Winter in England is cold, damp, windy, grey skies, dark at 5pm with irritating overpaid footballers. As the rest of the family had decamped from England to the warmth of Cape Town, I did the 16000km kangaroo hop from Australia to England to visit my almost to turn 90 year old mum who lives in the ancient, beautiful Dorset village of Sherborne. The ancestral home of Sir Walter Raleigh yes, that 16th century chivalrous dude who threw his cape on the ground so Queen Elizabeth 1 would not have to get her feet soiled – I think the story is fake, but it sounds good anyway. The stunning Sherborne Abbey, part of the writer Thomas Hardy’s world and the school at which a young Alan Turing was so tormented but went on to kick Hitler’s arse by breaking his enigma code and shortening WW11. Also, the Coldplay guys went to the same school.
How was my mom you might ask? Not bad for 90 – still slim, upright, good looking, well dressed, fiercely independent, forever curious, bombastic, can still spot a bullshit artist from a hundred paces but unfortunately the head is not what it used to be so the short term memory is limited. How to entertain mum for 2 weeks? As any kid will tell you……….……..head to the seaside. Thankfully the Jurassic Coast is only an hour down the road. A slip down the road for most Australians but an occasion to make a cut lunch for an Englishman. So after a quick shop at Waitrose, coffee at Oliver’s, we set a different 6/7 digit navigational code into the Tom Tom and off to the seaside we went. The UK has to have the greatest navigational system in the world – the whole country is broken up into a 6 or 7 digit code (eg: EX10 8XR) and this unique number leads you to within 10m of the door.
A few housekeeping facts for those geologically minded nerds. The Jurassic Coast stretches 96 miles (154 kms) from Exmouth, Devon in the West to Studland, Dorset in the East along England’s South Coast. This 185 million year old coastline covers the Triassic, Jurassic and Crethceous periods during which it changed from a desert to a tropical sea to a swamp. I am not sure what that says about our present day fixation with man made climate change. Who knows, maybe Trump is right and it is all just a Chinese conspiracy! Anyway, if fossils are your thing then you are in for a treat. Crustaceans, insects, molluscs, echinoderms, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals (not the middle aged cycling variety thankfully), conifers, tree ferns, cycads are all found here. The coastline has been battered and bashed to produce strange geological formations totally out of character with this now peaceful place.
The Tom Tom always seemed to be set on taking the scenic route to the coast. Not that we ever complained. Going through the villages, I thought who on earth thought up these names – Maiden Newton, Middlemarsh, Milton Abbas, Melcombe Bingham, Litton Cheney, Piddlehinton, Puncknowle, Bere Regis and my favourite, Melberry Bubb. All the English derived place names in Australia come from military men or other associated toffs. They are punchy and hard. These village names are the opposite – they are soft, they roll off your tongue and drip with romance. Not surprising that this exact route is where Thomas Hardy was born, lived, died and wrote about. These were the settings for Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Under the Greenwood Tree, Jude the Obscure, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Isle of Slingers etc etc. The 2013 Hollywood adaption of Hardy’s 4th novel and first major literary success, Far from the Madding Crowd, was filmed in Sherborne and the surrounding villages. The village of Portesham, written about in The Trumpet Major, was the home of another famous Hardy. Admiral Thomas Hardy was captain of The Victory at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Lord Nelson died in his arms uttering those immortal words “Kiss me Kate”. The Hardy Monument, a huge stone vertical telescope is built on a windswept hill once owned by the Hardy family. You could spend weeks exploring these villages but we had a job to do; the coast beckoned.
You walk into these tiny coastal villages and towns and marvel at the ingenuity and toughness of these people who built industries from scratch. Beer was a Roman quarry 2000 years ago and it’s skilled fishermen manned and died for the British Navy as they conquered the world. Bridport was the center of the rope and net making industries and the setting for Thomas Hardy’s Fellow Townsman story. Lyme Regis, now with a thriving art and tourism industry, was a major fishing port and served as a base for tens of thousands of American soldiers prior to the DDay invasion. A neat plaque from the American Army acknowledges the town’s generosity during those dark days and also for the number of young woman who accompanied the GI’s Stateside after 1945. Weymouth, yachting base for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and Portland have old fishing and quarrying industries. The most interesting place, due to a personal connection, is Studland. At the beginning of WW2, with bombs falling on London, tens of thousands of children were evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside. My mom, together with her brother and sister and her mother left London and stayed in a cottage on Studland Bay for the duration of the war. Her dad, an air raid warden, stayed behind. Nothing much has changed since. The Banks Arms pub, where Churchill stayed for an Allied Summit, is still the same – although better food. It now attracts the crowds who hike this coast on the South West Coast Path. As children they went to the 1000 year old local church. First built by the Normans and added to by successive generations. The Church, being the tallest structure and thus the perfect lookout, was an essential part of the smuggling industry. Along this whole coast, this was a reoccurring theme. This rugged coast, with skilled seamen, few inlets and villages with single entry roads was perfect for the smuggling of duty free goods from the continent. I think Jesus of Nazareth would have approved. This pesky carpenter, this builder, this influencer who held up a giant middle finger to the Romans would have identified with these tough fisherman and clergy of Southern England. The Jurassic Coast’s own Brexit! You go on holiday and find something that you love. For us it was a little coastal hotel in Burton Bradstock called “The Seaside Boarding House.” And that it was until it was bought by an enterprising young woman who spent 4 years renovating the building. It only has 8 rooms but wow, what beautiful rooms. The dining room and bar and function center and outside dining area (summer only) cater for way more that the 8 rooms. The food is stylish, well cooked and beautifully presented. In fact, the whole place is beautifully presented and run. So, no matter where we were on the coast we always headed back to this lovely, comfortable, warm hotel for a late lunch before driving back to Sherborne.
A lot of great artists live along this coastline and display in galleries in Beer, Lyme Regis, West Bay, Weymouth, Poole and Bournemouth. If you are interested in the art scene, get a copy of the free Evolver magazine. It covers the area from the coast right up to Bath. This coastline is special – not just because my Mom and I had 2 weeks of nonstop adventures but also it has something for everybody.
If you like beach combing and checking out really strange rocks, then this is the place for you. If you like rustic buildings and ancient churches and village pubs and quirky artists and great food then this is also the place for you. Enjoy, we certainly did.
By: Jonathan Hough