Tuesday 20 August 2013


Lyme Regis looking back from The Cobb
On the 6th August I was driving back to London from Newquay in Cornwall along the A30. The A30, the road of dreams, a route right through British history that lays England bare. Neolithic, Iron Age, Roman, Saxon, Norman, Tudor and on, right through the whole of history like a scalpel to the heart of the matter, it wends it long beautiful way. Parts of the route are variously replaced or bypassed by the A303 and other variants or extensions named A3… with a selection of digits added and finally on to the M3. It is almost an arrow straight route from Penzance at the very tip of Cornwall, the heel of land attached to Cornwall’s leg, right to the heart of London. Marilyn, Abigail and I had set out early from Newquay. We had all day. London is 250 miles from Newquay. We decided we had time to visit places on the way back. Abigail, at first said she would like to walk around Bath. I was happy to do that. Marilyn suggested finding a village in the Cotswolds such as Castle Combe or Laycock. It was a lovely sunny day. I then thought the beach at Lyme Regis would be a pleasant place to sit, eat ice creams and watch the sea sparkling in the sun, its waves breaking into surf on the shingle beach. Abigail and Marilyn thought that would be a good idea too.Ice cream!!!! Marilyn took Abigail and Emily to The Natural History Museum in Kensington last year and there they saw one of Mary Anning’s Ichthyosaurus fossils displayed. There are many fossils to be found as you walk beneath the cliffs at Lyme and there are an abundance of fossil shops selling exquisite ammonites. I suggested it would also be good to walk along The Cobb at Lyme like Jane Austen. It was decided, we would go to Lyme.

 Lyme, a very British place.

At Honiton we branched south from the A30 along the A35 which took us directly to Lyme through woods of oak, elm and beech, fields of Dorset sheep and a rolling and dipping landscape. Dairy cattle  grazed in small thickly hedged fields  that dipped into  steeply dropping and rising valleys that made me think of Thomas Hardy’s Blackmore Vale , The Vale of Little Dairies, and home to Tess of the Durbevilles. Blackmore Vale is actually in the north part of Dorset around Sturminster Newton. I can never travel through Dorset without thinking about Hardy, his stories ; the  deeply passionate rural life he described, an age gone by, that provided me with a deep love of Dorset and Dorset people and set many feelings and emotions loose inside my fevered adolescent mind; especially after reading Far From The Madding Crowd.

The Lias clay cliffs and undercliffe near Lyme

Lyme Regis is set on the side of Lyme Bay that is edged by tall cliffs consisting of marls, which are a mixture of clays and shales. They create impressive cliffs. However the cliffs are liable to landslides. This geological structure has lead to land slips along its length  either side of Lyme Regis and this has created wide shelving. These ledges have been named, The Undercliffe. Their location facing south and towards the sea , sheltered from the cold which comes down from the north  in the winter, has formed almost rainforest conditions against the face of the cliffs. Because the cliffs erode relatively quickly, fossils are revealed everywhere. The coast has been called The Jurassic Coast and it is against the steep sides of these cliffs Lyme has grown and developed. It is a fishing port and was a trading centre. It is ideal for taking holidays because of its mild climate and beautiful seascapes.

We drove down a steeply inclined road, round winding country lanes into Lyme. I put the car into a low gear and used the foot break on tight corners. Because of the sharp winding turns going down a steep incline I focussed carefully on the bends ahead watching for cars and vehicles coming up and ready to break if necessary. We were all concentrating hard, Marilyn, Abigail and myself as we wended our tortuous way into Lyme. A white signpost with a large blue letter P denoted the way to a car park. We took the left turn, following the signpost. Down we plunged again, carefully, slowly, an ever steeper incline. It felt almost vertical in its steepness, to a car park next to the town library at the bottom of the valley.
Once we had parked the car we had to walk back up this steep road before turning left into Lyme High Street which then dropped down sharply itself to the glistening sea in front of us. The sea looked like  a carpet of bright light, reflecting jewels.

The seafront at Lyme.

Lyme Regis is a lovely English seaside town. In some ways it is typical of its type. It has buildings from different periods in our history, some modern buildings from the 1960’s and 1970’s and one or two even more recent. It has a variety of grand Victorian shops and houses and quite a range of Georgian buildings too. Some may go back to Tudor times and fragments of buildings, foundations and walls, may go back earlier still. This lovely mixture gives a place character, a certain Englishness, something that has taken time to create and form. As we walked down Lyme High Street to the sea we passed, clothes shops with displays behind their small Victorian and Georgian windows, fossil shops, cafes and restaurants, a cheerful and invitingly picturesque children’s bookshop with  pictures and books on display in the window. The Royal Lion Hotel, a grand Georgian inn with an archway to the right of the main entrance where carriages would have entered to the stables behind, came up on our left. Opposite is a tiny house with its front door straight onto the street with a plaque displayed above the door saying, Pyne House. This is the most likely lodging of Jane Austen, whose visits to Lyme in 1803 and 1804 gave birth to her novel, “Persuasion.”

