Sherborne House

Its character and history

The short main street of Lyme Regis climbs steeply from the sea, and near the top on the right is a blue door that excites curiosity. It’s down a couple of steps, and is recessed under a white entablature on which “Sherborne House” is painted in elegant letters.

This is the only residence that opens directly onto the historic street (others are up stairs beside shops, or are reached along passages). Therefore the ground-floor window is protected by an iron railing, of the same pleasing shade of shiny light blue, and this encloses a small area containing flowers and a wisteria that copiously frames the door, and sometimes rambles over the shop windows on either side. This vegetation, also, is unique on the street.

There are shops on either side, that on the left being at the very top of the street, on the corner of Sherborne Lane. But if you step back you can see that these must formerly have been parts of Sherborne House. The threefold unit has one roof and one façade, unified by a symmetrical cornice across the top, along which stands an array of classical urns. The roofline, though at the top of the steep street, is lower than those of the other buildings around, all of which are of three storeys and are newer.

This evidently was once a “gentleman’s house” in 18th-century style, probably with grounds extending down Sherborne Lane from which it got its name (a name going back to the earliest record of Lyme, in the 8th century). But it has been complicated by a series of changes, some of which you can already see. Not only did the left and right parts of the ground floor become shops, but with the left part went the storey above it, and that whole left part is now painted pink, as if deliberately to break up the unity. Thus Sherborne House became separated from Sherborne Lane.

What it’s like inside
Entering through the blue door, you find yourself not in a reception room such as the mansion once had, but in a humble passage more suggestive of a farmhouse. There is light at the other end from a glazed garden door.  There is a diamond-checkerboard tiled floor, some exposed masonry, roughened ancient beams, two doors to rooms on the left, and between them a carpeted stair.
Go up this rather short stair and you may be uncertain which way to turn; there are several doors around. Doubling back along a landing, you burst into the main room, 23 feet long and (irregularly) about 16 wide.

This exemplifies a principle used in houses designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright: if you are made to enter by way of confined passages, emergence into a sudden large interior is all the more impressive.

The room’s pine floor has plenty of space for rugs and couches, but the space is varied by features that include beams, a projecting wall, and a masonry wall containing two large hearths side by side. The end wall, 16 by 8 feet, is covered by the house’s largest (though by no means only) set of bookshelves. One of the windows is a wide bay overlooking the street.

Visitors to the house sometimes get a little lost on the way out! To live in it is to continue to relish its surprises.

The window bay is filled by a knee-height dais, so that, strewn with cushions, it is a bower. From it down to the left can be seen the sea. And it is a grandstand for the Lyme Regis pageantry that so often takes place immediately below — the jazz festival, lifeboat week, carnival and regatta week, the fossil festival, the food festival, the folk music weekend, Candles on the Cobb, Guitars on the Beach, the 1644 siege re-enactment, the Sir George Somers of Bermuda parade, the runner with the Olympic torch, the Good Friday procession, the Easter and Christmas parades. Many of these assemble in the forecourt of the cinema, at eye level just opposite here, and march off down the street.

Those two large hearths side by side, what is the reason for them? There once was a main fireplace in the room below, and the chimney flue rose straight up from it. Therefore the fireplace in this upper room had to be displaced into the room’s corner, and its own tributary flue sloped leftward to join the main one. After the fireplace below disappeared, a new one could be opened vertically above it, more centrally for the room. The side flue is blocked, but its hearth has been re-opened to display the history, and serves as a cave in which wood can be stored.

(Around in the kitchen there is a wood-lined storage cubby-hole at head height. It is a recent utilisation of just a small part of the irregular space left inside the chimney mass, an air-space which reaches into the next building down the street.)

