On Sunday afternoon, after a lazy start to the day and breakfast at noon, we left our daughter watching repeats of the Commonwealth Games (a little like watching an old Midsomer Murders in my view – cosy but ultimately lacking in thrills) and set off for Lyme Regis. Living in Somerset as we do, Lyme is down and to the right a bit (you can tell I am not a geographer) and journey time is less than an hour across the most beautiful East Devon countryside. We should venture in that direction more often.
Lyme Regis is one of the key stops on the Jurassic Coast, one of the few natural World Heritage sites in the UK. It is a magnet for fossil hunters, which may explain why I haven’t been more enthusiastic in the past. There was but a brief spell when my husband managed to interest our children in cracking open large pieces of grey rock; but an afternoon of family hard labour never really caught on, possibly because in an age of CGI none of us could make the imaginative leap from tiny ammonite to T Rex.
However, on Sunday I was feeling indulgent and agreed that an afternoon with my husband standing under a landslide on the other end of the beach to the chips and ice cream was just what I needed. I was absolutely right.
Have you noticed that the past becomes more alluring the older you get? In recent years my past, and that of my family, has become fascinating to me. As an extension of that, the social history of the 19th century, particularly in London where I grew up, is now a passion of mine. Disorganised and sporadic though my research is, learning how those within just a few generations of me lived sparks my imagination and feeds into my writing in a way that the present day cannot. An interest in language (and the rather wonderful historian Michael Wood) has taken me back to the so-called Dark Ages and a love of the sound of Old English. I know I am not alone in finding the past so alluring. Look at the popularity of period dramas, Ripper reconstructions and personal subjective views of the past from historians such as Simon Schama. There are great blogs out there like The Cat’s Meat Shop , Kith and Kin Research – the Blog , and The Virtual Victorian , as well as my long time favourite Madame Guillotine. All are an eclectic mix of the informative and the eccentric and all are obsessed with the past. I even found a great website called Period Dramas.com which includes a ‘timeline’ of dramas according to the year in which each takes place.(Did you know Far from the Madding Crowd is set in the same year as Little House on the Prairie?) It also has a ‘Top Ten’ period dramas as voted by visitors to the site (although I worry about a list that has North and South above Pride & Prejudice at the top and doesn’t include the BBC adaptation of Bleak House. I reckon there was some Richard Armitage v Colin Firth fighting going on there…).
I digress. Back to Sunday. It was a warm, October afternoon, with that perfect light and clear blue sky that offers clours and shadows that make high summer light seem harsh in comparison. I had taken my camera, and although I somehow contrived to take 50% of the shots in B&W by accident I was really enjoying the results I was achieving. I lagged well behind my husband as we scrambled over the rocky beach and hulking metal groins (why are they called that?) as I am blessed with the agility of a rhino, but even that had it’s compensations. I was watching my feet, and my feet were treading on the stony remains of creatures alive hundreds of millions of years ago.
So I spotted the huge ammonite in a rock before my husband. It was probably still there only because no one wanted to risk lugging it back to the boot of their car, and I have no doubt many sandwiches had been consumed whilst sitting on it, but I felt as if I was the first person in the world to see the faint, but unmistakeable completeness of the spiral. Daft perhaps, but something to do with its unfamiliarity and my complete lack of experience in these things I expect. Practising with my camera on manual I took shots for posterity.
We wandered on, keeping an eye out of the incoming tide which would cut us off if we strayed too far. For the first time in my life I took time to look up at the fragile cliff face and see the layers of rocks brought to light by regular landslips. I understood how the Victorians must have felt when faced with this evidence contradicting all they believed of the Creation and I marvel now at how rapidly our knowledge has expanded in the last 200 years. It is all there – not just the millenia in the rockface, but the development of our view of life on earth in only the past few generations.
My reverie broken by my husband’s understandable concern that it would take me longer than the encroaching waves to make it back to the sea wall and the centre of town, I picked up a tiny piece of stone with the faint imprint of a long dead creature on it, slipped it in my pocket and headed back for a bag of chips and a wander round a second hand book shop. All in all a perfect afternoon.
Is this love of the past a way of making sense of our lives today, or is it a means of escape from them? I fear it is the latter, which seems the less healthy response. Perhaps it is just because our lives, for all the technological wizardry available to us is essentially quite dull. Other people seem to make discoveries for us, and change happens so rapidly we struggle to keep up. Perhaps this love of the past increases with age because when we have small children around us, new discoveries happen for them on a daily basis and we live it with them.
Whatever the reason for it, I am going to make the most of the opportunity, and time, I have now the children are teens to continue with my passion for everything over 50 years old. Which will be a great relief to my husband…