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The science of Dorset’s cliffs and seas

Two hundred years ago, Jane Austen found herself well pleased when she visited Charmouth in Dorset and offered this description in her novel, Persuasion:  

“..with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more its sweet retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation…”

Not much has changed since then and nowadays, thousands visit Charmouth each year returning home with fond memories of family holidays spent on Charmouth beach or of fossiling forays on the beach and neighbouring cliffs.

At the end of Lower Sea Lane, just above the beach, is a large stone building, built in the 1860’s as a cement factory.  It now houses a café and shops on the ground level with the upper level occupied by the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.   The Heritage Coast Centre was set up in 1985 to encourage safe and sustainable collecting of Jurassic fossils.  It was modernised and extended in the winter of 2004/5 with support from the National Lottery and the Fine Foundation and now provides a unique resource for this part of the Jurassic Coast with interactive displays, microscopes, computers, marine tanks and a theatre.  The Centre organises fossil activities and marine events and nearly 100,000 people visit the Centre each year with about 5,000 school children also taking part in educational programmes.  It is run by three full time staff and a dedicated band of volunteers and the success of the Charmouth model has influenced the development of other centres along the Coast.   I wanted to find out more about the work of the Heritage Coast Centre so on a grey autumn day I went to Charmouth to meet Meirel Whaites, the senior warden.  What she told me was as inspiring as the view across Lyme Bay from the Centre. 

I met Meirel in the small theatre and we talked about the work of the Centre.  Meirel hopes that the Centre manages to inspire and educate visitors helping them to enjoy the coast without damaging it.  Indeed the Centre was originally set up by the village to protect the coast by educating the public on collecting fossils safely and responsibly.    

The Centre’s work focuses on two principal topics, fossils and marine life.  Both topics are underpinned by complex scientific ideas and I wondered how Meirel and her staff put these across to the general public.  She told me that she intends the Centre to act as a bridge between this science and the people who visit, translating complex scientific subjects in to readily digestible ideas, showing their importance and bringing them to life.

The beaches and cliffs near Charmouth are world famous for their fossils and the Centre runs a wide ranging programme of fossil activities.  These include guided fossil walks and fossil weekends, also school visits based around fossiling.  If you can’t get to Charmouth there is even a Virtual Fossil Hunt on the Centre’s web site.  The Centre also manages the Fossil Collecting Code on behalf of the World Heritage Site team.  This Code serves to regulate collecting and to encourage reporting of fossil finds.  Some of these may be catalogued and the information shared with the Natural History Museum in London.

Marine activities, culminating in the annual Marine Week in August, have always been an important part of the work of the Centre but with the designation of this part of the coast as a Marine Conservation Zone, this importance has increased.  Meirel believes that the staff of the Centre educate people in many different ways about the seas.  A rock pool ramble or a plankton trawl may enthuse people about the coastline but during the event the effects of marine pollution may become apparent, raising awareness of conservation issues. 

We also discussed the issue of climate change in relation to the work of the Centre.   As she pointed out, the Coastal Change Pathfinder Project has issued the dire prediction that beyond 2030 increasing storms coupled with rising sea levels may make the Centre unsustainable.  Although this needed to be taken seriously, her current view was that storms each winter were regular occurrences but did not seem to be increasing in severity. 

I asked if she had seen any evidence for climate change in her marine work.  She told me that when rockpooling on Broad Ledge in Lyme Regis, she had been surprised to see the occurrence of two new species in the past two years, the Peacock’s Tail Seaweed and the Strawberry Anemone.  These are species typically found in more westerly warmer waters and their arrival on Broad Ledge may be an indication of rising sea temperatures linked to global warming.  Interestingly, the Plymouth-based Marine Biological Association has recently seen the same trend in a study of the coast in the south west.  

Finally, we discussed the 2012 Olympics with the sailing competition occurring some 20 miles away down the coast at Weymouth and Portland.  Would this lead to a big increase in visitor numbers at the Centre?   So far, she told me, there had been little evidence of any effect.  2012 was, however, a very busy year for the Centre with other events including the Big Jurassic Classroom which aims to involve every school in Dorset and East Devon in learning about the Jurassic Coast, UNESCO and the Olympic values.  Big Jurassic Classroom is also part of the 2012 Jurassic Coast Earth Festival which comprises a series of educational, arts and science events along the Jurassic Coast next year. 

To learn more about the work of the Centre visit http://www.charmouth.org/chcc/

This article appeared in the November 2011 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine