Don’t underestimate the Undercliff

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The Undercliff lies to the west of Lyme Regis, stretching 5 miles towards Axmouth and Seaton. A wild landscape of meadows and thick, dense woodland created by landslips.

Landslides have created a magnificent wilderness that has been colonised by natural vegetation. The self sown Ash and Field Maple woodland contains large areas of mixed scrub including Wayfaring
Tree and Spindle, with dense entanglements of Bramble, Madder, Clematis and Everlasting Pea.…..

Wet areas, including ponds and springs, have their own distinctive plants, such as Giant Horsetail, sedges and Common Reed. The cliff top chalk grassland contains a wealth of wildlife, with rarities
such as Nottingham Catchfly and Early Gentian. (Natural England leaflet)

John Fowles used to live here in Undercliff cottage where he wrote a number of his works including The French Lieutenant’s Woman in which the Undercliff plays a significant role.  It’s here that Charles encounters Sarah Woodruff dor the second time. She takes walks and rests here as a way of escaping from the restraints of Victorian Society. In the book the Undercliff is notorious for illicit lovers’ trysts and respectable ladies would want to be seen in a place associated with immorality and depravity.

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Today it’s a nature reserve and the South West Coast path runs through it. As is pretty typical for the coast near Lyme, landslips meant that there was a diversion inland for a few years but the path through the Undercliff reopened this year. For much of it’s length there is only one way in and one way out  – there are no paths leading inland or seaward. It’s a challenging walk – the path is very uneven terrain, and hard going as due to the clay soils much of the path is muddy and slippery for most of the year.

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We’d originally planned to take the bus over to Seaton and walk back along the path. Unfortunately time didn’t allow for this. Instead we walked from Monmouth Beach up the steep steps

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and into the Undercliff for just over a couple of miles before turning back and retracing our steps with a diversion via Chimney Rock.

Initially we passed through pleasant meadows

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from where there were views over the bay towards Golden Cap

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but we were soon into dense woodland.

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Wit it’s humid micro climate, I  guess this was a near as we get to rainforest in the UK.

The vegetation was different from elsewhere in the area. I’m not much of a botanist so wouldn’t know how to spot any rare species but there were certainly plenty of these unusual ferns

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They’re Hart’s Tongue Fern

The plants are unusual in being ferns with simple, undivided fronds. The tongue-shaped leaves have given rise to the common name “Hart’s tongue fern”; a hart being an adult male red deer. The sori pattern is reminiscent of a centipede’s legs, and scolopendrium is Latin for “centipede”.[4] The leaves are 10–60 cm long and 3–6 cm broad, with sori arranged in rows perpendicular to the rachis.

The plants grow on neutral and lime-rich substrates, including moist soil and damp crevices in old walls, most commonly in shaded situations but occasionally in full sun; plants in full sun are usually stunted and yellowish in colour, while those in full shade are dark green and luxuriant. (Wikipedia)

It was certainly hard going but we encountered a number of walkers who had trekked through from Seaton. I felt a little jealous. Perhaps next time!

Monmouth Beach

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Monday morning, the second day of our holiday, started off grey and cloudy with mist over the hills. A planned walk along the coast was deferred and instead we decided to walk over to Monmouth beach, to the west of Lyme. It was here that on 11 June 1685 the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles II, landed, launching his rebellion to overthrow his uncle, James II, and claim the throne. Following the failure of the rebellion, twelve local men were hanged on the beach.

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Initially walking over pebbles and shingle, we eventually reached a limestone pavement which is exposed at low tide. This is the star attraction of the beach as embedded in it there’s a  large number of fossilised ammonites, some approaching a metre in diameter. An amazing sight.

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I snapped some examples – using a pound coin to provide some idea of scale.

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The pavement and much od the beach is completely covered at high tide so best to go out on a falling tide (check the tide tables online) and you’ll have a few hours to explore safely.

A week in Lyme Regis

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We’re just back home after spending a week on holiday in Lyme Regis- an attractive small  seaside town on the south coast in Dorset – just as it’s close to the border with Devon. Its our second visit, having stayed there four years ago.

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We were quite lucky with the weather – we had sunshine every day with no rain to speak of – and although we took it relatively easy, we kept ourselves busy with fossil hunting, walking along the south west coastal path and hanging around the sea front and harbour.

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The town has literary connections, appearing in Persuasion, by Jane Austen and The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles who lived and worked in the town (and for a while was also the curator of the town’s Philpott Museum). Personally I’m not a fan of Jane Austen’s Georgian “chick lit” but John Fowles’ modernist novel is a favourite of mine. The Cobb, the distinctive,sinuous harbour wall, features in both novels and also in the 1981 film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the memorable opening scenes of which has Meryl Streep, wrapped in a hooded cape, standing on the edge of the Cobb in stormy seas.

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The coast surrounding the town, and, indeed the land on which it is built, is made up of very unstable rocks – mainly shales, clays and mudstones – which are very susceptible to avalanche and landslips.

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The rocks in the cliffs are full of fossils which end up on the beach following landslides after the sea washes the mud away. As during our previous visit we went on a fossil walk organised by the local museum and, once again, it was one of the highlights of the holiday.

Lyme became a highly fashionable resort during the Georgian and Regency period, which is reflected in the architecture, and there were plenty of interesting buildings to look at.

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Belmont House on Pound Street at the junction with Cobb Road. A former owner was Eleanor Coade (1733–1821), the proprietor of a company which manufactured a type of artificial “reconstituted” stone called “Coade stone” which was used to manufacture decorative elements and statues and the facade of the house is embellished with decorative features made from her product. Very durable and resistant to weathering, it was very popular during the Georgian period.

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The last resident was  the author John Fowles. After his death it fell into disrepair but it has since been restored  by the Landmark Trust and can now be rented for holidays.

This time, as we booked late, we couldn’t get a cottage or flat with a sea view, but managed to find a Georgian style cottage by the river at Jordan, just a few minutes walk down to the sea shore via Mill Green and Coombe Street.

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This stained glass window installed in the wall between the dining room and lounge was a particularly attractive feature

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It was a good, relaxing holiday. But we kept ourselves busy, so plenty to write up!

Mediterranean Lyme Regis?

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This mosaic bench is in Langmoor Park, Lyme Regis, close to the entrance off Pound Street. It reminded me of the benches in Gaudi’s showpiece in Barcelona, Parc Güell.

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It isn’t by Gaudi, though. It was designed and created by local youth from the town following a Youth Forum project in April 2008.

I think it’s a really good piece of work, and fits in quite well with the Mediterranean plants that have been planted up in the very pleasant park.

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The gardens reminded me of les Jardins de la Fontaine in Nîmes, where I took the following photo during my visit in June.

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A little bit of the Med in southern England. Pity we don’t have a little of their weather!

Max Gate

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This is the house where Thomas Hardy lived from 1885 until his death in 1928.  He designed it himself – he trained as an architect – and it was built by his father and brother who were builders with Hardy supervising the project. So it was very much a family affair.

It’s on the edge of Dorchester, just a couple of miles from the small cottage where he was born and raised and where he lived until he moved into the new house.

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It’s a relatively modest Victorian villa with no particularly outstanding features. It was originally built as a “two up two down” with rooms on either side of a central hallway, and is set in quite pleasant, but not particularly extensive, grounds. As he became more wealthy following the success of his novels, he extended the house, building out at the back. The extension can be seen on the following picture.

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Like his birthplace, the house is now owned by the National Trust as it was left to them by Hardy’s sister. It’s only partly accessible; a condition of the legacy was that Max Gate should be let out and the rent used to preserve and support his birthplace. Today, the tenants occupy more than half the rooms in house, the remainder being open to visits by the public.

Inside the Trust has furnished those rooms accessible to the public in a style representative of the period and probably gives a good impression of how a prosperous, upper middle class Victorian household would look. Although very little of the furniture belonged to Hardy, they have acquired some pieces on loan from Dorset County Museum, including this bookcase – bureau which stands in the corner of the dining room.

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There are also a couple of his dining chairs and as you are allowed to touch the furniture and sit in the chairs around the house (a change from the usual policy of “keep your hands (and backside!) off” I can actually say I’ve sat in a chair that Thomas Hardy, and, possibly some of his well known visitors, once used.

The central hallway had a grandfather clock that was very similar to one shown in a photograph taken while Hardy lived there.

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The Drawing room, to the right of the hall, is surprisingly bright and airy, due to the windows being much larger than those in most Victorian houses.

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It was here that he’d entertain visitors, including Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sasoon, George Bernard Shaw, Gustav Holst and Virginia Woolf. There’s a small conservatory built on to the side of the room – one of the later additions.

The fireplace has the original Delft tiles set in the surround. I’m not sure whether the mirror was also owned by Hardy.

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There was only limited access to the upstairs – just two of the three  rooms that Hardy used as studies and where he wrote works including, Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, short stories and poems. The contents of his study were removed after he died and are now in the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

This is the second room he used as his study. It’s quite spacious and overlooks the garden. I could happily work there!

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The third, and final, room used as a study is not accessible.

One of the things I found most interesting was that his first wife used to spend much of her time in the attic, where she had a small room, painting, reading and sewing. It appears she was a bit of an odd ball and that their relationship was  strained. The wife in the attic – reminds me of something!!

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Thomas Hardy’s Birthplace

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This is the small thatched country cottage at Higher Bockhampton, a few miles from Dorchester, where the author,Thomas Hardy, was born. Today it’s owned by the National Trust. The small village, surrounded by woodland, is pretty isolated, even though it’s only just under four miles from the county town of Dorchester. Mind you, in 1840, the year he was born, four miles was a long way.

Hardy grew up in the cottage, being educated at the local village school before transferring, when he was ten, to a school in Dorchester – he used to walk the three miles there and back. After a spell of five years in London he returned, staying until he was 34. It was here that he wrote his early novels Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd. His father was a builder, and for a time had a small number of employees, so his background could be considered to be either upper working class or lower middle class. But, in either case, life would have been hard.

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The house looks pretty idyllic today. A real  “chocolate box” cottage with an attractive country garden planted with flowers and ornamental plants. Very typical of those picture postcard cottages seen throughout the county of Dorset.  But appearances can be deceptive. For a start, it’s not as big as it looks. The low building on the right of the picture is a later addition and the right hand third of the cottage is an extension, built by Hardy’s father for his mother – a sort of “granny cottage”. You can see the join if you look at the thatching.  Hardy, his parents, brother and two sisters lived in the other two thirds, to the left of the middle chimney. The cottage is only one room deep and was effectively “two up two down” until they knocked through into the extension, enlarging the house (although there were still only three rooms on each floor).

The cottage is constructed using the traditional building technique of the region – cobb and thatch. The walls, typically two feet thick on this type of building, are made from cobb, which is, effectively, compacted mud, with a lime rendering. A brick facing has also been applied to part of the front facade, although there was no information available on when this was done.

The rooms are quite small and must have felt crowded with for a family of six – Hardy had a brother and two sisters.

This is the parlour / kitchen in the “granny cottage”. The small door half way up the wall to the right of the fireplace is the bread oven.

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This was the master bedroom where the parents slept

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This is Hardy’s bedroom where he did his writing.

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The furniture isn’t “original”. That’s all been dispersed. But has been selected by the  National Trust as representative of the type of furnishings that would be found in this type of cottage at the end of the 19th Century.

Today the garden has been planted up with flowers in a English cottage garden style and is very pleasant to wander around.

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However, I guess in Hardy’s time it was more likely that most of the land would have been devoted to growing vegetables for the table.

Sculpture on Chesil Beach

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Chesil beach is a pebble barrier beach 18 miles long that stretches from West Bay to Portland. For much of its length it is separated from the mainland by an area of saline water called the Fleet Lagoon. The pebbles change in size along the beach due to longshore drift, with fine grains at West Bay increasing gradually to large cobbles at Portland. Allegedly, local smugglers landing on the beach at night or in fog could tell where they were simply by the size of the pebbles.

We parked up in the National Trust car park at Cogden beach, which is about 3 miles from West Bay. It was a sunny morning (with some menacing rain clouds looming in the distance), but the beach was almost deserted except for a couple of fisherman, some walkers and a few people, probably locals, walking their dogs.

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It was very pleasant walking along and sitting on the beach listening to the waves crashing onto the shingle. Although walking on the pebbles is hard work!

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At intervals along the ridge above the high water mark, there were a number of sculptures constructed from rocks, pebbles, shells, branches and flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore. There was no indication who had made them and Googling drew a blank. I guess they were created by visitors, like ourselves. They’d clearly put a lot of thought, time and effort into them.  I took photographs of some of them.

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And this was our contribution (although we’d have liked to spend a little more time on it)

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Can you tell what it is yet?