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The British Shore in Weymouth

There are, in the world, far more impressive beaches than the one at Weymouth, a seaside town in the county of Dorset in the south of England—beaches with whiter sand, clearer, warmer water, and much more reliably blue skies. The sand at Weymouth is a dunnish yellow; the water, even on the warmest of days, can be charitably described as bracing; and the skies above the rolling hills and white chalk cliffs that embrace the curve of Weymouth Bay are so changeable as to suggest that watercolor painting itself was invented to capture their unpredictability. With regard to the weather, taking a vacation in Weymouth is a bit like playing the slot machines that can be found in the amusement arcades that line the seafront: you understand that the machines are rigged to ensure the arcade owner's ultimate profit, but you still hope you might strike it lucky along the way.

I grew up in Weymouth and know all too well the limitations of the English seaside within the marketplace of contemporary vacation spots: in addition to the inclemency of the weather there is the unsuitability of narrow, 17th-century streets for modern vehicular traffic, and the very English absence, on the menu of a restaurant called the Lobster Pot, not only of lobsters but of almost anything that ever actually lived in the sea.

But although the town may not compare, as a beach destination, with one of those Caribbean resorts where workers rise at dawn each morning to rake the sand clear of seaweed before the guests emerge to enjoy the flawless, paradisiacal environs for which they have contracted, Weymouth nonetheless has its own charms—particularly for those who prefer finding traces of history written upon the place they are visiting, rather than expecting its complete erasure. Weymouth has candy-striped beachside huts selling buckets and spades and fish-and-chips, and retirees sitting in deck chairs on the promenade with blankets over their knees while younger, bolder visitors walk by shirtless and sunburned; but it also has an uninterrupted sweep of white-painted Georgian town houses along the seafront, with bowed windows optimistically facing the shimmering sea exactly as so many did more than 200 years ago. The town is part New Jersey shore, part Masterpiece Theatre.

I've come to think of my childhood home as the Forrest Gump of towns: it's occasionally found itself at the center of historical events without ever having had any ambition to be there. One early instance of Weymouth's accidental notoriety is that in 1348 it served as the point of entry in Britain for the black death, the plague that killed a third of Europe's population. "The black death started at the Black Dog," I was told by the man behind the counter at the town's car-rental shop when I visited not long ago; he was referring to the Black Dog public house, reputed to be Weymouth's oldest tavern. Persuasive alliteration aside, there's no evidence that the black death did begin at the Black Dog; the fact that the building dates only to the 16th century argues against it. But a visit to the bar, with its low-beamed ceiling and its pervasive scent of beer, is enough to conjure images of sailors and serving wenches merrily exchanging lesser infections throughout the centuries.

In a more recent instance of Weymouth stumbling into the history books, its port served as the launching spot for more than 500,000 troops and nearly 150,000 vehicles during the D-day landings of 1944, and a few by now very elderly veterans still show up each year for the anniversary. Weymouth's role in D-day, along with the part the town played in defending against the Spanish Armada and the Napoleonic fleets, is showcased at Nothe Fort, a harbor defense that was built between 1860 and 1872 and is now a naval museum with an enticing collection of old-fashioned military dioramas, cannons, and anti-aircraft weaponry from World War II. The volunteer staff at the Nothe Fort is so eager for their exhibits to be viewed with the proper attention that, when I arrived only 45 minutes before the museum's closing time, the gatekeepers were reluctant to let me in. "There are seventy-two rooms here," they informed me reprovingly. It reminded me of the time a shopkeeper in Weymouth told me that she'd stopped stocking a certain item because it kept selling out too quickly.

Weymouth's proudest Forrest Gump moment, however, came in 1789, when it received the first of several visits from King George III. The king was recovering from the initial episode of what would turn out to be a sporadic but debilitating madness, now thought to have been caused by Variegate Porphyria, a rare genetic disease that affects the skin and central nervous system. His doctors advised him that the seaside might be health-promoting. The town, by all accounts, went nuts over the royal arrival. The novelist Fanny Burney, who was a member of the royal household at the time, wrote a letter to her father from Weymouth in which she noted, "The loyalty of all this place is excessive; they have dressed out every street with labels of 'God save the King': all the shops have it over the doors; all the children wear it in their caps, all the labourers in their hats, and all the sailors in their voices, for they never approach the house without shouting it aloud, nor see the King, or his shadow, without beginning to huzza, and going on to three cheers."


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