In early 2024, many parents looked at the calendar with a degree of confusion: the schools were going back on the 9th January, and not – as with the previous year – on the 2nd. The question of what to do with the children for that week, when they were beginning to get claustrophobic from Christmas reared up: it had to be answered one way or another.
I had a plan up my sleeve. My children have begun to show an interest in fossils and I had read that the fossil-hunting reaches its zenith on the Jurassic Coast in the winter, especially in the aftermath of storms.
Sidmouth, where the Harbour Hotel is based is an excellent location from which to explore: it is located at the end of a charming town dominated by a relaxing promenade with a sleepy Edwardian feel. It is probably the case that Covid-19 – with the humourlessness which characterised that particular disease – snookered many families into Larkinesque holidays they had mistakenly come to consider beneath them: Greece, Italy and the south of France were traded for Wales, the Lake District, and Cornwall.
What seems subsequently to have happened is that many families found they disliked airports more than they had realised, and also that Larkin was a grouch who made England sound like a car park. In fact, although it has car parks it is also one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Many families now wonder why they should fly to an inferno in August and have begun to think of the risk of rain in England as being not only worth it, but a benediction of sorts.
The Harbour Hotel chain is a good way in which to explore the entire southern coast. It has outposts at Guildford, Brighton, Chichester, and Southampton as well as a hotel in Bristol and three particularly lovely properties in Cornwall. The Sidmouth property is very beautiful: full of nautical decor, and nonchalant luxury.
Our room had a spacious balcony looking out onto the English channel. A few houses poke up towards the horizon, where the sky is continually producing masterpieces aimed at no one in particular: it can be a well-spent hour just to watch the clouds build an empire which they subsequently decide against. I found myself sketching the scene on my iPad throughout my stay, in a constant amazement at the loveliness of this part of the world.
We might think of January in England as a reasonably bitter destiny, but it has its austere beauties. Down at the excellent breakfast (pancakes and a fine full English) on our first morning, the sun kept bursting through the clouds, as if in the throes of its own private epiphanies. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish sky from sea. In fact, you feel you’re being let in on the secrets of an interconnected system which London keeps from you.
The beauty of the coastline can also be seen from the breakfast rooms: the first cliffs between Sidmouth and the little village delightfully named Beer recede beyond the High Street, which has an excellent ice cream shop called Taste and lots of boutiques. The Sidmouth coastline is beautiful in itself, but also recedes down towards the additional promise of Lyme Regis, Charmouth, Bridport, and Kimmeridge.
It is all fossil territory. Apparently, due to a certain hidden toxicity about the waters, none of the creatures who died during the shift in climate following on from that famous asteroid impact some 65 million years ago have since been nibbled away at. As you look out to that glorious sea you are also considering a perfectly preserved time capsule. Sir David Attenborough is only the most famous person to be excited about this lucky anomaly: in fact, you don’t have to delve too much into the Jurassic coast to enter a welcoming community of fossil addicts and dinosaur lovers.
To fossil-hunt here is to partake in a long story. As you drive down the coast from Sidmouth to Lyme Regis, you are heading in a sense towards the ghost of Mary Anning (1799-1847). Feted and famed, and even subject to the high contemporary accolade of a Little People, Big Dreams book, Anning became famous in the Victorian era due to her discovery of the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton when she was a mere twelve years’ old. She subsequently went on to discover two nearly complete plesiosaur skeletons and the first pterosaur skeleton to be located outside Germany.
Throughout our first day, a storm raged around us – the sort that wants to take your umbrella with it – as we trudged submissively down to the museum. The museum which bears Anning’s name is also on the site of her house, and contains a treasure trove of fine fossils. It reminds you too of John Fowles’ long tenure in the area, as well as Jane Austen’s decision to locate the pivotal scene of Persuasion (1817) here. It is pointless to deny that the weather was adverse; but in this part of the world, a storm is also an opportunity because it whips up secrets which the sedate tides can’t: it’s possible to make remarkable finds in January on the Jurassic Coast.
In Charmouth there is a little shop which is testament to this called The Forge Fossils. Run by Chris Moore, it is an unmissable place which we happened on the following day. Moore has recently been seen on television in that wonderful BBC documentary Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster in his role as a local expert instrumental in extracting a giant skull of a pliosaur from the cliff-face at Kimmeridge. Pliosaurs were extraordinary beasts – the T-Rexes of the seas – who swam round this part of the world in a time when T-Rexes themselves stalked the land. They were devilishly smooth swimmers, and from what I can tell could have bitten a decent chunk out of a football stadium.
Moore is friends with Attenborough – one lovely thing about the BBC documentary is to see Attenborough’s unfeigned joy at being in the fossil community. Moore’s is one of those enviable careers which are tied to a specific place; they are the chance necessities of a birthright. We saw Moore’s studio, and watched Moore himself examining his fossils, the rest of the world a happy irrelevance to someone as happy in his work as he so obviously is.
Charmouth turns out to be an especially promising stretch of coastline, as there used to be a Victorian factory nearby, meaning that there is an unusual amount of seaglass to be found. Within half a mile or so, we found several necklaces worth, and lots of ammonites. To say that for a child an ammonite becomes a prized possession is to riot in understatement. I have often wondered at the way in which the simplest thing to a child – a leaf, a stone – immediately becomes treasure. My sense is that it’s the adults who can’t see the excitement in the apparently commonplace who are misguided.
The cliffs are very beautiful indeed. Anyone who has seen the brilliant crime series Broadchurch which finished after three excellent seasons will know the warm yellows and umbers of the cliffs here (the series was filmed at nearby Bridport). They make even winter feel warm, and I found myself sketching these too.
The hotel was a good place to beat a retreat to after fossil-hunting. As I’ve found is the case in the Harbour Hotel chain generally, the service is reliably excellent and warm: these hotels are extremely comfortable but they eschew the sort of grandeur which leads to too much formality. In some hotels, there is the exhausting sense that one is paying to have to be on one’s best behaviour. The Harbour Hotel staff were never less than kind and understanding: from Callum the restaurant manager to Abby the receptionist, Rachel the housekeeping manager, and Jay and Heather in the restaurant. The food was also superb throughout: the chateaubriand comes particularly recommended.
In time, we came to eye our departure date with a certain contempt, until we decided to extend our stay partly with a view to taking advantage of the indoor swimming pool area. There is an outdoor area too which must be a marvellous place for an afternoon of cocktails in summer.
On our final day we decided that it would be worth going to see the famous pliosaur itself. This is housed in the Etches Collection down in Kimmeridge, founded by another star of the paleontology world Steve Etches. Etches is another down-to-earth character who has found his calling. We found him cheerfully sweeping the car park area outside his excellent museum. This is rather as if one were visiting Julia Roberts at Paramount Studios and found her doing some light dusting.
The museum he has founded must be the envy of the Natural History Museum. On a screen above the fossils we see an almost eerie reproduction of the Jurassic seas, where a pliosaur might at any moment descend upon an ichthyosaur. The exhibit in the centre of the main room shows the complicated structures of the brain, and makes one wonder by what curious and secret processes it might have come to be at all.
As you drive back to London, you can still hear the roar of the shingle and the surf for days afterwards. We had been among beauty and the mystery of evolution for what felt like far longer than a few days. Winter in the UK presents its challenges. It was Margaret Thatcher who said of Lord David Young: “Others bring me problems, David brings me solutions.” I might say the same of the Harbour Hotel.
To visit the Harbour Hotel, Sidmouth go to: https://www.harbourhotels.co.uk/sidmouth