Three days in Dorset: Fossil hunting on the Jurassic Coast

Last week I fulfilled a childhood dream and went dinosaur hunting… well, sort of. I actually spent three lovely days on a family holiday to Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic Coast – as famous for its geological history, as it is for its literary heritage and status as a quintessential British holiday destination. As well as enjoying the opportunity to get out of the city and see a beautiful part of England I was yet to explore, the highlight of my trip was going fossil hunting with my family on Charmouth Beach.

Day 1: Arriving in Lyme Regis (it was well worth the drive).

We arrived in Lyme Regis after what should have been a three-to-four hour drive from Hertfordshire turned into a five hour drive, due to a traffic incident. Still, two service station breaks and one Stonehenge sighting later, we pulled into Lyme Regis. The sun was high, the sky was cloudless and the smell of salt water was in the air. After quickly unpacking and familiarising ourselves with the accommodation, we decided to go and explore. We made our way down Broad Street, the main shopping area of Lyme Regis. As well as a few high street shops, it was nice to see that most were unique independent stores, selling gifts, home wares and fashion, as well bakeries and tea rooms serving traditional West Country specialties (think pasties the size of conch shells and Dorset cream teas). Worth mentioning are Ammonite Fine Foods, a delicatessen which specialises in locally made produce, and Amid Giants and Idols, an artisan coffee house, where we stocked up with tasty take-home presents on our last day.

A very short walk later we were by the coast. On your left hand side there are a number of lookout points, where you can see the distant cliffs. We went right and had a walk down the promenade, which stretches the length of the beach. For me the highlight of the beach was the old harbour and the Cobb. If you’ve read the book or seen the film, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, you’ll recognise it instantly. Unlike the heroine of this story, our walk down the Cobb was more upbeat. I really enjoyed being able to walk further out to sea, watching the waves crashing below, and see more of the coastline. After our long walk we finished our day in one of the many restaurants that overlook the sea front, with a prime seat to enjoy the spectacular, flamingo-pink sunset that followed.

Day 2: Fossil Hunting on Charmouth Beach, the Jurassic Coast

I actually thought we were going to go fossil hunting in Lyme Regis. The town’s Blue Lias Cliffs are a geological phenomenon, famous for the abundance of fossils to be found there. I wanted to attend a Guided Fossil Walk, organised by The Lyme Regis Museum, but unfortunately as these are dependent on the tides, they clashed with our breakfast plans. It would have been nice, as they’re led by a paleontologist and marine biologist who explain the history behind the fossils you’re searching for – but hopefully I’ll get a chance to attend one in the future.

Instead we went to nearby Charmouth Beach and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The first thing we did when we arrived was to have a look inside Charmouth Fossils, one of the most fascinating shops I’ve been to in a long time; it has entire walls stacked with fossils, found locally as well as from around the world, including the skeleton of an ichthyosaur that was found on the same beach. You can also hire hammers and chisels from the shop, which I found is a far safer way of finding fossils then trying to break the rocks by dropping them from shoulder height until they smashed (as we tried to do!).

Next stop: fossil hunting. At first I just stumbled around, looking at the pebbles below my feet (note: the right-hand side of the beach is made of large pebbles, and you need a sturdy pair of shoes to support your feet – not the flimsy sandals I was wearing), thinking there were a lot of nice stones around but no fossils for the taking. Then my Mum pointed out that a lot of the lines and veins on the rocks were actually the beginning of fossils that were inside the rocks. That’s when my partner Russell started slamming the rocks down on the ground and splinters started flying, so we all ran for cover. We did better on the left-hand side of the beach, which is sandier. Because of warnings about rock falls we decided to stay away from the cliffs, and instead stuck to the water’s edge; this is actually a good place to find fossils if you don’t want to chip the rocks open. The sea tends to smack away at the surrounding rocks, leaving a perfectly intact fossil. We managed to find a few pieces of ammonite, though sadly not a whole one. I also found a lovely plant fossil, which I’m sadly not knowledgeable enough to identify (feel free to comment if you know!). Although I’m definitely not an expert, it was great fun and really good to leave knowing I’d come home with a piece of the prehistoric age in my pocket.

