The British Shore in Weymouth
Published: April 2009
By Rebecca Mead
Weymouth, Dorset's seaside resort, has abundant charm and a history that encompasses D-day and the Spanish Armada. They even say the black death came from Weymouth. <em>Rebecca Mead</em> returns home to this quintessentially British shoreline
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."
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.
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.
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.
WEYMOUTH AND DORSET
WHEN TO GO
June and July are usually quiet (English schools don't get out until mid-July), which makes August the month when holidaymakers descend. Don't miss the mid-August carnival, complete with a parade and rides set up on the Esplanade along the beach—it's madly crowded but wildly amusing.
Another good time to visit is during a warm weekend in May, but this can be hard to arrange as the weather is so unreliable. The warmest summer temperatures hit a high of only about 68 degrees— jackets and Windbreakers are recommended.
It is possible to drive to Weymouth from Heathrow (121 miles) or Gatwick (145 miles), but this is not advisable in the summer months, when traffic can be heavy. There are also numerous flights from Europe into Bournemouth and Southampton airports, and easy links from France and Belgium into Poole and Weymouth.
Trains that stop at the coastal towns leave hourly from London via Dorchester South and from Bath. Trains between Weymouth and Dorchester depart every half-hour and those between Weymouth and Bristol leave every two hours.
Buses are another viable option: one four-hour National Express bus arrives daily from London, and many more come from Bristol, Southampton, and Bournemouth. For further information, contact Traveline (44-870/608-2608; www.traveline.org.uk).
WHERE TO STAY
Brunswick Guest House
Brunswick offers local color inside (a British clientele and homey comfort) and out (it faces directly onto the beach—and its uproarious weekend scene). 9 Brunswick Terrace; 44-1305/785-408; www.brunswickweymouth.co.uk; doubles from $55, including breakfast.
This hotel is definitely the fanciest place in town. 1218 Dorchester Rd.; 44-1305/764-000; www.hotelrembrandt.co.uk; doubles from $185, including breakfast.
Visitors must book at this Victorian property for a minimum of three nights. The rooms with unobstructed views of the Esplanade are a hot commodity (and cost extra). 9091 Esplanade; 44-1305/782-777; www.washearings.com; three-night package from $240 per person.
WHERE TO EAT
Crab House Café & Fleet Oyster Farm
Ferrybridge; 44-1305/788-867; dinner for two $95.
Fish 'n' Fritz
9 Market St.; 44-1305/766-386; www.fishnfritz.co.uk; dinner for two $20.
Lobster Pot Restaurant
Portland Bill Rd.; 44-1305/ 820-242; lunch for two $30.
4 Trinity Rd.; 44-1305/785-799; www.perrysrestaurant.co.uk; dinner for two $90.
West Bay, Bridport; 44-1308/ 422-011; dinner for two $110.
WHERE TO DRINK
3 St. Mary's St.; 44-1305/ 771-426; pints for two $6.
WHAT TO DO
Hope Square, Weymouth; 44-1305/777-622; Timewalk $9.
Don't miss seeing this antique village in "Country Dorset"—or the Cerne Abbas Giant, Britain's best-known chalk figure. The area, just north of Dorchester, is easily reachable by bus; the ride from Weymouth takes an hour.
Just south of Wareham on A351. 44-1929/481-294; tickets $9.
Wimborne Minster; 44-1202/ 883-402; tickets $16.
Barrack Rd., Weymouth; 44-1305/766-626; tickets $9.
WHAT TO READ
By John Cowper Powys (Overlook Hardcover, 1999). Originally published in 1934, this story of love and fury takes place in the British seaside town.
The Mayor of Casterbridge
By Thomas Hardy (Modern Library Classics, 2002). A tragic novel about Weymouth's neighboring county town of Dorchester.
Dress in "Seaside Dorset" is very informal, and it is not uncommon for the locals to go out on pub crawls on the weekend dressed in costume, often in groups on a hen or stag night. It can be quite a remarkable scene.
Nautically minded travelers might want to plan a Dorset trip for the summer of 2012, when all Olympic sailing events will take place on Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour.