Literary Lyme – from Jane Austen to Little Pig Robinson

I’ve visited Lyme Regis on at least one occasion every year since I first came down to Branscombe in 2007. On several of the previous visits I’ve gone fossiling. Needless to say the five-year olds on these tours found many fossils and I found never found any. Of course, they are a lot nearer to the ground. That’s my excuse, anyway.

This year on the recommendation of one my readers I’d booked to go on a Literary Lyme Walking Tour on the theme of Jane Austen in Lyme Regis.

I should mention here that the weather on this August Bank Holiday Monday was simply appalling – wind, rain and high seas. This was such a shame at the end of summer and of most people’s holidays.

The arrangement was to meet at the anchor in the middle of town where the main shopping street drops down to the sea wall.

On a previous visit to the Town Museum I had noticed that Beatrix Potter had written and illustrated one of her longer children’s books here : Little Pig Robinson. I asked Natalie if she could pick out any of the locations featured in this book. She did and I made a note of these for future reference.

I had thought that I could probably work out a Jane Austen walk for myself using Google and Caroline Sanderson’s book A Rambling Fancy: in the footsteps of Jane Austen which has a chapter on Jane in Lyme but to have my own private and knowledgeable guide proved well worthwhile.

Using copies of old prints of the town Natalie Manifold (who is Literary Lyme) began our JA tour explaining the origin and history of the famous Cobb. The dates connected with The Cobb will prove to be important when we eventually arrive there!

Photo taken on a previous visit when the weather was as it should be!

Our first stop was just a few paces away on Coombe Street where the old post office stood. It’s now Old Lyme Guest House but a plaque on the wall records the PO fact and the old letterbox is still in situ.

It’s said that at this very box Jane mailed her letters (single sheet and postage paid by the recipient) to her sister Cassandra after the latter had left Jane in Lyme in order to accompany other family members to Weymouth.

After a quick nod to Banksy (an origami crane with goldfish) we headed up Sherborne Lane. From there we arrived at Broad Street, Lyme’s main thoroughfare. Our next ‘Jane’ location was the now disused Three Cups Hotel which was Hiscott’s Boarding House in JA’s time and where she initially stayed on her visit to Lyme Regis. (Incidentally, it’s also the hotel where General Eisenhower stayed whist the D-Day Landings were being planned in 1945.) Jane also stayed a few doors down at Pyne House after several members of her family upped sticks and moved on to Weymouth.

A couple of steps from Pyne House Natalie showed me an old print of Lyme :

View from Pyne House (courtesy of Lyme Regis Museum)

The same view on Monday 27 August 2012

A walk along Marine Parade took us past a couple of blue-painted cottages named Harville and Benwick. Built after the publication of ‘Persuasion’ (the Austen novel in which Lyme features) they were named following Francis Palgrave‘s mistaken identification of these buildings as the homes of Captains Harville and Benwick. Natalie showed me the more likely candidates for these homes a little further along the Parade.

Harville and Benwick Cottages from The Jane Austen Garden

There’s a rather overgrown garden dedicated to Jane Austen but apparently all the references are wrong so it has been rather left to run to seed.

Finally, we walked along The Cobb. Not on the upper, exposed part but below at road level, and we studied the three sets of steps which have puzzled Jane Austen fans for some time. The set of “Gyn Steps” were not built until after Jane Austen’s time,

the second set called Granny’s Teeth were thought by many to have brought about Louisa’s fall

but Natalie maintains and insists (supported by a reading from the very passage in ‘Persuasion’) that these are the very steps from which Captain Wentworth failed to catch Louisa as jumped from the Cobb.

The walk ended here but we made our way back together to our starting point. A huge waved had blown right over the Cobb and soaked us both thoroughly and much as I would have liked to have investigated the Little Pig Robinson locations I decided that enough was enough and such pleasures must wait another day!

Help save Belmont – a literary landmark in lovely Lyme Regis!

Today I received a fund-raising email from the Landmark Trust to encourage support for donations to help save Belmont House in Lyme Regis.

Follow this link to read more about the house and its present desperate state :

Belmont, Lyme Regis

Belmont was the former home of two interesting people. During the 18th century it was the home of Mrs Eleanor Coade the lady who devised a formula to mass produce architectural embellishments and statuary of the highest quality which she named ‘Coade stone’. And between 1968 and 2005 it was the home of novelist John Fowles and it was here that he finished his most famous work “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”. Lyme Regis is the setting for the book. It was through his generosity that Belmont was left to the Landmark Trust. The Trust’s website explains why further funds are needed to restore the house and make it habitable for future holiday lets through this unique organisation:

Belmont stands empty, decaying and at risk and urgently needs funds to enable its restoration. The Grade II* house is a fine, early example of a maritime villa, a new building type that sprang up in the second half of the 18th century with the rising popularity of seaside holidays. Today the fabric of the building is deteriorating, the parapet is sagging, there are rotten wall plates and lintels, the stone skin is coming away and water is trapped behind impermeable cement render.

Lyme Regis is a delightful and interesting little seaside town on the Dorset coast. Each year for the past five years I have spent a week at nearby Branscombe in Devon and on each occasion I have visited Lyme at least twice. On three occasions I’ve been fossil hunting (without any luck!) for Lyme lies within the World Heritage Site Jurassic Coast.

Lyme has a promenade and sandy and pebbly beaches. You can tell which is the sandy one by the numbers of people crammed into the small area where huge amounts of sand were imported from Normandy. A lot of effort; but it has made a huge difference. I’ve never actually managed to get onto the beach as there is always so much more of interest to me. There’s a High Street crammed with shops – many of them small and individual and very many of them selling or in some other way connected with the fossils that are Lyme’s trademark.

The Philpot Museum is well worth a visit, or several. Fossil Hunts are organised from the Museum. Lyme Regis has a colourful little harbour/marina protected from the sea by the famous Cobb – mentioned in Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion‘ and featured in the film of Fowles’ ‘French Lieutenant’s Woman’. By the Cobb is the fascinating Marine Aquarium. There is good food to be had from the small cafes along the promenade, to the Town Bakery, to Hix Oyster and Fish House.

Lyme Regis :  The quintessential seaside resort for literature lovers everywhere – Jane Austen and Beatrix Potter visited it.  John Fowles lived in it.

Belmont, Lyme Regis : “Mrs Coade made it; John Fowles loved it. Now it must be saved.”