There is a beach at Lyme Regis where you can walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs, if you know where to look and the time is right. I’ve never managed to find them, although I do have a lovely photo of my daughter, aged 6, standing on an enormous ammonite, wrapped up in boots and a yellow coat with a furry hood, protected from the cold, Easter wind, too young to understand the significance of the event, but impressed nevertheless at the strange rock formation standing proud from the hard, wet sand. When the tide is in, and the cold, grey sea laps against a closer shore, you’d never know they were there. They are covered up, hidden by the ordinary circumstances of the everyday.
If you hadn’t read the information on the website or on the noticeboards, you probably wouldn’t realise that you were standing on a rock-frozen giant seashell, even without your overenthusiastic parent explaining. You’d assume that the shapes that swirl gently across its surface were created by the smoothing action of sea. You’d think that there was nothing special about this set of rock pools, that the crabs and starfish and sea anenomes were living nowhere more spectacular or interesting than anywhere else along the shore and that little girls exploring there would need nothing more than a bucket and one of those nets that hang on the end of a slim bamboo pole and a mother to exclaim on a sunny rather than a cold and windy day. You wouldn’t know that if you looked with different, more informed eyes, you would find endless echoes of lives gone by, etched forever into the earth, reminders that things were not always as they are now.
I’m not a particular fan of dinosaurs, it must be said. I never coloured them in or had posters on my wall (although I do seem to remember, from my own dim and distant past, being taught a song about triceratops), but I am fascinated by the fact that they left their mark. Millions of years sit between them and me and yet their footprints still march across the shore. And it’s not just the natural wonders; a good cathedral will have me awed, a castle ruin, a mosaic floor. Monuments to the past from which we have come.
But the dinosaurs didn’t last forever. One meteor and they were gone, snuffed out like a candle. For millennia no-one even dreamed of a lizard as big as a bus. The tide came in and it went out; the secret footsteps lay undisturbed and children played on ordinary rocks. Castles and cathedrals rose and fell, testament to changing times, victims of war and greed, thunderbolts and gravity. They, too, sank into the ground, falling asleep after years proclaiming conquest, human and divine.
And there they waited, a snapshot memory of loss in stone, biding their time until the soil fell away or the tide went out and we wondered and understood what had been exposed.