This Side of the Pond – April 6

When I was a little girl, the destination I always requested on days out with my grandparents was the Dinosaur Museum in the next town along. To my young eyes, it was the most awesome place on earth; although, looking back with adult sensibilities, it was terrible.

They didn’t really have any dinosaurs, you see, which is something of a mystery considering this was a museum situated on the Jurassic Coast. While you, as Crook County natives, were gathering arrowheads on your afternoon rambles, I was picking out fossils from the beach.

They did have an oversized footprint, but for the life of me I can’t recall if it was a real square of mud that had been shipped from somewhere exotic and I don’t remember what it was supposed to have belonged to. Little me desperately wanted it to be real but, more likely than not, it was fashioned out of modeling clay with an informational sign to jack up the excitement levels.

They also had a model of a tyrannosaurus Rex. I would venture to guess that the same person who came up with the idea for the footprint was responsible for the giant version of a child’s plastic toy that loomed over visitors in the main hall.

That was a different time, of course, when there was no such thing as an “interactive digital display” and we relied on our imaginations to flesh out the details. It was also the early days of the museum, which opened its doors when I was five years old, so I can only assume they hadn’t gotten round to unpacking the dinosaurs yet.

Somehow, it managed to wangle a nomination for European Museum of the Year just after it opened, which is not exactly a seal of approval for all the other museums on the continent. Nevertheless, I spent many a happy afternoon trotting around the displays.

My outings were enhanced by the presence of the nearby Tutankhamen museum, which got around the fact that it didn’t have any real artifacts either by displaying a paper mache version of the ancient king’s death mask as its centerpiece.

Nearby, you could also find a terracotta warriors museum (which describes itself optimistically as “small but inspiring” with “dramatic” audio presentations, but to this day is sadly lacking in terracotta warriors) and a teddy bear museum that stood out from its neighbors through the sheer novelty of being a room replete with actual teddy bears.

But it was the Dinosaur Museum that captured my imagination. It’s still the only museum dedicated solely to dinosaurs in the United Kingdom, though that’s a bit of a misleading claim considering that the enormous Natural History Museum in London has plenty more to boast about, including the world-famous “Dippy” the diplodocus, a 105-foot cast donated by Andrew Carnegie himself.

The reason I mention this shining memory from my childhood is that I will be scurrying home in a hurry soon to visit a brand new dinosaur attraction. My home county is to play host to a subterranean museum that makes that footprint pale in comparison.

The new attraction is called Jurassica and will transform an old, abandoned quarry into a dinosaur wonderland. 130 feet down, under a domed roof, will be a trail full of geological remains from land and marine creatures and plants, as well as robotic versions swimming around an aquarium.

This, too, will be located in the heart of the Jurassic Coast. Just as the Devils Tower proudly claims the title of America’s first national monument, the shoreline of my home was Britain’s very first natural World Heritage Site.

The idea for the park belongs to the late Michael Hanlon, a respected science expert from the Daily Telegraph. It’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of him, except perhaps as the writer who changed his mind about global warming after visiting the Greenland ice cap and seeing the melt for himself.

Jurassica now has the support of Sir David Attenborough, the world-famous nature show presenter with the notably soothing voice. The backing of such an esteemed part of the natural history community and one of my country’s national treasures is sure to be a boon for the fundraisers.

However, I have not forgotten that it was his brother, Sir Richard Attenborough, who was responsible for letting the T-Rex get loose in Jurassic Park. I will be keeping an eye on David’s involvement.

As we grow up, it’s a sad truth that most of us lose the wide-eyed wonder that allows us to look at a fake footprint and imagine a whole world bristling with bizarre forms of life. To recapture that awe would mean scaling up such experiences to a level even an adult cannot resist. This knowledge has always saddened me.

Fortunately, Jurassica promises to be spectacular when compared to my beloved Dinosaur Museum, not to mention that it promises real, honest-to-goodness dinosaur remains. Perhaps, at last, in a disused quarry on the edge of a cliff, I will finally gaze through those childlike eyes again.