The Lyme Regis Museum ranks as one of the must-see museums along the Jurassic Coast whose discoveries, artefacts and fossils preservations are in my opinion world class.
As a kid on holiday, it was always a treat to visit the fossils on display at the museum before heading out onto the beach with exuberance and an excessive amount of self-confidence that I was going to find the next large marine reptile or well-preserved ammonite. Surprisingly that feeling has never left me.
Now as an adult and running a food and drinks business dedicated to the Jurassic Coast it probably won’t surprise you to learn that my visit takes on a whole new meaning. However, if you are interested in local history, geology, and fossils a couple of hours spent visiting the Lyme Regis Museum is an experience that will remain with you and leave a memorable connection with the pioneers, history, and make fossil hunting the shoreline that more inspiring. It did this to me!
The Lyme Regis Museum has been described by Sir David Attenborough as “A remarkable museum, a gem”, and reviewed on Trip Advisor as a "Brilliant little Museum - full of interesting historical facts about Lyme! Allow about an hour to wander. The building was intriguing too. Very good value for money."
The Team at Fossil Coast visited this exceptional museum located on Cockmoile Square off Bridge Street in Lyme Regis during March 2022. This building was also once the home and first shop for Mary Anning the 19th century pioneering palaeontologist and fossil collector. In 2021 the museum celebrated its 100th birthday. Today the Museum is a charity operated and governed by the Lyme Regis Philpot Museum Trust and is fully accredited by the Arts Council of England.
After a wholesome lunch at the Lyme Bay Café next door and an obligatory browse in The Lyme Fossil Shop opposite, we walked the few steps back across Bridge Street to the museum where we were warmly welcomed. The first thing you will notice about the museum is its striking renaissance style and the grandeur of its architecture for a relatively small building. The building was designed by George Viallis a prominent architect at the time.
Having paid an adult entrance of £5.95 each plus purchasing the official museum guides to the Lyme Regis Museum and Fossil Hunting. Both of these guides would provide a tremendous amount of easy-to-read information about the history of the museum as well as tips for heading out on to the beach and how to responsibly collect fossils.
It is immediately obvious that the grandeur continues from the building's exterior to the interior when you enter the first gallery detailing the towns early history dating back to the Bronze Age and through to the medieval and Tudor periods.
The internal atrium and stairways are embellished with Flemish Gothic and Art Nouveau details leading you over three floors of exhibit rooms. The next ground floor gallery is dedicated to the importance of The Cobb the prominent and unmissable sea defence feature of the towns harbour. At high-tide or when there is a onshore wind be prepared for the salty spray from the crashing waves.
This gallery goes on to illustrate the historical stories behind the ships that were wrecked in Lyme Bay as well as the more stories of ships that were wrecked during war time and peace time. The most notable and recent addition in my own memory was MSC Napoli that became shipwrecked and beached at Branscombe in 2007. The final ground floor gallery is dedicated to local history between 1700 – 2000’s and in particular the impact of the great fires of 1803 and 1844.
As you take the wooden steps to the second floor you pass a superbly mounted ammonite on the wall that guides you up and into the Geology Gallery. These exhibits outline the geological story and importance of the local fossiliferous geology of Lyme and the layers of lower Jurassic fossiliferous grey marine shales of Lias overlain by yellow weathering Cretaceous greensand laid down 200 – 195 million years ago.
Along with the importance of the local geology is an explanation of how dynamic and unstable the coastline is and how the impact of erosion on the cliffs has resulted in landslides, mudflow’s and rock falls each year but are still welcomed by geologists and palaeontologists as a source of new data on the rock and fossil record.
Among the most interesting stories is the account of the Undercliff formation created by the Bindon Landslip on Christmas Day 1839. Described at the time as “God’s punishment” it is an eight-mile stretch of once 40 acres of cultivated land west of Lyme Regis that broke away from the cliff and slid seawards.
According to records it was not long after this event that enterprising local farmers gave new names to areas of the landslip and charged visitors sixpence to visit their dislodged fields. The museum exhibits a copy of the, Memoir and Views of Landslips on the Coast of East Devon published in 1840 by Robert Kearsley Dawson's and William Conybeare as the first fully scientific report ever produced about a major landslip.
The highlight of our visit was looking at the extraordinary marine fossils of the Blue Lias found both west and east of Lyme Regis and synonymous with the pioneering fossil collecting of Mary Anning. The variety and detail of ammonites which were once called 'Ammon's horn' are impressively exhibited including the Asteroceras obtusum. There is also a helpful hint about the best place to finding ammonites during low tide along the “ammonite graveyard” a single layer of limestone found on Monmouth Beach west of Lyme.
Among Lyme Regis’s most important historical fossil finds by Mary Anning who famously discovered with her brother Joseph is the first ichthyosaurus (‘fish lizard’) specimen in 1812 when she was aged only 12. Though the original fossil now resides in the Natural History Museum in London an almost complete adult six-meter ichthyosaur fondly named “Kevin” and a smaller baby ichthyosaur found by local fossil hunter Paddy Howe are displayed. Of the larger ichthyosaur fossils on display there is a large skull of a carnivorous early Jurassic Temnodontosaurus platyodon that could grow to 5 tons in weight and 12 meters in length.
Mary Anning also found the first complete long-necked marine reptile called a plesiosaurus and named by William Conybeare in 1823. A model of the plesiosaurus hangs above your head as you walk the gallery and next to a model of a dinosaur first found in Lyme Regis called a Scelidosaurus or “Leg Lizard”. This was a heavily armoured plant eating dinosaur. Lyme Regis is mostly associated with marine reptiles so this dinosaur was a very rare find.
Walking from the gallery of ancient marine life you enter via the atrium’s grand staircase and enter the Writers Gallery. Here you will learn how Jane Austen’s book Persuasion and how Lyme Regis resident John Fowles book The French Lieutenant’s Woman were set in Lyme Regis. Also learn how other visiting artists including Henry Fielding, Beatrix Potter, JRR Tolkien, John Gould, James Abbott McNiell Whistler and Sir Laurence Whistler took inspiration from the local area in their accomplished works.
On our way out we stopped by the gift shop but not before some final thoughts and takeaways. I have always enjoyed visiting a museum and it is especially tempting to learn about fossils when you can step out onto the beach within minutes and hunt for fossils yourself. The size of Lyme Regis Museum and the way the exhibits are arranged makes it possible to stroll through in an hour or two. My only thought is to encourage people to visit the website and learn about What’s On and consider taking part in one of the other activities such as an guide fossil walk.
Would I go back? Absolutely!