It was a schoolboy train journey through ‘England’s Jurassic Park’ that turned Blue Badge Guide Richard Madden into a fossil fan. “I detested school geology lessons,” he says. “What could be more boring than a bunch of rocks.
“But during coastline rail trips from home in Cornwall to school in Sussex, I was seduced by the mysteries of the ancient seashore. I’d heard about dinosaurs, thinking they lived somewhere in the tropics but was amazed to discover that they were preserved inside the cliffs passing my train window. How fantastic! A slow-motion time machine on the south coast holding the secrets of 250 million years of history.”
A decade later, Richard’s fascination with fossils brought him to Charmouth Beach. “I discovered an ammonite there. It’s humbling to come across these millions-of-years-old snail-like molluscs frozen in stone – hold one in your hands and you will see the world in a different way. I’ve treasured mine at home ever since.”
As the Telegraph newspaper’s walking correspondent, Richard has walked and written extensively about the South West Coast Path and the 95 mile stretch from Devon to Dorset is a particular favourite: “Our coastline has many personalities. An encounter with the Jurassic Coast is like meeting an elder statesman and discovering their life story.”
Richard is now a Blue Badge Guide and has developed a series of tours to the Jurassic Coast. “I like to start at Golden Cap, at 200 metres it’s the highest point on the south coast, named after its golden sandstone rock that glows in the summer sun. On a good day, you can see for tens of miles in each direction.
“You’re looking down millions of years of history. Time is layered out in cliffsides – to the west are red rocks that were formed in ancient deserts around 250 million years ago. It’s the signature stone of Devon where the cliffs were first studied, giving the name to a geological period, Devonian.
“And then there’s nearby Lyme Regis, the spiritual home of English fossil hunting. It’s a tradition that started with the wonderful Mary Anning. Born in 1799, she had no education but taught herself to read and write and went on to become an expert fossil hunter.
“She made her living by selling to collectors. Hunting for fossils was dangerous and in 1833 Mary was nearly killed by a landslide that buried her black-and-white terrier, Tray.
“Anning spent hours cleaning fossils with nails and documenting her finds. She knew more about geology than many of the wealthy fossilists who traded with her, but it was always the gentlemen geologists who took the credit.
“Mary died aged only 48 and was buried in a local churchyard. Today she is recognised as Britain’s first palaeontologist. She has a whole section dedicated to her finds in London’s Natural History Museum and The Royal Society named her as one of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.
“She found many samples at Lyme Regis’s ammonite ‘graveyard’ at Monmouth Beach. Walk here at low tide and you will see thousands of ammonites scattered in the rocks.
These 150 million-year-old fossils are shaped like ram’s horns – some up to a foot long. You can pick them up from the shoreline, but never hammer them out of the rock or cliffsides. The best time to find fossils is in winter when you get the biggest cliff erosions.
“Durdle Door is the symbol of the coast – a rock arch reaching out into the seas that created it through time and erosion. The arch is a mile to the west of Lulworth Cove, which in turn is famous for its nearby fossil forest, the remains of an ancient submerged woodland from Jurassic times. This surreal landscape is distinctive for its strange ‘algal burrs’ like gaping mouths where prehistoric tree trunks once stood.
“East of Durdle Door is Tyneham Village, the coastline’s modern fossil. Time stopped here in 1943 when it was closed off for army training and the villagers forced to leave. On some weekends you can visit the ghost village to see the church and ruined houses trapped in time.
“At the southerly tip of the Jurassic Coast is the Isle of Portland, connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach. Just about every part of Britain contains a piece of Portland as the white limestone mined here has graced some of our finest buildings – from St Paul’s Cathedral to the Liverpool waterfront.
“Excitingly, Portland is planning its own real-life Jurassic Park. The idea is to build a giant roof over one of the island’s 40m deep quarries to create a dinosaur-themed museum. This Jurassic project would be an inspiring symbol for a coastline that turned me from a bored schoolboy into a keen amateur fossilist and tourist guide. The Jurassic Coast is Britain’s own time machine. Visit and be transported.”