Lyme Regis is one of best places in the world to go fossil hunting. That may sound like an overstatement, but the contribution this little Dorset town has made to the world of fossils and palaeontology over the years is simply extraordinary.
It all goes back to one incredible woman called Mary Anning, who lived in Lyme Regis in the first half of the 19th century and utterly transformed our understanding of the earth’s history with her unprecedented discoveries.
Then, as now, Lyme Regis was a sleepy coastal town of old houses clustered around around its small, picturesque harbour. Early in her life, Mary unearthed an amazing secret – the beaches and cliffs around Lyme were littered with the fossilised remains of weird and wonderful sea creatures from a bygone era. She made it her life’s work to identify and catalogue her finds, and is today revered as the greatest figure in the history of fossil hunting.
At the time though, Anning’s work was not without controversy. 19th century Britain was still a deeply conservative place, and like Charles Darwin shortly after, Anning was accused of being a fraud because her discoveries went against scientific and religious orthodoxy. Fortunately no such controversy exists today, and thousands of people now come to Lyme Regis each year to follow in her footsteps and try to uncover some prehistoric treasures of their own.
It doesn’t take long after they arrive for fossil enthusiasts to realise they’ve come to the right place. Shops selling fossils and fossil-hunting equipment are to be found everywhere, and even the lampposts in Lyme Regis are shaped like ammonites!
The starting point for many visitors is the Lyme Regis Museum. Here visitors can learn about Mary Anning and see some of her most famous finds and the tools she used for her work. Interestingly, the site on which the museum stands today is the exact spot where Anning’s childhood home once stood!
When they’re ready to get out and start fossil hunting themselves, visitors can either go it alone or join a guided fossil walk, in which a local expert leads a party down to the beach and shows them the best methods and tricks for finding fossils.
Fossil hunters are free to pick up any fossils they find loose on the beach or in amongst rocks, but they cannot dig them directly out of a cliff face, as this could be dangerous and could potentially cause landslips. They are also welcome to keep any fossils they find on Dorset’s beaches, although the local National Trust ask that any rare or unusual finds are first given to them to be documented before they are taken home.
While there is no guarantee that someone who comes on a fossil hunting holiday in Dorset will definitely come away with a pocketful of fossils, such is the wealth of prehistoric remains around Lyme Regis that even now, almost two hundred years after Mary Anning’s lifetime, incredible fossils that have lain hidden from human eyes for millions of years are still being regularly picked up by both experts and amateurs alike!