The house contained at least four other fireplaces: in the kitchen and the bedroom, in the utility room, and across a corner of the downstairs room (its brickwork showing beside the front door). But of these, the first has only a brick stub of a chimney above it, the second a flue that is blocked inside the wall, the third has disappeared entirely, and only the last is still usable. And if you light a fire in it, where does the smoke go, since only one brick chimneystack survives above the roof? Go into the street and see. The smoke emerges from one of those ornamental urns!

Yet other fireplaces were in the rooms that are now the two shops. The left-hand one survives as a bay inside the shop, and its massive chimneybreast projects into Sherborne Lane, narrowing the upper end of the lane to seven feet.

The front wall of the house is more than twenty inches thick, as can be seen from the wide sills of the wood-shuttered windows piercing it. Surfaces of masonry exposed in the downstairs passage, the bedroom and the living room, and other surfaces plastered, are segments of an even thicker wall (parts of which, amazingly, are now supported on concealed steel beams). This wall was once the back of the house, showing that rooms have been added beyond it.

The house has the feeling of being knitted into the fabric of the old town. The bedroom and utility room share a block with what is behind the left-hand shop. The kitchen is above the rear extension of the right-hand shop, and one of the outbuildings along the side of the garden belongs to the shop, the other to the house. From just outside the back door, a window in a projecting corner of that shop gives a glimpse all through the shop to the street.

Because of the way the house has grown — beside a sloping street and in pieces behind and over each other — every room is on a different level. (Only one is level with the downstairs passage, and only one with the upstairs landing.) So there are many steps. Three openings are grouped at a corner of the living room (two of them through one gap in the thick wall): up two steps to the landing; down one angled step to the bathroom; up four steps that twist through a connecting piece to the kitchen.

Some of the rooms are fairly low-ceilinged (hence the shortness of the stairway). But the large kitchen and bedroom rise to their roofs in pyramidal spaces, crossed by beams of which some are free and some embedded in the plaster.

Skylights have been opened at half a dozen interesting points in the roofs. Through the one in the bedroom, moonlight floods and stars are glimpsed.

(Even though the bedroom is on the quiet northern side of the house, the view from it through this skylight is to the south: that is, high on the meridian, so that the winter full moon appears in it at midnight, as do stars in their seasons — Vega in June, Capella in December — and planets when at their nearest and brightest, such as Jupiter at its opposition in October 2011. A point of interest to skylovers!)

The bathroom, one of the additions at the back, is made light by a triangular window-projection, providing a useful sill and looking into the garden.

From the bedroom window you may feel that you are overlooked by other buildings close around — then you realize that they are all parts of this house!

The bedroom is adjacent to the bathroom in that they share a section of wall, yet the route from one to the other is quite lengthy, wrapping around a fireplace, the stair, and another door that you may not at first have noticed.
This is a plain latched wooden door beside the landing, next to a white surface that rises over the stairway in a smoothly twisted curve. The surface envelops the underside of nine pinewood steps that spiral tightly to the attic. They would not be able to do so but that a space has been made for them by adding a dormer window in the roof.

The attic room has a floor of the same blond pinewood. A step up, under a massive pair of beams, leads into a second part of the attic room, lighted by two facing skylights. And at the end of it is a hatchway closed with a heavy removable piece of wood, a sort of pentagonal shield. The opening has to be small because it is surrounded by ancient beams, and it is the only way of scrambling into a rather mysterious third region of the attic, almost like a priest-hole, dark and almost unusable because it has no floor.

From the dormer window you look out on a lichen-dappled roofscape of which the nearer elements — half of the pyramidal roof to the left, higher roof to the right, and flat lead roof below — are parts of this house. The next nearest roofs are of the cottages running down Sherborne Lane, and the highest roof, to the left, is that of the former manse of the Baptist church at the top of Sherborne Lane. The view is down the garden and across the river-valley part of the town and up to the cliffs and skyline of Timber Hill. You can even get out of this window and explore the valleys between the roofs, looking down through skylights into points inside the house. And from the dormer and the attic skylights you can observe the family life of the gulls that regard this as their territory in nesting season. (To them it is a landscape of rocks under which there happen to be caves inhabited by apes.) It is prime gull real estate because a chick that falls out of the nest will fall safely to a roof valley.

