Thursday, 19 October 2017

Four Museums

This will be my penultimate Dorset post arising from my break. I found my way to four museums in four Dorset towns, at Dorchester, Lyme Regis, Bridport and Sherborne. Of course I know all these places very well, and must have visited all the museums more than once. Yet I'm always surprised at how little I remember.

The great County Museum in Dorchester is very venerable and contains some wonderful collections. It could do with a little reorganisation, though, and is aware of it. The new archaeology gallery is bright and clear, very distinct from some of the older corners of the displays. The great central gallery is grand indeed and has the feeling of a big Nonconformist chapel or alternatively a market hall, and redisplaying that is going to require quite a bit of flair and sensitivity.

Lyme Regis Museum is on the site of the house of Mary Anning, the self-taught palaeontologist. Naturally fossils are very prominent in the branding, as they tend to be all along the Jurassic Coast. I'd forgotten how the museum galleries open off this dramatic spiral staircase which, for some unaccountable reason, sports a marble bust of Lord Byron. It was all very well until about 250 German teenagers turned up (there can't have been 250, but it felt like that), and the space was rather transformed as they all tried to negotiate their way around via this staircase.

Bridport Museum is free to go in and is also very pleasing indeed. The whole display space was refurbished a couple of years ago and is bright and considered, giving an insight into the life and history of the town that impresses with its clarity and concision. I really enjoyed walking round it again, as it was so transformed from my last visit.

Finally, Sherborne is a small and quite traditional museum near the Abbey. There's a lot going on inside and a clear narrative about the town is elusive, but as always many of the objects charm in their own right. One up-to-date item that has been installed is a virtual edition of the Sherborne Missal which allows you to turn the pages and focus on different elements. Not every page is included (that would be a lot to ask) but you do get the famous vignette of St Juthware having her head cut off and then carrying it to the altar of Halstock church.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017


All the many, many times I've taken the path that leads to the ruins of St Andrew's Church at Church Ope Cove on the Isle of Portland, I have never noticed that at the far end of the structure is a Gothic archway. Everyone else on the face of the planet seems to have done. Wikipedia says it belonged to the detached bell tower of the church, but the Inventory of Historic Buildings in Dorset claims it's a 14th-century archway re-set into the old boundary wall. I'm not sure it's that old at all: it looks suspiciously neat and tidy. 

The archway leads to a path through the woods beyond, a steep-sided gully giving glimpses, above, of Pennsylvania Castle, a ludicrous Gothic mansion built in the very late 1700s. I think what we have here is a mini-Gothic Garden, the church ruins perched above the crashing sea becoming a sort of grandiose garden ornament in a Romantic assemblage that includes the castle and its ancillary buildings.

One of the current residents is keeping up the theme: I glimpsed this gentleman from the path leading back round the wall of the Castle compound, although I'm not sure exactly what he signifies.

The second stage of my break involved a trip to see my god-daughter's family in East Lothian and her mother took me for coffee at Cockenzie House in Port Seton. In the grounds is this little grotto, intended, as folly-doyens Headley & Meulenkamp explain, to conjure up images of volcanic convulsions: 'HECLA', it reads, the name of an Icelandic volcano (as well as the art gallery now based at Cockenzie). I have to say, bathos is the keynote here. One thinks less of the sublime grandeur of the forces of the earth, than of a place to put a lawnmower.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Five Church Interiors

On holiday I went into quite a number of churches, and some of them struck me particularly.

First, St Mary's, Beaminster. This is a big, rambling sort of church but I thought this side chapel was beautifully simple, with its laid wood floor (like ours at Swanvale Halt): uncluttered and concentrated.

To one side of Bridport is St Swithun's, Allington, part of the Bridport Team of churches. It began life as an early-19th-century chapel and is Classical in style. It was built as a bare preaching box, but eventually adhered very thoroughly to the Catholic version of Anglicanism. This combination makes the interior very unusual. The green decor is calming and delicate (more so than it looks in this photo, which is a bit too green), although so much has been added piecemeal to the church that it's also a little confused (three shrines of the Blessed Virgin must be enough for any church, while surely no congregation needs two sets of the Stations of the Cross, one above the other).

Bothenhampton, south of Bridport, has two churches, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. This is the newer one, famously rather ahead of its time when it was built in the 1880s. I've given you two photos, taken either side of the wrought-iron chancel screen, the first looking east towards the altar, and the second, west, so you can see the great stone transverse arches spanning the roof. Unfussily arranged and very welcoming, this church reminds me of Goremead, which I used to look after. It contains everything a church needs, and nothing more. But perhaps Allington could give them a statue or two, there's plenty of space.

