The Greatest Fossil Hunter Ever

Mary Anning Painting

Mary Anning’s story is fascinating. Born in Lyme Regis in 1799, she lived her whole life there hunting, collecting and selling fossils. The Natural History Museum proclaimed her the greatest fossil hunter ever. Yet the scientific community didn’t completely accept her during her lifetime or give her as much credit as she deserved. Why? Because she was female, poor and working class. If you’d like to know more please read on. Are you lucky enough to be visiting Lyme soon? Find out about the town’s most remarkable person before you go.

Her Early Life

Copy of Ichthyosaur skull displayed in Lyme Regis museumAt fifteen months old Mary Anning survived a lightening strike which killed the three other people sheltering under the tree. Unlikely as it sounds her family maintained that the sickly baby girl became much smarter and livelier as a result.

As a young child she would often go out on the beaches of Lyme fossil hunting with her older brother Joseph and her father, a carpenter and an amateur fossil collector. The family was poor and selling the fossils was a necessity to bring in money. It was dangerous work particularly during the winter months, out in storms and after landslides. Her father died when she was only eleven, leaving the family in debt. Mary, along with her mother and brother, continued collecting and selling fossils to tourists from a table outside their house.

In 1811 Mary’s brother discovered a four foot long skull. With its long snout and prominent teeth it might have been a crocodile except that it had huge, bulbous eyes. A creature never seen alive. A few months later Mary found the rest of the skeleton. It became quite a sensation, rocking the scientific world.

Her Fossil Expertise


Sketch made by Mary Anning
Mary eked out a living by finding, painstakingly recovering and selling fossils throughout her life. As she continued to make important fossil discoveries her reputation grew. Scientists and collectors from around Europe and America visited her in Lyme. However the majority of her finds ended up in museums and personal collections without giving her any credit.

Mary read scientific papers and dissected animals to gain a better understanding of anatomy. She became an expert in the delicate work of removing fossilised bones from the rocks, then reconstructing skeletons. She knew more about fossils and geology than most of the gentlemen geologists and stayed in frequent contact with them. They published information she gave them, but often neglected to mention her name.

Despite her incredible understanding of fossils and skeletons she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London. Not surprisingly she grew resentful of the scientists who failed to acknowledge her work, remaining an outsider barred from full participation because of her sex and social class.

The dangers of her occupation was highlighted in October 1833 when her dog was killed by a landslide that nearly killed Mary too.

The Huge Importance Of Her Discoveries

Mary Anning’s fossil discoveries caused major controversy as they challenged the belief that the world had been created as described in the Bible. If God’s creation was perfection, how come these creatures no longer existed, so must have been imperfect? Those who had faith in Genesis as literal history required every species ever created to be alive still. They also believed that everything had been made within a week. Why were different types of fossils found in different layers of rocks, evidence that the animals had existed during different eras?

The spectacular marine reptiles that she unearthed provided the evidence for extinction, shaking the scientific community into looking at different explanations for changes in the natural world. This indirectly lead Darwin into his insights which culminated in his publication The Origin of Species in 1859.

Her Death

In the last few years of her life, Mary became increasingly sick, suffering from breast cancer. She began taking laudanum for the pain and local people mistook the effects of the drug for drunkenness. When the Geological Society’s members learned of her plight, they started a fund that paid for her treatment. In 1846 they made her an honorary member of the society. She died in 1847. A eulogy was read at a society meeting and they published her obituary.

After her death her story attracted increasing general interest. In 1865 an article in a magazine edited by Charles Dickens celebrated her life and achievements.

Mary was probably the inspiration for the 1908 tongue twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore.”

In 2010 the Royal Society included Mary in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures Book CoverIf you enjoy reading historical novels then Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier is a great way of finding out more. Like her most famous book, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier takes real historical events and people and winds a fictional tale around them.

