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The Natural History Museum – Part 1

We travelled back to London, and visit the Natural History Museum in Kensington, right across the road from the V&A. Like the V&A and British museums, this museum was also completely free to visit. Both British and Natural History museums were housed in one building in the early 1800’s, but as both collections grew, it became more practical to split the collections, and the natural history component moved to a new building in Kensington.

The main entrance of the museum is impressive enough, dominated by ‘Dippy’ the dinosaur, a replica of a Diplodocus carnegii skeleton.

Main Entrance

And on the main staircase, Charles Darwin looks over proceedings. Some of his research collection is stored at the museum, although he was probably too old to have seen the museum open. These days he’s more likely to see hoards of ankle biters than suited, bearded scientists – predictably, the dinosaur exhibits are very popular with children.

Main Entrance

We’ll delve into my favourite gallery next.

Cornish Mining – Part 4

We didn’t just visit the Geevor and Levant mines, but walked south along the Coast Path to find other remnants of mining. Nowadays, the land has been turned back to grazing, mainly that of sheep. As with walking in the British Isles, there were a few stiles over stone fences to navigate over.

Walking the Coast Track

Sure enough, there were abandoned buildings and stacks all along the coast.

Walking the Coast Track

And the British weather never failed to surprise. We saw our fair share of rainbows that day.

Walking the Coast Track

But the weather cleared up just as we reached the Botallack mine site. This is also a World Heritage site, and is probably the most scenic mine sites you will ever see.

Walking the Coast Track

Walking the Coast Track

Where’s the mine, you say? The shaft entrance is down the bottom of the cliff. Needless to say, the miners got very wet when the tides were high. The miners dug shafts up to 500 metres deep and 400 metres out to sea. Once again, it was hard and dangerous work.

Walking the Coast Track

But as international trade ramped up during the Industrial Revolution, local mining work such as that in Cornwall dried up. Many Cornish miners immigrated abroad to find a better life. There are now descendants of these miners in USA, Canada, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Australia (in South Australia) and New Zealand (which I visited and will post about one day). It certainly explains how pasties and rugby and soccer got to all those places.

Cornish Mining – Part 3

You might think it was the end of mining around Pendeen when the Levant mine closed in the 1890’s, but the lure of tin and copper was too hard to resist. In 1911, the Geevor Tin Mine opened up the hill to work the same area as the Levant mine.

Geevor Tin Mine

The mine was worked through until 1990, and was the last mine to close in the area. When it first opened, it was mined by miners returning from the Boer War, but by the time WWII ended, miners were scarce, and the mine employed Polish and Italian miners. Working conditions improved over time – the shafts were properly re-enforced, they wore safety gear, they had proper head torches instead of oil candles for lighting, they had rules and regulations with blasting with dynamite, but life underground was still dirty, hard work.

Geevor Tin Mine

The good thing about Geevor is that it is also covered under the World Heritage listing, and has since been made into a tourist attraction. It has a great museum, and interesting tours where they take you into the old processing plant as well as into an old shaft. We had a young man lead us around the site, and gave us many insights into life as a miner. At least now the old life won’t disappear completely from people’s memories.

Geevor Tin Mine

Cornish Mining – Part 2

The old Levant mine site was very extensive, and also very picturesque, perched as it was above the sea. The site was open for tours on some days, but being still in the ‘winter’ season, they weren’t too frequent here.

Levant Tin Mine

Back then, the old miners weren’t there to enjoy the scenery. Their twelve hour shifts didn’t start until they started working their shaft. If the shaft was a hundred metres or more underground, then it would have taken two hours or so to get down there. Added to that was the fact their accommodation each night was as far away as St Ives, almost 20km away, which they walked in the freezing cold. The miners were lucky to get four hours sleep per night. No wonder their average age was around forty. It’s a wonder they lived that long given the hard lives they led.

