The weather forecast promised a heatwave. Blinding sunshine, blue skies and temperatures soaring beyond the twenties to the low thirties. We got mist. A white-out. And a few spots of rain.
I wanted to find an ichthyosaurus, a plesiosaurus, or a scelidosaurus. We’d got bad weather under the circumstances, but what we needed was really big, bad weather. Rain coming down by the bucketful, wind, waves – a veritable tempest. ‘When you see pictures of Mary Anning she’s always skipping along the beach in sunshine, in reality she’d be soaked to the skin – and there was no Gortex back then’ explained Chris, one of our guides. My dreams of digging up a dinosaur receded a tad. All that activity churns stuff up, makes it visible, and is a fossil hunter’s dream. We got mist but no movement. The sea was a mill pond. ‘It’s going to be difficult to find anything, the weather’s been good for weeks’, moaned Chris.
I was beginning to understand that fossil hunters were a breed apart. ‘You can tell he’s a fossil hunter – salt-water stains on the knees of his jeans’, muttered Jim. We were outside the award-winning Lyme Regis museum waiting for our adventure to start. Kids jumped about with excitement, stuck their hands into large bags of crisps, and hugged plastic buckets for all those ammonites, belemnites, and crinoids they were hoping to find.
With a lot of luck, a find wouldn’t fit in a bucket. In 2009, Kevin Sheehan dug up the eight-foot long skull of a pilosaur – a creature so powerful it could’ve bitten a car in half and eaten T-Rex for breakfast. Mr. Sheehan sold his find for £20,000. But for five years he’d spent almost every day on the beach until he’d amassed a hoard of twenty-five pieces. (Definitely a breed apart).
Money isn’t the only motivator of the fossil hunter. Chris told me he’d been interested in fossils since he was seven. Paddy said the same and Lizzie told me ‘I just love fossils. I’m happiest when I’m out in the depths of winter in full waterproofs, trying not to be swept away by the waves’. I understood the exhilaration of that. Once I walked in a storm, when wind blew down trees, and branches fell like twigs on tracks. In my mind I likened it to being on the inside of a washing machine on full throttle. Highly irresponsible, but a sensation of being truly alive. Lizzie collects and prepares fossils for a living. ‘You never know what you’ll find’, she told me, ‘no two days are the same’.
Kevin and Paddy explained in turn about the geology of the Jurassic coast, showed us what to look for, passed round examples and linked those to the animals they originated from by showing us models and toys. I began to get excited. Anticipation. The thrill of discovery. A chance to connect with history and hold in my hand part of a creature that had lived millions of years ago. There was something fantastical about it all. A combination of science and myth. Proof of something seemingly unreal.
By now we were on the beach, clambering over bedrock and boulders. Eyes downward. Searching. It wasn’t easy. There were lots of funny-shaped rocks. ‘And most of them are just that’, laughed Chris. Magpie like, I was distracted by bits of sea-glass, pretty colours, odd shapes. The kids went up to him time and time again, asking him to split rocks and release trapped ammonites; budding palaeontologists all. ‘I’m brutally honest’, he said, as he rejected finds out of hand ‘just call me Chris, crusher of dreams’. But Paddy scoured the sands ahead of us, and most of the kids were given something – an ammonite, a belemnite (hard internal parts of a squid like animal) and for the lucky odd one or two – fossilised dinosaur poop!
It wasn’t my day to find an ichthyosaurus, but Jim did find the vertebra of one. Beaming like one of the kids, he held the tiny two-hundred-million-year old (approx!) bone on the palm of his hand. ‘I’m delighted with that’, he said. And I think even if we’d found a whole skeleton and were suddenly several thousands pounds better off we couldn’t have had a better afternoon.
A couple of novels I’ve enjoyed reading on this subject:
‘The Essex Serpent’ Sarah Perry
‘Remarkable Creatures’ Tracey Chevalier
Guided fossil walks with Chris Andrew and Paddy Howe start from the Lyme Regis museum. Walks last approx. 3 hours and cost £12 (adult) £6 (child). Includes admission to the museum. http://www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk