Dear reader, I meant to offer a “Tea and a Book” recommendation for June, but there was just too much to do in preparation for travel. I will try again later this month. In the meantime I thought I’d start a new feature on the blog — “Literary Walks.” I love to follow in the footsteps of authors and view the inspirations for their settings and conflicts. Who knows, perhaps I could collect enough material for a guidebook? We’ll see how it goes.
Today’s post is inspired by a setting shared by four of my favorite novels.
(Each image is linked to Goodreads)
Lyme Regis lies on the Dorset/Devon border in the south of England. I’ve borrowed a map provided by The Alexandra Hotel to help orient you to the town. (Just so you know, The Alexandra is a lovely place to stay, with two restaurants and numerous rooms that overlook the sea. They also offer a glorious afternoon tea.)
I suggest starting your walk on Silver Street at the Mariner’s Hotel, which once was known as Morley Cottage. Elizabeth Philpot, an enthusiastic fossil hunter featured in Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, lived here with her sisters. Continue on to Broad Street, the main shopping area, and browse the shops–you’ll find clothing, hiking supplies, jewelry, art, fossils, and more. You also might fortify yourself at one of the many restaurants.
Then walk along the Marine Parade to the stone jetty known as the Cobb and take special notice of “Granny’s Teeth,” the little steps that silly Louisa Musgrove leaps from in Persuasion. While on the Cobb also think of the mysterious Sarah Woodruff, the so-called “French Lieutenant’s Woman,” standing alone and staring out to sea in a way that thoroughly captivates Charles Smithson. Make time to visit the Lyme Regis Museum, formerly the site of Mary Anning‘s shop, to learn about the Jurassic coast as well Lyme’s history and literary connections.
There are at least two fine beaches for fossil hunting, but do keep the tide tables in mind. Monmouth Beach (see at the lower left on the map above) is always a good bet, and you can imagine yourself Mary Anning or Elizabeth Philpott as you search for ammonites and other specimens. This page gives all the details on Lyme’s beaches.
For me, the most intriguing aspect of Lyme Regis is the Undercliff. I will Let John Fowles explain in this passage from The French Lieutenant’s Woman:
There runs, between Lyme Regis and Axmouth six miles to the west, one of the strangest coastal landscapes in Southern England […] People have been lost in it for hours, and cannot believe, when they see on the map where they were lost, that their sense of isolation–and if the weather be bad, desolation–could have seemed so great.
The Undercliff–for this land is really the mile-long slope caused by the erosion of the ancient vertical cliff face–is very steep. Flat places are as rare as visitors in it. But this steepness in effect tilts it, and its vegetation, towards the sun; and it is this fact, together with the water from the countless springs that have caused the erosion, that lends the area its botanical strangeness–its wild arbutus and ilex and other trees rarely seen growing in England; its enormous ashes and beeches; its green Brazilian chasms choked with ivy and the liana of wild clematis; its bracken that grows seven, eight feet tall; its flowers that bloom a month earlier than anywhere else in the district. In summer it is the nearest this country can offer to a tropical jungle.
I love these images of Sarah in the Undercliff from the 1981 film.
If you’d like to know more, here is a more detailed description of one woman’s trek from Lyme Regis to Seaton through the Undercliff. As for us, it took a little over four hours to get to Seaton (including time for photos and a lunch break). Of course, you don’t have to walk the entire thing. I do, however, recommend a particular diversion off the main path that I learned about while reading Penelope Lively’s Whitbread Award-winning A Stitch in Time. In the book, the Lucas family invites Maria Foster and her parents to a “proper beach” that can only be accessed from the Undercliff path. The way proves precarious:
Maria put one foot slowly and carefully in front of the other, steadying herself with a hand on a sapling or jutting rock where possible. Once she skidded on some treacherous shale that slithered under her shoes, so that she sat down hard, bruising herself. It could have been worse. Below and out of sight, hair-raising cries from the other children suggested fatal accidents of one kind or another. […] At last they were all down and there, as promised, was a beach. Though not, at first sight, a beach very much different from any other except that, also as promised, there was no one else in sight.
In 2015 Steve and I found that beach, and Lively did not exaggerate the difficulty of the descent. But it was all worth it when we found what I now call “the secret beach” and enjoyed it all on our own for quite some time. (Yes, that rocky beach is tough to walk on, but the feeling of utter isolation in this magical landscape more than compensated for the strain on our ankles.)
Well, that’s at least a full day of walking for you when you visit Lyme Regis! Other things you might do that aren’t particularly literary–walk to Golden Cap, have a nice bathe in the sea (cold but so refreshing!), rent a kayak, go fishing for mackerel, and much more. Click here for more information.
I’m hoping to offer one more Literary Walk before we return, so please stay tuned!