Walking Lyme Regis
Walking out from Lyme Regis, I decided to explore that beautiful border land where one mile you are in Devon and the next in Dorset, then back again. The stretch of coast westwards of Lyme is one of the most dramatic in England, formed as it was by the great landslip of 1839, when a huge section of cliff tumbled into the sea, forming a great chasm that has now become a wild and tangled cliff-top forest, now a national nature reserve. Often I walked in the steps of the rebels who came to join the Duke of Monmouth here in 1685, mostly to perish at Sedgemoor, or as slave labour in the West Indies.
The Undercliff, as it is known, offers some challenging walking for the narrow path winds and dips for several miles between Lyme and Axmouth, offering no escape, except back the way you have come. It is rambling for the hardiest of walkers only, the scene immortalised as the geological playground of Charles Ryder in John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. As I intended to walk inland, I followed the path into the Undercliff only as far as Chimney Rock, a tall column of decaying cliff that does indeed resemble something like a chimney, overshadowing the neighbouring trees and offering a fine view over Lyme Bay. A precipitous footpath takes the walker to the top of Chimney Rock by way of steps cut out of the hillside.
From the fields at the top are wonderful views of Lyme Regis, huddled down in a deep combe by the sea, in a dip between decaying cliffs. Apart from Monmouth’s days there, the town has a bloody history. It was burned several times by French raiders, and besieged – but never captured – by Royalist forces in the English Civil War, when 500 defenders held out for Parliament against a force ten times greater. It is said that the River Lim ran red with blood as Royalist cannon pounded the town from these neighbouring hills. We have watched such actions in my lifetime in places like Beirut and Kosovo; it is hard to remind ourselves that numerous now peaceful areas of the countryside of England were once such battlegrounds.
Just inland from Chimney Rock my walk took me along Gore Lane. When I first saw the name on the signpost, I thought this must have something to do with Lyme’s bloody past, but in fact Gore can also mean a triangular piece of land, and I wonder if that is a much more innocent explanation for the name of that land. I cannot find an explanation for the name of Horseman’s Hill, where I wandered next along a field edge and then down through a lovely stretch of steep woodland. The footpath contouring the slopes of the hill offered exceptional view over Uplyme and the valley of the River Lim.
The railway travels no more to Lyme Regis, but the great viaduct at Cannington is a reminder of how the navvies of old carved a route through these deep valleys right on the eastern edge of Devon. There is something very sad about a railway line with the rails took up. Close your eyes and you can imagine the locomotives thundering through, and hear their whistles echoing across the meadows where now cattle and sheep graze peacefully.
The countryside around must always have been favoured, for a Roman villa once stood proudly on a hilltop nearby. Not that there is anything to see, just a mark on the Ordnance Survey map. As I walked up the lane I imagined some well to do Roman, or he may well have been a Romanised Briton, or from anywhere else in that vast and ancient empire, standing by the entrance to his luxurious hilltop home, admiring a view that has probably not changed a great deal.
Not a lot has changed, I suppose. Many of us still long for a little piece of heaven in the British countryside. Perhaps in millennia to come, the millionaire’s mansions of today will be just a black mark on map, with just a few bumps and crop shadows to indicate the follies of material possession.
The village of Uplyme is a delight, despite the busy road that runs nearby and some unsympathetic modern buildings. As I sat in the churchyard looking back at the way I had come, I thought of the novelist Henry Fielding, who became so enamoured of a farmer’s daughter hereabouts that he carried her away, immortalising her as Sophia Weston in Tom Jones.
Jane Austen liked to walk this way, commenting on the beautiful trees in this valley in her letters. The trees that delighted Jane enchanted me as I walked by the waters of the Lim, before following the bridleway to Whitty Hill, a wonderful airy place where I lay down in the shelter of the trees and dozed in the heat of the spring afternoon. Whitty Hill takes its name from Thomas Whitty, creator of the Axminster carpet, who built the grand house of Rhode Hill that dominates the valley nearby. Whitty was an entrepreneur of the old school and made a substantial fortune from his carpets. Perhaps the greatest reward of all must be to have a hill named after you. It certainly buys you a little bit of immortality, for I never venture on to that windswept hilltop without remembering Mr Whitty.
His hill is a good place for a rest, for there is the shade of trees on hot summer days, a comfortable earthen bank to relax against, and bushes to shelter you from the wind. It is so peaceful, and so little visited that I have often dozed there for hours, just listening to the sight of the breeze in the tree boughs.
A network of old paths leads to Hole Common, which is now heavily wooded, but was perhaps open countryside in times past. These are the tracks that Monmouth’s rebels would have taken over three hundred years ago to covertly reach Lyme Regis. It is said that they wore a garland of green leaves in their hats to show that they were on the side of ‘King Monmouth’ rather than that of James II.
I was now in Dorset, though the fields of Devon were in sight across the valley at the foot of the wood. I could see into both counties from the summit of the oddly named Dragon’s Hill, but in a way the border is immaterial, for this corner of England is exquisitely beautiful and much the same in mood whichever county you are in. The coast around Lyme is now a World Heritage Site and the coast path used by thousands of walkers each year, but the quiet hinterland around the valley of the Lim is less often explored.
I have walked its paths often, and I see fewer walkers than I do in the wildest spots of Dartmoor. The coast itself – the Jurassic Coast – is full of geological turbulence. There are constant landslips. The coast path between Lyme and Charmouth has been wiped out several times since I first walked it.
But this constant exposure of old rocks is heaven for the fossil hunters who throng the beaches, seldom going away empty-handed. Fossils are Lyme’s big industry and have been since twelve year old local girl Mary Anning uncovered the fossil of an Ichthyosaur some two hundred years ago, launching our obsession with all things dinosaur. This unlikely scientist lies buried in the graveyard of the parish church, and I stood by her grave for a moment or two pondering how her discovery changed the way we think about the Earth, our evolution, and the conflict with religious faith. As I made my way out on to the sea front, a party of youngsters came along with hammers and chisels, heading for the latest coastal landslip, chattering with excitement about what fossils they might find.
Lyme Regis always seems to be very busy these days, whatever the weather. People like Lyme; they pack its beaches on hot summer days, promenade its long sea wall and stare into shop windows. It may always have been so, for it has long been a fashionable resort. “The young people were all wild to see Lyme,” wrote Jane Austen in her novel Persuasion. Many of her admirers have made the pilgrimage since, including Alfred Tennyson who, on being offered a view of the spot where Monmouth landed, muttered to his guide “don’t talk to me of Monmouth, but show me the place where Louisa Musgrave fell,” the place being the raggedy stone steps on the Cobb now known as Granny’s Teeth. And Louisa Musgrave doesn’t exactly fall from them in Miss Austen’s tale; she jumps in a dramatic bit of attention-seeking. The Cobb, Lyme’s great stone breakwater built in the reign of Edward I, features too in John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and like its heroine Sarah Woodruff I finished my walk at its end, watching the waves sweep on to the town’s sandy beaches.