It's a sunny day in Lyme Regis. In the distance you can see Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast of England. Waves from the English Channel are rolling gently onto the sand, but the people walking on the beach are all looking down, some of them almost bent in half.
What's underfoot is is more interesting than the scenery.
That's because this beach, a short walk east of Lyme Regis, is a motherlode of Jurassic fossils. Visitors are free to collect rocks etched with the spiral shapes of ammonites and the fragile squid-shaped belemnites that litter the beach. If you take your time and look carefully, you may even find a shiny pyrite ammonite, a fossilized ichthyosaur vertebrae or even rarer, but always possible, a plesiosaurus skull. After all, this is where England's first recognized ichthyosaur and plesiosaurus fossils were found in the 1800's.
This is the Jurassic Coast, where you can explore 185 million years of history in just 95 miles.
Black Ven, overlooking this beach, is Europe's largest constantly flowing mudfield and the source of many of the fossils found lying on the beach. When a storm hits, Black Ven can move as much as 10 feet overnight, unearthing more long-buried fossils. The most dedicated fossil hunters know that the best fossil hunting is done in the worst weather.
Fossil hunting is not without perils, however. Make sure you know when the tide will be turning and keep an eye on the ocean as you walk. It's easy to get focused on the fossils, but the tide comes in quickly and some parts of the beach are cut off at high tide. Be careful around the cliffs and watch out for rock falls.
The experts say that the trick to successful fossil hunting is walking slowly and taking your time as you look. After you find your first fossil, you'll be surprised by how quickly you spot the next one.
To learn more about the fossils of the Jurassic Coast and how to find them, the Lyme Regis Museum fossil walks led by museum geologist Paddy Howe are a great place to start. The walks are timed to the tide and last approximately three hours. Paddy is an entertaining speaker and he knows the area--he's been looking for fossils here since he was a six-year-old. Or, stop by The Fossil Workshop in the basement of Alice's Bear Shop on Broad Street in Lyme Regis where you can see some of Paddy's treasures and ask him about your own discoveries.
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