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. 


  1. I've never seen Broadchurch either, which is strange, as it features Charlotte Rampling and Dorset, two of my very favourite things. Perhaps it was a bit too acclaimed for my tastes? Anyway, a pleasurable read, as always!

    P.S. I've been intending to reread The French Lieutenant's Woman, as I read it a very long time ago, and it takes place in Lyme Regis, as you know, so your alliterative title prompts me to do it!

  2. Our curate was very surprised I hadn't seen it, too, as apparently the character of the local priest is a reasonably positive depiction of an Anglican clergyperson. I must confess that I haven't read TFLW; you can stay in John Fowles's old house now, as it was bought by the Landmark Trust (in the 18th century it was the house of Eleanor Coade, the inventor of an artificial stone that used to be used for garden statues, follies, and other ornaments). It's quite expensive though!