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The British Shore in Weymouth

Locals made the best of the situation by carting off the blasted stone walls and building much of the lovely village that sits at the castle's ruined foot; and the Bankes family didn't do so badly, either. Between 1663 and 1665, they built Kingston Lacy, a house near the inland Dorset town of Wimborne Minster. The keys to Corfe Castle are preserved in the library, having been graciously bestowed upon Lady Bankes, with a very English propriety, by the parliamentary forces as they prepared to blow up her house. Much of Kingston Lacy's interior reflects the taste of a 19th-century Bankes descendant, a friend of Lord Byron who lived on the Continent to avoid prosecution for homosexuality and had all kinds of treasures shipped back to Dorset, including a gilded ceiling from a Venetian palazzo. The art collection is one of Dorset's surprises, and includes portraits by Titian, van Dyck, Velázquez, and Rubens, the last an uncanny rendering of the beautiful marchesa Maria Grimaldi accompanied by a glowering dwarf who pulls a curtain back to reveal the scene.

The odd old master aside, Dorset's greatest visual glory is its coastal path—part of a 630-mile-long trail that stretches from Minehead, in Somerset, almost to Poole, in Dorset. (In 2001, the place was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site; it's known as the Jurassic Coast.) The South West Coast Path is as impressive, in its way, as Route 1 in California, with the added attraction of its natural beauty not being marred by any actual highway. Backpackers in serious boots tramp alongside sprightly elderly locals with faces as craggy and weathered as the rocks around them: past Durdle Door, a spectacular natural archway carved into the limestone by the eroding waves; down to the neighboring Man-of-War Cove, a locale straight from the pages of a children's adventure book, cliff-edged and hemmed in by jagged outcrops of rock jutting from the water; and around the Isle of Portland, a craggy peninsula barely attached to the coastline by a high strand of stony beach.

You might think that here, in raw nature, there would be no traces of the comings and goings of British kings, or British conflicts, but that, of course, would be an error. The coastline around Durdle Door remains attractively undeveloped in part not because of its beauty but because it has been used for decades as an army firing range. (Dangerous parts are roped off.) Portland, reminiscent of Maine in its wild rockiness, is famous for its quarries, from which was cut the limestone that served to rebuild many of London's finest churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral, after the Great Fire of 1666.

King George III makes an appearance on the coastal path, too.

In 1808, an image of the king on horseback, measuring 280 feet by 323 feet, was carved into a chalk hillside in Osmington, just outside Weymouth. When I was growing up, I was told that the mad king, rather than being delighted at the tribute, was so offended that he'd been depicted riding out of town, rather than into it, that he never returned to Weymouth. On my last trip home, I discovered that the hard fact that he had, in any case, stopped visiting the town after 1805 perhaps puts this historical datum into the "black death started at the Black Dog" category. But that's the thing about accidental history—the ring of truth has a pleasing enough sound to be going on with.


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