The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Historic port and seaside resort

Maureen Attwooll is our guide in a walk through Weymouth’s history

This old building was converted in the mid-18th century to house the resort’s first Assembly Rooms. An extension added in the 1760s is today occupied by the Old Rooms Inn.

This walk around the town includes the two old and once-rival settlements of Weymouth on the south side of the harbour and Melcombe Regis on the north, whose quarrelling over port profits led to their enforced union in 1571, since when the term ‘Weymouth’ has generally been used to describe the whole town. It begins in ‘old’ Weymouth, in front of the Brewer’s Quay complex in Hope Square. There are car parks at the rear of the former brewery buildings, which now house The Timewalk (a sights and sounds journey through Weymouth’s history), Weymouth Museum, a shopping village, pub and café. Apart from a few gentle slopes, the walk is on level ground. Most pavements are lowered at crossing points and there are no steps. Allow at least one and a half hours, but there are plenty of diversions along the way which may lengthen your walk.

To leave Hope Square, walk past the display windows of the Timewalk and Gift Shop and turn right into Trinity Street. On your left you will see the ‘Tudor Cottages’, restored and furnished and open at specified times. A little further on stands Hope Congregational Chapel (now the United Reformed Church) built in 1862, opposite which stand the resort’s first Assembly Rooms. In this building, once the home of a 17th-century merchant, Georgian seaside visitors met to gossip and socialise until the 1770s, when more fashionable ‘Rooms’ opened on the other side of the harbour. This venue then became known as the ‘Old Rooms’. Before turning left into Trinity Road, note on your right the old Weymouth Town Pump, re-erected here in 1990, having previously been almost hidden from view behind the present fire station on North Quay.

Making your way towards the Town Bridge, you pass a blue-painted, bow-windowed house, now nos. 2/2a Trinity Road. In 1750 this belonged to wealthy Ralph Allen of Bath, one of the first visitors to try bathing in the sea at Weymouth. A colourful row of harbourside properties leads to Holy Trinity Church of 1836, with adjacent steps to Chapelhay, on the high ground above the harbour. To the west of the steps, just a few old buildings remain as a reminder of the once bustling area of High Street and North Quay. Walk along to the crossing beside the 1971 Municipal Offices and picture the quaint and winding street of houses, shops, business premises and pubs which once stood here. High Street was the heart of old Weymouth before World War 2 bombs destroyed much of it and demolitions along here in the 1960s, including the removal of a fine Tudor house on North Quay, did the rest. Overlooking the scene are the 1950s flats of Chapelhay Heights, replacements for the terraced streets cleared after repeated air raids.

In the centre of this view of Trinity Road (known in earlier times as High Street) stands Ralph Allen’s bow-windowed house, its upper storey an addition of the Victorian period.

Cross the road at the lights and head back to the Town Bridge. You may be delayed here as the bridge is regularly opened to allow pleasure craft in and out of the marina, when its near-vertical raised twin leaves are a dramatic sight. You will now cross from old Weymouth into Melcombe Regis, and it was Melcombe which became the focus of attention once the town became established as a seaside resort in the mid-18th century. Stay on the west side of the bridge and notice at the far end a granite slab presented by the town of Weymouth, Massachusetts, to celebrate the bridge’s opening in 1930. Old warehouses adjacent to the bridge have been converted to apartments and ‘Townbridge House’, once a utilitarian 1950s office block on the bridge, has recently been re-built in a complementary style.

Cross Lower St Edmund Street to the Crown Hotel, the original Victorian buff brick building neatly encapsulated in red-brick extensions dating from the same period as the Town Bridge. Cross over St Thomas Street to a new building housing the ‘Car Shop’ which is much more in keeping with the street scene here than its predecessor, a single-storey construction of no architectural merit. Look along St Edmund Street to one of the town’s saddest sights – the shell of Maiden Street Methodist Church, a Grade 2 listed building through which fire raged in January 2002. It is currently up for sale as a development opportunity, although any refurbishment must include the restoration of the building’s façade, incorporating a fine rose window blown out during the fire.

Continue along St Edmund Street, crossing the road and making your way to the harbourside at the 1838 Guildhall. Turn right onto Custom House Quay and follow the railway lines of the Weymouth Harbour Tramway under the Town Bridge (take care here, the walkway is narrow below the bridge). The Tramway, Weymouth’s unique ‘railway through the streets’ is no longer used. It was built in the 1860s to link the railway station and the quay, later being extended onto the pier and by the time it went out of use in the 1980s, main line diesel locos were hauling the trains, an astonishing sight in the busy town. Continue to follow the lines until you find yourself opposite Kingfisher Marine in Commercial Road. Cross the road and continue along the pavement in front of modern apartment blocks which have replaced old industrial buildings here. More evidence of local industry can be seen on the opposite shore of the Backwater, where a rusty gasometer is all that remains of the town gasworks, local gas production having ceased in 1958 after more than 120 years. Here, too, was the electricity generating station of the early 1900s and the council yard, all gone now and replaced by modern flats which frame St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church of 1934.

