Tag Archives: UK

LYME REGIS, ENGLAND – fossicking for fossils on the Jurassic Coast

All quiet on the waterfront, Lyme Regis


To tell the truth, I was a little underwhelmed by the famous town of Lyme Regis, on England’s ‘Jurassic Coast’, until I met Gryph – small, unpretentious, old and dead. Gryph got me excited.

Lyme Regis is a perfectly pleasant spot and a popular summer beach resort. Jane Austen lived there in 1804, and set her novel Persuasion bang in the middle of this palaeontologists’ paradise, though none of her characters carries a geologist’s hammer.

In John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the forlorn cloaked figure, made famous by Meryl Streep in the film version, stood on the end of the Cobb, looking out to sea rather than back at the shale cliffs. A bit of fossil hunting may have cheered her up a bit.

The Cobb - only interesting when Meryl Streep is standing on it.

In an hour of wandering around I felt I’d done Lyme Regis. The Cobb was just an old sea wall, less interesting without Meryl. The beach was pebbly and the sea uninviting. The last resort was fossil hunting.

The beach under cliffs on this stretch of southern England is Britain’s only Natural World Heritage site. The town had several fossil shops offering guided fossil-finding tours – any day except the day I was there, it seemed.

Fossil ammonites, Lyme Regis

So I set out on my own. The signs warned me against it – the tide could come in unexpectedly or a rock slide could engulf me. Perhaps tour operators put the signs there to encourage wimps to seek their professional guidance.

I clambered over the wooden breakwaters holding the beach in place, to where lumps of shale lay at the base of the cliffs. Many were so soft that I could prise the layers apart with my fingers. And after only a few minutes, inside one lump I found a curled striped shell, about four centimetres long. Eureka! Had I discovered a new fossil species – a small Tullochosaurus perhaps?

I knew my discovery wasn’t as spectacular as the find of Mary Anning, Lyme Regis’ most famous fossil hunter. In 1814, aged 15, she and her brother found Britain’s first ichthyosaur. Think of an overgrown crocodile with fins. He’s on display in the Lyme Regis museum. In those days it was nothing new for Lyme people to dig up fossils and sell them to visitors for pocket money, but Mary was the first to study them seriously. Her story is told in the museum, and in Tracy Chevalier’s latest book, Remarkable Creatures.

I proudly carried my discovery back into town to seek identification. In the window of Mike’s Fossils and Minerals I saw several examples of my little chap. He’s a ‘devil’s toenail’, an extinct oyster, gryphaea arcuata. Mike had dozens of his relatives on sale for about two quid each, including packaging. I kept my specimen in my pocket. I didn’t want him to feel cheap.

‘Gryph’ as he now is known to me, lived and died 200 million years ago. Nobody paid him much attention when he was alive. He clung to a rock, passed away and was buried in soft grey mud. Now he’s on display on my shelf at home, and I show him to anybody who’s interested and also to people who are not.

Will Jane Austen, John Fowles or Meryl Streep attract as much interest in 200 million years as Gryph does today? Call me a pessimist, but it seems unlikely. Will anyone be interested in the brief blip in evolution that was once homo sapiens? We’ve only been around about 130,000 years and we could snuff ourselves out at any minute, taking all the palaeontologists with us. Will anything on Planet Earth remember our species in 200 million years? Who knows?

We can only do our best to survive and preserve the planet it’s our privilege to walk on today. And well done, Gryph, for still being around!

TRIP DETAILS: Private transport is the easiest way to get to Lyme Regis, though there is a regular bus service from Dorchester.

Staying there: see dorset-newforest.com

The writer was assisted by Dorset-New Forest Tourism Partnership

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CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND – cycling the towpath

Along the Cam

We cyclists have often been grateful to the diggers of Europe’s canals. ‘All dug by hand,’ people keep telling us, but I bet they used spades as well. They’ve left us some wonderful places to ride the bikes. We just pedalled along the River Cam out of Cambridge, which claims to be England’s best cycling town, with cycle lanes on most roads, plenty of bike parking racks and best of all, patient drivers who probably ride bikes too.

Somebody else's problem...

The Cam is a natural waterway of course, but it’s been tamed with a system of locks and embankments to stop it spreading out over the fens and flooding people’s holiday homes. In the town, it is famous for punting, but we could quickly see that on a sunny weekend we wouldn’t have it to ourselves. On the banks we ran the gauntlet of students thrusting placards at anybody toting a camera or consulting a tourist map. ‘Finking of goin’ puntin’ while you’re here?’ (Nobody wants a toffy accent these days. Notice that Princes William and Harry speak more like rock stars than like royals of old.) We weren’t finking of puntin’, and if we had been, we would soon have been put off by the antics of the crowds of very merry young punters bumping each other into the water.

Bridge on the Cam

Instead we rented bikes and pedalled out of town. It was an easy option. Three gears were plenty. The towpath was well-maintained, simple to follow (”Just keep the river on your right””), well serviced with refreshment stops, and flat.

The waterway itself provided entertainment, in the form of narrowboats and locks, to take our minds off any discomfort in legs, lungs or rear ends. Back when barges were serious means of transport, the towpath may well have meant discomfort for those doing the towing. I remember a photo in a museum in Friesland showing a ‘skutje’ barge family at work. Mamma and the kids, ropes across their shoulders, walked the muddy towpath in the rain while Pappa did the steering from the captain’s cabin.

Those days are long gone. Now the ‘narrowboat’ barges have been converted into pleasure craft. Pubs have names like The Bridge,The Green Dragon and The Penny Ferry. Lock masters chat with skippers, and ride along with them for a while to open the next lock. Retired couples, usually with a dog perched on the deck beside them, lounge in the sun with the coffee cups. Their boat names tell the story; Croozy, The Fox, Fourth Time Lucky.

