The best of Dorset in words and pictures

In the Footsteps of Treves — Lyme Regis

Steve White and Clive Hannay in Dorset’s westernmost town

During 1904 and 1905, Sir Frederick Treves cycled more than 2000 miles around his native Dorset, researching his book Highways and Byways in Dorset. Having made the steep ascent from Charmouth, Treves looked down onto Lyme Regis: ‘From the windy summit of Timber Hill, beyond Charmouth, the white high-road drops headlong into Lyme. From the height it is possible to look down upon the town as from the battlements of a tower. The place looks exceedingly small as it stands on the narrow ledge between the downs and the sea. So wide is the expanse of the Channel that the tiny settlement is dwarfed to a mere patch of colour on a beach. Lyme from the heights is nothing more than a jumble of red roofs, from which rises a grey church tower, and from which trail into the sea the curving tendrils of the cobb or pier round a clump of schooners and brigs.’

Treves’s use of the term ‘white high-road’ stems from the fact that in 1904 the roads were yet to be metalled and, as they were predominately made up of chalk, would have appeared white. Thomas Hardy refers in his novels to the roads of Dorset being dazzling white. From above, Lyme Regis no longer appears as small as it did 100 years ago; it has expanded considerably and what would have been fields and farmland in Treves’s time are now housing estates. The Cobb, still clearly visible from the hill, now shelters principally leisure vessels as opposed to the commercial sailing ships that Treves saw. Clive Hannay’s painting shows the view from the Cobb looking north-east towards the town, whereas Joseph Pennell’s sketch looks along the shore towards it, showing the neat square tents which by 1904 had replaced bathing machines.

Descending the road into town, Treves continues: ‘Many of the houses of Lyme are ancient and very picturesque. They are all irregular, however, for the unmethodical seaport seems to have changed its mind many times as to its intentions. At present it is carrying out a rustic attempt to found a seaside resort.’ Although Lyme Regis has expanded somewhat, it still retains many of the ‘picturesque’ buildings admired by Treves and remains an attractive town. There is no doubt that Lyme’s ‘rustic attempt’ to become a seaside resort has been a success; the town is packed full of holiday-makers except in deepest winter.

‘The old fossil shop near by [the Town Hall], “patronised by Prince Alfred”, is as curious a house as any in the town. Here can be purchased, at the same counter, fresh prawns or fossil ammonites, filleted soles or pieces of a saurian’s backbone.’ Within just a few years of Treves describing it thus, the old fossil shop was demolished when Bridge Street was widened in 1913. The shop did actually sell both fresh fish and fossils. Despite the loss of the old fossil shop, Lyme Regis has retained its position as the country’s leading fossil centre. Many fossil finds are still regularly made along this stretch of coast and a number of shops sell them. The town is very proud of this heritage and even the street lamps have an ammonite motif built into them.

Treves now makes mention of Mary Anning, the most famous daughter of Lyme Regis, who in around 1811 discovered the complete fossil of an ichthyosaur in the cliffs at Lyme Regis. Treves explains: ‘The disturbed saurian now lies in state in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington, while a stained glass window in Lyme Church keep green the memory of Miss Mary Anning.’ The ‘saurian’ is still on prominent display at the Natural History Museum, which claims that Mary Anning is Britain’s most famous fossil hunter. The window, partly paid for by a contribution from the Geological Society, can be seen in the north wall of the church of St Michael the Archangel. In the graveyard, not far from this window, is the headstone shared by Mary and her brother, Joseph.

Treves, never missing a church nor a chance to make known his views on architecture, resumes: ‘The parish church, like everything else in Lyme Regis, climbs uphill. It is a building whose little beauty is marred by a covering of stucco. Within are a fine Jacobean gallery and pulpit of carved wood, the gift of Richard Harvey, one of the merchant-adventurers of the town. In the gallery is some ancient and gracious tapestry, whose vivid reds and blues have faded into the gentlest tints of pink and lavender.’

In Treves’s time the exterior walls of the church were completely covered in stucco (a protective lime or Portland cement coating). Whilst, as Treves notes, this marred the beauty of the church, it was carried out by the Victorians in an attempt to protect the fragile Blue Lias (the local stone used for building the church) from becoming waterlogged and crumbling away. Earlier last century, after Treves’s visit, a good deal of this covering was removed and only the front porch and tower now remain stuccoed; unfortunately, the walls are crumbling as a consequence.

The Jacobean gallery with the name of the benefactor and the date 1611 and the very impressive pulpit, with ‘To God’s Glory Richard Harvey of London, Mercer and Marchant Adventurer 1613′ written in gold, are both still to be found inside the church. The tapestry to which Treves refers has had an interesting history since he set eyes upon it: it was loaned to the National Trust and placed in their property at Trerice in Cornwall, only returning to Lyme Regis in 1996. Woven in Brussels around 1490 and given to the church in 1886 by Rev. Edward Peek, it is thought to portray the marriage of Henry VII to Elizabeth of York. The tapestry, now high on the north wall, is worth a visit to the church to see and an excellent booklet is on sale in the church giving a full description of it and its history.

Throughout Highways and Byways in Dorset, Treves has a habit of saying what he thinks despite the offence he may cause to those who live there: ‘The most curious quarter of Lyme Regis is that which crowds about the banks of the Buddle River. So very narrow is the stream that the houses upon the two sides of it nearly touch one another, especially as they are brought nearer by overhanging stories propped up by ruffianly-looking timbers…. The dwellings, faded and sinister-looking, would appear to keep to such simple old customs as the emptying of slops and rubbish out of windows. This obsolete riverside place is particularly evil looking at night. There is a suggestion of trapdoors, of dark entries, and of dungeon-like, mouldy cellars.’ Today, this part of Lyme which nestles around the river Lym (or Lim or Buddle!) is probably one of the more pleasant and popular parts of the town. While some of the buildings do indeed have overhanging storeys, this merely adds to their charming quality and there were no slops thrown from windows – at least while I was there. The footpaths along this part of the river and around the water mill attract large numbers of holiday-makers, and the buildings are no longer ‘faded and sinister-looking’.

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