Perhaps most interesting of all are the various beams we have mentioned. The materials added to hide them have been removed so as to reveal the rough markings of their history. The uprights and horizontals in the downstairs passage and in the living room belong to old partition walls. The skeleton of the house consisted of several cruck frames, enormous jointed timbers that bent inward to meet under the roof ridge. One is exposed only in the landing next to the bedroom door. Another is glimpsed in two high corners of the living room; its upper parts meet to form the arch that divides the attic. Here the nature of the cruck can be most clearly seen: the timbers are narrow in relation to their vertical width, this giving them strength; but they have been repaired perhaps centuries ago with iron ties and some cement. Of the next cruck, two fragments are hidden in triangular casings of modern wood half way along the living room, beside a modern straight beam; above, these timbers continue as part of the surround to the hatchway into the remote region of the attic, and can be seen only when you clamber through that hatchway.

Also visible in parts are the ridge purlin (seen in the ceiling of the attic), other horizontal purlins, and collar ties and cruck ties (joining the sides of each cruck, respectively above and below the level of the attic floor). Many of these ties have been removed to make head-room, but some of the holes for the pegs by which they were attached to the crucks are visible. The collar tie under the hatchway is “banana-shaped,” a timber selected for its upward curvature.

Some of these timbers show the holes of woodworms (long exterminated), yet have become so hard that a hand-driven screw cannot penetrate them. Most probably date back to the founding of the house in the 1400s. And they may, as happened with other houses in this seaport, have been re-used ship timbers; which could have been from oaks growing a thousand years ago.

based initially on notes written by David Highet “on the train to Durham”

Probably (a word that must be applied to much of the rest of what we say) a single two-storey house stood on this site from the 15th century or possibly earlier; it covered the ground of what are now 34 and 35 Broad Street. The outside walls were of solid lias masonry, and a series of timber-jointed cruck frames supported the roof, which will have been thatched.

(A dendrochronological study of a similar cruck in Coombe Street — that is, a matching of the growth rings in a sample of the wood to known patterns in other wood so as to fix the year in which the tree was cut — found a date of 1492 — the year when Columbus crossed the Atlantic. Such a study could fix the age of the Sherborne House timbers.)

Thus this house is among the oldest, if not the oldest, in the street, a rare survival. Many others succumbed to unstable foundations or to the several fires that swept the town.

It’s been suggested that this house, built at the upper end of the street and at what was then the northwestern edge of the tiny medieval town, could have been a farmhouse, like those at the southern edge of old Axminster, and that it may have had orchards reaching down to the river; in other words, the farm’s sloping territory may have included all that is now covered by the houses down along Sherborne Lane and along the southern bank of the river toward the mill. The Sherborne Lane cottages could have started as dwellings for the farm labourers. However, the Woodmead farm was not far out from here, and Lyme was not an agricultural community like Axminster but a fishing and trading port; the house perhaps belonged to a merchant or craftsman.

The single front door opened into a cross passage (sometimes called a lace passage) through to the back — a common late-medieval ground plan. The passage had on each side a plank-and-muntin screen, that is, a partition wall composed of boards about a foot wide slotted into beveled vertical studs almost as wide and into a head beam above. Of the screen on the right there remains only a long head member; on the left, two sections, but only two of the muntins, and the plank between them, are original. On the plank can be discerned a faint white chalk scrawl that could be a carpenter’s mark, preserved by being later covered. The other uprights, narrower and rough, are pieces of wood re-used from somewhere else; the nine-inch mortise cut into one of them cannot have had anything fitted into it in its present situation. There are examples of plank-and-muntin screens at Dalwood and other places in Devon and Dorset.

