Thursday, August 21st 2014
On awaking this morning, I took this photo of Weymouth Bay from the window of our hotel bedroom. The sky was overcast and the sun hidden behind clouds but all was delightfully calm and quiet. There were no crowds at this early hour but – more importantly – the fairground had gone! I could not believe it at first and kept looking to make sure. When we went to bed last night, the rides had been working at full pelt, with flashing lights and raucous music, yet in the small hours they had struck camp and stolen away. Weymouth had reassumed its more benign aspect.
After breakfast we ventured forth to explore. By now the sun had come out and it was preparing to be a fine day. Everywhere was quiet with very few people in the streets. This was more like the Weymouth I remembered.
We took a look inside Fossil Beach, a lovely shop full of shells, mineral stones, fossils, semi-precious stones and all kinds of artefacts made from them, together with jewellery, and the materials and tools for making your own. Tigger bought a few items for gifts and I bought myself a tiger’s eye bracelet.
We were going to stay in Weymouth today, to explore and renew our acquaintance with it. From Fossil Beach we continued along St Mary Street and came to the Black Dog. A town with a history of seafaring can be expected to contain many pubs. Several of Weymouth’s are very old and have an interesting history behind them.
There has been a pub on the site of the Black Dog since no later than the 16th century but probably long before that, and although it has been altered since then, traces of past generations of its architecture remain. The pub, which now has a Grade II* listing, was originally called the Dove until a serendipitous discovery caused a change of name. When trade with the Americas was established, a special breed of dog was discovered in Newfoundland, presumably a result of local inter-breeding of dogs. These large, friendly but brave dogs were soon to be found on ships and there are many stories of them rescuing people from drowning or carrying a line to shore or to a ship in trouble. Intrigued by these animals, the landlord of the Dove bought the first “Newf” to be seen in the south-west and dog and pub soon became famous, attracting people from far and wide to see this remarkable canine. It must have seemed entirely appropriate to rename the pub The Black Dog after its most celebrated occupant.
Another pub with an animal name is the Golden Lion Hotel on the corner of St Mary Street and St Edmund Street. According to English Heritage, this hostelry was originally built in the 17th century and rebuilt in the 18th. It is very large and was possibly once a coaching inn. My attention, however was taken by the inn sign.
I don’t know when the lion was fashioned – in the 18th century, perhaps – but he has obviously suffered the outrages of time and weather, losing his tail in some accident or assault. He still stands proudly surveying the scene with kingly gaze as we expect our lions to do. Personally, I think the lion deserves the pub’s Grade II listing all on his own!
The Head Post Office on the corner of St Thomas Street with St Mary Street is a fine example of early 20th-century post offices and merits a Grade II listing. Unfortunately, it has ceased to be used for its original purpose and is now up for sale. I can understand that, as the postal service continues to contract, many of its properties are becoming surplus to requirement and that it makes sense to sell them. Staff, too, often prefer the working conditions provided by newer facilities. Even so, I find it sad when these noble structures are cast aside. Let’s hope this one (and all others like it) are converted sympathetically for whatever new role awaits them.
As good a reason as any for calling this thoroughfare St Mary Street is the presence in it of Weymouth’s parish church, St Mary’s. Local historians will tell you that there has been a church here from no later than the 13th century but the present one was constructed in 1815 and restored in 1922. It is built, as you might expect for a principal building in this area, of Portland stone. The latter’s whiteness is appreciated as are the many fossils that appear on the surface of the cut stones and add interest to to them.
On entering the church you first pass into a large narthex or atrium. Leading off it are doors to the various rooms that have been fashioned by partitioning off the side aisles. (The smallness of modern congregations presumably means that these are no longer needed for seating.) Closing the aisles removes the illumination that would once have come from their windows and the church is a little dark as a result. Windows remain in the two galleries but light reaches the nave only by reflection, not directly. I could not see any access to the galleries from the nave so do not know whether they are used during services or, as is often the case, act as storage areas.
I found the church design rather unusual. It didn’t strike me as typical of any particular period and I suppose it might be summed up as “quietly, if soberly, elegant”. There is an organ but I also noticed a grand piano placed strategically behind the altar.
Behind the altar and serving as a reredos is a large painting of the Last Supper by Sir James Thornhill (1675/6-1734). He created many large scale paintings, including, for example, the ceiling of the Great Hall in Greenwich Hospital. A further reason for his attachment to this church is that he was born in Melcombe Regis.
It is usual in parish churches to find plaques commemorating deceased members of the parish and this church has several, some quite old. These two attracted my attention particularly for the young age at which both men died, 33 and 21, respectively. Captain Stear “dyed” in Waymouth (the old spelling of the town’s name) but the place of death of Lieutenant Campbell is not stated. This, together with his young age, suggests that he may have fallen in one of the wars taking place in 1799. There are at least three to choose from in which British forces were involved.
