Defoe in Dorset
Between 1724 and 1726 Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, published his three-volume A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain. In the third of our occasional series, Harry Bucknall picks up the trail of Daniel Defoe as he heads west.
Published in February ’14
Defoe had some rather pleasing things to say not only about the county of Dorset, but about its people: ‘While we stay’d here … we had opportunity to observe the pleasant way of conversation, as it is manag’d among the gentlemen of this county, and their families, which are without reflection some of the most polite and well bred people in the isle of Britain. As their hospitality is very great, and their bounty to the poor remarkable, so their generous friendly way of living is really to be admir’d.’
From Abbotsbury, Defoe made for Bridport Harbour, which was renamed West Bay in 1857 when the Great Western Railway reached the main town but a mile away. The little port waned in importance, apart from a small but resolute fishing fleet, and the village at the mouth of the River Brit became an early and successful convert to tourism. But to travel to West Dorset, at the far end of the Chesil Beach, is like entering another land. The sea ever at your side, it is a remote and exhilarating part of the county that inspires the mind, a dramatic place full of history and adventure, as Defoe discovered : ‘Here we saw boats all the way on the shore fishing for mackerell, which they take in the easiest manner imaginable; for they fix one end of the net to a pole, set deep into the sand…they row right out into the water…till they have let go all the net…and then the boat rows on shore, when the men hauling the net bring with it such fish…this proved to be an incredible number.… We observed a guard, or watch…placed on the shore by the justices of the towns about, who were order’d to prevent the country farmers buying the mackerell to dung their land…which was thought to be dangerous, as to infection….’
In West Bay, however, Defoe described a gentle picture of the Dorset fishermen, many of whom at that time and for many years later showed great courage and fortitude, venturing to Newfoundland in search of cod to sell not only at home but in the Mediterranean, too. The Salt House on the quay stands testament to their brave endeavours.
Defoe found that Bridport was ‘nothing remarkable’. Today he would marvel at a forward-looking and cosmopolitan town that is vibrant and full of life, with an increasingly popular Literary Festival. Its lively High Street, despite the rapacious advance of the superstore, is a thriving thoroughfare that champions local produce, filled with greengrocers, bakers, butchers, hotels, pubs and even a chocolatier. Defoe moved on, however: ‘From Bridport, we came to Lime, the town particularly made famous by the landing of the Duke of Monmouth, in the time of King James II, of which I need say nothing, the history of it being so recent in the memory of so many living.’
The spectacle of Lyme Regis, the name granted by Royal Charter of Edward I in 1284, presents itself as you come over the escarpment, with Lyme Bay spreading before it. Lyme, however, had been an important port for many years even before Defoe’s visit or before the illegitimate Protestant son of Charles II, the popular and capable James Scott, put it on the map in 1685. In that year his ships landed there at the start of the ill-fated Monmouth Rebellion, the revolt to overthrow the Catholic King James II, which ended in swift defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor. The irony is that thirty-four years earlier, his father, escaping Parliamentarian troops following his defeat at Worcester, had attempted in vain to flee to France from the same location.
Magical Lyme, as Defoe found, divides neatly into two – the town and the harbour: ‘… this is a town of good figure, and has in it several eminent merchants, who carry on a considerable trade to France, Spain, Newfoundland, and the Streights; and tho’ they have neither creek or bay, road or river, they have a good harbour; but ’tis such a one as is not in all Britain besides…consisting of high and thick walls of stone…large enough for carts and carriages to pass on the top, and to admit houses and ware houses to be built on it; so that it is broad as a street…the ships go into the basin, and ride there as secure as in a mill pond.’
He continues: ‘This work is call’d the COBB: there were several ships of very good force, and rich in value, in the basin of it when I was there.’ Wandering the harbour today, one can but imagine the bustling activity that Defoe described; hints remain, like the rates of duty that were to be paid in 1879, posted on the Cobb warehouse to inform crews returning from voyages across the globe carrying cargoes of livestock, wines and spirits, hemp and flax, trusses of sailcloth, hides, timber, seed, grain and stone. Not able to accommodate modern container vessels, the Cobb is now the preserve of trawlers and pleasure boats, silent to the excited cries of the homecoming merchantman fresh from the United States, the Malacca Straits or beyond. Then, however: ‘It was in sight of these hills that Queen Elizabeth’s fleet, under the command of the Lord Howard of Effingham, then admiral, began first to engage in a close, and resolv’d fight with the invincible Spanish Armada, in 1588.’
Near to the harbour entrance is a plaque to Sir George Somers, who was born in Lyme and later became MP for the town. Somers, who served under Effingham at the Spanish defeat, went on to become a seafarer of note. In 1609, in command of the Sea Venture, he set out with seven ships for Jamestown, leading the Third Supply Relief Fleet. Encountering a hurricane in the Atlantic, Somers’s vessels were scattered and the Sea Venture began to take on water. For three days the crew braved the storm, Somers himself at the helm until finally, in order to avoid sinking, he ran the Sea Venture onto the reef of what would later become Bermuda but which he modestly named the Somers Isles. All passengers, crew and a dog survived; a settlement was established and two new ships were built from the wreck to complete the journey to America. Somers was later appointed Governor of Bermuda where he died ‘of a surfeit in eating of a pig’. He so loved the island that his heart is buried there, while his grave can be found in the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum, near Bridport. It is said that Shakespeare based The Tempest on the tale of the Sea Venture.
It was also in Lyme Regis that Anne Elliott, the heroine in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, regains her zest for life when she meets Captains Harville and Benwick of the Royal Navy while visiting the town with the Uppercross family. But most recently, it was the setting for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the 1969 novel by John Fowles, who lived in Lyme Regis and later ran its museum. In 1981, Harold Pinter adapted the book for the screen version, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. Defoe’s visit, therefore, also underpins Lyme Regis’s long-established literary tradition.
Walking from the Cobb to the town, the houses along the sea front are covered in a wonder of architectural curios and detail, some unchanged since Defoe’s time. Walls are faced with enormous sandstone sundials, embedded with fossils, trimmed in ornate lead moulded guttering or decorated with intricate wrought iron metalwork; below, pastel-coloured beach hut doors fringe the sand that sweeps down to the sea’s edge.
In the town, where Defoe felt so at ease, bookshops, delicatessens, a flea market, bistros and wine bars beckon; here the street lamps are formed in the shape of ammonites, in recognition of the fossils found in the Jurassic marine beds nearby. The town has been renowned for petrified remains since interest in the subject began in the early 19th century as a result of the work of the noted palaeontologist, Mary Anning. The Royal Society listed her amongst the top ten British women to have influenced the history of science.
Enjoying a steaming mug of tea and a fairy cake, one is in a perfect place to savour the view and mull over Defoe’s closing words on ladies before he turned northward: ‘The ladies here do not want the help of assemblies to assist in match-making; or half-pay officers to run away with their daughters…the reason of which I cannot help saying, if my opinion may bear any weight, is, that the Dorsetshire ladies are equal in beauty…and yet the Dorsetshire ladies, I assure you, are not nuns, they do not go vail’d about streets, or hide themselves when visited … such as I nowhere see better in all my observation, thro’ the whole isle of Britain.’ ◗