Day out: Charmouth, Dorset
Enjoy an ancient treasure hunt for fossils, discover a delicious fish bar and explore a wild windswept beach along this rugged, ever-changing shoreline on the Jurassic Coast.
There are few family pleasures as simple or as satisfying as finding fossils on the beach. It’s an outdoor experience perfect for children of all ages, and it continues to delight adults, too.
There’s no better place to indulge a passion for fossils than on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset and Devon. Now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s made up of 95 miles and 185 million years of prehistoric life, gradually exposed for eventual discovery.
The Dorset village of Charmouth – the gateway to the Jurassic Coast – is pleasantly removed from the blare and glare of other seaside amusements, and is a wonderful starting point for a fossil-hunting daytrip. It was near here, in 1811, that 12-year-old Mary Anning and her brother unearthed the skull of an ichthyosaur.
Where is Charmouth?
Charmouth is a coastal village on the Dorset coast, two miles east of Lyme Regis and the Devon border.
The beach itself is a short distance beyond the village, and it has all the amenities you could need, including a car park, café, souvenir shop and fossil-focussed visitor centre.
Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre
The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre has well-presented displays of locally discovered fossils, including the eponymous Charmouth dinosaur – Scelidosaurus.
This was the earliest complete dinosaur fossil to be unearthed in England, and is thought to be the best known species of dinosaur that lived here 190 million years ago.
The first fossils of this four-legged plant-eater, about 4m (13ft) long, were uncovered by Charmouth quarry owner James Harrison during the 1850s. They were sent to Professor Richard Owen of the British Museum, who classified it Scelidosaurus harrisonii.
The staff are as bright and helpful as the displays, and they happily let our children put on the dinosaur head-pieces created by a local artist.
Fossil hunting in Charmouth
The best place to find fossils at Charmouth is to the right of the visitor centre (facing the sea) towards a section of lumpy, grey cliffs – the result of a landslide in 1959 now known as the Black Ven.
It’s only a mile or so along the beach from here to Lyme Regis but due to landslides blocking the way this is only really accessible at low tide – the centre will have a timetable.
A note of caution: the coastline is very dynamic here, and landslips are common (especially with last year’s wet weather), so make sure the whole family avoid the area immediately beneath the cliffs.
In any case, the beach itself is both the safest and the best place to find fossils – cleaned and sifted by the sea. Fossil hunting is one of those outdoor pastimes where bad is good: wild weather often reveals more treasures released from their ancient settings.
Searching soon becomes a happy obsession: a steady stroll, eyes flickering over the stones, occasionally punctuated by a shriek of ‘Eureka!’ and a gathering of the clan as a new treasure is discovered.
More like this
This area is no secret location – in fact its attractions are proudly proclaimed, but the beauty of fossil hunting is that there’s room for everyone to fan out and find their own space on the beach, becoming caught up in the thrill of the hunt.
Fossil-finding success rates are variable, dependant on both individual skill (and patience) and luck on the day, and success can stir easily inflamed sibling rivalries and intra-family jealousies. So you can increase the odds of finding one by heading to the visitor centre, which offers regular guided walks led by a team of enthusiastic wardens.
Key fossil types at Charmouth include ammonites, belemnites, coprolites and fossilised wood.
Hunt for fossils near you
There is nothing more exciting than taking a walk along the beach and stumbling across a fossil that dates back hundreds of millions of years. It’s an outdoor experience perfect for children of all ages, and it continues to delight adults, too. But where are the best places to find fossil near you?
Charmouth tides times
It’s best to time a trip to Charmouth for just after high tide, with the sea receding, leaving hours to scour the shingle beach for fossils that have come away from the cliffs or been turned over by the tide. Check the tide times at Charmouth before you visit.
Where to eat in Charmouth
Charmouth Fish Bar and Pizzeria
Fish and chips takeaway and pizzas.
The St, Charmouth, DT6 6PU, 01297 560220, charmouthfishbar.co.uk
The Bank House Café
Refuel at this colourful, welcoming café that serves award-winning sausages.
The Street, Charmouth, DT6 6PU, 01297 561600 facebook.com/TheBankHouseCharmouth
Where to stay in Charmouth
Newlands Holiday Park
This friendly, family-run campsite is only minutes from the beach.
Charmouth DT6 6RB, 01297 560259, newlandsholidays.co.uk
How to get to Charmouth
Charmouth is just off the A35 between Lyme Regis and Bridport. Take the sea road through the village to the beach-side pay and display carpark (£4 all day).
There are two First bus services that run along the coast road and stop at Charmouth Church: X53 from Exeter to Poole, and 31 between Axminster and Weymouth.
Ali spent her childhood walking in the Peak District. She now lives on the Dorset coast and enjoys beachcombing with her three young children.