In Remarkable Creatures two alternating voices tell Mary’s story. One is Mary, the other is Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster sent by a married brother from London to live more cheaply in Lyme. Elizabeth begins searching the beaches for fossils and meets Mary, then a child. Despite their differences in class and age a loyal friendship develops, founded on their shared passion for fossil hunting. As well as an absorbing story it is also a revealing portrait of female friendship. They, as much as the fossils, are the remarkable creatures of the title.

A production company optioned the book earlier this year and so, who knows, maybe a movie beckons.

Visiting Lyme

When you are visiting Lyme the Lyme Regis Museum, on the site of Mary’s birthplace, has a Mary Anning wing which tells the story of Mary and Lyme’s fantastic fossils. They also offer guided Mary Anning and fossil walks. Click here to see if there are any scheduled conveniently for you. Incidentally the museum, built in 1901, was commissioned by Thomas Philpot, a relative of Elizabeth Philpot.

Mary Anning’s grave is in the churchyard of St Michael’s Parish Church. A stained glass window there, paid for by the Geological Society, commemorates her life.

Getting to Lyme Regis from the cottage is an easy drive down the A35. Alternatively you can take the Jurassic Coaster bus which goes from outside The George. You can even get a water taxi there from the harbour. Even if you aren’t interested in Lyme’s fossil history you’ll find plenty to see and amble around, and lots of places to have a bite to eat. If you are interested I hope this potted history of Mary Anning’s life helps to enrich your visit a little. If you want to know more, Remarkable Creatures is well worth reading and particularly suited to a holiday on the Jurassic Coast!

Family Days Out In Dorset

Bridport Museum photo from their website

With all the lovely beaches along the Jurassic Coast you may not want to stray far from the seaside but if you fancy a change there’s lots of attractions for families in the area. Here’s a quick round-up, picked to all be within a 45 minute drive of the cottage. From Monkey World to the Tank Museum, a Sea Life Centre to local animal farms. And a bit of seaside fossil hunting too. Just click on the links to find out more, get directions and check opening times, some of the attractions are seasonal.

In and around Dorchester

Old Teddy Bear ExhibitThe ancient county town of Dorchester is 16 miles away, roughly a 30 minute drive. Attractions include Thomas Hardy’s town house, shops, pretty streets and churches and child-friendly eating places. There are several little museums serving up an eclectic mix. These include a Dinosaur Museum, a Teddy Bear Museum, and Tutankhamun, Mummies and Terracotta Warriors exhibitions. Sadly these display copies rather than the actual Tutankhamun treasures, mummies or warriors. Individually they seem pricy given the size of the exhibits but you can get a saver ticket which combines entry to all five of them. The Dorset County Museum is better value. There’s also a military museum, Keep Museum.

Maiden CastleTraces of Dorchester’s prehistoric roots include the Maumbury Rings and Maiden Castle, an ancient earthwork on the outskirts of the town. The largest iron age hillfort in Europe, Maiden Castle dominates the skyline and once protected hundreds of residents. Excavations have revealed occupation began more than 6,000 years ago. Have a climb, a walk and enjoy the superb views. Free entry and parking.

Near Dorchester is Kingston Maurward gardens and animal park, a grade II-listed gardens set around a large Georgian English country house (now an agricultural college). Children will especially love the animal park, with its pigs, alpacas, cows, ponies, sheep, ducks and hens and plenty of room to play and have a picnic.

Bridport and inland

Rope machine photo from museum websiteBridport Museum on South Street is worth popping into when you are in the town. It’s recently undergone a major refurbishment. Find out about Bridport’s history from prehistoric times onwards. There’s a special emphasis on the story of the rope and net making industry which has shaped many of the town’s streets and buildings. This informative little museum has free entry and is child-friendly with interactive exhibits and a dressing-up box.

Kingcombe CentreKingcombe Centre, a 25 minute drive inland from the cottage near Hooke, has natural history, wildlife, craft and art courses throughout the year. Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Kingcombe Meadows Nature Reserve surrounds it. The centre has activities such as pond dipping and nature walks for families and children. Have a look here to see if anything appeals.

