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Fossil Hunting on the Jurassic Coast

Besides the dramatic beauty of its jagged cliffs and hidden coves, the lure of the Jurassic Coast for visitors is fossils and fossil hunting. The varied and dramatic coastline is a World Heritage Site encompassing 200 million years of geological history, and constant erosion makes finding fossils a distinct possibility.

A geological journey through time, the Jurassic Coast stretches for 95 miles between the younger, Cretaceous chalk stacks at Studland Bay in Dorset in the east to the older, striking red Triassic cliffs at Exmouth (Devon) in the west. The earliest Jurassic cliffs of West Dorset formed in a tropical sea that flooded a vast desert. After the sea level dropped 140 million years ago, forest, swampland, and dinosaurs thrived, before the rising sea flooded the area once again. Fossils are continuously being uncovered, and both amateurs and professionals have made many important finds here. Coastal towns and villages act as gateways to the site, offering tourist information, boat trips, and guided fossil walks.

Mary Anning

In 1811 a local child named Mary Anning (1799–1847) dug out an ichthyosaur skeleton near Lyme Regis; it's now on display in London's Natural History Museum. Anning's obsession with Jurassic remains left her labeled locally as the "fossil woman." Throughout her life she made many valuable discoveries that were sought after by museums and collectors in Britain, Europe, and beyond.

When to Go

If you're intent on collecting fossils, consider visiting in winter, when storms and rough seas encourage cliff erosion that sweeps fossils onto the beaches below. Search at low tide if you want the very best chance of making discoveries. Winter is less crowded, too. In summer the seas are calmer and the weather is more reliable. Although summer is busier with visitors, the days are longer and buses more frequent—a plus if you're exploring the coastal path.

What to Look For

Fossil hunters should stick to the area around Charmouth (the beach below Stonebarrow Hill, east of Charmouth, is especially fruitful) and Lyme Regis. The rock here is rich in fossils of the creatures that lived in the Jurassic oceans, and is especially prone to rapid erosion. You’re free to pick and chip at the rocks; no permit is needed.

Keep your eyes peeled on the shore at low tide and you may well find ammonites. These chambered cephalopods from the Jurassic era, related to today's nautilus, are usually preserved in either calcite or iron pyrite ("fool's gold"); shinier, more fragile specimens may be found in aragonite. Visit the museums in Lyme Regis and Dorchester to remind you what to look for: the lustrous spirals are similar in heft and size to a brass coin, most smaller than a 10p piece. Other common fossils include sea urchins, white oyster shells, and coiled worm tubes. Look out for belemnites, an extinct cephalopod.

Seeing the Coast

The South West Coast Path National Trail, more than 600 miles long, passes through the area and is a great way to get closer to the Jurassic Coast. The First X53 bus travels along the Jurassic Coast from Poole to Weymouth and Exeter, and allows you to walk a section of the path and return by bus.

You can join a pro: information on guided walks is available from local tourist offices and the Lyme Regis Museum. Operators offer boat trips from gateway towns, an easy way to appreciate the coastline. See the boards at harbors, or ask at information centers. Fossil collector Brandon Lennon (07944/664757 www.lymeregisfossilsforsale.co.uk £7) runs fossil-hunting expeditions with geologist Ian Lennon. A mile east of Lyme Regis, the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre (01297/560772 www.charmouth.org £7.50 walks) offers walks, kids' events, and a permanent exhibit. Late March through November, Harry May (07974/753287 www.mackerelfishinglymeregis.com £9) operates mackerel fishing and sightseeing boat trips on the Marie F and the Sunbeam from the Cobb in Lyme Regis.

Updated: 10-2013

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