Photo: Kalpana Sunder
Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Playing palaeontologist along the Jurassic Coast

Fossils, beaches and morethis beautiful stretch of the English coast is a sight to see (and a grand geology lesson for those interested)

I have the perfect cure for jet lag... Step out into the invigorating sea breeze, and climb a steep cliff or two. Especially in a place that is elemental, where in epochs past landmasses crashed into each other and gargantuan prehistoric reptiles roamed the earth.

That’s what I am doing less than eight hours after getting off a plane. My brother has booked a weekend in Devon to escape crowded London, and it turns out to be an active, adventurous one. I realize that as good as my geography is, I have never heard of the wind-swept Jurassic Coast, a fossil-rich, 95-mile stretch of coastline from Devon to Dorset. It became England’s first natural World Heritage Site in 2001. 

According to the Royal Geographical Society, “It’s the only place on earth where 185 million years of geological history are sequentially exposed in cliffs, coves, coastal stacks and barrier beaches." 

The rocks don’t just date from the Jurassic period—they span the older Triassic and younger Cretaceous geological periods too. The unique thing about the Jurassic Coast is it’s an area where the earth’s crust has tipped over, raising and exposing ancient layers of rock above sea level. This coast could well be dubbed the birthplace of modern palaeontology. 

It all began when a local girl, 12-year-old Mary Anning, was exploring a beach with her brother Joseph in Lyme Regis, Dorset, sometime in the early 19th century. She discovered the fossilized remains of a 17-foot-long creature with a skull like a porpoise, named ichthyosaurus (or fish lizard). 

Her family was paid a few shillings for the fins; she grew up to be a fossil collector and in December 1823, found the first complete Plesiosaurus. Her findings significantly influenced scientific theories about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

Cliff walks and pub lunches 

We start from Hampstead in central London, driving south towards Exeter for about three hours, past windswept seascapes and twisting trees. Small towns with church steeples rising high go past till we reach a small village called Langford near Cullompton in Devon.

It’s May and we have booked a charming Airbnb accommodation—a rustic cottage called Honeysuckle Hideaway, with a view of the green fields and a fishing pond. 

Our first port of call on the coast is Sidmouth, a classic Regency resort town and the gateway to the Jurassic Coast. Once the haunt of smugglers, today it has a buzzing esplanade, lined with cafes serving local seafood, ice cream shops and hotels with terraces bedecked with hanging flowers in baskets. Dogs swim in the shallow waters, children build sand castles and walk along pebble beaches looking for shrimps in rock pools. 

Sidmouth has been a favourite setting for books and movies—from Beatrix Potter to Agatha Christie—because of its promenade and typical resort town feel.

The town, which lies at the mouth of the River Sid in a valley between two hills, has vibrant red cliffs from the Triassic geological period on both sides. The rocks are red because they were formed in a hot, dry desert 240 million years ago. 

Some of the rare reptile fossils and amphibian bones that have been found on the beaches over the years are on display at the Sidmouth Museum on Church Street. 

We stroll down Clifton Walkway for about half a mile under the towering red cliffs, watching children perform gravity-defying stone-balancing acts on the beach, and then onwards to Jacob’s Ladder, a shingle and sand beach with beach huts.

From here we drive along the coast to the picturesque village of Branscombe between two steep-sided valleys, dotted with thatched cottages with hanging baskets of roses and climbing vines. We visit an old fashioned forge dating back to 1580, where ploughs, fishing hooks, axe heads and horseshoes were made in the past. 

Today, an award-winning master blacksmith still makes beautiful works of art—from metal flowers to railings to wall hangings—watched by curious tourists.

To explore this living geology lesson, we start walking along the South West Coastal Path, zigzagging through Norfolk pines, kissing gates and stiles, as the landscape morphs from the red cliffs of Branscombe to the chalky white cliffs of Beer (the name has nothing to do with liquor; it’s an old English word meaning “a small wood"). 

We huff and puff our way uphill, as butterflies buzz over fields of wildflowers and bluebells and peregrine falcons wheel over our heads. The knee-busting climb to Hooken Cliff is worth it—at the top, we are rewarded with a panoramic sweep of the Branscombe Beach and the rest of the Jurassic Coast. The walk from Branscombe to Beer is 2.6 miles—the vertical ascent is steep—and your knees have to be in good shape.

We descend through an undulating path with cows grazing in a patchwork quilt of emerald green pastures, to the picture-postcard fishing village of Beer. Besides its steep main street lined with thatched cottages and town houses, and a natural stream running alongside, it has a harbour that’s a natural cove. A shingle beach lies below towering white chalk cliffs with dark lines of flint.