Levant Tin Mine

In the distance we could see Pendeen Watch, the lighthouse on the next headland. The Coast Path winds its way through all of this coastline. In fact, it starts on the north coast of the peninsula in Minehead, Somerset, and ends on the south coast in Poole, Dorset – 1013km or 630 miles! That’s a lot of coastline. Throw in the everchanging British weather, and the undulating coastline, and the mud, it’s a wonder that it attracts the thousands of visitors that it does. But the British do love their walks, and the stunning scenery and the (comparatively) mild climate are major drawcards as far as they are concerned.

Levant Tin Mine

Closer to Pendeen village, and a kilometre inland, is the newer Geevor Mine. We’ll go there tomorrow.

Levant Tin Mine

Cornish Mining – Part 1

From Dorset we travelled to the most south west corner of Britain. You might know or have been to Land’s End, but there were far more interesting things to learn about this corner of the world.

Levant Tin Mine

Cornwall might be famous for its seaside and its cream teas, but its original claim to fame is its natural resources. Cornwall is a place rich in metals – tin and copper in particular – and even as far back as the Bronze Age (more than 2000BC), everyone in civilised Europe knew of it. In the Bronze Age, Tin from the Cornish was traded as far east as the Minoans in Crete, who consequently built their empire from it. The Cornish locals must have gotten very wealthy.

Back in those days, the tin and copper deposits were very close to the surface, and could be dug out from shallow pits, but as time went on, the miners had to dig deeper and deeper into the ground to get their bootie. By the time the Industrial Revolution came about, mining in the area was done on an epic scale.

Levant Tin Mine

This is the remains of the Levant Mine from the Victorian Age, near the village of Pendeen. It closed in the 1890’s and is now part of a World Heritage Site. Back in its heyday it employed around 170 people. You can see the remnants of buildings and stacks at the top of the cliff.

Levant Tin Mine

At the bottom of the cliff you can see the old pumphouse, which pumped the seawater out of the mine, since it was so close to the water line. The whole countryside is riddled with shafts, and shafts were dug as far out as a mile out under the sea. The shafts are still there, and one shouldn’t go underground unless you are with someone who knows them well since you can easily get lost. In recent years there have been incidents where people have died in shafts as they couldn’t find a way out.

Levant Tin Mine

The old mine is now on crown land, and the famous South West Coast Walk winds its way through it, so everyone can see what mining was all about.

Fossil Hunting – Part 3

It was a great day to be wandering along the beach, even if conditions weren’t optimal for fossil hunting. After two weeks of grey skies, the sun was greatly appreciated.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

We headed for the cliffs called the Black Ven. You can see the layers of bedding really clearly – they are interlacing layers of limestone and shale from Jurassic times. It is also very unstable, and as you can see there have been landslides here for eons.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

It was where Mary Anning found quite a few of her specimens. The species we found a lot of were ammonites – they were everywhere! They came in many forms:

Impressions of ammonites in the shale (a sedimentary rock). These were very fragile and aren’t worth keeping, but were pretty nevertheless.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Pyritised ammonites that have been fossilised into pyrite (ie. Fool’s gold). These can be kept!

Fossil hunting in Lyme

More impressions of ammonites, this time in siltstone (also a sedimentary rock, with a grain size in between sandstone and shale).

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Fossil hunting in Lyme

There were also impression of leaves.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

And we did find a dinosaur fossil – a limb bone from a marine reptile. It’s surrounded by fossil crinoids (a species we found a lot of in Australia).

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Unfortunately, the slab that the fossil was in was big – there was no way we could have slipped it into our suitcase. But we did take back a few ammonites, which are now on display in Sydney.