Stay in The Cedar House Lyme — "Built for comfort and the stunning views"

Before we left, we dropped into the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre. Although it’s not large, it’s a really good place to visit to help you understand what the area looked like hundreds of millions of years ago, and why these fossils exist now. For the price of a donation, you can see the fossilised creatures and dinosaur bones, as well as the displays which are both child friendly and interactive. I also spotted some colouring-in activities and games in the corner, which should keep younger visitors happy for a while. The Charmouth Coast Heritage Centre also organises a number of regular events, such as fossil walks along Charmouth Beach, Rock Pool Rambles and Plankton Trawls which are aimed at teaching children about the creatures that live along the coast today. Although I didn’t attend one myself, they look like a good opportunity to learn whilst having fun. 

After, we drove to Seatown and had lunch at The Anchor Inn (very nice food; perfect view), followed by another walk along the beach and cliff tops of the neighbouring beach, which, being a weekday, we almost had to ourselves. The scenery was again spectacular and the weather was glorious, so hopefully my photos speak for themselves.

We finished the day with another walk along the promenade in Lyme Regis. I had the best meal of the trip in The Harbour Inn in Lyme Regis. The restaurant itself isn’t as impressive looking as some of the others, but the food and service were above and beyond expectation. Definitely a five out of five from me.

Stay in this luxury holiday house in Lyme Regis

Day 3: The Lyme Regis Museum (or things to do when it’s raining).

The next day was wet and grim. I didn’t really mind this as we’d had nothing but sunshine for the first two days – and a rainy day was just the excuse I needed to spend a morning visiting some of Lyme Regis’ indoor attractions. First stop: The Lyme Regis Museum.

I knew that the upstairs of the museum was dedicated to fossils, but I wasn’t expecting the unique layout. Most of the top floor of The Lyme Regis Museum tells the story of one of the town’s most famous daughters, Mary Anning, a 19th-century fossil collector and palaeontology who discovered a number of dinosaur species. You may have seen the Google Doodle she was recently honoured with, or read about her in Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Remarkable Creatures. As well as seeing discoveries made by Anning and other fossil hunters, I also learned a lot about the life story of this eccentric and uncompromising figure, who defied class and social boundaries during her lifetime. Although the museum has children’s displays and a dress-up area, it’s an attraction designed to interest grown-ups rather than little ones; be prepared to answer an innumerable “Why?” if you’ve got quite young children! That said, if you’re taking dinosaur-mad kids on holiday you may want to head to Dinosaurland instead, which is just a few streets away. Although we didn’t have time to go and see it on this visit, it looks like it’s perfect for kids who love all things pre-historic (and big kids like me), with over 10,000 specimens to see (including fossils and dinosaur bones), as well as displays recreating different dino-filled eras.

After looking around the museum for about an hour we went to visit The Town Mill. This area was one of those hidden gems that you could easily miss if you didn’t know what to look for. Away from the main high street and sea front, it’s a small working watermill which has been lovingly restored. The courtyard where it’s housed has become a small, upscale shopping centre with a difference. The mill buildings now house individual craftsmen’s shops, including a seamstress, micro-brewery (where we bought a present), milliner, potter as well as two cafés and a bakery. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to give The Town Mill Bakery a try, after hearing good things about it from the locals. Inside we found a large, industrial open kitchen, where the bread and pastries were laid out for purchase as soon as they came out of the oven and you sat on large communal benches. The service was very warm and friendly, and we all enjoyed our coffee and doorstop-sized cake slices.

All in all we had a wonderful time on the Jurassic Coast. Lyme Regis is a little gem in a very beautiful part of the country. The beaches and cliffs of Charmouth and Seatown are amongst the most impressive I’ve ever seen in the UK. I’d say an added bonus is it’s a great destination for multi-generational holidays. There were plenty of young children about, excited to be by the seaside, but there’s also plenty to see, do and learn for parents and grandparents to enjoy as well. I hope I’ll come back again one day – until then, I’ll be left with some very wonderful memories of my trip.

Stay in this newly refurbished apartment overlooking famous Lyme Cobb Harbour

Hana Chelache lives in West London and enjoys writing about travel, food and life in London. Special thanks to @LymeRegisMuseum and Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre on Facebook.