Monday, 27 May 2013

JANE AUSTEN'S LYME REGIS



Jane Austen's novel Persuasion, which tells the story of love lost and refound, is set largely in the leafy countryside of the West Country, and in the elegant town of Bath.  However, the most dramatic scene in the novel, and the most pivotal to the story, takes place in Lyme Regis, where one of the characters has a nasty accident on The Cobb, the sturdy stone quay which encloses one side of the town's harbour, and is forced to extend her stay there while recovering from the incident.  Even today it is easy to imagine such an accident; I had to exercise great caution walking up and down the Cobb's steps on a recent visit.  In fact there is one set of steps on the Cobb nicknamed "granny's teeth", presumably for their unevenness.  

The Cobb


Lyme Regis, one of the loveliest towns on the Jurassic Coast, so named for the rich fossil content in its cliffs, is an attractive small resort, with a harbour and beach area backed by restaurants and pubs. The town is very hilly, and every street seems to offer a view of the sea.  This was well illustrated by Jane Austen in Persuasion, when she described "the principal street almost hurrying into the water".  However, she was less charitable about the architecture, declaring that "there is nothing to admire in the buildings themselves", a fact I would personally dispute, especially in the case of the lovely little promenade lined with elegant Georgian buildings.

The seafront, with views towards Golden Cap

In Jane Austen's era Lyme Regis was a fashionable place to head for during the summer season (although the action in Persuasion takes place in November, "too late in the year for any amusement or variety").  Those who wanted to take to the water had bathing machines at their disposal.  The machines were hired by the hour and were wheeled out to sea by an attendant.  Sea bathing in those days was not just for fun: it was widely believed that a dip in the briny would cure a range of illnesses.  Dances were held in the Assembly Rooms, sadly now gone and occupied by a car park on the seafront at the bottom of the main street.  As for Jane herself, she is known to have enjoyed at least two summer breaks in the town, in 1803 and 1804, and she evidently became very fond of it, judging from her affectionate descriptions of Lyme and the surrounding area, talking of "high grounds and extensive sweeps of country" and "its sweet, retired bay".  She visited the Assembly Rooms on her second visit, and in a letter to a relative described how she was passed over for the first two dances, but danced with a Mr. Crawford for the second two.  There is an unassuming building in the main street called Pyne House which is believed to have been the one where Jane Austen stayed.

Pyne House
Jane Austen fans who want to follow in her footsteps can join a walking tour courtesy of LiteraryLyme, who also do French Lieutenant's Woman tours for fans of John Fowles whose novel of the same name was largely set in the town.  

Lyme Regis is on a regular bus service between Weymouth and Exeter, but does not have a train station.  The nearest station is at Axminster, while Weymouth is reachable by a direct rail service from London.  

Official Tourist Information website.

Map of the town.

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