“Lyme Regis is a town that has submitted to its geography rather than forced the land to submit to it. The hills into town are so steep that coaches cannot travel down them…The narrow road leads down to the shore, and then quickly turns its back on the sea and heads up hill again, as if it wants merely to glimpse the waves before fleeing.” (Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier – p18)
Last time, I mentioned I was a little enamoured of Tracy Chevalier, so I feel I should expand on that statement!
Along with many other historical fiction devotees I was enthralled by Chevalier’s most famous novel Girl With A Pearl Earring, her fictional account of the model from Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting of the same name, and I have been wanting to try more of her tales every since.
So when I found myself planning a winter jaunt to the charming seaside town of Lyme Regis in the south-west of England, I seized the opportunity to pick up a copy of Remarkable Creatures – Chevalier’s novel about one of Lyme’s most famous residents, Mary Anning.
But first a little picture of Lyme Regis beachfront to get you in the mood. We were lucky – it might have been the depths of winter, but we scored a stunning day for our visit.
“But that is not all there is to Lyme. It is as if there are two villages side by side, connected by a small, sandy beach where the bathing machines are lined up, awaiting an influx of visitors.” (p18)
Now Lyme Regis is famous for a few things, such as its 700 year old working water mill, its picturesque harbor and the bizarre ‘sport’ of conger cuddling (you’ll have to follow the link and read about it for yourself, it’s far too complicated to explain, suffice to say it has been described as the “most fun a person could have with a dead fish”!!)
But the most celebrated aspect of this tiny seaside resort is its geology. The coastline is inundated with fossils (and no, I’m not referring to those in their autumn years who fancy a whirl along the seafront in their high-tech mobility scooters – I wouldn’t be so rude!).
Part of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, it is not unusual, even today, to find fossils that are more than, oh you know, around 100 million years old. And amazingly, you don’t have to be an expert to head down to the beach with your trusty hammer and do a bit of fossilising for yourself – it’s open to all. There were certainly plenty of people having a go on the day we visited.
If you look closely at this rock, you can see an impression of what I’m guessing is an ammonite fossil – not an unusual sight if you stop and have a look around. Please note: I am geologically-challenged, so if I can notice this, anyone can!
Impression of a fossil in a rock at Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
She sells sea shells…
But back to Mary Anning – the feisty, tenacious, real-life heroine of Chevalier’s book.
Painting of Mary Anning – Image courtsey of Wikimedia Commons
Born in Lyme in 1799, by the time she was a teenager Mary had survived a lightning strike, grieved for her dead father – who inspired her love of fossil-hunting – and made one of the world’s most significant scientific discoveries of all time. Not bad going for a 12 year old!
Mary and her brother Joseph had always contributed to their family’s meagre income, helping their father Richard look for “curies” or fossils, and selling them to tourists from their “shop”, a humble table outside their home. But Mary was just 11 when Richard Anning died of consumption, leaving the family in debt, and she stepped up her fossiling efforts to help make ends meet. She was soon rewarded when she and Joseph unearthed the world’s first complete ichthyosaur skeleton – a dolphin-like marine reptile, the existence of which raised significant questions about the history of living things at the time. If, like me, you can’t even pronounce ichthyosaur let alone imagine one – this two minute BBC story will help!
To give you an idea of scale, these creatures grew up to nine meters in length – just the skull that Joseph and Mary found was two meters long.
Drawing of the Ichthyosaur skull found by Joseph and Mary Anning
Image courtesy of Philisophical Transactions of the Royal Society 1814 via Wikimedia Commons
Mary spent her life scouring the cliffs of Lyme Regis and went on to make other discoveries that cemented her skill in a world that had little place for her. She was an uneducated, working-class woman mixing in the middle-class, scientific world. Despite the significance of her finds, her intelligence and self-taught proficiency in palaeontology, she had to battle to receive any of the credit she deserved and was not allowed to enter the hallowed halls of the male-only Geological Society of London.
