In­spired by a sea-shell seller


I was eight when I read the story of Mary An­ning, the “she” of She sells sea shells by the sea shore tongue-twis­ter fame.

The early 19th-cen­tury girl dis­cov­ered a com­plete fos­silised ichthyosaur skele­ton on the beach at Lyme Regis in Dorset, turn­ing the Bri­tish sci­en­tific es­tab­lish­ment on its head. I was trans­fixed — imag­ine find­ing such a thing! And at 11 years old and with only Sun­day school ed­u­ca­tion, she un­der­stood its sig­nif­i­cance.

Un­til An­ning’s dis­cov­ery, the pre­vail­ing bib­li­cal be­lief put the age of the world at 6000 years. She went on to find many more sig­nif­i­cant fos­sils and contributed enor­mously to the un­der­stand­ing of nat­u­ral his­tory, but she was never al­lowed to join the Royal So­ci­ety.

I found the story ter­ri­bly sad as well as wildly ex­cit­ing; I was hooked on palaeon­tol­ogy. As a child I read ev­ery­thing I could find on the sub­ject and dreamed of bones and im­prints. But life has a habit of di­rect­ing one else­where. I never got that de­gree and the only fos­sils I saw had been found by oth­ers and dis­played be­hind glass.

So when we be­gan plan­ning a trip to Europe, Lyme Regis was on the not-to-be-missed list. In the mid­dle of win­ter, the beach was crawl­ing with fos­sil fos­sick­ers. Dogs sniffed and splashed and the kids were fas­ci­nated we’d come from the other side of the world to their beach.

We found three small, fos­silised am­monites (long-extinct mol­luscs) worn smooth by waves across the mil­len­nia. Some­one had cracked open a lump of soft shale to re­veal a per­fect im­print of a long-dead marine crea­ture. It was too soft to move, but breath­tak­ing to see the de­tail in the fine shad­ows as the gulls wheeled over­head.

The vil­lage takes its po­si­tion on Eng­land’s Juras­sic Coast very se­ri­ously; there are sev­eral fos­sil stores and the street lights fea­ture a stylised am­monite. There are or­gan­ised fos­sil walks and a tour that maps An­ning’s life. Her fa­ther, a cabi­net-maker, died when she was very young and she had sup­ple­mented the family in­come by sell­ing sea shells and fos­sils to vis­i­tors on the shore, hence the tongue-twis­ter com­posed in 1908.

Later at dusk, in the vil­lage church­yard, we found An­ning’s grave. She lived in poverty and died in 1847 of breast cancer at just 47. We left an am­monite among the pile of fos­sil of­fer­ings on her grave. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Fol­low the Reader: travel@theaus­ Columnists will re­ceive a beau­ti­fully boxed set of a dozen 2ml vials of woody, flo­ral and spicy scents from in­ter­na­tional fra­grance house Amouage; $110. More: lib­ertinepar­

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