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Lyme Regis Museum

Founded: 1901      Governance: Independent Trust       Scope: Local history, palaeontology   Visited: Autumn 2017

'She sells sea shells by the sea shore', so the tongue-twisting rhyme runs, allegedly composed in honour of pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning, discoverer of the ichthyosaur, and here was where she did it: the Museum was constructed on the site of her house, and the shop the Anning family ran where Mary sold her first fossils. She's recently been commemorated further in the new 'Mary Anning Wing', a sleek glass extension to the Museum's Victorian redbrick fabric, which houses the shop, entrance area, schools room and geology display, and whose great windows gaze out across the loveliness of Lyme Bay.

You are borne into the museum on a swirling cloud of ammonites, made from Coade stone (Eleanor Coade, the inventor of this powdered-stone marvel, was a Lyme resident) and laid into the pavement outside the entrance. The geology displays are modern enough, but round the corner from them you are plunged into the old museum, a welter of miscellaneous local history material which does, almost despite itself, tell the story of Lyme quite effectively. There's even a handwritten label or two, which are surely now museum pieces themselves. But the real star of Lyme Museum is the building. It has a crazy charisma which very few of its fellows can match. The central set-piece is a magnificent spiral staircase off which the galleries open like spikes firing off some kind of dreadful Baroque weaponry. This staircase curves round a column of stone and sits below a great bronze bell dangling from the cupola at the top of the building, has paintings around its walls and an inexplicable bust of Lord Byron in an alcove, and a strange stone entablature that says 'NOTICES' and looks like a Roman tombstone, yet contains not notices but another ammonite. The glorious eccentricity doesn't stop there. In one of the rooms you have to go up green-painted iron steps onto a openwork gallery that runs around the bigger gallery. But it's tiny. There's barely room for people to pass each other. Off to one side of a landing is yet another, smaller spiral staircase.

This is, I imagine, a paradise for small children, who can tear around up and down stairs and cause gleeful havoc provided there are no studious grown-ups to disapprove. My visit to Lyme Museum started to take on a different flavour when 250 German teenagers turned up and began trying to negotiate their way around the building via that wonderful but not exactly expansive staircase - I know there couldn't have been 250, but it felt like there were. Perhaps that's why the subsidiary staircase was put in.Go, and revisit your childhood, and run up and down, and up and down.

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