Beauty and brawn
The iconic Cobb at Lyme Regis is both romantic and an impressive feat of engineering. Sophia Moseley tells its story.
Published in October ’10
When you visit Lyme Regis, don’t miss the opportunity to walk along the famous Cobb, probably best-known for its star guest appearance in the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and for featuring in Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion, when Louisa Musgrove fell down the steps that are known locally as ‘Granny’s Teeth’.
The gaily-coloured pleasure boats that now roll to and fro are a far cry from the trading ships that for centuries would have sailed thankfully into the safe haven of this protected harbour. Sit for a few minutes on the bench halfway down the Cobb’s lower walkway, shut your eyes and transport yourself back to the late 18th century, when Lyme was at its peak and ships were coming and going every day. Listen to the screech of seagulls as they swoop overhead, just as they would have done hundreds of years ago. Instead of hearing the shouts of tourists, imagine the cries of the crew of a cargo ship that is off-loading barrels of French brandy into what is now the aquarium, previously re-built in 1723 as a warehouse. Let the smell of fish and sea water create a picture in your mind of the local fishing fleet returning with their boats full of flapping fish piled into wooden crates.
If the wind is not too strong, the walk not too wet and you are firm on your feet, try ascending the High Wall via Granny’s Teeth (it is easier going up than down!) and take in the magnificent view from the top of the wall. The waves pile in, and even on a relatively calm day, the cross-currents challenge one another, churning up a brown soup topped with frothy foam. Near the end of the walk heading out to the sea, where rock armour was laid as further protection, the waves crash into and over the huge boulders, sometimes sending a dense shower of salty sea spray over unsuspecting tourists. But be warned: if the wind is blowing or the wall wet, it can be as treacherous as it is breathtaking.
If the route on the High Wall is too risky, then walk along the lower section, where you will see an original stone plaque embedded in the wall. It is now sadly a little worn away, but you can nevertheless make out the date of 1792 and the name d’Arcy. Its original inscription read: ‘The work extending 273 feet west of this stone was erected by James Hamilton, builder and contractor with the honourable Board of Ordnance, to repair the breaches made in the Cobb in January 1792, under the direction of Captain d’Arcy, engineer, 1795.’
Next to Granny’s Teeth and behind the aquarium is a man-made little bay where you can watch the vagaries of the Lyme tide, each wave cutting across the path of another in competition to reach the shore first. When the sky above is blue, this small sanctuary is almost Mediterranean in appearance, with a crystal blue depth and the surface shining like a diamond in the sun.
Beyond the immeasurable beauty and theatrical past of the Cobb, how and why did this Grade 1 listed monolithic masterpiece, which withstands the enormous waves and south-westerly gales that batter this part of the coast, come into existence? The uninitiated would be forgiven for thinking that the impenetrable piece of engineering that we see today is the result of modern technology, but a plate explains that this great monument to technical expertise is the result of repairs that were carried out following the Great Storm of 1824 ‘under the direction of Lieut. Colonel Fanshaw, Royal Engineers… and under the immediate superintendance [sic] of Captain Savage, of the same corps.’
These were far from the first repairs to the Cobb. When Lyme Regis had the advantage of being the major port along this coast, the cost of repairing and re-building it was met by the heavy duties that the shipping companies had to pay; there is a large wooden board on the outside wall of the aquarium displaying the rates on imports and exports from 1879. The first official reference to ‘la Cobbe’ is much earlier, in 1295, when Edward III granted a keyage of one penny in the pound to fund its restoration.
There has been a natural quay or jetty here since at least 774, when the monks of Sherborne Abbey distilled the sea water to supply the Abbey with much-needed salt. This outcrop of fallen rock and shingle lent itself to being an easy access point for loading and unloading ships as Lyme developed into a significant port. Its harbour was larger than the Liverpool docks until 1780, and from 1810 to 1816 the average number of vessels entering the harbour was 318 a year. The area around the Cobb was also used for shipbuilding; some 100 ships were built, including a 12-gun Royal Navy brig called HMS Snap.
However, the repeated damage to the Cobb was not entirely surprising because it was constructed of crude oak piles between which were lodged huge boulders called cow stones, which themselves were floated into place on top of empty barrels! An account from 1685 describes it as ‘an immense mass of stone, of a shape of a demi-lune, with a bar in the middle of the concave: no one stone that lies there was ever touched with a tool or bedded in any sort of cement, but all the pebbles of the see are piled up, and held by their bearings only, and the surge plays in and out through the interstices of the stone in a wonderful manner.’
On 20 January 1817 the sea destroyed the old wall and it was Lt-Col Fanshawe of the Royal Engineers who carried out the repairs. It is thought that this was the first time that mortar was used to construct the wall. But in 1824 some unusually high tides combined with severe storms swept away part of Fanshawe’s upper courses. The Corporation finally resolved to rebuild the Cobb as it is today. The original ‘demi-lune’ shape with a projecting arm into the sea was scrapped and the foundations of what we see now were laid in the sea bed in 1825, when the High Wall was re-built.
Enormous Portland cap-stone blocks were used, each course being bound to the next with dovetails of heart oak. Underneath lay the local blue lias limestone. Cramp iron was used to fasten the ends, and molten lead was used to secure the iron. The inside of the wall was made of cow stone, and Portland roach stone with its aragonite fossil shells was put on the High Wall, which in turn was given a sloping surface to ensure that water didn’t run down onto the walk. In 1834 the low walkway was constructed and eight years later the Victoria Pier was built. In the 1970s the southern arm was given a protective rock armouring and in 1986 concrete aprons were erected and extensive strengthening was used to reinforce the walls.
There have been major landslides along the Lyme coast throughout the centuries and properties and roads have been destroyed, most recently in 2000. But the Cobb has been able to withstand the ravages of nature, and most of the properties that look out across the bay owe their continued prosperity and existence to the expertise of those Victorian engineers, Colonel Fanshawe and Captain Savage.