The main reception room will have been to the right of the passage, where the right-hand shop now is; clearly seen is the blocked former doorway, with a moulded frame of a later period. The floor above the main room was supported by oak stop-chamfered beams, which are still in place though hidden by the shop’s suspended ceiling. (A “chamfer” is a bevel along the edge of a piece of wood; it is “stopped” if it ends before the corner; and there are several styles both of chamfering and of stopping.)

There will have been a ground-floor fireplace in the room’s rear wall. The fireplace in the room above (the present living room) had to be in that room’s corner, because it could not be above the other one. Over this upper fireplace was an oak beam, stop-chamfered and slightly arch-shaped. The reveals (inner surfaces) of the fireplace were made of Beer Stone, which shows chisel marks possibly for holding render onto it when the fireplace was no longer in use.

(Beer Stone is a prized Cretaceous limestone from the ancient quarry above Beer, a few miles away in Devon; fine-grained so that it could be sawn in any direction, fairly soft for carving when mined but hardening with exposure, it was favoured for ecclesiastical features such as doors and windows, for example in Exeter Cathedral, as well as St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and London Bridge. The quarry was used from Roman times to the 1920s, became a system of artificial caves, has also been a secret Catholic church, a smugglers’ storehouse, and a mushroom farm.)

The crucks would have been pre-assembled, raised, and then set on a masonry base about a yard high, the rest of the outside wall then being built up around them.

Wallplates — horizontal beams on which the roof rested — would have lain along the tops of the masonry walls. A short piece of one can be seen in the front wall of the living room, with fourteen inches of masonry above it, showing that the height of the wall was later increased.

Also from this first phase are the timbers of the screen wall along the northwest side of the living room.

The gable end of the house on the southeast or down-street side was a jettied wall. That is, each floor stuck out some inches farther than the one below it, so that rainwater running down would fall clear. This three-tiered wall was surfaced on the outside with weathered-lime render over straw. Jettied walls like this can be seen for instance in the old town of Tewkesbury. That this was clearly an outside wall is evidence that there was originally no building immediatelyadjacent, or at least a gap. Indeed, the present No. 36 is later, dating from the 18th century. There is still a hidden airspace.

At the rear, behind what is now the right-hand shop, there was a lean-to extension with a “cat-slide roof” sloping down away from the house (later to be replaced by the taller present extension).

On the Sherborne Lane side, a two-storey addition was made at the rear, nearly half as wide as the house and joining to the first of the cottages down the lane. This addition may have antedated and led to the cottages; another suggestion is that it was later, filling in a space that would have been a gap through to the lane, so that the owner of the house could have kept a coach in the back yard and driven it through to the lane and thus out into the street. At any rate, the addition was probably a servants’ wing, with kitchen and dairy downstairs. (It is the section now consisting of utility room downstairs and bedroom above, with narrower passages on the Sherborne Lane side.) From Sherborne Lane it can be seen that a narrow window goes up through both levels, presumably meaning that it opened onto a staircase. There was formerly a fireplace in the lower level of the addition (in the part of the utility room now forming a closet), sharing a chimney with the fireplace preserved in the bedroom above. The room above (presumably then as now a bedroom) had a ceiling made of long stiff reeds.

Around the end of the 18th century, the house underwent major adaptation and upgrading — a gentrification.

It got a new slated roof, set higher than the original. Along the front of this was added a parapet, symmetrical about a central peak, and topped by a row of urns. Of these there must have been seven; the two at the Sherborne Lane end, not over the present house, have disappeared (fallen or stolen?). The urns are of Coade Stone.