We’d lost track of time (and so did Paddy, our guide), and when we looked at our watches, three hours had gone by. It was time to head back before the rising tide caught us. But before we leave the beach, and Lyme Regis, we took one last look at the Jurassic Coastline.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Fossil Hunting – Part 2

We were met at the museum by our guide Paddy. Paddy is a paleontologist as well as a guide and has scoured these shores almost daily for many years.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Paddy took us down to East Beach, the stretch of sand between Lyme Regis and Charmouth, where Mary Anning found her best specimens.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

He told us honestly that it wasn’t a good day for collecting fossils. The best days were the really stormy ones, since the best chance of finding something new was when the tide, rain and wind eroded the cliffs. Also, you had a greater chance of finding something when it’s wet, as the fossils had a distinct gleam to them compared to other rocks. Paddy showed us one of his finds on such a day – it was a piece of a dinosaur vertebrae.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Mary Anning was known for going out on blustery days to look for fossils by the cliffs. She almost lost her life several times from being caught in landslides. Indeed, her dog Tray was killed in one. Another thing to look out for is the tides. At one point the beach narrows so much that you can only pass the point two hours on either side of the low tide. Fortunately the tours were done within this period, and we had no problem with getting cut off.

Once Paddy showed us examples of fossils that we might typically encounter (ammonites, belemnites, ‘Devil’s Toe Nail’, and dinosaur vertebrae, among others), we ambled down the beach to seek our ‘fortunes’.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

What did we find?

Fossil Hunting – Part 1

We weren’t taking just a walk along the beach – we wanted to search for fossils. The area is called the Jurassic Coast for a reason – it’s shores are actually seabeds from the Jurassic, the time of the dinosaurs. A quick look at the museum or in the numerous fossil shops show the range of creatures to be found. The most impressive of those is the ichthyosaur, a marine dinosaur that’s the shape of a dolphin.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis is the first place that it was discovered, back in the early 1800’s, by an extraordinary lady called Mary Anning.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Mary’s story is a fascinating one. I first became acquainted with it while reading Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Remarkable Creatures. She wasn’t an Oxbridge professor, but a working-class woman. Her father was a carpenter and sold fossils to tourists. The family lived on the site of the current Lyme Regis museum, right by the sea.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Mary became proficient at an early age in finding these fossils on the beaches of Lyme. When she was just twelve, Mary and her brother found their first ichthyosaur, intact, in the nearby cliffs. As Mary grew older and found more of these extraordinary creatures, Mary, and other scientists of the day who studied it, began to question their belief that God made the earth and all its creatures in seven days. Surely something that was encased in rock, that seemed to have no equivalent in the contemporary world, would have walked the earth thousands of years before us, not merely six?

This kind of thinking was dangerous of course, and it made Mary a renegade and outsider all her life. She was rarely acknowledged even as the source of the specimens, even though she led many scientists and visitors along the beach. Despite this, she continued with her work, finding other ichthyosaurs and other dinosaur species in the process. Her contribution to the science of paleontology may not have been acknowledged in her lifetime, but in the 21st Century she is an icon, and a source of inspiration to me.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Next, we’ll follow in Mary’s footsteps and see if we can find any fossils.

Morning by the Seaside

By the following morning, all trace of rain had gone to reveal a brilliant day.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Morning at Lyme Regis

We could see for miles, all the way along the Jurassic Coast.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Morning at Lyme Regis

The Dorset seaside was certainly a beautiful place. I had ‘seen’ it many times – on TV while watching period dramas or any of the River Cottage series, but being there in the flesh, and taking a walk along its beaches was the only way to really do it justice.

Twilight Walk at Lyme – Part 4

I tackled the walls of the Cobb next. It has two levels – one just above the beach/water-line, and an upper level.

Lyme Regis at Dusk

The lower level was nice and even, but the stairs to the upper level (of which there were several along the length of the Cobb) were a little trecherous.

Lyme Regis at Dusk

The upper-level also had a ‘nice’ incline to it. It looked a bit hairy to walk along in the high wind, rain, and low light. As it was, I just took my photos and descended.

Lyme Regis at Dusk

One could see how Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion got concussed after a fall from the upper level!