Pyne House, where Jane Austen reputedly stayed.

Marilyn, Abigail and myself walked further on the to end of the street near the sea and beach where a large black painted 18th century cannon from an ancient man of war, points out to sea. The town was crowded the day we were there. Some clouds above shaded us at times but mostly bright sun shone down from blue skies. People were all over the beach on deckchairs, lying out on towels and plunging into the sea. I overheard one young girl say to her friend as they walked near us, “Its just like the magazines and picture books.” Indeed the scene was picturesque, a view of England and the English at play in the Summer.
We found a beach side café, bright and white in its décor looking out onto Lyme beach and harbour. We had cool drinks sitting outside the cafe, at a table next to the sand and the sounds of the sea surf. Children and adults were playing beach volleyball, making sandcastles and burying their brothers, sisters and dads under great patted down mounds , leaving only heads and feet visible.A notable thing  about  Lyme are the sea front  lampposts. They curl at the top into amazing ammonite shapes.

Ammonite lampposts.
There were many activities going on, on the beach; a sandcastle competition with entrants creating elaborate castles out of wet sand and some deckchairs were displayed in a curve on the shingle part of the beach. Their canvas seats showed intricate designs displaying a different theme for each deckchair. One deckchair was a history of fossil hunting and the life of Mary Anning. Another showed typical seaside activities. The designs and pictures were created with an appliqué technique.

Artistic deckchairs.

 Near the deckchairs children were being guided and taught how to make pavement art using chalk on concrete paving stones. Further along the beach there was positioned a brightly painted 18th century bathing machine. It was painted with broad vertical stripes of bright red and pastel blue. Its doors,one at either end and its sloping roof and its wheels and wooden steps up to each door, were gloss white. It looked  picturesque set there on the seafront beside the beach. A lady and her daughter sat next to it in deckchairs and invited passers-by to step inside the bathing machine.  A board resting against the wheels explained that the contents of the machine were the results of a project carried out by Lyme Museum. Lyme Museum had got school children to spend an afternoon in the museum and asked them to find their favourite objects. They used the objects to inspire them to create a work of art. The display inside the bathing machine were  the artefacts the children had made.
The stripy bathing machine cum museum.

I was particularly excited to see and read a handmade book with pieces of descriptive writing, stories and poems inspired by museum objects. The book had not only been written by the children but also made by them. They  designed the cover, invented  lettering for the title page, sewn the pages of the book together from some coarse heavily textured paper and used scrim, webbing and card to make the hard board cover. The sewn pages had then been glued into the cover. The whole book was a work of art in itself. It brought back some wonderful memories of  when teachers created a topic based curriculum for children. Those were the days of glue and paper and needles and thread and marbling trays and rolls of scrim to be cut up. Making a whole book in this way is a very satisfying thing to do. There were also puppets inspired by Punch and Judy, pebbles off the beach painted with seaside pictures, wooden models of people dressed for the beach, postcards designed by children and pieces of ceramics beautifully sculpted and glazed, paintings and posters. This little exhibition inside an old brightly painted bathing machine was a real joy. 
Some of the children's work inside the bathing machine.

We walked on along the seafront and sat on the sandy part of the beach for a while and ate ice creams. I had a Magnum. Its an ice cream covered in a coating of crisp chocolate. I know what you are thinking. Ok I love the sound of the chocolate coating cracking as I bight into it and then using my tongue to lift pieces of the chocolate off the ice cream part and eating it before I get my lips and tongue around the ice cream itself. It’s just one of those fads I have.

Just behind us were situated a row of beach huts. Beach huts are a particularly English thing. They are like small sheds or bathing machines without wheels set at the edge of the beach. They might be rented out by the local council or they might be owned by an individual family. The idea is very simple. Inside, deckchairs, tea, coffee, a small stove perhaps, a mini fridge , in fact all the comforts the family might require on the beach are stored. They are  much prized. To buy one of these small ,"home from homes," on the beach you would have to pay a small fortune.

Beach huts.

