The chosen destination

Lyme130919

The first strikingly cold day—when the heating takes an executive decision to fire itself up—renders the summer immediately distant. Complaints about humidity, the constant swallowing of water to ward off dehydration, the absurdity of pocketless clothes—all fled away. As for our last escape to the sea, that final foray in convincing summer weather, was it a week ago, two, more?

Lyme Regis is the chosen destination these days when we retreat to the sea. Retreat or advance? Katabasis or Anabasis? There are the odd days to recover from, or seek to outdistance, the mental breakdown currently being undergone by the United Kingdom. Otherwise, the more durable points are November, for the Librarian’s birthday, and sometimes, in early June, for the birthday, not of Thomas Hardy (nor that of Edward Elgar, Barbara Pym, John Lehmann or the Marquis de Sade) but of the Librarian’s mother. This involves a good deal of driving, or being driven, through Mr Hardy’s county although, as far as I’m aware, he never mentions Lyme in his writings, despite having visited the town twice, possibly three times.

Stretching eyes west
Over the sea,
Wind foul or fair
Always stood she
Prospect-impressed;
Solely out there
Did her gaze rest
Never elsewhere
Seemed charm to be.[1]

 

Fowles--french-lieutenants-pb    French_lieutenants_woman-film

The town’s more familiar literary associations now are with John Fowles’ long residence in the town and his 1969 novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, filmed by Karel Reisz in 1981 with a script by Harold Pinter, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove falls from the Cobb and suffers a serious concussion. There is also, on a wall in Church Street, a plaque commemorating the occasion, on 11 November 1725, when the novelist Henry Fielding, with the assistance of his servant, tried to abduct Sarah Andrew (a distant cousin of whom he was enamoured), as she was walking to church with Andrew Tucker and his family. That is also, of course, the Henry Fielding who eventually became London’s chief magistrate and, with his half-brother John, founded the Bow Street Runners, the first police force in London.

We walk to the Cobb, sit or lean against the wall, watch the waves, boats, kayaks, swimmers, dogs, walkers and all those people busily engaged with fish and chips. Some places become uncomfortable very quickly when crowded – but somehow Lyme seems not to, perhaps because of the several beaches. And there is not only the sweeping sea view, the harbour, the Cobb itself, but also the public gardens, the beach huts, the sense of cohesion and singleness deriving in part from the steep roads down into Lyme so there’s never the feeling of its merely being on the way to somewhere else.

Lyme has spectacular scenery all around it and a nice spot from which you’re directed to view Charmouth, West Bay, Golden Cap, Portland. The Cobb is Lyme’s famous curving harbour wall, originally dating back to the thirteenth century, and is where the French Lieutenant’s woman stood; it’s certainly where we take our fish and chips—from Herbie’s, among the best you’ll taste but one portion will cater for two people unless their appetites are matters of record with local or national newspapers.

Lyme is first mentioned in 774, in connection with a manor granted to Sherborne Abbey and received a Royal Charter in 1284 from Edward I (6 feet 2 inches and thus ‘Longshanks’). Edward was also known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’—and was the conqueror of Wales, which caused the poet and artist David Jones, aged twelve and ‘careful that no one was looking’, to spit on his tomb in Westminster Abbey.[2]

William_Hogarth_Coram

(William Hogarth, Thomas Coram: Foundling Museum)

It was the birthplace of Thomas Coram, whose portrait by William Hogarth was presented by the artist in 1740 to the Foundling Hospital which the retired shipwright Coram began , appalled by the numbers of abandoned children in the streets of London. Sir George Somers, discoverer of the Bermudas was also born here: when he died, he was Admiral of the West Virginia Company fleet ‘and accidental inspirer of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest.’[3] One of his shipmates, Silvester Jourdain, wrote the first published account of the voyage and the shipwreck, Discovery of the Barmudas: The Isle of Devils, one of the three publications cited by Frank Kermode as being ‘directly relevant to The Tempest.’[4]

The remarkable fossil hunter and palaeontologist Mary Anning is another celebrated Lyme native. Born in 1799 into a poor family, she would operate with marked success in a field dominated by men, at a time when science ‘was still largely the province of the leisured gentleman amateur.’ An increasing numbers of visitors to Lyme, to meet Mary Anning and see her collections included Louis Agassiz and the King of Saxony. Fossil-hunting on the shore there was a hard and often dangerous affair but she had ‘the sharpest eyes in the business’, patience, persistence, courage and physical strength. She discovered Ichthyosaurs, Plesiosaurs, a Pterodactyl, fossil fish and coprolites. She died at the age of 47 and is buried in the churchyard of St Michael the Archangel, which has memorial windows for her and for Thomas Coram.[5]

Mary-Anning-via-BBC

(Mary Anning and her dog Tray via BBC)

On this last visit of the season, Lyme was looking its best, the air clear, the views long, the sea literally dazzling, even distant Portland standing out sharply. On the debit side, the Librarian was the victim of two attacks by Lyme’s already infamous seagulls: bombed once and raided once, the first occasion best not talked about, the second seeing the abrupt and violent theft of her ice-cream, the cornet whittled down to the perfect size and state—then gone, one swoop, one beak.

We already knew that the latest advice was to stare seagulls out – can this really work? But the Lyme seagulls have heard all that stuff in any case: they come from behind or from the side. Try staring me out now, sucker.

Next year: helmets and umbrellas.

 

 
Notes

[1] Thomas Hardy, ‘The Riddle’, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 448. John Fowles uses this stanza as epigraph to the opening chapter of The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

[2] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 15.

[3] John Fowles, A Short History of Lyme Regis (Stanbridge: The Dovecote Press, 2004), 18; also his ‘Islands’, in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, edited by Jan Relf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998), 304-309.

[4] The Arden edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, edited by Frank Kermode (London: Methuen, 1987), xxvii.

[5] Information from Crispin Tickell, Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, with a foreword by John Fowles (Lyme Regis Philpot Museum, 1996), 11, 18.

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