Up a lane from the new church of Bothenhampton is the old one. Only the tower, chancel and transept - now containing the font - remain, and this church is redundant. The structure is medieval but the fittings are Georgian, and you can easily imagine an 18th-century clergyman in a tricorn hat meeting a couple from the village bringing their baby to that bare stone font. The past is powerfully present here, and so are the souls who used to worship in Old Holy Trinity.

Finally, a very well-known church but one I've never been into: St George Reforne on the Isle of Portland. It's redundant too, though it used to be the main church of the area, and what a remarkable building it is. Designed by an amateur local architect in the 1750s, it really is a perfect period piece from the time when the Church of England was closer to Nonconformist Protestantism than at any other time in its history: preaching was what churches were for, and the celebration of the sacraments was very much subordinate. So at St George the altar table was stuck in a small alcove at the end and the font looks like a bird-bath. You will note the two pulpits - almost, though not quite, unique in Anglican churches - and the high box pews. Remember that at one point there was a fourth gallery running across the arch you can see in the foreground, and that therefore a good portion of the congregation would have sat with their backs to the altar, and you realise what this building is all about. It really would be very hard to use for 'normal' modern Anglican worship - either Catholic or Evangelical! - but it's great that it still survives. I was speeding on my way back to the cottage when I went past, but I couldn't, simply couldn't, ignore the sign that said 'church open', could I?

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Dorset Deco: Portland House

The National Trust has a variety of properties that it doesn't, as a rule, open to the public, but lets out for holidays. One of these, I read lately in Dorset Life, is Portland House on the edge of Weymouth, designed and intended as a Jazz Age playboy's plaything. Gerard Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington, and who, coincidentally, also designed the church I used to worship at) was the architect, and his client Geoffrey Bushby, who came from a wealthy family from Wormley in Hertfordshire. Mr Bushby dreamt of looking out on the lights of Portland Harbour from a Spanish-styled terrace while champagne glasses chinked in the room behind and jazz drifted out into the night. It never happened: he died on Christmas Eve 1935, on the brink of moving in. His mother and sister came to sell the place and fell for it: Dorothy Bushby stayed there until her death in 1983, whereon the NT decided to refit it in accordance with its date. You can read more here.

I realised that Portland House would be open for a day during my holiday and on Friday popped along to see it. 'You found us all right,' said the lady on the door. Locating the house in fact presented no difficulty in view of the hundred or so people queuing outside the gate. Many of the voices I heard had definite Dorset accents and were presumably taking the chance to look around the house they'd passed but had never had the opportunity to look inside. It was all a bit busy to take in any atmosphere, and most of the fittings are very obviously modern rather than period - a bit like one of those house-makeover shows where somebody from Croydon says 'Oh, I love Art Deco, me', and puts a load of mirrors up the stairs - but the fabric of the house is Deco enough and if you look carefully there are some delightful details. The blue bath looks like an ocean liner and even the overflow outlet cover has a sunburst.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Dorset St Catherine Places

The first glimpse of my patron saint this Autumn came in Cattistock church. This has a gigantic and sumptuous 19th-century tower decorated with a frieze of saints and, sure enough, there she is, rather a long way up.

Naturally I also made my customary pilgrimage to Abbotsbury. I don't usually approach the village from the west, but this gives a different view of the chapel on the hill, lit by the morning sun a week ago, with Chesil Beach and the great dark mass of Portland behind it:

Most of the prayers left in the chapel at the moment concern departed loved ones. In the photo below you can see a variety of hand-made mementos, or offerings, and also a sort of memorial bottle which has been bought commercially. In one case a group of people had clearly visited the chapel to remember someone on their birthday, with the implication that they do this regularly; another deposit, in memory of a baby, had been gathered together over a number of years and left in the niche on a single occasion. There was one obvious exception to this memorial theme - the line on a piece of paper 'thank you for my transplant', next to a rough sketch of a heart. Nothing was addressed to St Catherine, or obviously Christian, or specifically belonging to any spiritual tradition at all.

From there I went down to the parish church. Somehow I'd never managed to take a photograph of the beautiful Catherine window, which makes her look like a 1930s movie star. I was entranced not only by that, but also the lovely little musical cherubs above her.

There was an upsurge in interest in St Catherine in Abbotsbury around Millennium year when a music festival was held and the Chapel played a crucial role in the branding. At that time a whole set of new kneelers were made for the church by local people, and a cover for the church's piano. Many of these pieces use imagery of Catherine, the wheel, and the chapel, sometimes in a whimsical way.