After that delicious ice cream moment we walked on along the seafront to The Cobb, past  two Georgian cottages called Harville and Benwick. Only a Jane Austen fan would know!! And, then we came across a  shop, just before The Cobb, called, Persuasion, no less. We were, persuaded, and spent sometime inside.


After that The Cobb beckoned. The Cobb, a massive curving and twisting harbour wall that protects the small fishing community at the far end of the beach, a little distance away from the main part of the town, is made of enormous limestone blocks. You can see how the limestone surface is becoming pitted and  fossils of small sea creatures embedded in the stone are visible. When we got on to the top level of The Cobb, which slopes quite alarmingly outwards towards the open sea, we discovered that it was crowded with people. My first reaction was that either the Jane Austen fan base in Britain has increased dramatically or The French Lieutenants Woman by John Fowles has suffered a resurgence in popularity. However, it was neither of these. A long boat regatta was taking place from The Cobb. Twenty or thirty brightly painted longboats manned by rowing crews, each sporting their own teams coloured shirts, were racing against each other in  competition.

Long boat racing competition from The Cobb.

We stepped down Grannies Teeth, a series of limestone blocks that protrude from the inner side of the Upper Cobb wall as a series of steps to the lower part of The Cobb. It is these steps it is presumed Jane Austen referred to in Persuasion, as the steps Louisa Musgrove fell from.

From the far end of The Cobb we looked back at Lyme and the cliffs surrounding the bay. Lyme looks huddled and small set in this impressive Jurassic landscape. We could follow the line of the Undercliffe with its luxurious vegetation.

The bottom of Lyme High Street near the sea.

Here is short of history of Lyme Regis to wet your appetite.
Lyme Regis is situated 25 miles west of Dorchester , the county town of Dorset and the home of Thomas Hardy who recreated Dorchester as Casterbridge in his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge.

In Saxon times the abbots of Sherborne Abbey had salt boiling rights next to the mouth of the River Lym. The Abbey once owned land covering part of the town. It was mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086 which incidentally was recorded in Winchester in the county of Hampshire. By the 13th century it became a major port and was regarded as more important than Liverpool tight up to 1780 when it then began to decline because it could not handle the larger ships that were beginning to be used. A Royal Charter was given to it by Edward I in 1284 which added the, Regis, to the towns name. John Leland visited the town in the 16th century. Leland was a poet and reliquary and began the convention of studying local history. It was his idea to study the history of each county.
He wrote,
“ a praty market town set in the rootes of an high rokky hille down to the hard shore.”

In 1644 during the English Civil war it withheld an eight week siege under the Royalist Prince Maurice.
The Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme 11th June 1685 to begin the Monmouth Rebellion. This was a rebellion based in the West Country attempt to overthrow James II who had become very unpopular.
News of the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805, arrived in England at Lyme when the Bermuda sloop HMS Pickle docked in the port. It was re-enacted in 2005, the bicentenary of the battle.
In 2011 the town census showed that 3,671 people lived in Lyme.. It is situated in Lyme bay on the English Channel. The town is famous for its fossils. It is part of the Heritage Coast also known as The Jurassic Coast and now a World heritage Site. The Jurassic coast stretches for 153 kilometeres from Orcombe Point near Exeter to Old harry Rocks in the east. Geologically the coastline exposes a continuous sequence of Triassic, Jurassic and cretaceous rocks spanning 185 million years of earth’s history. The Blue lias clays around Lyme are home to a whole range of Jurassic fossils. It is a very important geological region. There are many well preserved remains. Some are displayed in Lyme Museum and in some of the fossil shops in the town. Some of the most important and spectacular examples are now in The Natural History Museum in Kensington. Many of the earliest discoveries of dinosaur and other prehistoric remains were found in the cliffs around Lyme. Mary Anning 1799-1847 is the most notable of the early fossil hunters. She found almost complete examples of Ichthyosaurs, Plesiosaurs, Dimorphodons, Scelidosaurus ( an early armour plated dinosaur) and Dapediums. A fossil of the worlds largest moth was discovered in 1966 in Lyme.
Because the coast around Lyme is mostly clays it is prone to landslips. One of the most spectacular slips occurred in 1839 when three miles of cliff slipped. Another smaller slip happened in 1840. In 2005 work began on £16 million of engineering works to stabilise the cliffs.

Cottages along the front including Harville Cottage and Benwick Cottage.

