"Mary Anning and the magic of Lyme" Top 5 Page for this destination Lyme Regis by CatherineReichardt

Lyme Regis Travel Guide: 46 reviews and 108 photos

Lyme Regis is a very special place for me, as it is the very first place of which I have proper memory. I would have been about three, and was on holiday with my parents and baby brother. We were staying with my uncle's mother-in-law, whom I adored and regarded as my honorary grandmother: she rejoiced in the splendid name of Granny Rattenbury, which is the sort of honest yeoman surname that you think you'll only find in Thomas Hardy novels.

I recall walking with my Dad and Mum (who was probably pregnant with my sister at the time) pushing my brother in his pushchair along the steep, narrow lanes of Lyme. The walls bordering the lane seemed very high to a small child, and I remember little ferns growing out from chinks between the dry stone walling. On our way home, I was given some money to spend in the local sweet shop, and bought everyone a pink fondant shrimp which I carefully arranged on each plate. All these years later, I can still remember how proud I felt at being able to make my own contribution to the meal.

Fast forward over 40 years, and I found myself returning with my husband and small children to this town that I had held in such affection. In the intervening period, I had acquired a geology degree and married an enthusiastic amateur paleontologist, so Lyme Regis, home to my personal heroine, the trailblazing Mary Anning and celebrated for its extraordinary fossil heritage was a magnet for us.

It is difficult to explain how influential a figure Mary Anning was in the development of paleontology and in Victorian society in general. She was a woman of humble origins with a poor education and a strong Dorset accent, and would seem to have been an unlikely candidate to be cultivated by the rich and famous (including crowned heads of Europe). However, her flair for fossil hunting (and canny ability to market her finds) allowed her to excavate the earliest fossils of marine reptiles - including plesiosaurs and icthyosaurs - which were staggering in their completeness and made a major contribution to the burgeoning science of paleontology.

In many ways, Mary's unsual and difficult life presaged the challenges that would face the generations of increasingly career-oriented women who would come after her. Despite her fame and celebrity, she was always an outsider, sought out for her knowledge, yet treated as a curiosity by her social betters and shunned by her own class as a misfit. She never married, and despite the huge significance of her finds, she was treated with great disdain by many of the scientific fraternity, who were jealous of her amazing success and deeply suspicious of a woman who dared to live outside the norms of Victorian society.

The highlight of our time in Lyme was when we took Small Daughter (then just under 4) and our baby son fossicking on the neighbouring beach at Charmouth, just up the coast. She was the only one of us to find a fossil and I can still see her eager little face alight with excitement and pride as she held her tiny ammonites aloft. Despite the indifferent weather, that day on the beach at Charmouth was one of the most magical days I can remember us ever having on holiday and makes me smile every time I think about it.

And on a topic completely unrelated to paleontology, I am reliably informed that 45% of Lyme's residents are retirees ...

Fossils aside, Lyme has a long and illustrious history. The port of Lyme is mentioned in the Domesday book (William the Conqueror's 1086 inventory to catalogue the exact contents of the kingdom that he had usurped), and was granted a Royal Charter by Edward I in 1284, which entitled it to add 'Regis' to the town's name - somehow this 'Regis' thing seems to worked for Lyme in a way that it never quite seems to have for poor cousin Bognor. In addition to its port, it has long been a genteel holiday destination for the rich and famous, who enjoy its lovely setting, picturesque, winding streets and mild (for Britain) climate.

Lyme developed into a significant port, protected by a harbour wall known as The Cobb, which has been destroyed and rebuilt on many occasions over the centuries during extreme storms. The Cobb protrudes out a considerable distance to sea from the coast and seems to have been the forebear of that peculiarly British seaside attraction, the pier. Promenading along The Cobb has been a favourite pastime for Lyme's tourists since at least the 1700s, and provides the setting for a pivotal scene in Jane Austen's novel Persuasion. The more superannuated amoung us may recall that it also featured in the moody 80s classic movie, The French Lieutenant's Woman, with Meryl Streep seeming to spend an inordinate amount of time hanging around on The Cobb in bad weather looking pained. Despite being wildly popular at the time, I have to say that the movie unfortunately never made much of an impression on me - I am probably a deeply shallow person as the first time that I actually liked Meryl Streep in a movie was when I saw her in Mamma Mia! Clearly I have spent far too much time in Australia ....!!!

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Wonderful history and a sense of what British seaside towns used to be like
  • Cons:The streets are narrow and the crowds can be oppressive in summer
  • In a nutshell:Visit Lyme out of season and you'll feel yourself transported back into a more genteel age!
  • Last visit to Lyme Regis: Sep 2007
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (4)

Comments (7)

  • johngayton's Profile Photo
    Dec 28, 2014 at 4:22 PM

    I wish I had more time for browsing here on VT Cathy. Another entertaining page about a place I love. Couldn't find the pub tips though ;-HIC!

  • isolatedpawn's Profile Photo
    Aug 15, 2013 at 7:26 PM

    nice article.I thought I was there!

  • CDM7's Profile Photo
    Aug 15, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    You obviously have some great memories in Lyme Regis!

    • CatherineReichardt's Profile Photo
      Aug 15, 2013 at 11:50 AM

      Ha!!!! No, the ones I was referring to earlier predate these by a good 45+ years! But both are good! :)

  • uglyscot's Profile Photo
    Jun 9, 2012 at 3:55 AM

    A wonderful tip . Having done Geology for a year at University, I have never lost my interest in palaentology, rocks and minerals. I bought a book about Mary Anning and was fascinated by her story, so this tip has rung several bells for me. Thank you.

  • angiebabe's Profile Photo
    Nov 23, 2011 at 2:19 AM

    never heard of Mary Anning and really enjoyed your page enlightening me on her....Im a great fan of Florence Nightingale and the tremendous courage and strength to continue on through what society deems as abnormal or strange! Really enjoyed the photography in churches tip thanks and the chuckles I got from it...agree visiting churches and synagogues around Europe has been such a big part of my travel as well and often being put on the spot how to get that photo...

  • TheWanderingCamel's Profile Photo
    Apr 1, 2011 at 9:39 AM

    Nice to meet another Mary Anning fan. Have you read "Remarkable Creatures"? I'm sending you a Youtube link I think you'll enjoy.

  • evaanna's Profile Photo
    Feb 27, 2011 at 10:27 PM

    Fascinating page! Had never heard of Mary Anning before and in fact first came to read your page, hoping to find something about John Fowles, whose books I truly admire.


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