Lyme Regis, Dorset

‘An easterly is the most disagreeable wind in Lyme Bay,’ writes the town’s famous resident, the novelist John Fowles, ‘Lyme Bay being that largest bite from the underside of England’s outstretched south-western leg.’ The picture he paints of the town and its immediate surroundings in The French Lieutenant’s Woman is so vivid that even if you have never been here before, you feel you know it. As I walked along the stalwart, sinuous breakwater called the Cobb I felt I would surely see the ghost ofSarah Woodruff waiting alone at the far end.

Lyme_RegisThe precariousness of the town’s position is abundantly clear as one looks landward from the Cobb to the strange scalloped Undercliff scattered with trees on the western side of Lyme, and the sinister-looking cliff shelves called the Spittles to the east. Landslips are frequent – the parish church is said to be sliding towards the sea – and each one exposes the fossils of creatures which lived millions of years ago, preserved within the blue Lias clay. Mary Arming, a carpenter’s daughter from Lyme, was the first to discover just how fossil-rich this stretch of the coast was. In the 1820s she found the remains of a plesiosaur, a pterosaur and a twenty-foot-long ichthyosaur. The gigantic slabs of stone which top the sloping surface of the ancient Cobb are vermiculated with tiny indentations of Jurassic burrowers and surely inspired Lyme resident Eleanor Coade, the inventor of the ceramic material known as Coade stone.

The town is beautiful, with its steep winding streets, bow windows, lampposts decorated with wrought-iron ammonites, Regency cabaneornée resembling a thatched igloo, gabled clapboarded houses, fossil shops, ancient inns, Nonconformist chapels, and fanciful houses along the front. A terraced public garden moulded from a landslip is thick with ferns and pampas grass. Below it, level with the beach, an amusement arcade with a grim 1970s front is set discreetly underground.

Lyme is inspiring. Whistler rented a studio here for a summer, Samuel Palmer spent time drawing the landslip and Henry Fielding dallied with a local beauty. Perhaps most famously, Jane Austen set part of Persuasion in Lyme. ‘A very strange stranger it must be,’ she remarks, ‘who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme to make him wish to know it better.’

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Joadl 

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