme Regis. Resembling a small hut on wagon wheels, the popular bathing machines were intended for holidaymakers — mostly women — who wanted to take a dip in the sea while protecting their modesty. Into the contraption they went, whereupon the bather could change into a swimsuit and be wheeled into the ocean to take a plunge unobserved by leering eyes. They were emblematic of the town’s earlier heyday as a summer spa in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Even when the weather doesn’t cooperate, the town harbor manages to retain its holiday charm, with its line of pastel-colored cabanas, relatively sandy beach and unfussy pubs and restaurants.
On the rocky shore behind the Cobb, the laziest of fossil hunters can see gorgeous, huge ammonites, much bigger than the ones we found on Charmouth Beach, lodged into the giant boulders that sit there. These lovely relics were another reminder that, as Jane Austen wrote in “Persuasion,” “a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see the charms in the immediate environs of Lyme.”
If You Go
In Lyme Regis, we stayed at the Hix Townhouse, which has eight cozy rooms. (1 Pound Street; hixrestaurants.co.uk/restaurant/hix-townhouse) It doesn’t have a restaurant, but a picnic basket containing a gourmet breakfast appeared outside my door in the morning. Mark Hix, the celebrity chef and owner of the property also has the superlative Hix Oyster and Fish House, the best restaurant in town (Cobb Road; hixrestaurants.co.uk/restaurant/hix-oyster-fish-house).
The small Lyme Regis Museum has a new Mary Anning Wing. (Bridge Street; lymeregismuseum.co.uk. Anning’s most significant finds, however, are in the Natural History Museum in London. (Cromwell Road, London; nhm.ac.uk)
What To Read:
No fossil-hunting trip to Lyme Regis would be advisable without reading John Fowles’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Fowles also wrote a slim but useful volume called “A Short History of Lyme Regis.” Shelley Emling’s lively biography of Mary Anning, “The Fossil Hunter” is also advisable. There are a few pivotal scenes in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” set in Lyme Regis.
David Shaftel is a New York-based writer and the editor of Racquet, a quarterly tennis magazine.