(Eleanor Coade, inventor of Coade Stone, inherited from her mother a factory in London where the Royal Festival Hall now stands — one of her millstones is displayed there beside the footpath under Hungerford Bridge — but from 1784 to her death in 1821 she lived at Lyme, in Belmont House, which had been her uncle’s and was later John Fowles’s, at the junction of Pound Street and Cobb Road. According to Roberts’s History of Lyme, 1834, p. 251 and 253, coad was a dialect word for “unhealthy,” and “Coade, the name of an old family, is pronounced as if spelt Cwerd.” Eleanor was known as “Mrs. Coade” but never married. Her material, which she called Lithodipyra, “stone twice fired,” consisted of 10% grog, 5-10% crushed flint, 5-10% fine quartz, 10% crushed soda lime glass, and 60-70% Ball clay from Dorset and Devon, kneaded and then fired for four days in a kiln at 1,000°C. This formula was not “secret,” as rumour had it, but nobody else managed it so successfully. It was famous for being easily mouldable into shapes yet incredibly resistant to decay even in London’s corrosively polluted atmosphere. It was popular until the 1840s. The only examples in Lyme are the dolphin and Neptune sculptures on the façade of Belmont House itself, the paving including ammonites in front of the Lyme Regis museum, and the Sherborne House urns, whose surface has unfortunately been concealed by paint. Others are the lion on Westminster Bridge, the frontispiece of Twinings on the Strand, the Nelson Pediment at the Greenwich Royal Naval College, the crest on the Imperial War Museum, ornaments at the back of Buckingham Palace and at St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Brighton Pavilion, and the entrance to the Rio de Janeiro zoo — altogether “over 650” according to one source.)

The central urn, set higher and with more elaborate form, was a disguised chimney pot. It capped a flue that was gouged all the way down the interior side of the masonry wall — a daunting project — to the fireplace that was now added to the small ground-floor front room, the room that is like a “parson’s study” and later became Guy’s study.

Where originally was the staircase? Perhaps somewhere in what is now the eastern shop. The drastic hacking-away of the beam above the present stair shows that the older opening here, if any, must have been cut higher so that the stair could be inserted; it still is barely high enough to avoid bumped heads. The treads of the thirteen steps were only nine inches wide — shorter than most people’s feet — so, later, they were extended by having one-and-a-half inch strips screwed to their fronts; these project farther than the stringers (boards sloping down the stair’s sides), so the added pieces were bevelled off at their ends. (These details are now hidden by carpeting.)

The space occupied by the staircase may previously have been a narrow ground-floor storeroom. The lower part of it remaining as a closet off the front room, from which it is divided by a rough plank wall (masked at the front by plaster).

The new stair, ascending into a space that could earlier have been a workshop, is flanked by moulded panels and hand-rails. The landing balustrade is in the “Chinese Chippendale” design of interlocking diagonal struts. Balustrades of this kind were fashionable in the late 18th century; a conspicuous example is on the roof of Thomas Jefferson’s Palladian house Monticello in Virginia.

In accordance with Georgian fashion, sash windows with small panes and shutters were inserted, and panelled doors with moulded doorframes.

Whereas the main living room had been downstairs, the room above it must now have become important, so it had to have a fireplace, and this had to be inserted into its corner, with a new diagonal brick flue connecting it to the vertical chimney. This room and others were remodeled so that, conforming to Georgian taste, they were painted “boxes,” with no visible beams or stonework. Some of the cruck ties were covered, others removed to make more space.

And it was possibly now that the iron railing, with spears of alternating heights, was added on the street front. (The house is a Listed Building, Grade Two, and the railing is a separately Listed structure, also with Grade Two status, along with such monuments as the town church!)

Then came “trade.”

The left and right thirds of the lower level became two shops (so that the house itself became T-shaped, rather like the wisteria that now embellishes its front). This seems to have happened first with the one on the left. The numbering of the properties — 34 for the left-hand shop, 35 for the rest — was presumably done when the right-hand portion either had not yet become a shop, or was in the same ownership as the house. Only after this stage will the doorway from the house’s entrance passage into the right-hand room have been blocked. It is hard to tell where the openings were between the present house and its former rooms to the left. One would think that the name “Sherborne House” was given before the part actually touching Sherborne Lane was alienated from it; but such house names are not necessarily old.

