I stare at the tangle of buildings, the clutter of properties that make up the old seaside tavern. Some have been extended, some still contain parts of the original walls, but they are all rendered in a dirty yellow pebbledash. I hear the distant echoes of other lives, harbingers of imagined stories. In the lobby of the tavern, there is an information sheet tucked into a plastic folder on the menu stand, and from this, I learn three things. Firstly, that Blue Anchor Bay is named after the colour of the muddy residue left on the ships’ anchors when they were moored in the bay. Secondly, it is an area of lias – the blue-grey marl deposited during the Lower Jurassic period; and thirdly, the cliffs are prone to collapse and when they do they reveal colourful veins in the rock and plenty of fossils.
As a child I spent many days during the summer months on the beach building sand castles, collecting shells, and exploring the rock pools, but fossil-hunting was a special, magical activity kept for autumn and winter months. We’d go to the stony pebbled beaches, the ones we never visited in the summer, and instead of carrying a bag of towels and bathing costumes I’d be wearing wellies and carrying a bucket and a hammer. There were no eye-protectors then, and not much thought was given to health and safety, but the excitement of opening up a rock and finding the curled shell of a creature that had lived a million or so years ago was worth all the dangers.
My enthusiasm for fossils first began with a visit to the museum at Lyme Regis. There, I saw the fossilized bones of an ichthyosaur. They had been discovered by an intrepid Victorian called Mary Anning, who lived at a time when geologists were nearly all male. Ammonites, Belemnites, and the imprints of shells and plants and footprints in the rocks were one thing, but this strange slim shark-like ichthyosaur fired my imagination.
From then on, whenever I went to the beach I thought I saw the ichthyosaurs still gliding through the seas while on the shores odd-looking three-toed creatures hopped around on the muddy sediment. Shrieking pterosaurs launched from the cliff tops intent on snatching up their prey, as snail-like arthropods quietly folded into their coils to appear as stones to the roving raptors.
At school, for Geography class, we were allowed to spend a whole term on a single project of our choosing. Mine was grandiosely named ‘The Geology of the British Isles.’ I took a sheet of tracing paper and pencilled over the outline of a map and sketched in the geological areas. My mother, who saw an opportunity to use her skills as a watercolourist, got out her paints and carefully coloured in each area. I made a ‘key’ to identify each pastel-shaded region, carefully copying out the exotic-sounding words such as Jurassic, Mesozoic, Cambrian. I read the Observer’s book of Geology from cover to cover, filling my head with terminology such as synclines and anticlines, shale and sediment. I collected shells and rocks from each beach we visited and loaded the car with stones, plus a few trails of seaweed – a necessity when forecasting the weather.
By the end of term, my project included a scrapbook with photos cut from National Geographic magazines and a box in which I had collected a variety of rocks and fossils, all carefully labelled. I had pieces of granite that sparkled magically when the light caught the quartz and mica crystals. There was the chalky white limestone, and the black coal with its reminder of a dark underworld. But my star piece was not found on a West Country beach, it was donated to me by a neighbour, an elderly man. He had had the rock-collecting bug in his younger days too but no longer felt the need to keep hold of his once-loved rocks. I closed my eyes as he placed a lump of iron-heavy stone into my hand. I gasped when I saw the colour of the stone with its cut faces that glinted and winked at me from the palm of my hand. It was truly magic and I believed it to be precious, not any fool’s gold!
Today, on a promenade that looks out onto a grey sea, there is a chill in the air and the threat of rain in the gloomy sky. A few people are walking along the seafront, their coats pulled around them, hoods turned up. One man is standing by his fishing rod, a wooly hat pulled over his head, his hands in his pockets, seemingly hypnotised by the waves. I carry on walking with my eye on the outcrop of trees in the distance. Above them are ploughed fields whose ridges seem to end at the very edge of the cliff with no gap, no hedge, no division between field and sea. On my map, there is a footpath that follows the coast but there is no sign of it. I wonder if it has become prey to the subsidence of the cliffs and has disappeared into the sea. Just as I am thinking this, a cloud of dust blurs the horizon and an overhang of rock crashes down the cliff-side. Perhaps because of the distance, there is no sound, although from the amount of dust and the fact that the prevailing wind is coming from that direction there should be a tremendous roar. I look back at the fisherman, but he is still looking over the wall, a woman next to him, also mesmerized; both are clutching a mugs of steaming tea.
I feel as if there has been a great change in those moments, something that will only be noticed later on. The familiar outline, the edge of the land, the demarcation of where earth meets sea has moved, the solidity of the land in which our ancestors trusted has changed, and changed forever. Now, cartographers will need to redraw the map, take measurements, note every indentation, plot the fresh curves around the bay. Perhaps, as fresh fossils surface, there will be new discoveries, and a modern-day Mary Anning will find the bones, not of plesiosaurs or ichthyosaurs but of an undiscovered species. With each subsidence, and every landfall, rocks are released onto a bed of scattered bivalves that will eventually be pressed into the sheets of shale and soft blue lias, only momentarily exposed and returned to the recesses of time.