So I finally made it back to the seaside. To a lovely town called Lyme Regis, which beat Dorchester in my search for literary locations. Not that I don’t like Thomas Hardy, but Jane Austen is always a good bet and in this respect it was plainly the attribute „seaside“ which was the decisive factor in the choice. And it was a good choice, because Lyme turned out to be the absolute highlight of my journey.
Before I elaborate on Lyme though let me tell you about the trip it took to get there. That indeed surpassed anything that I had seen as far as beautiful English landscapes were concerned, and I had already thought I’d seen the best of them. Lyme Regis is about 60 miles south of Bath. I took the train to Dorchester, from there the bus and found myself traveling fairytale country! Riding through a scenery that could best be described as a true rendering of Tolkien’s Shire (even if Tolkien seemed to have been inspired by landscapes farther to the north): rolling hills, green pastures blotted with white cotton balls, that turned out to be peacefully grazing sheep, tiny stone churches and secluded cottages with thatched roofs. I wouldn’t have been surprised had I seen unicorns galloping the meadows, or hobbits tending to the beautifully kept gardens. At last the many shades of green were contrasted by the deep blue of the approaching sea and the bus stopped short in Lyme Regis.
I had found a pretty B&B with a most welcoming host only steps from the beach and just minutes after I had arrived my first excursion led me to the beach. It was owing to Jane Austen and her book Persuasion, again, that I had become aware of Lyme in the first place. One of the characters in her book, Louisa Musgrove, fell, or I should say stupidly jumped, from a well known structure that’s called the Cobb, an incident which led poet Tennyson to demand „Show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell!“ when he visited the town. On this point I don’t differ much from Tennyson and with Persuasion being my favorite book by Austen I knew I should very much like to see Lyme. And so I did.
Lyme Regis is a beautiful little town on the southern coast of England, a tiny village, whose houses smoothly nestle against the bay. When you start out from where the buses stop, on Bridge Street, which forms the center of Lyme, you can either head east and explore the fortifications that protected the town from invasions from the sea (during 1588 Lyme Regis sent its own ships to meet the Spanish Armada, the battle could be watched from the coast) or you can stroll to the west along the Marine Parade, which will take you to the harbor and eventually to the aforementioned Cobb – a stone structure, first documented in the 13th century that impressively bends towards the sometimes quite rough waters of the English channel and thus protects Lyme harbor.
My first day in Lyme Regis was overcast and after a short walk around the town, the obligatory inspection of the spot where Louisa Musgrove fell and a stroll along the beach, I chose to explore some of the pubs. I first found myself at the Cobb Arms, a pub/restaurant/bedandbreakfast, where I treated myself to a small portion of chips, which, as I had by now learned, usually turns out to be an enormous heap of the calorie intense dish anyway. Additionally the Cobb Arms offers an impressive choice of ales, which by this time I had devoped a great fondness for. Later on I ventured to a place called Nags Head Inn, where they had live music that night. In this regard and as a foreigner traveling England I have to advise fellow travelers to not make the mistake and hide in their chosen accommodation. In an English pub you will always find someone to talk to, throughout my entire trip the English have proven to be most charming hosts…I got home late that night.
The next day I awoke to blue skies and bright shining sun and after a hearty breakfast, my first path led me to the beach. My agenda for the day included one pre-planned excursion, a venture which I had chosen, not only because it neatly fit with my current reading of Charles Darwin’s „Voyage on the Beagle“ and I was looking for a diversion to the regular touristy undertakings, but also because I had decided not to join the notoriously lobster-colored British sun-worshippers, who are reknowned around the world for stubbornly disregarding their celtic skins’ intolerance to UV radiation and who had already crowded Lyme’s beaches the day before. Instead, I planned to attend one of the fossil walks that were offered in town. Owing to my own academic pursuits, the trials and tribulations that have to be endured in order to secure a PhD, I opted for the one guided by a certain Dr. Colin Dawes. Fossil walks around Lyme are quite popular and one has to know (or will find out when they enter the local tourist information, like I did), that the coast around Lyme is made up of Jurrasic rock, which is rich with fossil remains that can be found on the beaches in the area. In this regard I find it most important to mention that it was a woman, who pioneered the endeavours in the sciences that surround the study of prehistoric life. It was Mary Anning (1799 – 1847), who was just 12 years old when she discovered the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur in the area and who subsequently contributed enormously to the then young field of paleontology.
