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The British Shore in Weymouth

The main purpose of the king's visit was to engage in the newly fashionable health treatment of sea bathing, or dipping, as it was known. Bathers were rolled into the sea in wheeled bathing machines that looked like a cross between an enclosed sedan chair and a small caravan, from which they would descend a flight of wooden steps into the cold water, where a phalanx of helpers called dippers would give hands-on assistance for a full immersion. The king's bathing machine was an octagonal hut with a peaked roof built atop a four-wheeled cart and decorated with the royal crest. The monarch's specially appointed dippers wore GOD SAVE THE KING on sashes swathed around their waists, and on the occasion of the king's first immersion, a band concealed in another bathing machine piped up with a stirring rendition of the national anthem at the moment of his head's submerging. When I was a child, the king's bathing machine was the prize exhibit at the Weymouth Museum; these days, museum and machine can be found at a place called Brewers Quay, an old brewery that, in my youth, perfumed the air over the harbor with beery yeast but has since been repurposed into an unpleasantly commercial shopping arcade with the pandering interactive Timewalk through Weymouth's history, a tour conducted by a cartoon character of a brewery cat.

Dipping didn't relieve the king of his madness, though it must have delivered a considerable shock to the royal system. The king made his visits to Weymouth in September, by which time the local climate is decidedly autumnal. To the modern-day visitor accustomed to the concept that the beach is somewhere you go to laze and tan, Weymouth beach, even at the height of summer, presents a perplexing comedy in which the 18th-century notion that the seaside is healthful but not necessarily comfortable apparently persists. Experienced beachgoers come equipped with windbreaks (waist-high canvas walls on wooden stakes that are nailed into the ground, behind which people sit, shielded from the winds), while some even pitch small tents on the sand for complete, zip-up shelter. Children frolic for hours at the water's edge, certainly; but many of them these days wear black wet suits that cover them from elbow to knee, and little rubber shoes, which can be bought on the seafront at gift stores, alongside the saucy postcards and souvenir candy.

Although Weymouth couldn't cure the king, the king certainly transformed Weymouth. Until the middle of the 18th century, there hadn't really been a beach at Weymouth—in those days, the strand of sand that is now the pride of the resort served as a garbage dump for the older town that is still huddled around the harbor. By the late 18th century, the sand had been cleared and bathing machines installed, and the king's brother, the Duke of Gloucester, had built himself a mansion on what was then the outskirts of the town. Gloucester Lodge, which in later years became a hotel and is now an apartment building with a bar and restaurant in its basement, signaled an epistemological shift in Weymouth: it was the first house to turn a welcoming face toward the curve of the bay, rather than turning its shoulder to the dangerous water, as the town's older buildings had done for centuries. (One Tudor building near the harbor displays scars of violence from the seas: in 1645, during the civil war, it suffered an assault from a ship's cannon, and a cannonball is still embedded in its gable. That building, originally a merchant's house, has served for decades now as a very useful public toilet.)

The king made Gloucester Lodge his Weymouth residence, where he would receive updates on affairs of state and goings-on across the channel, into which he was diligently being dipped. (It was presumably from Gloucester Lodge that King George wrote to Lord Grenville, his foreign secretary, in September 1792, about the latest news from France: "The idea of trying the Queen and adding her death to their many other crimes is most shocking, and must alienate the minds of all who have the least sentiments of humanity.") The citizens of Weymouth, rather than beheading their monarch, were finding out just how lucrative a monarch could be with his head still on: the king himself visited Weymouth for only 16 years, but his royal endorsement resulted in a boom that lasted a half-century or more. In 1800, the Esplanade was built, the stately seafront terrace whose architectural consistency is interrupted only by the gaudy Victorian addition of the Royal Hotel, completed in 1897. Although Weymouth was always less raffish than Brighton, the resort favored by the prince regent, George III's son, it became an elegant resort for the rich, and the likes of Frank Churchill, the rapscallion charmer in Jane Austen's novel Emma, thought it fashionable enough to patronize. In 1810, the 50th anniversary of the king's coronation, the burghers of Weymouth erected a now gaudily painted statue of the king gazing out to sea, wearing an ermine cloak and flanked by a lion and a unicorn. He's still there, less a historical figure to locals than a signpost—the town bus stops at "the statue," which is never confused with another statue, the one of Queen Victoria at the Esplanade's other end—even though the horn on the unicorn was snapped off long ago.

Weymouth's 18th-century grandeur has dwindled significantly, and these days the houses along the Esplanade are mostly moderately priced guesthouses, many of them lavishly decked with red, white, and blue flags, as if King George might show up at any moment, and decorated with elaborate floral displays. Their interiors tend to show a disregard for authenticity consistent with Weymouth's current incarnation as a decidedly downmarket family destination. The breakfast room of the Brunswick Guest House, where I stayed and where the guests debate, each morning, the chance of sun or showers over fried eggs and sausages, is filled not with period antiques but with the owner's prized collection of framed posters of Hollywood movies and, over the mantelpiece, a selection of plates adorned with the image of Marilyn Monroe.


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