The best of Dorset in words and pictures

In the Footsteps of Treves: Bridport and West Bay

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick westwards

Sir Frederick Treves notes in his book, Highways and Byways in Dorset, published in 1906, that Bridport is rather boring: ‘Bridport is a wholesome, homely, county town, with an air about it of substantial simplicity. It has no more pretence or assurance than has an honest yeoman’s wife in homespun. It has made no effort at history-making nor at the heaping up of annals. It boasts of no antiquities and of no particular past.’
A few lines later, Treves is describing a town that, far from being boring or having ‘no particular past’, has actually seen a number of important events: ‘Ancient records state that on June 13th, 1685, Bridport was “surprised” by three hundred of Monmouth’s men under Lord Grey….It is true that there was an unfortunate fracas at the Bull Inn.’ A visit to the Bull Hotel provided a little more detail regarding the ‘unfortunate fracas’. Apparently a local man, Edward Coker, fired a shot at Monmouth’s men from an upstairs window of the Bull. His shot injured Captain Venner who, in returning fire, hit and fatally wounded Mr Coker. A memorial to Edward Coker can be found in the church.
In 1834 Princess Victoria spent a night at the Bull Inn with her mother and in September 1939, just after the beginning of World War 2, a uniformed King George VI paid a visit. Now a ‘boutique hotel’, the Bull continues to be an integral part of Bridport as it has been for more than three centuries.
Treves further confirms that Bridport has had more than its fair share of history when he tells of the pursuit of Charles II after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651. He explains how the King, disguised as a groom tending horses, pushed his way through a crowd of Cromwell’s soldiers in the yard of the George Inn (Treves doesn’t mention that Charles stood at well over 6 feet tall, when the average height of a man was 5 feet 6 inches). When the King and his small party fled Bridport on the Dorchester road, the aforementioned soldiers endeavoured to catch them. ‘They took a turning to the left just beyond the town. This was fortunate, inasmuch as those who pursued them followed the high-road into Dorchester. The turning taken by the King is known as Lee Lane, and is just such a narrow, insignificant byway as would appeal to a hunted man. At the corner of the lane is a stone in the hedge upon which is inscribed the statement that:
The greater part of the George Inn was pulled down long ago. What remains of it is incorporated in a chemist’s shop nearly opposite the Town Hall. Behind this building are traces of the inn yard where Charles parleyed with the soldiers who were hot in his pursuit.’
Lee Lane’s stone commemorating the event is still in situ. As Treves states, most of the George Inn was demolished, although the front of the building appears to be original. The British Listed Buildings website states that the building, initially constructed in the 15th or 16th centuries, was altered in the early 19th century; this is when it appears to have become a chemist’s shop. Records show that the business was established in 1788 by Dr Giles Roberts, who became famous by selling a patent medicine. Apparently, upon his death in 1834 the business was left to Mr Beach and Mr Barnicott and in one of those families the firm remained well into the 20th century. The building now houses the shop of the charity Cancer Research. To the rear of the building is a small courtyard, while behind this is a car park around which there is an old stone wall. It appears that these areas make up the inn yard mentioned by Treves.
Almost opposite is Bridport’s famous Town Hall. Treves continues: ‘The Town Hall, of pink brick and drab stone, with its cupola, its clock and its weather vane, is in every particular the orthodox municipal building of a typical county town. The parish church also soberly parochial, and of the standard pattern. In the South Street, on the way to the sea, is a stout grey building, with stone-mullioned windows and a fine porch with a room over it. This was at one time the Castle Inn, and it needs only the Exeter coach in the road and a stout landlord in a white apron at the door to recall the old tavern of two centuries ago.’
The Town Hall clock, still working, is maintained by a nearby shopkeeper. The ‘stout grey building’ is now Bridport Museum. Its use has changed a number of times since Treves passed by. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the building was used as a meeting place for Working Men, the Oddfellows and the Conservative Club. Its next incarnation was as a private house, purchased by Captain Alfred Percy Codd in 1929 for £1800. Less than three years later Capt. Codd was ‘persuaded’ to give his house to the town and it opened as a Museum and Art Gallery on 28
May 1932.
‘Another building of interest is the infant school,’ writes Treves, ‘because it so well fulfils any conception of what a seat of learning for country infants should be like. It is an ancient thatched cottage with a thatched verandah, where the infants can take the air when resting from their studies. The playground is an old-fashioned garden by the side of a stream. This charming little academy is the village school of a child’s idyll. It and the Castle Inn are the two most delightful features in the town.’
Obviously charmed by the location and appearance of the infants’ school, Treves was probably unaware that the school burned down in 1906, the very year of publication of Highways and Byways and only a year or two after he would have visited while researching for his book. In the museum a book shows photos of the fire, tells of the event and mentions two pupils who it appears may have died as a result. The site of the school became allotments and now is part of a car park next to the police station.
Treves now moves southwards and finds himself on the coast: ‘West Bay, the harbour of Bridport, is probably the queerest seaport in any part of the British Isles. As it is approached the country dies away, the trees vanish one by one, until at last there is only a green flat left, which slides into the heaped up shingle of the shore.’ Nothing really offensive to begin, perhaps, but the burghers of Bridport and West Bay were probably not impressed by Treves’s next few lines regarding their town; whilst Highways and Byways in Dorset was not a guide book, it would certainly have influenced readers and may have stopped them rushing to West Bay. Interestingly, after Treves’s death in 1923, the book, which had been reprinted a number of times, was again reprinted and edited – and the passage regarding West Bay became much more complimentary! Here is Treves’s unabridged version: ‘There is evidence that it [West Bay] is making pretence to be a seaside town and a resort for the holiday-maker. To this end swings and roundabouts appear now and then on the solemn quay. A block of dwellings of the most blatant seaside-suburban type has been dumped down in the unoffending hamlet, where a “terrace” – as it is intended to be – looks as out of place as an iron girder in a flower garden. More than this, along the beach has been built the rudiment of an esplanade, duly furnished with shelters of the type approved by Margate and Ramsgate. As a village of the incongruous, West Bay has probably no equal in the British Isles. So long as it was content to be a nursery-tale harbour it was charming enough, but West Bay as a “seaside resort” is a pitiable mockery.’

West Bay has changed over the last 100 years and whilst the ‘block of dwellings’ still looks out of place, it has been joined by a number of other buildings that could also be said to fit this description. That said, West Bay does hold considerable charm; Clive’s painting captures this, and the fact that the television programmes Harbour Lights and more recently Broadchurch have been filmed here suggests further that the place has allure.
Treves, who loved the countryside of his native county, ends his visit to Bridport and West Bay by commenting upon the beauty of the area: ‘The view of the coast from the end of the pier is remarkably fine. To the East are the sheer, orange-coloured cliffs of Burton Bradstock, and then the curve of the Chesil Bank tailing off into the faint island of Portland. To the West the cliffs as far as Lyme are most picturesque and irregular. They are all crowned by smooth downs. Between the port and the gap at Eype is the great West Cliff, whose walls are yellow and drab. Thence to the sea town of Chideock are Ridge Cliff and Doghouse Hill. A little short of Lyme rises up the Golden Cap, a great headland 600 feet high, tipped, when the sun shines upon it, with gold, and draped below in grey and solemn blue.’

[Thanks to staff at the Bull Hotel, Cancer Research and Bridport Museum. The museum is well worth a visit and entry is free of charge.]

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