One of my childhood friends had been orphaned and came down from London to be ‘adopted’ by relatives living in rural Wiltshire. As I was also an only child and my parents were regular churchgoers, it was considered that I might be suitable to play with him. He was a year or so older and from more affluent parents, and was able to teach me to roller skate and to build Meccano, (which may be why we both went on to qualify as engineers). He would cycle a mile or so to the nearby chalk downs to collect fossils, which resulted in another boy cruelly dubbing him ‘Old Fossil’. This was my early introduction to fossils, but I think they were generally smaller than on our Jurassic Coast!
You must have noticed that this is the year in which the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth is commemorated, as the programmes on TV and Radio have told us. It is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his great work “On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection” which caused some controversy.
Darwin found fossils of marine fish high up in the Andes and he recorded differences between mocking birds and giant tortoises on different Galapogos islands. He found petrified trees in South America, which remind us of our ‘fossil forest’ at Lulworth and fossil wood on Portland. All of this helped him to produce his great work. He would have rejoiced that our coast has been named “Jurassic” and the great interest in local fossils now, which go to reinforce part of his theory.
Whilst much of Darwin’s work seems to have been based on his voyage on the ‘Beagle’, he was in consultation with several men who had local contacts and would have known of the fossils found here by Mary Anning and family. A man born in Lyme Regis, John Gould FRS, helped Darwin identify some of his finds and named an ostrich ‘darwinii’. They jointly read a paper to the Zoological Society in 1837. Darwin had a trip to Wales with Professor Adam Sedgwick of Cambridge, who had praised Darwin’s collections and his voyages. Sedgwick came to Lyme and bought fossils from Mary Anning. Sir Henry de la Beche, founder of the British Geological Survey, had moved to Lyme and became a great friend of Mary and produced ‘Duria Antiquior’, a reconstruction of Dorset before the creatures became fossils, in the Jurassic period. Darwin asked him about the domestic animals in Jamaica. Professor Richard Owen, of the Natural History Museum, had written about the early mammals of Purbeck and produced the name ‘Dinosaur’, so Darwin asked him to describe his fossils in his work. Darwin hoped for the approval of the Swiss Professor Louis Agassiz who had been to Lyme and named two fossil fish after Mary Anning. No wonder the area is a world Heritage Site.
At a talk in March about ‘Where do you think you are?’ Julian Richards stated that the whole of our landscape is man made, for example Dartmoor was once nothing like the bleak open country we now see. Its trees were cut down by early man, so that he could till the soil, until it became worked out and only suitable to grow scrub. This is some several hundred million years later than the Jurassic. Given a modern haircut, a shave and dress, these prehistoric men would be very much like us!
Around Stonehenge, (Julian’s favourite too!) it was once wooded and again, early man cut the trees down. But during and after the building of the stone monument it became a sacred site and a number of burials took place around it. In more recent times the area has not been held in the same reverence and when it was owned by the Antrobus family they planted a number of beech trees, to commemorate a son lost during the Battle of the Nile, the trees representing where the 11 ships were deployed. Some of these trees are now encroaching on once sacred Bronze Age burial mounds. Whilst they protected the stones, ploughing went on all around the area.
Now we hear that National Trust archaeologists have excavated on Doghouse Hill, overlooking Seatown and found remains of man living there about 5,000 years ago. This was as a result of a local man walking the cliff path and discovering finds. We should all keep our eyes open whilst walking in the countryside!
Oh – the ‘back of the 10 quid note’? – It shows Darwin and some images relating to his work.
Bridport History Society does not officially meet in August, but we may take a walk up West Cliff from the Esplanade at West Bay on Tuesday August 11th at 2.30pm, to look at the disused lime kiln, weather willing.
Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society, telephone 01308 456876.