By Kirsti Scott
Visitors come to the English Channel coast of southern England to wander through some of the UK’s most beautiful towns, enjoy calm harbors known for watersports, sailing, and fishing, or even visit the interior to admire castles, abbeys, and stately manors, some of which have been featured in movies and on television. But Brandon Lennon heads to the rough and rugged coastline in Charmouth to scour the beach covered with fossil-filled rocks.
Brandon is a professional fossil collector, and he lives on the UNESCO-listed Jurassic Coast and searches for treasures in the debris, in this case fossils preserved in the rocks that have fallen from the cliffs onto the beach. The rocks here are filled with the fossilized remains of animals and plants that lived 190 million years ago. The ocean washes the fossils out of the softer rock, where they can be found at low tide on the beach, or just below the tideline if you’re willing to dive into the chilly waters.
“I have been fossil collecting for more than 40 years, since the age of 7,” says Brandon. “I have always collected at Lyme Regis—mainly for ammonites—and I also snorkel for ammonites, Ichthyosaur back bones, and belemnite fossils.”
Some of Brandon’s favorite finds (above) are male Promicroceras sp. ammonites preserved in “fools gold,” an ichthyosaur jaw with teeth, a rock filled with ammonite fossils, and two record-breaking giant ammonite fossils.
“I collect a lot of beach glass as well as there is an old Victorian bottle dump east of Lyme Regis that is washing away into the sea,” Brandon adds. A 2008 landslide east of Lyme Regis washed 3/4-million tons of debris on the beach, including the remains of the bottle dump.
Brandon leads fossil walks on his favorite beaches, teaches about geology in local schools, and sells his fossils online. On his Instagram page @lymeregisfossils he shares the excitement and beauty of his fossil finds with his more than 30,000 followers. Beaches in the Lyme Regis area are prime fossil-hunting territory, first made famous by Mary Anning, a 19th-century paleontologist from Lyme Regis.
“Mary Anning was one of the greatest British fossil collectors who has ever lived,” says Brandon “She was born in very humble circumstances in Lyme Regis, Dorset, and at the age of twelve she found the first recorded ichthyosaur at Lyme Regis, and in later years found the first near complete plesiosaur and the first British specimen of a flying reptile, Dimorphodon.” Mary Anning became famous throughout the English scientific world for her “curiosities,” which is what she called the fossils she found. “The tongue twister ‘She Sells Sea Shells by the Seashore’ is actually written about Mary, and the sea shells were fossil sea shells she found!”
Mary Anning is having “a moment” right now. A group in Dorset is rallying for a statue in her honor. The group, called Mary Anning Rocks, is working to honor her achievements with a permanent monument for Mary in Lyme Regis. The idea first came from Evie Swire, an 11-year-old fossil fan who asked her mother, “Why isn’t there a statue to Mary, mummy?” The group has gained national support and international attention for its project, even attracting the support of English broadcaster and natural historian, Sir David Attenborough.
British filmmaker Francis Lee is currently gearing up for a story on Mary Anning, with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan set to star in his historical drama titled Ammonite. And, Anning has been nominated to appear on the new £50 note, which will feature someone who has contributed to science in the UK. We think Mary Anning will fit the bill nicely.
Fossil hunters from this century continue to flock to Lyme Regis to carry on Mary Anning’s work from the 19th century—making a connection to hundreds of thousands of centuries ago.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2019 issue.