'Perhaps they did live here, a few hundred years ago,' Mrs Durham suggested.

'Or even a thousand years ago, or five thousand,' Mr Durham ventured. 'They could be that old. Perhaps the boa constrictors then migrated to other parts.'

They did not look like snakes to me, or any other animal I knew of. I walked out onto the ledge, stepping with care so as not to tread on the creatures, even if they were clearly long dead and not so much corporeal bodies but sketches in the rock. It was difficult to imagine them as alive once. They looked permanent, as if they'd always been in the stone.

If we lived here, I could come and see this whenever I liked, I thought. And find smaller snakestones, and other fossils as well, on the beach. It was something. It was enough, for me.

Our brother was delighted with our choice. Apart from Lyme being economical, William Pitt the Younger had stayed in the town as a youth to recover his health; John found it comforting that a British Prime Minister would think highly of the place he was banishing his sisters to. We moved to Lyme the following spring, with John securing for us a cottage high above the shops and beach, at the top of Silver Street, which is what Broad Street becomes further up the hill leading out of town. Soon after, John and his new wife sold our Red Lion Square home and, with the help of her family's money, bought a newly built house on nearby Montague Street, next to the British Museum. We had not meant our choice to cut us off from our past, but it did. We had only the present and the future to think of in Lyme.

Morley Cottage was a shock at first, with its small rooms, low ceilings, and uneven floors so different from the London house we had grown up in. It was made of stone, with a slate roof, and had a parlour, dining room and kitchen on the ground floor, with two bedrooms above as well as a room in the eaves for our servant, Bessy. Louise and I shared one room, giving Margaret the other, for she complained when we stayed up late reading--Louise her botany books, I my works on natural history. There was not enough room in the cottage to fit our mother's piano or sofa or mahogany dining table.

We had to leave them behind in London and buy smaller, plainer furniture in nearby Axminster, and a tiny piano in Exeter. The physical reduction of space and furnishings mirrored our own contraction, from a substantial family with several servants and plenty of visitors, to a reduced household with one servant to cook and clean, in a town with many fewer families whom we could socialise with.

We soon grew used to our new home, however. Indeed, after a time our old London house seemed too big. Its high ceilings and huge windows had made it hard to heat, and its dimensions had been larger than a person truly required; the grandeur false if you were not grand yourself. Morley Cottage was a lady's home, the size of a lady's character and expectations. Of course, we never had a man live there and so it is easy to think that way, but I believe a man of our position in society would have been uncomfortable. John was whenever he visited; he was always bumping his head on the beams, tripping over uneven door sills, ducking his head to look out of the low windows, wavering on the steep stairs. Only the hearth in the kitchen was bigger than the grates in Bloomsbury.

We also grew used to the smaller social circle of Lyme. It is a solitary place--the nearest city of any size is Exeter, twenty-five miles to the west. As a result its residents, while conforming to the social expectations of the time, are peculiar and unpredictable.

They can be smallminded, yet tolerant as well. It is not surprising that there are several Dissenting sects in the town. Of course the main church, St Michaels, is still the Church of England, but there are other chapels too that serve those who question the traditional doctrine: Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists.

I found a few new friends in Lyme, but it was more the stubborn spirit of the place as a whole that appealed to me rather than specific people--until I got to know Mary Anning, that is. To the town we Philpots were for years considered London transplants, to be viewed with some suspicion and a little indulgence too. We were not well off--PS150

per annum does not allow three spinsters many treats--but we were certainly better off than many in Lyme, and our background as educated Londoners from a solicitor's family brought us a degree of respect. That we all three were without men I am sure gave people plenty of mirth, but at least they aimed their smirks at our backs rather than our faces.

Although Morley Cottage was unremarkable, it did offer stupendous views of Lyme Bay and the string of eastern hills along the coast, punctuated by the highest peak, Golden Cap, and ending, on clear days, with the Isle of Portland lurking off land like a crocodile, submerged but for its long flat head. I often rose early and sat at the window with my tea, watching the sun rise and give Golden Cap its name, and the sight softened the sting I still felt at having moved to this remote, shabby watering hole on England's southwest coast, far from the busy, vital world of London. When the sun drenched the hills I felt I could accept and even benefit from our isolation here. When it was cloudy, however, blowing a gale or simply a monotonous grey, I despaired.

We had not long been installed in Morley Cottage before I grew certain that fossils were to be my passion. For I had to find a passion: I was twenty-five years old, unlikely ever to marry, and in need of a hobby to fill my days. It is so tedious being a lady sometimes.

My sisters had already claimed their territories. Louise was on her hands and knees in the Silver Street garden, pulling up hydrangeas, which she thought vulgar.

Margaret was indulging her love of cards and dancing at Lyme's Assembly Rooms. She persuaded Louise and me to go with her whenever she could, though she soon found younger accomplices. There is nothing to put off potential suitors more than old spinster sisters in the background, making dry remarks behind their gloves. Margaret had just turned nineteen, and still had great hopes for her prospects at the Assembly Rooms, though she did complain of the provincial quality of the dancing and frocks.

For myself, it took only the early discovery of a golden ammonite, glittering on the beach between Lyme and

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