‘So considerable an object…’
Jo Draper reveals the failure and ultimate success of Lyme's Walk
Published in August ’11
Lyme Regis, the pearl of the West, has always secretly felt a little envious of its larger (and in Georgian times more fashionable) rival Weymouth. Lyme started to become a seaside resort at much the same time as Weymouth, but Weymouth cheated by having royal patronage (and a much bigger, sandy beach).
The little harbour of Lyme, the Cobb, was always separate from the town proper, half a mile away, with a partly sandy beach in between. Loaded horses had carried goods along rough roads across the beach from the harbour from time immemorial, and the slope of land behind the beach was left to slip quietly into the sea. This was fine before Lyme became a seaside resort, and indeed was tolerated for many years after the first seabathers started coming in the 1750s. By 1809, after a decent-sized slip behind the beach, something had to be done. The damages ‘have induced part of the inhabitants to propose to the town and neighbourhood, as well as the nobility and gentry &c who occasionally visit the place, and the public in general, to enter into a SUBSCRIPTION for BUILDING a WALL’ to stop the sea eroding the slope, and to provide a handsome and dry walk between Cobb and town.
‘Part of the inhabitants’ is a neat way of describing a committee, and they had already been very successful in raising subscriptions when they advertised in November 1809. The wall was to be ‘from ten to twelve feet high, and from six to four feet thick, and about 1300 feet long’ estimated to cost about £2000. £1550 had already been raised with four local land-owners subscribing £100 each, topped by two local businessmen who gave £200 each. Another 27 people gave between £10 and £50, and (more painfully) another 59 under £10. All these were local, and included Richard the father of the future fossilist, Mary Anning, who gave £2-2s. A separate list of visitors who subscribed has twelve people giving from £1 to £50.
They hoped that the rest of the money (only £450) would ‘be raised without difficulty, when the advantages arising from such an undertaking are duly appreciated, involving and promoting as they do the interests of the landholders and tradesmen, and conducing at the same time to the convenience and pleasure of its visitors’.
A book was opened at the local bank ‘to receive names and subscriptions’ and the very last part of the advertisement encourages those ‘who feel desirous of promoting so considerable an object for the public welfare, which, when completed, will be found equal, if not superior to the Esplanade at Weymouth, or any other watering place in England’. One feels that the other watering places don’t really matter – it’s ‘going to be better than Weymouth’ is the main theme.
The advertisement seems so positive and enterprising, and they have done so well with the subscriptions. Hindsight is horrid – we know that the wall was built two years later, in 1811. It was over budget at £2500, and not on time. Sadly, as George Roberts records ‘by the great want of foresight’ it was built too close to the sea which virtually destroyed the wall the winter after it was built. ‘So considerable an object’ wasn’t up to the job.
To us, stopping the sea eroding the land seems the main objective, but in fact The Walk along the shore was nearly as important in the early 19th century. Well-surfaced, dry walks with extensive views were popular with the well-heeled visitors, especially the ladies. The Baths built on the shore at Lyme in 1806 advertised ‘walks’ as well as bathing, and since only subscribers to the Baths could use their walks, only richer people were found there.
Even some of the proper walks out in the wild along the cliffs were controlled by the landowners. Pinney, to the west of Lyme, was admired by early visitors, including Jane Austen who eulogised it in Persuasion. After admiring the town and ‘the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to east’ and ‘above all, Pinney, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, …scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth … where a scene so wonderful and lovely is exhibited … these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood’. Jane Austen visited with her family in 1803 and 1804, before the proper Walk to the Cobb was built.
George Roberts records in 1828 that Pinney cliffs are ‘private property: the proprietor allows parties to visit them, on asking permission at Pinney House, except on Sundays’. Again this would limit visitors to the respectable (although I bet locals sneaked in if they wanted to).
Even today, many people come especially to the Dorset coast to walk along it – and then do not. Probably Regency visitors had the same ideas, and probably they too didn’t walk as much as they thought they would. The easy walk along the shore to the Cobb, with its fine views (and segregated from the commercial traffic on the beach) was just what most visitors wanted.
The path was soon rebuilt inside the remains of the old wall, ‘perfectly out of reach of the storms’. By the 1820s ‘the charming promenade between the Cobb and the [Assembly] Rooms is always kept neatly gravelled. Not being on the beach, but on a terrace immediately adjoining, it commands extensive views. Some seats are placed for the accommodation of the company’
This promenade was called The Walk, a name still used by older inhabitants today. The Town Council try to call it Marine Parade, but the proper name is much more suitable, and reflects just what the original builders intended.
The Walk has proved very durable: the Cart Road was added at a lower level and The Walk proper has been kept free of cars and other traffic. The inhabitants, of The Walk, tried to alter this in the 1930s, but the Town Council held firm, gating the road at the western end.
The slope of land behind has not done so well: a big slip in 1926 damaged The Walk, and an attempt at building flats on the slope in 1962 created a huge landslip which damaged many buildings. Very recently huge stabilisation works have been carried out, costing millions. The old gardens have been superbly replanned and replanted. The lower part of The Walk, the Cart Road, has been extended to the Cobb, happily again only for walkers.
Every visitor to Lyme walks from the town to the Cobb, enjoying The Walk created in 1811 for just that purpose. The first try at ‘so considerable an object’ did not completely succeed, but the second version certainly did, and indeed still does.