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The British Shore in Weymouth

Weymouth is a bit like that—the tacky and the elegant thrown haphazardly together by the accidents of history, the former showing no reverence for the latter. Weymouth's kitsch is not contrived: there's nothing knowingly ironic about its trampolines and helter-skelter slide and Punch and Judy stand, or about the sculptures of Neptune and galloping white-foam sea horses that a self-taught artist named Fred Darrington started modeling out of sand in a cordoned-off area of the beach in the 1920's, and are these days created by Darrington's grandson Mark Anderson. There's no pretentious gentrification, which means that although there are now restaurants that aspire to decent cuisine, and even reach it (Perry's, a seafood restaurant on the harborside, actually sells seafood), the best meal I had on my most recent trip back to Weymouth was at a place on Market Street called Fish 'n' Fritz. It offers a choice of cod, haddock, plaice, or rock (huss) and is, in traditional Weymouth style, adorned with signed publicity photographs of washed-up celebrities from the sixties, seventies, and eighties, like the Mamas and the Papas, Rose Royce, and—a band whose success the United States was spared—the Nolans.

When I was growing up in Weymouth, back when those celebrities were in their prime and I would have been thrilled to get their autographs, I had no idea that my town represented the lower-class end of Dorset, while all those inland miles of green hills and quaint villages were the county's high-class end. In fact, I didn't realize it until years later, when I was living in New York and, at a cocktail party, met a man who'd grown up 30 miles from Weymouth, and who responded to my enthusiastic claim that we were from the "same place" by coolly pointing out that I was from Seaside Dorset, while he was from Country Dorset.

He had a point: the two are quite different, even for those visitors not attuned to the complex hierarchies of the English class system. Country Dorset, with its picturesque villages of thatched stone cottages, set amid patchwork fields where cows or sheep graze by wooded ponds, tends in many places to look like a set for a commercial advertising something timeless and wholesome. The villages frequently have been used as sets for commercials advertising things timeless and wholesome, though not necessarily of Dorsetshire provenance: Gold Hill, a staggeringly pretty cobbled rise of cottages in the village of Shaftesbury, is well known to British television viewers of a certain age from commercials for Hovis, a bread company based two counties over, in Berkshire.

But an air of timelessness—there are no major highways in the county, and many villages are linked by single-lane roads—is hardly the most interesting thing about Country Dorset: it has its fair share of intriguing if somewhat accidental history, too. One of my favorite spots is Cerne Abbas, a village more or less preserved in amber in the 1840's, when it was bypassed by the Dorset railway system that brought advanced civilization to places like Weymouth. There are atmospheric, ivy-covered ruins of a 15th-century abbey, from which the town derives its name (legend has it that the first abbey on the site was built near a spring that spurted to life when a visiting Saint Augustine struck the ground with his staff), and a row of circa-1500 wood-framed, tile-roofed houses, whose gnarled struts and carved doorways were already almost a century old at the time of Shakespeare. But the village's most spectacular asset is the Cerne Abbas Giant—a 180-foot-high figure of a naked man cut into a steep chalk hillside just outside the town, holding an enormous club in one hand and brandishing from his groin an equally oversize erection. No one knows much about the Giant's origins: he could be a 1,500-year-old legacy from the Roman occupation of Britain, representing Hercules, but there is, mysteriously enough, no mention of him in any historical documents until 1694, which has led to more recent speculation by historians that he is a caricature of Oliver Cromwell, surreptitiously carved into the hillside by sniggering royalists.

The civil war is also obliquely memorialized in the towering aspect of Corfe Castle, a hilltop ruin in the southeastern corner of Dorset. The castle has an ancient foundation: it was originally built in 1087 by William the Conqueror, who sought to secure his claim upon England with a series of castles strategically placed along the southern coastline. Over the years, Corfe Castle was augmented by succeeding monarchs, and in the 13th century King John maintained a royal house there as a base for hunting parties. In 1572 it became a private residence, and in 1635 it was sold to Sir John Bankes, whose loyalty to the king's side during the civil war was such that his family withstood two sieges by parliamentary forces and were only defeated by treachery from within their own garrison. The castle was reduced to ruins not by a pitched battle but by the government's decision, in the tumultuous year of 1646, that the structure should be brought down so as to prevent its becoming a royalist holdout once again. The political crisis permitted about as much concern for historic preservation as that displayed by the Marilyn-loving proprietor of the Brunswick Guest House: the castle was blasted with what must have been prodigious quantities of gunpowder, so that its turrets now appear to be sliding haphazardly down the hillside; its half-demolished inner bailey has been reduced to a jagged tower.


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