How do you drag kids away from their social media lives without annoying them? That’s a question that lots of parents must wrestle with these days, but thankfully it’s one I don’t have to, but if I did, I think that I would take them for a day out to somewhere like Charmouth.
As a kid, I always enjoyed rummaging around in rockpools seeing what I could find, and I also remember my first project at school was about dinosaurs and early life on earth; here at Charmouth, you can have the best of both worlds because there’s no better place in the country to go fossil hunting, and judging from the number of families who come here, it seems like I’m not the only one who finds this an enjoyable and stimulating day out.
The Dorset and East Devon coastline has been given World Heritage Status by UNESCO and is widely known as the Jurassic Coast. In actual fact, the 95 miles of coastline between Exmouth and Old Harry Rocks in Purbeck covers three different periods of Earth’s history – from the Triassic Period (250-200 million years ago) through the Jurassic Period (200-140m) to the Cretacious Period (140-65m) – a total of 185 million years.
The coastline around Lyme Regis and Charmouth was formed in the Jurassic Period around 195 million years ago. How the experts can be that precise I’m not sure, but it was at a time when large areas of England and Wales (and other parts of Europe) were submerged under the sea.
The rocks that we can see here today are rich in fossilised plants and animals that inhabited the earth around that time, and even if you think that it doesn’t sound very interesting, you may well change your mind when you discover your first fossil.
To get an overall view of this coastline it’s not a bad idea to visit Golden Cap, which at 627ft (191m), is the highest point on the South Coast of England.
The views from up here are impressive to say the least, and you don’t have to climb 600ft to get up here as there are National Trust car parks at Langdon Hill and Stonebarrow Hill which make it a bit easier, and neither are more than a 10 minute drive from Charmouth.
While you’re up here taking in the views it’s worth trying to get everything into perspective, geologically speaking as well as geographically: The Triassic to Cretacious Periods are actually the equivalent of the Middle Ages of life on earth (known as the Mesozoic Era). The science of the planet’s origins goes beyond the scope of this article, as well as my capabilities of fully understanding it – but suffice it to say that it’s generally acknowledged that the planet was born around 4,600 million years ago, so at least we can get a basic understanding of where this landscape fits into the geological jigsaw.
Seeing as we’re here to enjoy a day out on the beach hunting for fossils, rather than studying for a degree, the next port of call after taking in the views from Golden Cap should be the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre. There’s a large car park nearby and the beach is right next door. Anything you want to make the day more enjoyable can be found in here – from information, amateur fossil collector’s kits, and fossils – both on display and for sale.
The beach is divided by the River Char into East Beach, which looks towards Golden Cap and the preferred beach for sunbathers, and West Beach which leads towards Lyme Regis and includes the famous Black Ven cliff, whose mudslides constantly bring new fossils down to the shore.
It was along this stretch of beach where the remarkable Mary Anning went fossil hunting with her family. When her father died in 1810, she was just 11 years old, but to help the family’s finances she carried on looking for fossils so that they could be sold to an ever-increasing number of wealthy tourists.
She never had any formal education but with her local knowledge, a scientific brain, and fierce determination, she became the “greatest fossilist who ever lived”.
She probably wouldn’t have known that her discoveries of some of the most important fossils found at the time were to become influential in a new way of thinking. She died in 1847, 12 years before Charles Darwin’s publication of On the origin of Species.
Some of her most notable finds can be seen in London’s Natural History Museum, and are a ‘must see’ if you ever get the opportunity.
For mere mortals like me though, it could be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but even though you might not find a complete Ichthyosaur or Plesiosaur like Mary Anning, there’s every chance that you’ll find an ammonite or two if you know what you’re doing.
Hammering away into the cliff is frowned upon, but the beach is probably the best source to find fossils anyway, especially on a falling tide, and particularly after a recent mudslide (which are not infrequent).
Whether you find any fossils of consequence or not, a visit to Charmouth will show that the earth’s past is every bit as interesting as today’s technological present, and with a bit of luck the kids might think so as well. Perhaps when they get home, they might start looking on the internet for pictures of a pterodactyl or brontosaurus instead of selfies of their friends on Instagram – but then again, perhaps not. Maybe that’s a bit too much to ask.