On the corner of St Edmund Street with Maiden Street, there once stood a Tudor merchant’s house. This was no doubt a good place to live for a merchant as it is conveniently close to the docks. Said merchant, could he see his house today, might be disconcerted by the fact that it now houses a public toilet. What marks this toilet as distinct from others of its kind, however, is the cannonball embedded in the gable end just below a third-floor window. This is thought to have been fired from a cannon mounted on a ship during the English Civil War. Melcombe was a Parliamentary garrison so this must be a Royalist projectile. Nothing for the citizens of Melcombe to lose their heads over…
We went to the port which is still quite busy with freight services and pleasure craft. One of the main companies here is Condor Ferries which operates services to Guernsey, Jersey and St Malo (you can just see one of the ferries near the top left of the photo). These services, however, are due to terminate in spring 2015 when Condor moves them to the newly refurbished terminal in Poole. What that means for Weymouth and for local trade and employment remains to be seen.
Beside the port is the old Fish Market, built in 1855 of local Portland stone. It is still in use, though under what arrangements I do not know.
The port is overseen by the Harbour Master who originally occupied this rather charming office made in a combination of red brick and Portland stone in the 1930s. The window bay is adorned with a sailing ship motif that is in fact the central element in the Weymouth Coat of Arms (for example, see here).
The modern office is an unprepossessing brick box but its advantage, I suppose, is that it offers more facilities (including showers and toilets for boat crews) than the older and prettier one. Practicalities always trump aesthetics.
The entrance to the the port is a waterway called Weymouth Fore River and it is crossed by a busy road called Bridge Street. The bridge is too low to allow sizeable craft to pass under it and therefore has to lift to afford them passage. This is necessary but causes a certain amount of frustration for the motorists to have to wait for the bridge to close again.
Feeling in need of refreshment, we went into the Weymouth Pavilion and ordered milk shakes in the Cafe Ritz. (The name may seem ambitious but it comes from that of a previous incarnation of the Pavilion.) The Pavilion is a theatre and venue for entertainments and celebrations. It first opened in 1908 but was commandeered by the military during WWII. The Pavilion was restored to Council ownership in 1947 but was badly damaged and needed extensive repair. It eventually reopened as The Ritz but then suffered a disastrous fire in 1954. It was rebuilt and emerged like a phoenix from the ashes but thereafter its future was continually in doubt and in 2012 the Council announced its closure with a view to demolition. Local opposition to this plan was mounted and prevailed: the Pavilion is currently run by a group called the Weymouth Pavilion Community Interest Company whose avowed aim is to run it as a “venue with something for everyone”. A more detailed account of the Pavilion’s history may be found on the History page of its Web site. the Pavilion seems safe for the time being and we hope its future remains bright.
We turned back along the sea front, heading for the hotel. The warm sunny weather had brought many people out onto the sandy beach. It was good to see so many people enjoying themselves in traditional seaside manner, sunbathing, making sandcastles and even splashing about in the sea.
Anyone whose ambitions in modelling sand have been limited to sandcastles will no doubt be amazed by sand sculpture as practised by artists specializing in the craft. We found the above sculpture of the Last Supper in a specially constructed shelter used by sculptor Mark Anderson.
At first sight (and even at second and third sight) it seems impossible that anyone could produce such detailed works using only sand and water but that’s the simple truth of the matter. I do not claim to know the secrets of the art but I understand that the sand needs to be of the right sort, composed of small but irregular grains – nicely rounded grains slide over one another too easily. If the grains are right, then the water acts as a binding force rather than a lubricant and the wet sand can be modelled into intricate shapes, though there is always a danger of the sculpture drying out and crumbling. (See E.T.’s finger in the above photo.) Weymouth’s sand has the reputation of being one of the best for sculpture.
We returned to the hotel and laid up against the heat. (And why not? We are on holiday, after all!) Reluctantly, we made several trips downstairs to the residents’ lounge to fetch hot water for tea but that was better than not having tea at all.
After a pleasant rest and relaxation session, we went forth again. By now, night had fallen, presenting a view of the town in its nighttime garb. During the day, this statue is unremarkable, just like so many others, but with the lighting appears quite dramatic. Sir Henry Edwards (1829-97) served as the MP for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis from 1867 until 1885 when the town ceased to be a Parliamentary Borough. He is remembered principally for his generous gifts to the community which included ten cottages for elderly inhabitants of the town. The statue was raised by public subscription in 1885, making it one of the rare cases of a statue being erected during the lifetime of the subject. The statue was sculpted by brothers William and Thomas Wills and English Heritage accords it a Grade II listing.
We passed by the sand sculptures again and found that they were lit by electric light. I am not sure that the colours of the lamps were particularly good choices. This sculpture looks like a sketch of a war memorial though I think some subsidence has occurred.
The Edwards statue stands at the edge of Alexandra Gardens and in the gardens was a funfair. It was quite small and seemed intended for children. The old favourite, the carousel, was there, and again I marvelled at the enduring popularity of this gentle form of entertainment.
This has been one of our quieter days but no less enjoyable for that. A good part of the pleasure for me was that, after the noise and crowds of yesterday, Weymouth has recovered the personality that had attracted me to it in the first place.
We returned to the hotel lit part of the way by illuminated feather palms, an exotic touch for this essentially traditional resort.