Projecting shop windows were added below the bay windows of the left and right parts of the upper level. The stylistic age was still early-Georgian; the shop window on the left survives in its original form, and a drawing by Beatrix Potter in the Lyme Regis museum shows the same frontage for the right-hand shop.

About 1850-60 the two-storey wing at the rear of the right-hand shop was added, with timber frame and external render. The ground floor had, in Victorian style, higher ceilings than the front shop, necessitating on the level above the four steps twsting up between what are now the living room and the kitchen.

Between 1890 and 1910, the street frontage was altered to its current appearance. The two shops received enlarged single-pane fronts. Whereas the sash window of the room over the left-hand shop retains the six-over-six arrangement of panes, that of the living room over the right-hand shop was simplified to one-over-one. The right-hand shop got a door of mahogany from colonial South Africa. That shop’s decorative art-nouveau wall tiles, and the ceramic floors here and in the house’s entrance passage, date from this time.

The left-hand shop was probably a bakery, extending back through the row of three or four cottages on Sherborne Lane: evidence is that the end cottage has a ceiling supported by steel girders rather than wooden beams, to bear the weight of flour sacks stored above, and traces in the upper wall of a delivery door through which these sacks would have been hoisted up from the lane.

The right-hand shop was a butcher’s (Tuffin). It had, in addition to the house’s right-hand front room, a room that is now the house’s utility room, and therefore to connect to it the rear part of the central passage, by the back door; also the yard behind; and, at the end of it, a small building fifty yards down Sherborne Lane, then used just as a garage. The narrow upper part of the yard, between the buildings, was used for slaughtering and was paved with concrete. Down the right-hand side of it was a series of outhouses of diminishing size, ending with a coal-bunker. The Broad Street bus stop was just outside the butcher shop, and local people recall that, as there was no bus shelter, the butcher allowed them to wait inside his shop; which was good for his business.

The residential house itself was left with the small central front downstairs room, the passage back as far as the opening (then blocked) in the thick stone wall, the stair, and the central and right-hand parts of the upper floor. The former downstairs main room having been ceded to the butcher shop, the fireplace in it had disappeared; so, in the living room above, a new fireplace could be opened in the central position. Its arch was formed of two blocks of Ham Stone which may originally have been coping stones from walls. The corner fireplace became disused.

The left-hand shop became a restaurant, called The Mad Hatter, which flourished for several decades. Still joined to it were the first several cottages of the row that had reached down Sherborne Lane. From the attractively situated front room at the top corner of Broad Street, with its window bay below the level of the street corner, you could go down a succession of steps past the restaurant’s other booths, each with irregular shape caused by its history, and each clearly the ground level of one of the former cottages; the last was the restaurant’s kitchen. And it was not unknown for coffee to be served through the kitchen window to residents of the house in their garden. The level above was a holiday flat. The restaurant and flat above were taken over by a new owner, and in 2010 the restaurant was closed and replaced by a flower shop. This did not need the auxiliary rooms and the kitchen, and so was cut off from this interesting succession of former cottage rooms. They disappeared into a new arrangement of two cottages (each with bedroom downstairs and living room upstairs, one of these being the room above the flower shop.

The house itself went through a period of neglect. From about 1930 it was the office of the accountants Lentells (now out in the office park on the site of the former railway station). The small downstairs front room was for reception, the boss’s office was in what is now the kitchen and another office in what is now the bedroom; what is now the living room was made smaller by partition walls, one corner of it (next to the present bathroom) being the lavatory. Beams and stonework were covered throughout with woodchip, which was painted pink, and much space was occupied by filing cabinets. The side-by-side fireplaces in the main room had both been filled with rubble and hidden.