In and around Wareham

Monkey World WarehamRoughly a 45 minute drive from the cottage, Monkey World in Wareham is a monkey sanctuary, a rescue centre, for primates. It has decent sized enclosures for the animals and a very large outdoor adventure playground for children. A perfect outing for any monkey fan.

Tank MuseumWest of Wareham, the Tank Museum in Bovington (again about 45 minutes drive) is, not surprisingly, a museum with lots and lots of tanks. Good for a rainy day if you like tanks, or you know someone who does.

Also near Wareham is Farmer Palmer’s Farm Park. Loads for young kids to see and do with lots of animals and activities including go-carts and pedal tractors.

Heading west along the coast

Charmouth FossilsThe Jurassic Coast is where you’ll find some of the best fossil hunting in the UK and Charmouth is the very best place to start. Entry to Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre is free and it’s packed with interactive displays and fun things to do. There’s a fossil display which contains some remarkable finds. You can rent a hammer to hunt on your own or follow a guided walk led by one of the centre’s experts. Either way it’s a great day out and will always reveal exciting finds. Book online for a fossil hunting walk or rock pool ramble. But be careful, the cliffs around Charmouth are very unstable.

Pavement Outside Lyme Regis MuseumLyme Regis is a lovely town for families to visit and in particular it’s a good place for fossil and dinosaur enthusiasts. In 1811, after a storm caused parts of Lyme Regis’ East Cliff to collapse, Mary Anning, twelve years old and already a keen fossil-hunter, discovered a complete dinosaur skeleton, an ichthyosaur over 5 metres long. There are two museums in Lyme with fossil exhibits, Dinosaurland Fossil Museum and the Lyme Regis Museum. One of the buildings on the Cobb houses an aquarium too.

Heading east along the coast

Situated near Burton Bradstock, The Jurassic Fun Centre at Freshwater Beach Holiday Park is a handy rainy day destination. Activities include a fun pool with slides and a ten-pin bowling alley.

Pigs at Vurlands Animal FarmKeep going along the beautiful coast road to Swyre and you reach Vurlands Animal Farm. This is a family run business suitable for a day out with young children. There are plenty of farm animals to see, a play area, and, in the summer months, a free bouncy castle. It’s wheelchair and buggy friendly. Your ticket is valid for a further seven days for free re-entry. The Eggcup Tearooms are on site for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea.

At the swannery in SpringGo further east along the coast to Abbotsbury where you’ll find three superb attractions all located within a mile of each other around the village, Abbotsbury Children’s Farm, Subtropical Gardens and the Swannery. If possible visit the Swannery during cygnet hatching time between mid May and the end of June. The gardens have spooky illuminated fright nights near Halloween. You can buy a passport ticket which allows three visits to an Abbotsbury attraction.

Falling ManOn Portland there’s Tout Quarry Sculpture Park and Nature Reserve. Entry and parking is free. An abandoned quarry has been turned into an sculpture park, the sculptures carved in the Portland stone. It’s an atmospheric place with lovely views over Chesil Beach and Lyme Bay. The park is a maze of pathways through the quarry with sculptures dotted around. Keep your eyes peeled to spot them! The hidden sculptures include a fish, a Viking boat and the famous “falling man” by Antony Gormley. Wear decent shoes. Afterwards you could head out to Portland Bill, the most southerly part of Dorset, to see the red and white lighthouse and the waves crashing around Pulpit Rock.

Weymouth

Weymouth makes a good day trip. The Sea Life Adventure Park is a facinating aquarium, with general tickets including access to the Jurassic Skyline viewing tower. The park has a new play area called Caribbean Cove. It includes a splash zone so pack swimming costumes even if you are not planning on a beach day.

