Fossil Effect —

06 05 07

Lyme Regis – Manor Farm Caravan Park.

Bank Holiday Weekend, and a quick unwind in Dorset. The caravans are luxurious, in a way that Cadbury’s chocolate is luxurious, wrapped in gold foil and made of shit. The gas boiler safety instructions refer not to a caravan, but to a leisure villa. And they resemble the temporary constructions in rural garden centres in which a double-gazing franchise operates and displays. Indeed, it has double-glazing, and central heating and a TV and laminate flooring in the kitchenette area, and a gas fire with formica and MDF marble & wood-effect surround with mantelpiece and topped with a gilt-effect mirror. There is a lot of effect. We were moved into a bigger-effect caravan because the hot water in the previous one was cold-effect and the grill retained its original off-effect.

We are actually in Charmouth, a rural-effect village a few miles from Lyme Regis. Charmouth is basically a caravan park and a chippie, with a normal village tacked on. The view from our leisure villa is of the next villa, in fact glancing around I can see villas in every direction except the one in which Heather is making porridge with her eyes closed as she has just got up.

H and D met me off the train at Axminster on Friday night. They began the drive out of London at 1.30 on Fri to beat the traffic, and were just in time to meet every car in Southern England at Southampton. I didn’t want to take a half-day from work so I got the train from waterloo at 6.20, due in to Axminster at 9.00.  Bank Holiday Weekend, Friday night, two-and-a-half hours in a train carriage, probably standing, overcrowded with people who also have to be there for two-and-a-half hours, probably standing; and one of the perks of working for a living is knowing that I’ll be skint at the end of the month whatever happens. So I did something very sensible and bought a first class ticket, which allowed me to sit in a part of the train that seemed a lot wider than the rest of it, with a number of other people who will also be skint at the end of the month whatever happens. I like first class, I want it again.

I had booked some fossil walks – ah, I should backtrack. The whole reason we’re in this leisure villa in Dorset is that Heather had gone to the Natural History Museum with Numpt and Dex and had seen advertised the Jurassic Coast Fossil Weekend and had booked a villa for leisure. So, anyway: Jurassic, 200 million years, then a bit of erosion, then Cretaceous, 100 million years, and all somewhere near the equator, and a bit of travel, and then a tilt, all along the coast-line, so the age of the fossils depends on where you are. The strata are clearly visible and at a jaunty angle, layered like a deck of cards, older further west. And to accompany the fossil festival I had booked a couple of walks on the ‘net. Saturday’s walk, from Marquee 3, was with Colin Dawes. Colin is a short, spidery, sixty-something bewhiskered chain-smoking khaki-clad goofy sunburnt fossil-hunter straight out of a well-observed animated film. You could pretty much see the 24 frames a second stacked up behind him and the big thumb in the sky operating the flick book. He led a party of 30 or 40 people almost exactly like us along the beach a mile to a pavement of ammonites, like swirls of ice cream in the undulating rock, and showed us individual rocks and pebbles and how to crack one open and what to look for, and we all scuttled off and found fragments of fossils and rather wished we had brought some water, and trundled back into Lyme for lunch, weighed down by the various boulders in our rucksacks.

A ploughman’s, a quick sprint around a little antiques bazaar and a proper look at the fossils. Lyme is famous for Mary Anning, who uncovered and identified an ichthyosaur before fossils had a name. Apparently, God-fearing folk locally understood the strange shapes and figures in the rocks to be put there by the devil to trick them. Plenty of fundamentalist Americans today would be hard-pressed to argue with the throng of keen NHM volunteers in green sweatshirts who obligingly identify and explain any fossil brought to them in the marquees, with banks of microscopes and screens and books and dishes and facts. Those blasted facts. The proof of God’s existence is all around of course, in the obese teenage girls eating fried chicken, in dogs shitting on the promenade, in the beery swill of the Manor Farm Leisure Park Bar and Restaurant with three-year-olds dancing to disco in skimpy tops and midnight. The miraculous fragility of iron pyrite cast in ammonite-shaped cavities in soft mud the age of the dinosaurs, on the other hand, is the work of the devil. We were able to make plaster casts, use fossil charcoal, make papier-mâché skeletons, and document the devil’s work in any number of ways.

Later we queued for an hour for fish & chips in Charmouth before returning to God’s caravan in Heaven for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, a little light Monopoly and bed.

We had eaten our chips near the Black Venn, a beach below Charmouth, and on Sunday morning we drove back down for some fossil polishing (God putting the devil right) and a scour of the beach for fossils. I wandered further along the Venn where the soft, muddy cliff was slowly sliding into the sea, and where a dozen families were busy pulling out broken fossils in piles at their feet. A small army of holidaymakers fastidiously wrecking the World Heritage Site they’d travelled so far to see. Later, on our second fossil walk, a younger and more energetic palaeontologist called Chris made the argument that what wasn’t taken by people was eventually reclaimed by the sea, but I reckon here the cliff erosion is chiefly down to people, and the damage and then removal of rocks would be tolerated nowhere else on Earth unless, of course, it was as central to the tourist industry, and thus the well-being of the town, as it is here.

We wandered through the marquees, stopping briefly to remonstrate with a woman who was running a project to draw an enormous banner with charcoal. Children were invited to draw sunflowers and then to plant a sunflower seed. The sign said that this would help to save the planet and I asked the woman how, exactly, it would help to save the planet. She mumbled something about charcoal being biodegradeable and sunflowers photosynthesising. I’m not sure that really constitutes saving the planet, especially if the charcoal is made from timber that would otherwise be busy photosynthesising. The trouble with the environmental movement is that it’s full of fucking idiots who think that drawing sunflowers is going to save the planet, and who have driven some gas-guzzling 4×4 all the way from Fulham to Lyme Regis to make it possible.