England's "Jurassic Coast" Gets World Heritage Listing

Maev Kennedy
The Guardian Unlimited
December 14, 2001

The fossil studded cliffs of Britain's East Devon and Dorset, where 180 million years of geological history is laid out to view like the layers of a sandwich, have been declared a World Heritage Site, of equal importance to the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef.

The 94-mile (150-kilometer) stretch of rocky shores, beaches and cliffs, from Orcombe Point in Devon to Old Harry rocks near Swanage, has been called the Jurassic Coast.

Professor Denys Brunsden, a retired geomorphologist who has been working on the World Heritage bid for years, said: "Although the Dorset coastline probably does not possess the supreme beauty of the Grand Canyon, that does not mean it is not as important.

"It really is a walk through time, and shows the evolution of species from fish to dinosaurs to mammals."

The coastline is unique. At other fossil sites scientists must crawl through cracks in quarries and along mountain ledges, but in Dorset finds can be made by anyone walking along the beach.

Every winter storm reveals new discoveries in the fossil layers, even though scientists have been picking over them for two centuries.

The craze for fossil hunting began in the cliffs around Lyme Regis, where in 1810 an 11-year-old girl, Mary Anning, found a "dragon" in the rocks, the first complete ichthyosaurus fossil, a giant creature resembling a cross between a fish and a lizard. Her name became known to geologists worldwide, and she became a professional fossil hunter.

It was also the lure of fossils that drew the hero of John Fowles's novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman, to Lyme Regis.

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