The Cobb is one of the most famous places of interest in Lyme. It is a major setting in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion published in 1818. In chapter 11 Jane almost becomes a writer of guide books.  She must have been very taken with Lyme herself.
“ …the remarkable situation of the town, the principle street almost hurrying into the water, the walk to the Cobb skirting round the pleasant little bay, which in the season is animated with bathing machines and company, the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the strangers eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme.

 But of course the Cobb is where the scene of the most dramatic consequence to the whole novel occurs.
This is about the midway point in Persuasion.

Crowds of spectators on The Cobb watching the rowing regatta.

“There was too much wind to make the high part of the Cobb pleasant for the ladies, and they agreed to get down the steps to the lower, and all were contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight, excepting Louisa; she must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth.In all their walks, he had had to jump her from the stiles; the sensation was delightful to her. The hardness of the pavement for her feet made, made him less willing upon the present occasion; he did it, however; she was safely down, and instantly, to show her enjoyment ran up the steps to be jumped down again. He advised her against it; thought the jar too great; but no he reasoned and talked in vain; she smiled and said, “ I am determined I will; he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb, and was taken up lifeless.”

Grannies steps on The Cobb. Louisa Musgrove fell to the  pavement below.

John Fowles,until his death, lived in Lyme. His house is open to the public on application. He used Lyme and specifically the Cobb in his novel, The French Lieutenants Woman. The film of the novel, starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep was actually filmed in Lyme and used  the Cobb in one its dramatic scenes. I like The French Lieutenants Woman and I think it is one of John Fowles best books. The time shift concept in the film, an adaptation by Harold Pinter,creates  comparisons between two historical periods and especially the exploration of Victorian attitudes is very good.The novel itself has three endings and again the exploration of human nature, good and bad, is interesting. I read The Magus just after returning from holiday to Ios and Naxos in the Aegean sea many years ago. The story I found dark and intimidating and I know, with all literature, you have to suspend belief at times but the amount of belief I found myself required to suspend in The Magus was too much. I couldn't work out why Nicholas Urfe really got involved  with that Mephistophelean character. Would boredom really get him that interested in such an uninteresting person? The mind games  rather bored me. I know how the poor chap felt!!! I still don't get the book. Maybe it is just me. The Collector once again explores mans darker nature. His deeper needs and urges. I haven't read this one but I saw a dramatisation of it on TV many years ago.

Looking up Lyme High Street with the sea behind me.

The house that John Fowles lived in ,"Belmont House," used to be owned by Eleanor Coade (1733-1821).
She invented and manufactured coade stone. It was a very tough ceramic based stone. It was purported to be virtually weather proof. It was used to create statues and the front ornamentation of houses. Belmont House is  trimmed with coade stone. Another famous example is the lion statue on the South Bank end of Westminster Bridge. It is next to what was County Hall where London used to be governed from.
County Hall is now a Marriott Hotel, A Premier Inn, London Aquarium, an art gallery and London Dungeon.It is right next to The London Eye.

The Royal Lion Hotel where Ann Elliot probably stayed in the novel Persuasion. It is the most prominent inn in the high street and it is positioned directly opposite Pyne Cottage where it is thought Jane Austen herself stayed.


  1. Tony: Another interesting blog post! Loved the photos, too. I've been to Lyme Regis - about 7 years ago. I heartily endorse your recommendation for people to visit. Dorset is a lovely county. People could combine a trip to Lyme with a visit to Thomas Hardy's Cottage, near Dorchester. My main interest in Lyme was visiting the setting of John Fowles's superb book The French Lieutenant's Woman. The Cobb is featured in the very dramatic opening scene. And there are many scenes on and around the undercliff. Thanks for reviving those memories!

  2. Tony, I would have had a hard time deciding between the three choices your family came up with that day--couldn't go wrong! But I don't do well on winding roads (carsickness), and Grannies Steps are definitely not for me. I agree with your advice to go to Waitrose and such places and really get a feel for a place. That's what I like to do.

  3. Jean, there are some very good restaurants in Lyme. One I have been in is right on the seafront, virtually on the beach with fantastic sea views.
    The Lion Hotel is an 18th century Inn, it too has a lovely restaurant. You would be in your element exploring the culinary delights of Lyme.

  4. Dear Tony, how wonderful to seeing Lyme through your photos and words. I must tell to my fellows Janeites and readers at my Jane Austen Brazilian blog!

    May I use one or two images?

    best wishes, raquel

  5. Tony, i loved this post!!! I am going to Lyme Regis in October ( I am from Brazil) and it will help me a lot, i want to go to all the places you wrote here, such a beautiful place! Now i will follow your blog because i am going to stay some days in Plymouth and i will travel near there too.