An Ocean Turned to Stone

She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore, The shells she sells are sea-shells, I'm sure For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore Then I'm sure she sells sea-shore shells.

Tongue-twister by Terry Sullivan, 1908, associated with Mary Anning

On the south coast of England at Lyme Regis in Dorset, the cliffs tower over the surrounding landscape. The town hugs the coast under the lee of a hill that protects it from the south-westerly wind. To the west, the harbour is sheltered by the Cobb, a long, curling sea wall stretching out into the English Channel — the waves breaking ceaselessly along its perimeter. To the east, the boundary of the local graveyard clings to the disintegrating Church Cliffs, with lichen-covered gravestones jutting out to the sky at awkward angles. Beyond this runs the dark, forbidding crag face of Black Ven, damp from sea spray. The landscape then levels off across extensive sweeps of country, to where the cliffs dip to the town of Charmouth, before rising sharply again to form the great heights of Golden Cap.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, according to local folklore, the stones on Lyme Bay were considered so distinctive that smugglers running ashore on 'blind' nights knew their whereabouts just from a handful of pebbles. However, it was not only smugglers and pirates who became familiar with the peculiarities of these famous cliffs.

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