Now I had forgotten until quite recently that there is a third chapel of St Catherine in Dorset, as well as Abbotsbury's and the one at Milton Abbas. This is St-Catherine's-by-the-Sea, perched on the cliffs at Holworth above Ringstead Bay, and I had been there many, many years ago, yet its existence had completely slipped my mind. On this holiday I parked at the Ringstead Bay car park (£5, ow) and went on what I expected to be a demanding mile-long walk along the cliff path but which turned out to be relatively mild, to find the chapel. Abbotsbury's and Milton Abbas's chapels are of course ancient, but the Holworth one is modern. How it came to be here at all, looking out over the Channel with no more than a scattering of houses nearby, is a tangled story. Holworth was once a far more extensive village, part of the original foundation grant to Milton Abbey by King Athelstan in 933, and seems to have disappeared in the 1400s. This settlement was inland from where the chapel is now. I can't find out how old Holworth House is, but in 1887 it was bought by Revd Robert Linklater, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Stroud Green. Fr Linklater's appointment to Stroud Green had been controversial as he was known to be an advanced Anglo-Catholic and was taking over a church with an Evangelical tradition, but he gradually won his congregation over and had a successful ministry, retiring in 1910 and dying five years later. Holworth was his holiday retreat, and he was clearly fascinated with its history. Even though the area had been united with Owermoigne parish in 1880 (a more practical arrangement than belonging to Milton Abbas, miles away inland) he insisted on sending, so the story goes, an annual basket of prawns to the Vicar of Milton Abbas to recognise the historic connection between the two places. It was Fr Linklater's widow who built St Catherine's-by-the-Sea some time after 1926, setting up a Trust to look after it once she'd sold Holworth House. Of course the dedication makes sense given the chapel at Milton, but perhaps there was also a church dedicated to Catherine at old Holworth: I can't find any proof of that, but will look elsewhere when I get the chance. 

The chapel on the cliffs was made of wood and by 2012 needed complete rebuilding (you can see what it used to look like here). During this work, a broken medieval floor tile was discovered: it had been sent from St Catherine's at Milton Abbas when St Catherine's-by-the-Sea was built to mark the link between them. There it still is, a 'relic', as a label tells you.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Leaving Lyme Regis

This is nothing to do with Lyme Regis, really, I just fancied the alliteration.

There was a rumour passing round the PJ Harvey fan forum a while ago (the world is of course celebrating her recent birthday) that she’d left Dorset and had moved to London. I didn’t believe it; though if she’d decamped permanently from the Holy Land a bit of my world would have crumbled into the sea, so I’m not inclined to believe it anyway. I’m sure there’s an ancient prophecy in the Annals of St Aldhelm or something that if ever PJH leaves Dorset for good, Sherborne Abbey will fall down, lightning will strike County Hall in Dorchester, and a cow will make its way into the ruins of Corfe Castle to give birth to a two-headed calf, but perhaps I’m getting muddled.

It is no secret that Ms H lives (let’s assume she still does) at West Bay, the harbour of Bridport a couple of miles south of that old ropemaking town, where the River Brit meets the English Channel. She’s said so publicly, so I’m breaching no confidences. West Bay is one of my favourite places, not just because of its Pollyesque associations, but because my family have been going there for days out since I was little, having an ice cream or a carton of chips as we walked around the harbourmouth. In those days, the Jurassic Coast didn’t even know that that’s what it is. While I worked at another Dorset museum, I and Karen the assistant curator agreed to help Julia, glamorous and slightly crazy curator of Bridport Museum with whom I was a bit infatuated, to set up a new museum in the Salt House on the harbour side at the Bay. We spent an exhausting evening cleaning, cutting up captions and the like, during which I barely managed to exchange a word with Julia, and a week or so later went down again for the grand opening. Karen squinted up at the postcard-sized photographs and accompanying captions on the walls, glanced at the six-foot figure of Julia intimidating various elected members of West Dorset District Council, and commented pointedly ‘this is a museum designed by a Tall Person.’ It never thrived and now isn’t any kind of museum at all.

The photograph above is one of West Bay my Dad took in 1989. In the background you can see the unmistakable Harbour Cliff – it looks like nowhere else in the world and makes West Bay instantly recognisable. But the place has changed since then. Even fewer of the vessels in the harbour are working boats now than thirty years ago. In the very early 2000s the quays were rebuilt and new coastal defences put in, and the first time we went visiting after that I remember gawping open-mouthed at the flats newly built on the West Quay: what the residents of the gated West Cliff think of all that blocked into their view I can’t imagine. It adds to a spatchcock, roughshod little place, made of bits and pieces left over from a different age, something sleek and shiny and profoundly different.

