If you ask a fossil expert where is the best place in the UK to find and learn about fossils, it's more than likely they'll mention Lyme Regis. It's a little town situated on Dorset's famous Jurassic Coast that has become a hub for fossil hunters and enthusiasts, with a museum and several fossil shops dotted around the town. Even the town's lamposts are shaped to look like ammonites!
Why is Lyme Regis so associated with fossils? Part of the reason is in the town's history. Lyme Regis was the home of Mary Anning, one of the most famous names in the history of fossil collecting and paelaeontology. Back in the early 19th century, a time when very little scientific evidence existed to challenge the biblical creation theory, Mary Anning uncovered skeletons of huge, incredible sea creatures that could not be explained by traditional theories and ways of thinking.
By the time Mary Anning died in 1847, she had contributed greatly to the establishment of paelaeontology and geology as proper scientific disciplines. However, the connection between Lyme Regis and fossils did not end there. Fossil hunters continued to discover wonderful fossilised remains from millions of years ago in the Lyme Regis area long after Mary Anning's time, and incredibly they are still being found today!
So what makes the area so special? Many of the rocks on the Lyme Regis stretch of coastline are from the early Jurassic period, meaning they are approximately 200 million years old. During this time the sea was brimming with interesting creatures, including giant marine reptiles, ammonites and even dinosaurs. Remains of many of these have since been found by fossil hunters on the nearby beaches and cliffs.Because the cliffs are quite high and exposed, they are constantly breaking up, which means that every winter eager fossil hunters get a fresh supply of perfectly preserved fossils.
If you visit Lyme Regis for a holiday or a day trip, you might want to have a go at hunting for fossils yourself. Here are a few tips which you will hopefully find useful:
*While the summer might have lovely sunny weather, it is not the best time of year to find fossils. The best time is during the winter months and early spring, from about November to April. This is when the rough conditions are likely to erode the cliffs and expose new fossils.
*For beginners, there can be no better introduction to the world of fossils than the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, an annual event taking place in early April. Here amateurs rub shoulders with seasoned fossil experts, and everyone can get involved with learning about and hunting for fossils.
*The best way to learn about fossil hunting is to follow an experienced fossil hunter and see how they go about it. They will know which rocks to look at and how to break them, so keep an eye on them and ask lots of questions. You will probably learn an awful lot!
*You will need to abide by the fossil collecting code that applies to anyone hunting for fossils on the Jurassic Coast. This stipulates that you can search for fossils on the beach or among debris that has fallen away from the cliffs, but you cannot dig into the cliffs themselves, as this can be dangerous and can also disrupt the scientific research that goes on in the area.