There is so much to love about this book. Anning is a fabulous character, who we meet through amateur fossil hunter Elizabeth Philpot, a London spinster who befriends the spirited Mary when she is a child. Elizabeth and Mary are outsiders, early 19th century Britain seeing little to admire in single women chiselling away at the cliffs (a dangerous pastime we discover), destroying their nails and ruining their reputations by remaining unchaperoned for hours at a time. The book charts the waters of their friendship, alongside Mary’s incredible discoveries and passion, and reveals much about the era’s class and social mores.
And by the way, Mary is said to be the inspiration for the tongue-twister ‘She sells sea-shells by the sea shore”. After reading this novel, you will realise she does quite a bit more than that!
Impressive ammonite fossil in the Lyme Regis Museum – Image by Suzi Butcher
One of the aspects of the novel I found most revealing was the attitude to science at the time. While there is a strong fascination by it, most people appeared to be terrified by any threats to their creationist beliefs. When Mary finds the ichthyosaur skeleton she calls it a ‘crocodile’, and so do most others, the possibility of it being a now extinct creature too much for most to handle. Why would God create a creature and then let it die out?
Even Elizabeth struggles with the concept.
This idea was too radical for most to contemplate. Even I, who considered myself open-minded was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all the animals He created. if He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us? Were we going to die out too? Looking at that skull with its huge, ringed eyes, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff…
Lord Henley scuffed his boots on the floor.
“It’s simple, Miss Philpot. This is one of God’s early models, and He decided to give the subsequent ones smaller eyes.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Do you mean God rejected it?”
“I mean God wanted a better version – the crocodile we know now – and replaced it.”
I had never heard of such a thing. (p98-103)
Mary too tries to reconcile what she’s finding with her beliefs.
“Sir,” I said, “is this one of the creatures Noah brought on his ark?”
Mr Buckland looked startled.
“Well, now, Mary, why do you ask that?”…
“It’s snout is long and pointed like a dolphin’s, while a croc’s is blunt. And it’s got paddles instead of claws, and they’re turned outward rather than forward the way a croc’s legs are. And of course that big eye. No crocodile has eyes like that…and it made me wonder: if this ain’t a crocodile, which Noah would’ve had on the ark, then what is it? Did God make something that was on the ark we don’t know about?” (p152-153)
As you can imagine, this doesn’t endear our female fossil-hunters to the local population.
Thankfully times have changed and Lyme Regis now embraces Mary with the massive bear-hug she deserves.
Visit Mary’s house
“This need to put things in order led me to Richard Anning’s cellar workshop in Cockmoile Square at the bottom of the town. Square is far too grand a word for the tiny open space about the size of a good family’s drawing room…(it) was made up of shabby houses where tradesmen lived and worked…I should soon have been drawn there anyway, if only to compare my fossils to those at the table young Mary Anning tended outside the workshop.” (Elizabeth – p26)
The Lyme Regis Museum – site of Mary Anning’s home – Image by Suzi Butcher
Well, this is not the exact house (unfortunately that didn’t survive the passing of time), but the Lyme Regis Museum is built on the very spot where the house once was, in Cockmoile Square.
When in the novel Mary says her house backed onto the sea “so as soon as I could walk I’d be out there upon the rocks” (p59), she’s not kidding. The museum is extremely close to the water and it is easy to believe comments from Anning biographer Shelley Emling that “the family lived so close to the sea that the same storms that swept along the cliffs to reveal the fossils sometimes flooded the Annings’ home, on one occasion forcing them to crawl out of an upstairs bedroom window to avoid being drowned.”
The museum holds a load of stunning fossils, as well as lots of memorabilia related to the early palaeontologists. I couldn’t find the hammer that Mary’s father made for her (perhaps it was on loan to another institution), so I am looking forward to returning in 2017 when the museum hopes to have opened a planned ‘Mary Anning’ wing, which will see its Anning collection all in one place.
There is however a copy of the famous ichthyosaur skull that Joseph and Mary found, giving you an idea of just how big it was. You can see the original in the Natural History Museum in London.
And if you time it right you may be be in Lyme on a day when the museum runs one of its Mary Anning walks – I was not so lucky! Better planning required next time! You can also try Literary Lyme for Anning (and other literary) walking tours.
If you have six and a half minutes I urge you to have a look at the museum’s lovely video presented by Chevalier about the passion for fossil hunting in Lyme.
