20 –  22 May

The Dorset and East Devon Coast forms an incredible natural World Heritage Site that simply isn’t too be missed, especially by a palaeontologist (Lyndsay) and a chemist/amateur fossil hunter (myself). Spanning approximately 150 km of coastline, these beaches offer glimpses of the last 185 million years of Earth’s history. Fossils from the era of the dinosaurs are constantly being uncovered by natural erosion processes for beach-goers to stumble upon. Mary Anning, the famous early palaeontologist, studied fossils here, including the first complete Icthyosaur skeleton in 1835.

With fossil fever brewing, we headed to the Isle of Portland, the most southerly part of Dorset. We ventured out to the most southerly edge of the island, known as Portland Bill. It’s a promontory of the famous Portland limestone and remnants of old quarrying machinery are still visible along the cliff-tops. An old lighthouse juts above the cliffs, enduring testimony to the importance of transporting quarried stone out around these dangerous shores. We hiked along the Coastal Path for an afternoon through fields and meadows and past old fishing shacks. It was very steep and treacherous at times but absolutely gorgeous. We teetered along the cliff edges over the roiling, dark water and descended into tiny, secluded, pebbly coves, before ascending again to the cliff edges for spectacular views. We stumbled across several excellent ammonite fossils to boot. We hiked around nearly 3/4 of the island and descended back to the harbour via the old merchant’s railway, used in the 1800s for carting quarried stone to waiting ships.

Coastal Path, Portland (with abandoned quarrying equipment).
Fishing shacks along the Coastal Path, Portland.

After the excellent hike, we spent a lovely evening walking along the Georgian seafront at Weymouth Beach. I stripped off my shoes to smoosh my feet into the lovely, golden sand – just like we have at home! None of this pebble nonsense. It was exactly how I would envisage the beach in any Enid Blyton novel (e.g. Famous Five), complete with donkey rides, ice-cream vendors, and glacial-temperature sea-water. From the beach there is also a clear view of the Osmington White Horse, carved out of the limestone in the early 1800s. There are quite a few hill figures throughout the UK, all made by exposing the underlying limestone. Many are horse figures and there are several human figures as well, with some dating back to the British Iron Age.

Donkeys on the sand at Weymouth.
The Osmington White Horse. Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com.

Venturing further down the Jurassic Coast to Lyme Regis revealed a smorgasbord of fossils and a lot of science fun. Luckily Lyndsay knows her geology and palaeontology and I was the keen recipient of a crash-course in fossil hunting. We hit the beach in the early morning to fossick away before the crowds (if any) arrived. I spent a meditative morning scrabbling across rocks and seaweed along the calm sea-front, turning over rocks and peering into crevasses. It was incredible to walk across entire rock pavements of ridged, huge ammonites and rocks filled to bursting with casts of smaller ammonites. It was ammonite central at Lyme Regis. Even an amateur like me could spot them! Ammonites are extinct marine invertebrates with intricate spiral, chambered shells that are commonly fossilised. They are incredibly beautiful and the detail in some of the fossils we found was spectacular! It felt very special to touch the remains of these long-dead creatures that had experienced a very different Earth to us.

Huge ammonite fossil, Lyme Regis.

Further along the coast at Charmouth, we unearthed dozens of belemnites and some crinoids. Belemnites are extinct marine invertebrates with a bullet-shaped body, that were not only able to swim like modern-day squid, but were also carnivorous! Crinoids are beautiful plant-like marine animals that attach to rocks and extend multiple “feeding arms” to catch plankton. They still survive today in many oceanic environments.

Fossil hunting at Charmouth, Jurassic Coast.
Crinoid fossil – much better quality than the ones we found. Image courtesy of http://www.science.nationalgeographic.com

After an exciting day of fossil-hunting, Lyndsay found some spectacular, portable-sized fossils, and she even shared them with me. Thanks a bunch, Lyndsay! I failed to find any smaller than boulder-sized. Keen as I was, I wasn’t about to cart those around in my suitcase.

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