First off though I ventured to the beach, where to my delight I found myself almost blinded by the sea, which boasted a turquois blue that I would have thought was unique to the Caribbean and which forced me to instantaneously sit down in one of the beach cafès and waste an entire hour and a half on „gazing at the sea“. Time, I find, which is spent much to easily when I’m at the seaside, because it is in itself a pleasure and one need not find any other distractions in order to pass the days. Ramble along the beach, stick your feet in the water, or head back to the Cobb and stroll along like Jane Austen or her Persuasion characters – watch out not to fall like Ms. Musgrove – and move on back to the harbor, where you might want to get yourself a crab sandwich like I did. And all of a sudden, just like me, you might realize, that the taste of that sandwich most perfectly harmonizes with the smell of the sea, which you love so much and which, however hard it is to describe, you’ll instantly recognize anywhere you encounter it. You might then notice, just like I did, that the fresh crab-filling of that sandwich is the perfect synesthesia, that all of a sudden you’re able not only to smell the odor of the sea, but taste it on your palate as well and when after this quasi-psychedelic experience you slowly come to, you’ll realize, just like I did: Goodness, it’s almost 1 pm, my fossil walk starts soon!
Only a little while later I found myself joining Dr. Dawes fossil excursion. Actually he calls them fossil hunts, rightly so, because Dr. Dawes, who amiably introduced himself as Colin, is somebody who, with all due respect, would rightfully qualify as a hybrid between a fossil and Indiana Jones. And who, in every respect, is an extensively knowlegeable, most friendly, tour guide and fossil hunter. So we were off, a group of about 10 people, children included, to which Dr. Dawes proved a most attentive teacher, and for the next two hours we rambled along Lyme’s beaches, hunting for our own fossils, having a great time. During these two hours we learned that it is Jurassic beef we should be looking for, rocks, that when they’re split, display an almost beef-like structure – hence the name – and which most often contain fossilized animals. Or we would find out, where on Lyme’s beaches one can find the „Graveyard of Ammonites“ and that the curious shape of fossilized oysters cause them to be called Devil’s Toenails. Finally we headed home, every single hunter happy about having secured their own fossil, even the Dr. himself delighted, because he had found a part of the backbone of an ichthyosaur.
This way time flies by, already it was the afternoon of my last day in Lyme Regis. And so much yet to be seen! You might for example want to stroll along Sherborne Road, one of the oldest roads in Lyme, where each little cottage carries its own whimsical name, displayed on a neat nametag next to the entrance. Or you might like to explore the Long Entry, a lane where the author Henry Fielding (1707 – 1754) botched an attempt to abduct a young lady, an experience which he later incorporated in his famous novel „Tom Jones“. The renowned painter James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) lived in Lyme Regis for a while and, among others, painted the portrait „Little Rose of Lyme Regis“. The author John Fowles (1926 – 2005) wrote the novel „The French Lieutenant’s Woman “ here, which was filmed on location with Meryl Streep in 1981. You may want to wander from Monmouth Street to St. Michael’s Church, walk across the serene churchyard, where Mary Anning lies buried, and head out to a hill high above the English channel. There you’ll find a few lonely benches, where you can seat yourself and enjoy a great view of sea.
Plenty more places to see in Lyme Regis, but time was limited. A bite to eat at the Harbor Inn; one last pint of ale; one more glimpse of the sea and I admit, I felt my heart slightly aching, knowing I had to leave Lyme the next morning.
Last stop: Winchester
Travel to Lyme from London: By train to Dorchester (the ride takes about 2.5 hours) and then by bus to Lyme. You can also take the bus from London to Dorchester, that is considerably cheaper, but it takes longer.
All useful information on Lmye Regis can be found on Lyme’s official homepage. I found my accommodation by referral from another B&B, my most generous host prefers to find guests this way, which is why I won’t mention her address. Plenty of other accommodation though, can be found in all categories throughout town. Be advised that Lyme Regis can be very busy during the summer season, which is why I would recommend a visit during the off-season, at best during the week, if you prefer solitude, as the natives tell me, Lyme is deserted in winter. More information on the town and its sights can be found on Wikipedia.
There are plenty of Restaurants, Cafés and other places where you can grab a bite to eat in Lyme, especially on Broad Street and at the harbor. For seafood I can recommend the Harbor Inn and the Royal Standard. Outstanding crab sandwiches can be found at The Lyme Bay Sandwich Company (at the harbor)
Information on Dr. Colin Dawes’ fossil hunts can be found here. From June until September tours take place on Sundays at 1 pm, during the holidays extra tours are added on Wednesdays, no reservation necessary. I advise you to wear reasonable shoes (no flip-flops), bring a hat (the sun can be relentless on the beach) and adequate clothes (the wind can get quite chilly even during the warm months).
Susanne, 13 August 2009
ps: By the way, just in case you care to know, this is the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell…supposedly.