In 2000 David and Hilary Highet took over the right-hand shop (which became Hilary’s dress shop), the butcher’s garage down the lane (which they remodelled and enlarged into an attractive cottage), and the house itself, consisting of the former butcher premises on the ground level and all of the upper level except that over the left-hand shop. (Thus 35 Broad Stree, containing a dwelling and a shop, became what the government designates as a “Composite Hereditament.”)

David, an architect, with the help of his brother Chris, revealed and enhanced the house’s character. Between 2002 and 2005 the Highets had the spear railing repaired by a local craftsman; removed woodchip coverings to expose as much as possible of the ancient stone and timber; removed the kitchen ceiling and the bedroom’s reed ceiling to let the rafters show; opened a door into the bedroom instead of what had been a small devious passage through what is now the closet; removed partition walls to create a living room even larger than the old one may have been; added the several skylights and the projecting bathroom window; reworked other features; and supported several parts of the structure with concealed steel beams. They discovered and unblocked both of the fireplaces in the living room, removing from the central one the two Ham Stone blocks (one of which is now in the garden) and replacing them with a brick arch. They discovered the air space (and thin partition wall) between the house and No. 36 and added a better wall with sound-proofing; and in the course of this had to move along and shorten the beam over the oldest fireplace. In the yard, they converted the ending part of the series of out-buildings into a garden studio.

At this stage the property surrounded the corner buildings of Sherborne Lane (the Mad Hatter and holiday flats), opening onto the lane as well as onto Broad Street, and the garden behind Sherborne House connected through a gate into the yard opening onto Sherborne Lane. The upper and narrow part of the garden between the rear wings, concreted over by the butcher, was covered over with gravel and stepping-stones, and four arbours supporting honeysuckles, which filled the space with greenery and grew far up the walls. Since fumes from the Mad Hatter’s kitchen emerged in the garden, the Highets had a chimney built for them, projecting into the garden.

In 2009 Guy Ottewell and Tilly Lavenás came to live in Sherborne House (the cottage and yard on Sherborne Lane and the right-hand shop on Broad Street being retained by the Highets). Guy and Tilly remodelled the garden in 2011.

The slightly wider setting
Around the corner in Sherborne Lane, a plaque tells you that


It is the earliest documented fact in Lyme’s history. The monks of Sherborne in north Dorset received rights to pan salt from the sea, and a “manor” of land on which some of them came to live. Probably their path from their quarters (by the river) to their salt pans (by the then primitive harbour) was along the line of Sherborne Lane and Stile Lane. They had been sent to the wild west frontier: at that time the kingdom of the West Saxons, with its capital at Winchester, had yet to conquer the Britons of Devon and Cornwall.

Lyme is at the far west end of the spectacular Dorset coast (now forming the major part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site). It is at the opening made by the little river Lim (or Lym) in the almost continuous line of cliffs. These cliffs are the southwest end of the belts of Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous rock which stretch across England from Yorkshire. Attacked by the sea, the cliffs constantly yield the ammonite and dinosaur fossils which make Lyme famous among geologists.

Immediately beyond Lyme, the way along the coast is blocked by the Undercliff, a six-mile stretch of jumbled ridges and ravines clothed with what has been called England’s only jungle, threaded by a precarious path that emerges, after more hours than you’d expect, in Devon.

Lyme is one of the few towns actually down by the sea. (The bus route, for instance, from Dorchester to Exeter touches the coast only here.) So it was for centuries an important port. Goods were landed here to be transported by pack-horse across the peninsula, avoiding the dangers of rounding Land’s End. But the little river affords no shelter; a harbour had to be fashioned among the rocks half a mile to the west. This is protected by the famous Cobb, a massive wall whose graceful curves deflect the wild Atlantic waves that often explode high over it. From the harbour, goods were dragged by dray along what has become the two-level Marine Parade. This remains car-free, a frontage such as is possessed by few other seaside towns.

The government had an interest in maintaining this harbour (the only safe refuge between Weymouth and Brixham), so it funded the Cobb’s many repairs, and in 1284 granted Lyme its charter as a market town, entitled to call itself Regis (“of the king”).

