The kid ahead of me on the beach must have been about four years old. He wore baggy little jeans, warm red jacket and cute little bobble hat pulled well down over his ears against the cold.
He was so well muffled that if you knocked him over, he would have rolled, insulated against the impact and quite possibly bounced weeble-like, back to his feet.
He stumbled ahead of us on the pebbles of Monmouth Beach – the ugly-but-interesting side of Lyme Regis – wielding a hammer. He was thorough with his hammering. He hammered everything that got in his way and a lot of innocent stuff that hadn’t.
He hammered the fence of the Lyme Regis Powerboat Club, a rock that happened to be sticking up, various pebbles, a tree trunk, the fence around a residential caravan. Then he started running with the hammer. I thought he had a smaller brother or sister in his sights but no, it was a particularly hammerable slatey rock.
Who knows? It might have split open under his toddler hammering to reveal part of an icthyosaur. For this was Monmouth Beach where the Jurassic cliffs yield fossil creatures from 180 – 195 million years ago and that’s what happened to Mary Anning, aged 12, when she found a icthyosaur in some rock.
Mary Anning was the first famous fossil hunter and the first to realise that ammonites mean money – although she didn’t charge enough because she died poor. She was also first on the scene at cliff mudslides, but a bit too quick the time a mudslide killed her dog Tray. (Imagine, every morning putting out the dog food and shouting “Breakfast Tray!” There was a woman with a sense of humour as well as an eye for an icthyosaur)
She’d no doubt be pleased to see that the Dorset marketing people have renamed a whole section of Dorset seaside The Jurassic Coast.
There’s probably still an unseemly rush for hammers when a new section of cliff collapses on to the beach. The stretch between Lyme and Charmouth is certainly subject to unexpected earth movements. It’s marked with a sign that indicates almost certain death if you venture that way.
Lyme Regis has plenty of shops full of fossils – raw from the rock, burnished and cleaned or polished and halved – nautiluses, ammonites (at least 25 different species so when you’ve seen one ammonite, you haven’t seen them all), trilobites and ancient fish.
But hell, that destroys the excitement of finding your own fossil. The kid with the hammer had the right idea although I wouldn’t have given either of my boys a hammer for fear of full-scale filial warfare.
No, for me the joy is nerdishly looking at rocks until you see something vaguely interesting. It’s a specific sub-section of the thoroughly absorbing occupation of beach-combing.
Some fossils on Monmouth Beach are tiny fragments beneath your feet, others are much more obvious – conveniently presented for the public gaze embedded in large rocks tilted towards the sea as though arranged by a Harrods window-dresser.
I was content with my modest “finds” – bits of ammonite to go on my Very Old Things plate in the study which has a 175million year old Plagiostoma giganteum, (a big fat shellfish) and the Devil’s Toenails that I found in the mud at Gloucestershire’s own Jurassic Severn cliff at Fretherne.
I didn’t need a hammer, they were free and I found ’em.
Three foot clam of some sort… (length measurement not its actual feet)
A nice bit of ammo