We headed from Durdle Door towards Weymouth through the village of Lulworth which has more pretty thatched cottages on one street than you would have thought possible. I wanted to stop and take pictures but the roads were narrow and covered with no parking signs and double yellow lines.
Weymouth was on an attractive sweeping bay ringed by elegant townhouses, most of them now converted into hotels and guest houses. It is a pleasant old-fashioned seaside resort. The sort of place my grandparents would have visited on holiday. Down on the train for a week in a B&B. Fish and chips for lunch. Sit on the beach and eat ice cream. Rent a deckchair as an extravagance. My grandad would roll up his trouser legs and put a knotted handkerchief on his head to keep off the sun. They would have gone home happy and talked about it for months.
Nowadays, people go to Majorca or Magaluf and feel hard done by if they can’t stream Netflix on the beach and aren’t blind drunk by tea time. I had better stop there as I can feel a moan coming on and Madam will tell me off.
Weymouth has one claim to fame that you’ll not find in many tourist brochures. In 1348 the Black Death entered England in the port of Weymouth, then known as Melcombe Regis. The plague had been spreading from the far east and crept across Europe, reaching France in 1347.
According to a contemporary account:
‘…two ships, one of them from Bristol, came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of a terrible pestilence and, through him, the men of that town of Melcombe were the first to be infected.’
The victims would only develop symptoms six days after infection so would often travel some distance unwittingly carrying their infection to new areas.
In case you need to know the symptoms for a future outbreak they include black necrotic pustules on your skin, fever, delirium and an unbearable headache. If that isn’t bad enough your lymph nodes will swell to the size of an orange. That would make putting on a sweater a real bitch. You have only a 70% chance of dying so it’s not all bad.
The Black Death would go on to kill somewhere between 30% and 40% of Britain’s population. The worst of the effects were over by 1351 but occasional resurgences would appear right up to the end of the 17th century, notably in 1665.
I would change my name as well if I was responsible for a plague entering the country.
We checked into our hotel, Somerset House, which was above a pub and in a bit of a rough area. It was opposite the railway station, just across from “My Amazing Fantasy – Licensed Adult Shop” and just down the road from an off-licence whose main selling point seemed to be the alcoholic content of their beer.
Despite some misgivings about the area, the room was lovely. The best we had stayed in for some time. The bathroom was the largest and most elegant I’ve seen in any hotel. It had a massive two-person shower, a bathtub with a TV built into the wall and many strangely coloured unguents lining the shelves. Bathrobes and slippers were hanging on the back of the door. Madam declared she wanted to move in and stay there, or at least take the bathroom home.
We walked down to the seafront, around the sweep of the bay, and along to a building at the end of the promenade optimistically described as the pier bandstand. There was an attractive Art Deco building but no sign of either a pier or bandstand.
There had been a bandstand on the site, built in 1939 and extending 200 feet out to sea, but it was demolished in 1986 to save a £300,000 repair bill. A competition was held to determine who would press the button to start the destruction. They gave two schoolgirls from Birmingham that dubious honour. The demolition left only the land building which was eventually refurbished and taken over by a Chinese restaurant in 2002.
The 1980s have a lot to answer for.
We sat on a bench, overlooking the sandy beach and watching the sea and the seafront strollers. The vibrantly coloured and decorated clock tower was to our right. A man walked past with an owl on his arm. Two heavily tattooed shaven-headed men with a staffie walked past and glared at anybody who looked their way. Older couples walked slowly past, leaning on sticks, watching the sea.
A cruise ship sailed gracefully out of the harbour from around the corner in Portland. We found out later that this was a Disney ship catering mostly to Americans that started in Barcelona and sailed around Spain and Portugal to Dover. They stopped in Portland for a day-trip to Stonehenge. An inside cabin a snip at only £4,592.
Just off the seafront was a large double-fronted fossil shop. I was entranced. I picked up a heavy 68 million-year-old dinosaur bone. Fondled ammonites by the score. Examined echinoderms. Thought about buying a dapedium or maybe a pholidophorus. I’ve seen a lot of fossils over the years but they were all behind glass cases in museums. Here, I get to hold them and all for free. I would have been happy to stay for hours touching every item in the shop but Madam was bored after a minute and we needed to check the gift shops for tea towels.
We meandered slowly down the main shopping street. It was pleasant enough and pedestrian friendly but with lots of cash converter style, betting and pound shops. A sign outside one shop offered a Mr Whippy soft ice cream with a flake for £1. Madam was asked a couple of times if she was from the cruise ship. It would be a sad state of affairs if the cruise passengers had shelled out all that money and Weymouth was all they saw of England.
Like a lot of seaside towns, Weymouth has suffered a reversal of fortunes as people holiday abroad. There were still pockets of the town doing well with businesses obviously thriving but also areas of deprivation that gave it a seedy air. Still, where else can you park your car and get an ice cream with a flake for a pound anywhere else along the south coast.
Madam looked online and picked the top two restaurants from Trip Advisor and we walked down to look at their menus. She looked through the windows at the tablecloths and elaborately laid tables and said “They are a bit posh. I don’t think we are dressed properly for these places.”
I rolled down my trouser legs, took the handkerchief off my head and presented myself for inspection. Madam just rolled her eyes and said “You don’t have a jacket.”
Instead, we went to a cafe bar around the corner and had a nice tapas selection for under a tenner a head. Not having a jacket with me saved me £50. Something to remember for future trips.
I woke up to loud chanting outside the hotel room at 3:30 am.
This wasn’t the calming chant of monks at morning matins or Buddhists preparing for meditation but the tuneless incoherent noise that comes from the strange physiological reaction you get when you mix a small brain with strong lager.
“I don’t think I would want to live in Weymouth,” I thought as I lay awake listening and watching stray beams from the street lamp dancing on the ceiling.
In the morning we got to shower together in the hotel’s fabulous bathroom and I checked Madam carefully for any signs of necrotic pustules or enlarged lymph nodes. There were none so, after only a brief delay, and a lovely breakfast at the hotel we were on our way to Charmouth to look for fossils.
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