Sunday, 29 October 2017

Modern Gothic

It's nearly Halloween, after all.

The online news branch of media company Vice is known for many things, and journalistic excellence used not to be one of them. Their London office used to produce, in general, snide, ill-informed, would-be-clever clickbaity nonsense that you learned never to take seriously, or ideally not read at all. It was a great surprise to me to hear Vice News journalists being interviewed on the BBC and brought into discussion programmes as though they actually knew something, and even more to realise that the company had gathered a reputation as a committed and serious news organisation. Even the London office got the message.

More than one person I know called attention to this recent article on the UK Vice website about Goth, as part of a series on subcultures. The writer spoke to ten people who identified as Goths (I use that phrase carefully because of what comes next) aged between 18 and 31. They talked about becoming Gothic (‘I felt the boots were wearing me’), their reactions to feeling accepted or disdained (and occasionally attacked) by the wider community, issues of identity, definition and diversity, bewilderment at being assumed to be Satanists, and the effect of the murder of Sophie Lancaster in 2007. Of course there were occasional infelicities (including on the part of some of the interviewees), but the overall tone was supportive, underlining what Catherine Spooner has said in Postmillennial Gothic about the increasing public approbation of Goths and Gothic. What a long way we’ve come since a Guardian columnist could write in 2002 ‘sullen, suburban and witlessly morbid, Goths have lingered like the living dead while other youth cultures have come and gone’, accusing them of ‘infantile notions’, ‘middle-brow suburban myopia’ and ‘paucity of imagination’. Shame it took a young woman having her head stamped on until she died to change that.

I liked what the young(ish) self-identified Goths had to say. Simone claimed that “The scene is becoming more diverse than ever, people are expressing themselves with more freedom than ever before without fear of judgement”. Klinga said 

It seems like the goth scene is much more open and diverse than in past years, there's still a bit of elitism but it seems to be dying out. There's lots of people in the gothic (and alternative) community that are kind, open minded, willing to talk to you and make you feel very included no matter how much of a goth you are. I feel like the gothic culture is much bigger now days, mostly due to the amount of subcultures that were created to the standard "goth" image, such as pastel Goths, nu-goths, Lolita Goths, health Goths... the list goes on.

The young man whose picture accompanies the article, Arcade, is a friend of my accountant Ms Death-and-Taxes, and illustrates the point; he’s wearing New-Rock boots (obviously), but a black faux-fur-collared coat from Bench, which is not usually considered a Goth retailer. Good.

Not everyone is completely happy with this. One person I know who linked to the article is Mal, a Goth DJ who’s been there right from the very beginning, and regards the  changes in the Goth world with emotions that shift between wry and irritated. I greatly honour the man, and his wife Bernice, but his and others’ statements on the matter do remind me of Mojo Nixon and Jello Biafra’s track ‘Nostalgia for an Age that Never Existed’:

You stay home, mad at the whole scene
For refusing to freeze
In nineteen-eighty-three

Mal is among a class of older Goths who have struggled for years to keep the torch burning, who have battled their way across the country to run and attend club nights playing music that fits that early-80s template. It’s not a surprise that they don’t respond well to these hard-won, scarred badges of identity being taken away from them as Goth transmutes into something less oppositional and marginalised. One person commented rather beautifully:

Goth is goth - pure and simple, the silly prefixes that became are a result of other alternative tribes that may have had the tiniest of dark leanings getting lumped into the ever expanding melting pot. As a result you get so far removed from the initial concept that for many they don't really know what it is anymore or didn't to begin with. I got into Goth in 1991 - I was 13 and really caught the tail end before imo actual goth music went underground. There I think was the changing point. To me first and foremost it's about the music - I wore my clothes, and still do to symbolise who I am, my tastes, the music I love with every fibre of my being - it's what kept me going in my teens when I was chased, spat at, verbally abused etc. It seems now it's all about fashion and no substance and way too much confusion over what actual goth music is.

The tension between ‘concentration’ and ‘extension’ is familiar to any kind of subcultural grouping, including Christianity. When exactly have you strayed so far from what the ‘thing’ originally meant that it’s no longer recognisable for what it was? Where are the boundaries beyond which adherents must not stray?

The trouble with maintaining that to be Goth, Goth must what it was in 1982 is that it never was that even then. I related a couple of years ago about meeting early-80s Goths who described cheerfully going to club nights that played entirely different sorts of music, wearing entirely distinct brands of schmutter, and thinking nothing of it because at that stage they didn’t know that they were supposed to be acting in an exclusive, oppositional way. The very band around whom the Goth world coalesced in many ways – although they were, like true Goths, always horrified by the very idea – was Siouxsie & the Banshees, and their music never stood still. They didn’t have the deliberate, restless need to experiment that PJ Harvey has, true, and their musical referents went no further back than Bowie and Bolan for the most part, but over their 17 years of active music-making they drew in a huge range of influences, chewed them up, and regurgitated them as Gothic. It was dramatically, excitingly creative, and I enjoy discovering bands who, in their own ways, do the same now. What’s the point in sounding exactly like the Sisters of Mercy in 1984?