A succession of bridges has spanned the harbour since the 1590s and today’s Town Bridge dates from 1930. It is raised on a regular two-hourly timetable in summer between 8 am and 8 pm with an extra opening at 9 pm at the height of the holiday season. Winter openings are on request.

Pass by Lower St Alban Street (once known as Petticoat Lane) and the multi-storey car park, then turn right into the pedestrian way between Woolworths and Debenhams where a plaque set into the walkway commemorates the opening in 2000 of the ‘New Bond Street’ shopping precinct, where once stood the Victorian Jubilee Hall. Now a pleasing mix of old and new, demolitions prior to the re-development left the 17th-century White Hart Inn intact. Tradition has it that painter Sir James Thornhill was born in this building in 1675. Continue along New Bond Street and turn left into St Thomas Street at the New Look store. On your left, set back from the street, is the Barracuda Bar, occupying a pair of Georgian houses, the northernmost one of which was once the rectory of the parish church of St Mary. This was the home, when his father was the church’s curate, of John Meade Falkner, author of Moonfleet, the classic Dorset smuggling tale.

Cross over School Street to Frederick Place, where a plaque on no.11 records the achievement of William Thompson, local solicitor, naturalist and photographer, who is credited with taking the first known underwater photograph at Weymouth in 1856. Cross Westham Road to Royal Terrace, opposite the statue of King George III (rarely seen without a seagull perched on his royal head). The statue stands in front of two early 19th-century roundhouses at the entrance to the town’s main streets. It was the King’s visits between 1789 and 1805 which brought Weymouth fame as England’s leading health and pleasure resort. Beyond Royal Terrace is Gloucester Lodge, built by the King’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester, and the ideal place for the King to convalesce and sample sea bathing as he recovered from his episode in 1788 of so-called madness. The Lodge, later extended and converted to a hotel, was much damaged internally by fire in 1927 and is now occupied by apartments and offices; Royal Terrace and Frederick Place were built on its once extensive gardens.

A seagull surveys Weymouth’s elegant Georgian seafront buildings from his perch atop the statue of King George III. The statue was first painted in heraldic colours in 1949 and the traffic island surrounding it dates from the mid-1950s.

Cross onto the promenade proper at the Royal Hotel, its flamboyant architecture a late 19th-century replacement of an earlier building. Look north to the landmark Jubilee Clock, commemorating the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, before strolling south along the ‘prom’, pausing to read the plaques on the American ‘D-Day’ Memorial, before turning to view the magnificent sweep of Weymouth Bay, equally beautiful on a sunny summer or stormy winter day. Beyond the King’s Statue, the Georgian Esplanade terraces are interspersed with the occasional contrast of a more modern replacement, from the bland 1930s façade of Marks and Spencer to the fanciful and detailed architecture of Stuckey’s Bank of the 1880s, now a public convenience on the corner of Bond Street. The sharp-eyed will spot an inscribed stone in a raised flowerbed opposite the Dorothy Inn, commemorating the ‘Great Gale’ of 1824 which destroyed the Esplanade and much else hereabouts.

Pass the statue of Victorian MP and town benefactor Sir Henry Edwards outside the Alexandra Gardens to reach the southernmost Esplanade terraces, Devonshire and Pulteney Buildings (built, as are the Gardens, on land reclaimed from the sea). Turn right here onto Custom House Quay and once again follow the lines of the Weymouth Harbour Tramway. Here we leave ‘seaside’ Weymouth and return to the port. On your left is the cargo stage, its rails a reminder of the cranes installed here in the harbour’s busier days. There is plenty to see along the way, including warehouses, the old Sailor’s Bethel (now HQ of the Royal Dorset Yacht Club), the former Custom House from where HM Coastguard now operates – and don’t miss the plaque recording one of Melcombe’s more dubious claims to fame, for it was here that a sickly sailor from Gascony stepped ashore in 1348, bringing the dreaded bubonic plague, the Black Death, into England, estimated to have killed between 30 and 50 of the country’s population.

When you reach the Fish Market, turn right into Maiden Street, where you can see a cannonball embedded high in the wall of a 17th-century building, a relic of fierce fighting during the English Civil War. Round the corner here into St Edmund Street and make your way back to the Town Bridge, where plaques record its opening on 4 July 1930 by the Duke of York (later King George VI).
Turn left at the end of the bridge and make your way along the waterfront back to Hope Square, the starting point of your walk.

The flamboyant style of the late-1890s Royal Hotel contrasts not unpleasingly with the more austere architecture of the Esplanade’s Georgian terraces. Pretty cast iron and glass shelters on the promenade date from the 1880s; they directly overlooked the sands until the prom was widened out around them (and the Jubilee Clock) in the 1920s.

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