West Bay began life as an economic appendage to Bridport, and now that the parent town is something of an arty, left-bank sort of place, so its seaside offspring is becoming too: the old Customs House was reconstructed a couple of years ago, and now shelters a variety of small alternative businesses. One of them is the emporium of Goth novelist Miss Gish, working at this very moment on her mystery novel based around Abbotsbury and inspired by PJH’s song ‘The Wind’. Although the Salt House didn’t take off, there is going to be another museum operated here by the Bridport Museum Service, based in the old Methodist chapel.

And then there’s Broadchurch. I have never seen the TV thriller series although I suppose I should just for the sake of the local colour. Now, when my family first started visiting West Bay years ago it was a seaside resort, certainly, but of a strictly local kind; it was your destination if you wanted to avoid the tourists congesting Lyme Regis to the west or Weymouth to the east. It had too many leaky old boats and weed-coated lobster pots around to have general appeal, and most of its custom came from within Dorset itself. Now, thanks to David Tennant and Olivia Coleman, everyone knows about the place and those crinkled clifftops are familiar to millions. Certainly west Dorset businesses put an upsurge in the tourist trade since 2013 down to the Broadchurch Effect. Last Wednesday I walked down the coastal path onto West Bay beach just as a coach drew in to the parking area. A couple of dozen people got out, scrambled a few yards onto the shingle, and started photographing the Harbour Cliff. (My sister reminded me that West Bay was also the setting for a short-lived TV light drama called Harbour Lights many years ago, but let's simply say that never captured public acclaim in quite the same way).

But would you leave because of all that? The sunset strikes across Lyme Bay, and the day trippers go home, and the film crews pack up, and the sea crashes on the beach and gnaws at the cliffs the same as it ever did. And a few hundred yards away is this: 

You wouldn’t trade that in for anonymous London to escape bustle and interruption, or I wouldn’t. (I’ve lifted the image from, as Sarah’s pictures are far nicer than mine).

My retirement could be twenty years away yet, and what happens then depends mainly on what happens to me and Ms Formerly Aldgate, but I always dream of returning to the Holy Land. I doubt it would be to West Bay, though: I feel I’d need the royal permission to trespass there. I have a yen for the Isle of Portland, which is not just another place, but another world, even within the other world of Dorset. The main drawback of Portland is the difficulty of getting out of Portland if you have to, as there’s only one road, which regularly floods. And remembering never to mention rabbits, of course. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Stories from the Sea

Burton Bradstock was where I stayed on holiday - not in some quirky folly this time, but just a wee cottage a bit worryingly close to a filling station and car showroom, but in fact that caused no problem at all. I have a lot of pictures to show off now, so will bore you with them over the coming days.

Mere yards up the lane from the Old Pottery Cottage was Burton Cliff, from which you can survey the coast all the way from Portland Bill to Start Point, when the weather's right. The moods of the sea, even this modest sea called the English Channel, vary so hugely. The water was bright blue on Friday, apparently calm and inviting; on Saturday, grey and wild. Before leaving that morning I went up the lane to say farewell to the sea and stood awhile as the waves smashed against the shingle far below. I thought of the story I'd read at Lyme Regis Museum, of the wreck of the Heroine in 1852, when five Lyme men went to the aid of the stricken ship and four of them drowned themselves. However ordered and structured our human environment becomes, the sea remains alien, untameable. Looking out from Burton Cliff, how strange it seems to imagine that there's anything beyond that stretching, level blue, or grey.

My activities on Friday, though, had a haunted aspect, due to the overshadowing presence of a bad dream I'd had in the morning, in which I was awaiting my own execution at 2 in the afternoon, not for anything I had done, but inescapably. The uneasy feeling was compounded in real life later in morning by meeting a white horse in a field at Abbotsbury: owing to another dream many years ago I've come to recognise white horses as my personal harbinger of danger. I know this all sounds very weird, but as 2pm drew nearer I really felt remarkably strange and was glad I was able to park by the roadside in case I was about to have a stroke or some uncontrollable affliction. Of course nothing happened, but I'll remember the experience.

I found myself thinking that, even if Friday 6th October 2017 was going to be my last day in this earthly existence, it wouldn't have been a bad one, and I could think of nothing I would rather be doing than what I'd planned to do, visiting wells, churches and historic sites. In the evening, once the hysteria had passed, I was again looking out over the water, this time in the dark outside Eype Church (a very sacred spot because it's where Let England Shake was recorded), waiting for a concert to start. When I do die, I thought, the strange mixture of things I've experienced, seen and heard will all come to an end, at least as far as human knowledge can access, and this is true for all of us. We must each put that mixture to work, processing the experiences the world through it, struggling to make sense of it, producing. It's how we take part in the work of God.