Admittedly, I’m an entirely fake Goth because I came at it through culture and not through music; although I knew about the Banshees, I’d come across very little by other recognisably Goth bands and tended not to like much of it when I did. And I did it at a time – the mid-1990s – when Goth barely existed. The only Goth I met during the time when I was first identifying myself with Gothic was a young woman who came to the museum in High Wycombe researching local ghosts and who interviewed me on the subject. I started thinking about what Goth and Gothic were, and developed some very definite opinions on the matter, most of which I abandoned when, a few years later, I met some real participants in the subculture, which was just about to swing upwards again, and realised it was far beyond me to control, define, or even comprehend within my knowledge. I abandoned myself to the flow and it was vastly liberating. I was freed to enjoy the welter of incomprehensible and yet mysteriously, miraculously united eclecticism that I found at places like Intrusion, the club in Oxford. In the end, what I found most lovable about that world wasn't the music (most of it didn't resonate with me), or the style (which I never really adopted), but the companionship, a group of people who shared the same referents and language: a sense of home.

When Goth was rescued from oblivion in the late 1990s, it wasn’t early-1980s Goth that did it: it was the pagan movement and the bands associated with it, the internet, and very elaborate neo-Victorian dress styles that only bore a remote relationship with the more punky business of a decade-and-a-half before. The individuals attracted by that then discovered early-80s Goth, but very naturally didn’t see the need to confine their attention to that template. And so we’ve gone on, via Steampunk, Cybergoth, Lolita, CorpGoth, health goth, and all the things that my friend Cylene has tried out that nobody else seems to want to copy. And these subcategories aren’t all a matter of dress: they have ramifications in music, film, literature, art.

The blessing and the curse of Goth is that it isn’t, and never was, an isolated phenomenon: it’s part of a bigger, grander, deeper current in the river of experience and desire called gothic, and will continue to feed into wider culture and be fed by it. It can’t be constrained or controlled by anyone, and I don’t care. I like that about it. 

Friday, 27 October 2017

Got to Keep On Walkin'

You know a little about my relationship with music; that of my parents was uppermost in my mind the other day when Fats Domino’s death was announced. It’s not as though music was always echoing round our bungalow in Bournemouth when I was small, and when it was, it was a small selection: a bit of country (Slim Whitman, John Denver) and a bit of rock-and-roll (Jerry Lee Lewis). I liked the stories in the country, and the energy of Mr Lewis, although even when small I could tell that both had a considerable element of what one might now not unfairly call camp. Fats Domino was a bit different. I was intrigued by his name which struck me as very odd. He was indeed quite a portly gentleman to judge by the record sleeves, but I found it remarkable that anyone could share his name with the little black-and-white wooden gaming blocks I had a box of in the toy cupboard. Once I was aware that there were different kinds of music, I asked my dad once what sort Fats Domino’s was, and he said he wasn’t sure how to describe it, but thought it was probably more blues than anything else. It had a beguiling sort of melancholy to it.

I never fathomed my parents’ fondness for schmaltzy Country & Western (and don’t really want to; there is of course, as I’ve discovered since, country music which is far from schmaltzy, which is bleak and desperate and dark), but that aside, they did their growing-up in the 1950s and much of their taste clearly went back to that time. They went off Jerry Lee a bit in 1990 when he was booked to play in Bournemouth, no less, and they were among the crowd who waited, and waited, for him to turn up, fruitlessly. The rest of The Killer’s UK tour was cancelled. But Fats Domino remained, eternally at his piano and unfailingly beaming from those old record sleeves.

Hurricane Katrina levelled and flooded New Orleans in 2005, and the TV news showed residents being evacuated, among them ‘Rock and Roll legend Fats Domino’. He was by that point so legendary that my mum and dad had assumed he’d died years before and his continued existence came as quite a surprise. Ever since then I’d felt that his subsequent years were a bonus.

The connection was forged more powerfully when my dad died and mum had to sort out the music for his funeral. She sat with a retired priest attached to the local church and went through some options, and eventually settled on Fats’s ‘Walkin’ to New Orleans’. The song’s lyrics were far from apposite in some ways – ‘You used to be my honey/Till you spent all my money’, Fats complains – but, up to a point, that doesn’t matter on such occasions. When dad was carried out of the church to that slow, insistent swing (were the undertakers’ men, despite themselves, swinging a little, too?) he was on another journey, like Fats. He knew next to nothing about New Orleans, which in Louisiana Creole manner Fats pronounces Orlon, but the point was that New Orleans was somewhere else.

I got no time for talkin’
I got to keep on walkin’
New Orlon’ is my home
That’s the reason why I’m goin'
Yes I'm walkin' to New Orlon'

I spoke to mum the day after the news. She remembered how dad and his best friend Dave had waited with bated breath for the first Fats Domino record they bought to come in stock at Beales in Bournemouth, all the way from Imperial Records in California, and dad had called her with great excitement to say they’d got it. For years Fats was nothing more than a name, really, a link to who they’d all been all those years ago, but evocative enough for all that. Mum admitted to a tear or two. ‘You’ll think I’m silly,’ she said. It’s not silly to mourn the loss of a comrade in the battle of memory, of remembering who you are, and those who love, the battle to carry on saying ‘We matter’. 

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Bulldoze the Lot

If I get up reasonably promptly in the morning, for a few minutes I coincide with Farming Today on Radio 4. Even though it’s clear that farmers always have some complaint to make about the weather, no matter what the weather has been like, it’s an interesting insight into a world I have no other contact with, in my suburban environment. The programme’s reports aren’t all specifically about agriculture, but also look at rural society and issues facing it more generally (they regularly discuss internet access, for instance). A little while ago there was a series of pieces about the role of rural churches and what alternative uses might be made of them in a time when church attendance is mainly small. Listeners’ comments were broadcast. ‘No effort should be wasted on these useless buildings,’ went one, ‘bulldoze the lot and build houses’.

A little while later I was alerted to a discussion on a Facebook board that covers Hornington and the area around: someone had gone into Swanvale Halt church and found a couple of youngsters cycling around inside. It wouldn’t be the first time. Most of the comments concerned issues of respect and manners, and a few ribald statements about what Jesus might do, but one fellow suggested ‘Good for them, at least they’ve found a use for a useless building’.

I’m not suggesting such sentiments are common: in fact it’s clear from the reactions (or definite lack of reactions) to them that they are marginal and, for all I know, the Farming Today commentator and the chap on the message board are one and the same. Nor is it possible to judge whether they fit into something more coherent and thought-out than simply a spasm of irritation. Is this standpoint confined to religious buildings, or is it a utilitarian objection to any old structure which has outlived its original purpose? Whatever the truth of that, it’s worth noting that some people, at least, look at a church in the centre of their community and heartily resent its presence. The word ‘useless’, that unites both these comments, is probably the mildest of the epithets that might have been applied.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Three Episodes of Unreason

On Wednesday, we had celebrated communion at Widelake House, the local care home. Arthur usually plays the piano on these occasions and I give him a lift home. While doing this he was in the back seat of the car – I’d already dropped someone else off who usually occupies the front passenger seat. And chatting in his customary light tone which was not all that easy to hear. I suddenly realised I was automatically tapping the volume control of my car radio to turn him up.
. . . . . . . . . . . . 

Later, Trevor called.

Trevor: Someone’s doing bread.
Me: Er, what do you mean?
Trevor: Someone’s doing bread.
Me: Yes, I heard you, but I don’t understand. Explain it to me.
Trevor: Someone is eating bread so that I will go back into Satan.
Me: No, I still don’t really get it. How can eating bread make you ‘go back into Satan’, whatever that means?
Trevor: Satan can bless and curse his people and the occult meet and eat holy bread like we do in church so that things will happen, and they’re doing it to make me go to Hell.
Me: How do you know this is happening?
Trevor (as though I’m an idiot): I can smell bread!!
. . . . . . . . . . 

Later still, it was the after-school club at the infants’ school. I was sat at the table with Lauren, who has a philosophical turn of mind for a five-year-old.

Lauren: You know everything because you’re a vicar.
Me: Oh, I don’t think I know everything.
Lauren: What don’t you know?
Me: Well, I don’t know what I don’t know. If I knew what I don’t know, I would know it and it wouldn’t be what I don’t know. 
Lauren: That doesn’t make any sense.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Gratuitous Views

A last little holiday post, from that land of fast-receding memories.

Red sky over the roofs of Burton Bradstock.

Marshwood Vale panorama - from the Beaminster road near Salwayash.

Wet ploughed field near Symondsbury.

Lyme Regis. 

For all I know, on this perpetual seafront
The girl who reaches me the ice cream
(Organic from the Marshwood Vale)
Could be an angel - 
And this bright day my ever Elysian,
Curved to the sea.
I’ve done this enough, after all. Perhaps
I’ve been here beyond my memory,
Beyond being wrapped up warm against the wind,
To when I was otherwise and not yet and barely at all.
It will not matter if I wear
My Springtime panama or my Autumn black:
I last less long than the smooth cream, and the kiss of the sea
Leaning in and back, and in and back.
I’m needed nowhere else, 
I can stay. 

Southwards from the footpath between Bothenhampton and Burton Bradstock. 

The lookout shelter at Bexington Knoll. We always used to point this out whenever we drove on the coast road between Bridport and Abbotsbury, but this was the first time I've ever been there to look at it. It's one of the places where PJH took Seamus Murphy in 2010 when they were figuring out how their working relationship was going to function, and shooting some portrait photos (which Seamus wasn't used to then). 

A bold and possibly mad fisherman on Pulpit Rock, Portland. 

And, a long way from Dorset, Bamburgh Castle seen across the low water from Lindisfarne Island. 

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.