Curiosities of Lyme Regis
Dotted around Lyme Regis are some lesser-known items of interest from the town's past. Stephen Baker digs out a few.
Published in March ’13
The town of Lyme Regis is steeped in history, much of it well documented and widely known. Walking around the town, though, there are both things which one can see that are less well known, and places that have all but vanished, or changed beyond recognition.
For example, the field where fossil hunter Mary Anning was supposed to have been struck by lightning as a youngster and turned from a sickly infant into a bright and enquiring child, is no more; the alleyway where Tom Jones author Henry Fielding lay in wait in a thwarted attempt to kidnap and marry a Lyme heiress is now just an ordinary dead-end passage; the artist’s studio where Whistler worked is now just a room above a shop. Belmont, the house where the beloved local author John Fowles lived, is waiting to be completely restored and turned into a Landmark Trust property.
There are, though, still plenty of stories from the past to which clues exist, in one form or another.
The Undercliff ‘churches’
Part of Lyme’s uniqueness is its dissenting history, its tradition of religious nonconformism. Within the town are plenty of built reminders of the different sects of Protestantism, while to the north, the area known as Jericho, and the renaming of the river to the Jordan are echoes of that fact. But to the west of the town, in the Undercliff (top) is where, when it was illegal to hold assemblies, preachers would bring the holy word to the faithful at White Chapel Rock.
The Gin Shop
Rather frighteningly, gin, gunpowder and cannon have a long shared history; gin is certified as ‘Navy Strength’ at 57° alcohol by volume (100° Proof) as this is the strength of drink at which one could spill gin on one’s gunpowder and it would still discharge! In the case of the gin shop in the Cobb, which was the magazine where the Cobb’s guns’ gunpowder was stored, the ‘gin’ part is named, at least anecdotally, after the name of the crane which hoist the barrels of powder up to the top of the Cobb. The ‘shop’ element is apparently just a local joke.
Lyme native Thomas Coram spent a decade building ships in Massachusetts. After making his fortune, he obtained a Royal Charter from George II establishing in London a ‘hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children.’ Coram Tower, now flats, was built as a house for the masters of St Michael’s College in the late 19th century and at Coram’s birthplace, and so is named as a memorial to the creator of the foundling hospital.
Lepers’ Well Garden
The first thing to say about Lepers’ Well Garden is that it wasn’t always a garden; oral histories suggest it has been used for grazing in the not-too-distant past. The second curious thing about it is that it is a spring, not a well. The third is that those for whom it was originally designed were not lepers, at least not in the modern sense of those living with Hansen’s disease, rather ‘leper’ was a term for pretty much anyone who had any kind of ailment which left them with bad enough skin that their contemporaries would be inclined to give them a wide berth, and wish them to use their own water supply. All in all, it is not the most appropriate name.
The Fulling Tower
Fulling mills, of which the derelict, roofless Fulling Tower behind Weaver’s Cottage is a relic, were places where cloth was fulled – cleaned and thickened (scoured and milled). Although in Roman times, this scouring was done with the cloth soaked in stale urine, this was later complemented or replaced with Fuller’s Earth (plentiful supplies of which were to be found south of Bridport and around Sherborne and Shaftesbury). In pre-medieval times, this was done by hand or foot. Later on, the cloth was whacked with a set (often water-driven) of wooden hammers or paddles to thicken it up by getting the cloth’s fibres to bind together. After fulling, the cloth was stretched onto a tenter, on which it was held, in suspense, by tenterhooks.
Inspector Morse’s Hotel
In Colin Dexter’s 1992 The Way Through the Woods Morse stayed at the Bay Hotel (below) in Lyme Regis, which Dexter described to the Daily Telegraph as being heaven on earth. ‘I remember,’ Dexter told the Telegraph, ‘telling my publisher at the time to turn to that section because I thought it was the best bit in the book, and the dear girl, who I admired enormously, said she agreed with me but then suggested I leave it out “and got on with the story”. That rather saddened me – but I didn’t take any notice.’
Anchor, beacon and museum
Atop the gun cliff is a trio of reminders of the various elements of Lyme’s past. There is an enormous anchor, donated by the Portland naval base as a testament to the involvement of the town with all things marine over hundreds of years. There is also a beacon, which was used as part of the town’s celebration of HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and which stands a a metaphor for Lyme Regis’s involvement with the monarchy over the years – for the good or ill of a succession of monarchs and their pretenders. Finally, in the background, there is the Lyme Regis Museum, formerly known as the Philpot Museum, which was named in honour of Elizabeth Philpot, fossil hunter and friend of Many Anning. It was Philpot who, amongst other discoveries with her sister, discovered that the ink from fossilised ink sacs in belemnites could be revivified; the ink became a favourite with local artists.
The ‘electric’ Malthouse
Next to the Town Mill, and behind a shop which used to be known as Electricity Cottage, is a building (above) whose name, the Malthouse, betrays its original purpose. However, it was thanks to this building that Lyme Regis got electricity in 1909, as this was the building where the first electricity generators were housed. The idea was not a universally recognised advance – the council baulked at paying the £5 wiring fee; it continued to be gaslit until 1932. The workers generating the electricity also had a somewhat idiosyncratic view of electricity as an always-on utility. It was not unknown for them to step outside to see if there was a clear moon or a lot of starlight. If they thought it was light enough to walk around, they would just turn off the electricity. Seen here, just beyond the main Malthouse bulding is the battery barn. Batteries in one form or another had been around since the previous year when telephones first came to Lyme. In order to use the system, the phone user would have to have their own power, or crank a dynamo as they spoke, in order to generate enough power to make the connection.
One of the best-known ‘facts’ about Lyme Regis is that the prominent stone steps on the Cobb, known as Granny’s Teeth, are where Jane Austen’s character Louisa Musgrove is flirting with Captain Wentworth, in Persuasion, and jumps down the steps, before running back up them and jumping down when: ‘she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb, and was taken up lifeless!’ Anyone who has used Granny’s Teeth to ascend from Lower Cobb, or worse yet, gone down them, knows that running – either up or down them, would be a frankly bonkers exercise… and then there is the small matter of the fact that Jane Austen visited Lyme Regis before Granny’s Teeth were put in, and whichever staircase she was writing about in what is, let us remember, a work of fiction, was not the one that is now so loved by grandchildren and so feared by grandparents.