Alternatively the Victorian Nothe Fort, located at the entrance to Weymouth Harbour, is a labyrinth of (apparently haunted) underground passageways and outdoor areas with plenty of space for children to run free. The interactive exhibits are full of interesting facts about the fort, the harbour and Weymouth as well as more general military history. Kids love finding the hidden mice too! It has a brilliant view over the harbour from the ramparts.

If you’ve read all this and haven’t yet booked accommodation for your trip to the area, we’d love to welcome you to West Bay Cottage. Take a look inside the cottage if you wish, or head to our Book With Us page for availability, the rates and how to book.

Family Days Out In East Devon

Family Days Out In East Devon

Lyme Regis is in Dorset on the border with East Devon. Here’s some family-friendly things to do over the border, all under 40 minutes drive from our cottage.

Seaton

Seaton is the first town on the coast in East Devon as you head west from Lyme Regis. It’s perhaps not as attractive as its coastal neighbours (they have set the bar high) but there are several attractions to visit in the vicinity.

Seaton Jurassic Visitor Centre opened in 2016. Visitors get to travel back 200 million years aboard their time-ship! Seaton was underwater during the Jurassic period so there is lots about prehistoric sea creatures and their evolution. It’s very interactive and children get an explorer’s passport, answer questions and collect stamps.

Seaton TramwayTake a trip on Seaton Tramway, a narrow gauge heritage tram which travels three miles through the Seaton Marsh and Colyford Common Local Nature Reserves in the Axe Valley. It is one of Devon’s major tourist attractions carrying over 100,000 passengers a year and offers a unique way to travel along the Axe estuary.

Seaton Wetlands Nature ReserveSeaton Wetlands Nature Reserve stretches from the estuary at Axmouth to the village of Colyford. Nearly 4km of level trails and boardwalk through beautiful marshland and reed beds alongside the river Axe, home to an abundance of wildlife.

Beer

Who wouldn’t want to visit a place called Beer? Beer is a pretty village with a small fleet of working fishing boats, a shingle beach and surrounding picturesque white limestone cliffs.

PecoramaPecoramaBeer’s miniature railway and gardens theme park, stands above the village of Beer, high on the hillside overlooking the sea. It’s suitable for families, garden lovers and model railway enthusiasts. You get to ride a miniature train on the Beer Heights Light Railway. There are several play areas for children. All three generations of our family had fun on the zip wire when we visited.

Beer Quarry Caves are a vast man-made complex of underground caverns created by centuries of quarrying the famous Beer Stone, used to build St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle. Guides give you an hour long tour of this vast complex of underground caverns. It’s a good trip on a wet day as it doesn’t matter what the weather is like when you are down there. Open March until the end of September.

Sidmouth

Sidmouth is a seaside town that nestles beneath red cliffs and the green hills of the glorious Sid Valley. Jacob’s Ladder is the sandy, western end of Sidmouth’s town beach, which is mostly pebble. There’s plenty of rock pools.

Donkeys in Sanctuary ShopThe Donkey Sanctuary is near Sidmouth on the A3052 with hundreds of donkeys. You can meet the main yard donkeys or spot them in the fields. When we went it was such a foggy day you couldn’t see the donkeys in the fields! A new restaurant recently opened. Admission is free.

Here’s a coast path walking route, starting in the car park in Weston near Sidmouth, that will allow you to take a well-deserved rest at the sanctuary and meet the friendly donkeys!

Inland in East Devon

Visit Forde AbbeyForde Abbey, an historic house and gardens. The impressive building, originally a Cistercian monastery,  dates back 800 years. Star of the show is the beautiful grounds and gardens with a spectacular fountain. Children are encouraged to explore every corner following a letter box trail around the garden. In summer you can go fruit picking. There is a cafe there too.

We didn’t find the market town of Axminster memorable when we visited but did enjoy lunch at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Axminster. It gets busy so best to book.

If you’ve read all this and haven’t yet booked accommodation for your trip to the area, we’d love to welcome you to West Bay Cottage. Take a look inside the cottage if you wish, or head to our Book With Us page for availability, the rates and how to book.