Charmouth is fossil hunter heaven. This small town between Lyme Regis and Golden Cap has a rock-strewn beach that rings with the “tink-tink-tink” of hammer on stone.
Venture down to the beach in school holidays and you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve stumbled upon the annual outing of the “Friends of Snow White”. All along the shore little people with big hammers will be smashing rocks in the hope of finding fossils never before seen by human eye. And their chances are extremely good!
The rocks along this stretch of the Jurassic Coast are not only rich in fossils, but, crucially, also easily accessible. The cliffs are a mix of limestone and shale and were laid down, layer upon layer, over 180 million years ago.
As each layer of sediment fell to the bottom of what was then the prehistoric sea, it preserved the shapes of the animals and plants that lived and died in it. With the former seabed now land, thanks to movements in the Earth’s crust, these rock layers are now being exposed by erosion by the “modern” sea continuously. The result is that fossils and rocks containing them are constantly being exposed for the first time since they dropped down dead on the ocean floor.
Serious fossil hunters have been making major finds along this stretch of coast for centuries. Mary Anning is now among the most celebrated locally, having been born in Lyme Regis, but also internationally as she gains posthumous recognition for the important finds she made (and for which others took most of the credit during her lifetime).
Serious fossil hunters still study the cliffs at Charmouth with a keen eye and still make major discoveries from time to time. But casual fossil hunters make minor discoveries every day.
Ammonites and belemnites are the most common find and are easily found in the rocks at the base of the cliffs and along the shoreline. But make sure you follow the fossil hunters’ code. Don’t climb the cliffs, which are very unstable and don’t try and dig into the base. You don’t need to. There are plenty of rocks and fossils exposed on the beach and at the cliff bottom.
If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having been looking for a while and found nothing, you may need to ask yourself whether you are looking in the right place and in the right way. It’s really not that difficult, so you might want to check at the Visitor Centre so that you know where and what to look for.
And don’t set your sights too high. Yes, plesiosaurs and ammonites the size of truck tyres have been found here, but smaller finds are much easier and more likely. You’ll be just as pleased to find a small but perfectly formed ammonite the size of a two-pence piece, a fifty or maybe even as big round as a teacup as if you’d found one as big as a wagon wheel! Kids will be amazed with whatever they find, fossilised in the rocks or live in the rock pools! And don’t miss the pointy bullet shaped belemnites. They’re fossils too!
As with any rock-strewn shoreline you need to take a few basic precautions. Check the tide before you go along the beach, because here the sea comes right up to the bottom of the cliffs, especially between Lyme Regis and Charmouth - that’s what exposes the fossils. If you find you’re the only person on the beach, it may be too late to ask yourself why! And watch out for falling rocks from above. This happens regularly in wet weather and dry because the cliffs are soft and unstable. Small rocks are falling all the time, but occasionally much bigger collapses happen, so make sure you heed any warning notices or friendly advice.
It goes without saying that rocks present a particular trip hazard and may be slippery when wet or covered with seaweed. Exercise caution and wear sensible shoes or boots if you don’t want to scrape your shins or bruise your chin!
You also need to be aware of other fossil hunters around you. Even a short foray up a cliff or slumped part of it can result in lumps of rock rolling down onto the beach dangerously. Add that to the chips flying from a thousand clattering hammers and there can be quite a bit of Jurassic shrapnel flying about!
If you rent a hammer from the shop at the visitor centre (£10 deposit and £3 to pay) they provide you with goggles. Wear them. Otherwise take your own.
Charmouth is a wonderful place to visit and take a wander through 200 million years of history. There is something very special about being the first person ever to set eyes on the remains of an animal that has been in the ground that long. But there’s just as much pleasure to be taken from wading through the rock pools and waves on the shore looking for washed out fossils and living inhabitants of the modern-day sea.
And if you want to see the big and important stuff, check out the Visitor Centre at Charmouth and/or the Museum in Lyme Regis (where there’s also lots on Mary Anning). Dorset County Museum in Dorchester also has some interesting specimens and displays.
Adults, children and geology students will find the beach at Charmouth a “must do” visit, especially if dinosaurs are your thing. Chances are you won’t find one, but you’ll know your mucking about in the same mudstone that was their mud!
If you’re a parent, do take your mobile for safety if you must. But resist the temptation to sit and text all day or even for part of it. You’ll be missing some of the best fun your kids will ever have for free. And it’s educational too. Beat that Nintendo!
Add that to the chips flying from a thousand clattering hammers and there can be quite a bit of Jurassic shrapnel flying about!"