I think of the distant past when the exoskeletons of sea creatures sank to the sea floor and evolved into chalk. During the New Stone Age, Neolithic man used flint from Beer to make his tools.

A lazy pace characterizes this village, where locals tend vegetable gardens in small plots and beer gardens serving local ales and ciders overflow with hikers. 

After a hearty pub lunch of organic quinoa burgers (Editor’s note: How dare you?!) and beer at the Anchor Inn on the main street, we make our way back to Branscombe, taking an alternative route through the Hooken Undercliff Path, a tract of land below towering chalk pinnacles. 

This chasm was created when a dramatic landslide in 1790 caused part of the cliff to break away. We walk on the meandering path, shaded by lush vine-covered trees, passing velvety carpets of yellow buttercups, with the soundtrack of gulls in the air, enjoying tantalizing glimpses of the ocean. 

When we finally descend to Branscombe Mouth, we stop at the Sea Shanty, a small stall, for a spot of the iconic Devonshire cream tea with cake.

Meryl Streep’s stomping ground

Our last stop of the day is the touristy seaside town of Lyme Regis—with its pastel washed cottages—which has strong literary associations. Jane Austen set some of her novels here. 

In 1968, the seaside town became home to the author John Fowles, who set much of his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman here, which later became a Hollywood hit starring Meryl Streep. 

Monmouth Beach, with its line of wooden beach huts where families sit in deck chairs and children have their evening snack after a day of fossil hunting, gets its name from the Duke of Monmouth. The duke landed here in 1685 in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow King James II. 

Further away is the “ammonite graveyard", where during low tide you can see a limestone ledge embedded with hundreds of fossilized ammonites—extinct marine molluscs. 

Near the beach is the ancient stone harbour called the Cobb, crowded with a sea of dinghies and tiny fishing boats. We watch the brilliant sunset turning the beach a burnished brown while sitting on the pebbly beach. 

Doors, coves and fossil hunting

The next day, we drive further south towards the coast for almost two hours to the stunning Unesco World Heritage Site Durdle Door, one of the most visited attractions on the Jurassic Coast, with approximately 500,000 visitors a year.

It’s a natural limestone arch near Lulworth in Dorset sculpted by nature, which is more than 140 million years old. “Durdle" comes from the old English word for “drill".

From the Lulworth Cove car park, we walk with many other tourists under a light drizzle and mist—temperamental English weather at its best. Huddled in my windcheater, I stand on the edge of the vertiginous cliff and peer over the abyss, entranced.

The arch, poised between two stretches of beach, has had its innards sculpted away by sea erosion, while the hard Portland limestone forms a small headland. 

We walk along a path trodden by people since the Stone Age, looking down at Lulworth Cove. It’s a perfectly horseshoe-shaped natural bay of turquoise, formed by the eroding of soft clay. To the east of this cove is the fossilized forest—the petrified remains of an ancient swamp, pock-marked with algae and lichen. 

In spite of boards warning against climbing the arch, because of its fragile ecology with nesting birds, I see reckless teenagers clambering up and jumping into the sea. Far away, there are coloured rafts being steered expertly in the choppy waters. I walk on the path dotted with wildflowers as butterflies, rooks and ravens fly overhead. Fossils, ammonites and belemnites (ancient shrimp) are regularly found along this stretch. 

Our last stop on the Jurassic Coast, and probably the most interesting, is Charmouth Beach. “Everyone is free to collect fossils from loose rocks on the beach," explains the guide at the heritage centre. “But if you find something special, please show it to us," she says with a smile.

This is the place to unleash your inner palaeontologist and try fossil hunting. The law allows you to collect what’s on the beach but not to dig into the cliffs. At the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, there is a life-size cast of the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in the UK—a plant-eater called Scelidosaurus. 

We walk under an umbrella, looking at the amateur fossil hunters who haunt the beach, hammers in hand. I see men in galoshes walk across algae-covered rocks, breaking small rocks with pickaxes, children with miner’s glasses and tiny hammers chipping away like intrepid explorers. I see a small girl holding a small rock in excitement—it’s a prized shiny, snail-like ammonite shell, which curls like a ram’s horns. 

Imagine touching something that is a piece of the ancient world, 200 million years old. I feel as excited as that little girl.

Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer and Japanese language specialist who believes in serendipity and the power of a hug.

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