The hunting grounds
“East past the Annings’ house, at the end of Gun Cliff, the shore bends sharply to the left so the beach is out of sight of the town…Both Church Cliffs and Black Ven hold many fossils, gradually releasing them over time onto the shoreline below. That was where Mary found many of her finest specimens. It was also where we experienced some of our greatest dramas.” – Elizabeth (p38-39)
Walking out to Church Cliffs, Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
It’s amazing walking out to the beach where Mary practically spent all her waking hours, and contemplating the blind-blowing amount of history embedded in those cliffs. I have no real concept of 100 million years!
Promenade along the Cobb
“The other Lyme, at the west end of the beach, doesn’t shut, but embraces the sea. It is dominated by the Cobb, a long grey stone wall that curves like a finger out into the water and shelters the shore, creating a tranquil harbour for the fishing boats and the trading ships that come from all over. The Cobb is several feet high, and wide enough for three to walk along arm in arm, which many visitors do, for it gives a fine view back to the town and the dramatic shoreline beyond of rolling hills and cliffs in great, grey and brown.” – Elizabeth (p19)
The Cobb, Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
I loved The Cobb!! I love that there are still places you can walk where you feel that a wrong step could send you tumbling into the sea. Your heart takes a little lurch as the waves pummel the sloping stone beneath your feet, and you imagine how many people have walked those same steps before you.
And here’s the view back to town that Elizabeth talks about.
An Early Grave
I’m glad we get to know Mary from such a young age in Chevalier’s book, because she only lived until she was 47, dying of breast cancer in 1847. Though to be fair, it’s a miracle she didn’t die earlier, given the danger she put herself in. Collecting fossils after storms when the cliffs are at their most vulnerable to landslides (but also when they expose their greatest treasures) is a big risk, and Anning came close to losing her life in 1833 during a landslide which buried her faithful dog Tray.
After reading Remarkable Creatures I felt I knew Mary so well, I was keen to go and visit her in her final resting place at St. Michael’s church on a hill near to the sea. Her grave, where she is buried with her brother Joseph, is one of the first you see as you walk up the path approaching the building.
Grave of Joseph and Mary Anning – Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
Even after all this time, people take the time to put flowers and fossils at the base of Mary’s grave. Fabulous!
Flowers at the base of Mary Anning’s grave – Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
Unfortunately I wasn’t aware the church had a stained glass window dedicated to Mary (and funded at least in part by members of the Geological Society) which was unveiled in 1850, so I will have to have a look at that on my next visit. Actually the Geological Society eventually made quite a few amends for their early mistreatment of her, including raising money to help with her expenses when they learned of her illness. In 2010, 163 years after her death, Anning was listed as one of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science, and in 2014 she received perhaps one of the greatest honors of the modern age – a google doodle!
Reading Remarkable Creatures reminds you of all the people of passion who live (and have lived) in our world. Chevalier celebrates a woman who had a gift for science, and stubbornly ignored all the barriers put in her way. Lyme Regis may be famous for its fossils (so famous they shape their lamp posts like ammonites), but it is Mary (and Elizabeth) who bring it to life for me, as I embrace the sea spray on the Cobb and hear young children shriek with excitement when they too unearth a ‘curie’ on the beach. Whether you intend to visit Lyme in the next few months, or can only make the journey on the fiction train, pick up this novel for your own fossil adventure.
Lyme Regis lamp posts – Image by Suzi Butcher
After reading it, do not be surprised if you are overcome with desire to wander along the beaches of Lyme Regis yourself. And might I say, not only will you get to saunter the coast à la Mary Anning (and impress your friends with your knowledge of fossils) you will have the opportunity to buy the best value and biggest cone of hot chips from a seaside van known to man. Sorry guys – my hands were far too full to take a picture, you’ll have to take my word for it!
Lyme Regis is a four hour drive from London, but if you have the time to be exploring the countryside on a trip to the UK, then it deserves a spot on your itinerary. Here are some more things you can do (and read) while in the area.
In the meantime, get yeself a fossil hammer and I’ll see you on the beach,
P.P.P.S I have to stop writing now. This is a very long post!