When we’ve had enough, we stop at the pub. “Waterbeach Chef and Brewer” sounds perfect. It’s a pub which seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s packed with lunchtime diners and drinkers. The strollers of the mothers’ and babies’ club are choking the aisles.

The food is hearty, honest, heavy British fare. The decor is all heavy wooden beams, under which heavy honest British trenchermen tuck into heavy shepherd’s pies. We tell ourselves heavy British lasagne is just what we need, then pedal gently back to Cambridge. Recommended!

TRIP NOTES: Bike rental from Station Cycles costs GBP10 for 24 hours

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RYE – England’s best preserved village?

Four hundred years ago, John Cheston decided to demolish his house, overlooking the cemetery of St Mary’s church in Rye. He’d just removed the first roof tiles when a cry came from the burghers below, ‘Desist, thou scurvy varlet! (or words to that effect) Thou despoileth our streetscape and wrecketh our potential tourism industry.’

The city fathers invoked a 1606 heritage law, thus sparing Mr Cheston’s house, and securing Rye’s future as a centre for artists, writers, musicians and miscellaneous bohemians. It has become a perfect location for filming British costume dramas and a very popular short trip out of London.

Rye claims to be England’s best preserved village, and who am I to argue, not having seen the other contenders. The Ryers (or ‘Mud Heads’ as they’re uncharitably known in the rest of Sussex) have been particularly sensitive about building conservation since 1377, when some rowdy Frenchmen cruised across the Channel, literally set the town alight and nicked the church bells as souvenirs. A heavily-armed delegation paid France a return visit and brought the bells back. Rye was restored to its former glory and now boasts more historic buildings than any town in Britain.

The village is almost too cute to be true. An elegant white windmill neatly balances the cluster of black wooden huts where fisherman used to hang their nets. Steep, narrow streets wind between houses with the Tudor timber frames and slate roofs we tourists love. The battlements of Ypres Tower and Landgate Arch, and the aforementioned St Mary’s church are striking remnants of the town’s medieval past.

Rye was once a major harbour for warships, an important member of the Cinq Ports, and given the title ‘Rye Royale’ by Elizabeth I. But eventually the sea gave up the battle against the silt and beat a retreat. Now at low tide small fishing boats lie on their sides in a muddy channel while sheep graze on the Romney Marsh between Rye and the nearest beach, several kilometres away.

Nobody seems to miss the sea too much. Tourists still flock to hobble over Rye’s cobbles, browsing the galleries and pottery shops and drinking traditional English coffee (a tasteless, milky liquid that pre-dates the modern macchiato) in charming traditional tea-rooms.

It’s all very genteel these days, but Ryers also take pride in their grimy past, the smuggling era in particular. Rye was the haunt of the owlers, as smugglers were known in the eighteenth century. In dark back rooms, deals were done on smuggled liquor, tea and luxury goods, and also on wool and banned English language bibles. ‘Pssst – wanna buy a cheap bale of Romney Marsh and a couple of gospels?’

The Mermaid Inn, now an upmarket hotel, was the hub of these nefarious activities, and night ghost tours are run through the secret passages of the town. Inspired by a visit to Rye, Rudyard Kipling wrote A Smuggler’s Song, ending, ‘Them that asks no questions, isn’t told a lie, So watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by!’

I also heard the macabre story of a girl called Amanda and a young monk named Cantador, who were bricked into a wall as punishment for their illicit love affair. Apparently Cantador’s ghost often sings in Turkey Cock Lane, now a carpark behind Rye Lodge Hotel, though he was taking a break when I visited.

I loved the permanent exhibition of penny arcade machines in the Rye Heritage Centre. I’m such a sucker for these things. I bought seven old copper pennies to feed into the slots of my choice. The fortune telling machine issued a card that assured me: ‘You will discover easy methods of making money,’ which was encouraging news for someone who’d just swapped a perfectly good pound for a measly 7 pence.

My remaining six coins I invested in storytelling dioramas, where little models move around when the penny drops. The fun comes not because these things are so ingenious; it’s because they’re so unbelievably tacky that we’re delighted when they do anything at all.

For instance, I watched a miniature miser refuse a donation to a tiny Red Cross nurse rattling a tin. The devil popped up and a bag of money disappeared from the miser’s safe. Then there was the totally non-PC ‘George and Mabel in the Park’. George raised his hat to the attractive girl on the bench beside him, while surreptitiously lifting her skirt with the end of his walking cane. All good, naughty fun.

Back in the town, I shared a stroll with my fellow tourists, English, French, German and Dutch, noting the plaques on houses testifying to former residents. For a place with a population of less than 5,000, Rye has had an extraordinary number of celebrity Mud Heads. Jacobean playwright John Fletcher, Joseph Conrad, G.K.Chesterton and H.G.Wells all lived here. American novelist Henry James spent his final years in the impressive Lamb House.

More recently, Sir Paul McCartney sent his kids to local Rye schools and Spike Milligan was vice president of the Rye Rugby club. He’s buried in nearby Winchelsea, below the world’s wittiest (self-written) epitaph. Church authorities would only let the family inscribe it on his headstone in Irish, but translated into English it reads, ‘I told you I was ill.’

Mine was a fleeting visit, but I can see why they all came to Rye, and I can guess why they stayed.

The writer was a guest of 1066 Country Tourism.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Trains leave at least hourly from London Charing Cross to Rye, take just over 2 hours and cost from GBP24 off peak, one way. See nationalrail.co.uk

Staying there: For numerous accommodation options, see visitrye.co.uk

Further information: Entry to the Rye Heritage Centre is GBP3, town audio guide costs GBP3.50. For other activities in Rye, See visitrye.co.uk and 1066country.com

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under England, Literary history, Travel, Travel- Europe