The point near the river where goods actually entered the town was called Cobb Gate. Here were the customs house, the warehouses, the original Three Cups Hotel for sailors; later, the Assembly Rooms where society, including Jane Austen on her visits, took tea and danced. This location, pinched between balcony-like Bell Cliff and castle-like Gun Cliff, is the focus of the town, at the bottom of Broad Street.

From here radiate not only the Marine Parade and Broad Street, but Coombe Street — almost laughably narrow for what was once the main route up the river valley — and Bridge Street, which after taking only a few yards to cross the river turns a notoriously tight right-angle among quaint buildings (museum, guildhall, town offices) to become Church Street and lead away uphill toward London.

Sherborne Lane, descending from the top of Broad Street to a complicated meeting with the river and Coombe Street, defines one of the triangles of which the compact old town is made. It counts as a street, though it is more like a footpath. It needs handrails, and old photographs show it with steps as well; the cottages down its sides were in early times probably continuous. And what now seems amazing is that it was once the limit, the inland frontier, of the town.

In the 1644 siege — Lyme’s most heroic episode — the royalist army of Prince Maurice, one of Charles I’s German nephews, came past on the way to Plymouth, expecting to make “breakfast work” of Puritan Lyme, which despite its “Regis” refused to call the king anything but Charles Stuart. The large army camped upslope and bombarded the town. One of the defenders’ hastily built forts was across the top of Broad Street. Sherborne Lane was the front line in this direction, with its back doors and windows barricaded — in effect a town wall, defended part of the time by women to give the men a rest and give an impression of greater numbers. Overhead came musket shot, firebrands to set thatched roofs aflame, and red-hot cannonballs that bounced down Broad Street. (Guy and Tilly, when living in the former Baptist manse just across Sherborne Lane and reshaping its steep back garden, found a three-pound iron cannonball deep in the soil.)

Much of Lyme was flattened. Sherborne House, already then around two centuries old, must have taken cannonballs through its walls and firebrands through its thatched roof. Yet it survived Prince Maurice’s bombardment, as it has survived all vicissitudes since.

A circular tour of Lyme
Sherborne House is a good starting-point for such a tour, which explores as many of the delights of the town as can be strung on one route.

From the front door, the cinema and a pub are opposite; only a few yards farther is the gate into the gardens that overlook the sea, or in another direction the library, and almost next door on the left are the post office, with a café-restaurant hidden behind it, and the grocery shop.

But go around the corner on the right and down Sherborne Lane. It gets even narrower and steeper toward the bottom, hits a parapet overlooking the river, and bends left along the bank, to a small plaza that has the feeling of being the centre of the old town (and is called that on some of the signposts pointing the way to it), though really it was the old town’s inland edge.

Mill Green, the lane ahead, is the one that goes inland along the river; or, crossing the bridge at the right, you could go along Coombe Street; but, instead of either of these, turn more sharply right down a step onto the lynchway. This is a narrow causeway between the leet or raised channel and the river in its trench fifteen feet lower. The cliff-like houses that descend the right bank are at the foot of what may once have been Sherborne House’s territory. Across the leet (on which families of ducks swim) are tiny bridges to people’s gardens; and a footbridge spans the river to a ledge of lawn beside a grotto called Leper’s Well. The lynch path twists down past the place where the leet feeds into the mill — which may be in operation, the huge old wheel rumbling inside — and comes into the space among the mill buildings, which include art galleries and a restaurant. (A guided tour of the mill is extremely interesting. And by the way there is a side route up steps from here to an alley called Drake’s Way and thus back into Broad Street.) The river wraps in sharp curves around all this (the mill race emerging into it from somewhere under your feet) and disappears under the next cluster of old buildings.

The short Mill Lane comes up into Coombe Street. Go almost straight across it and on up the short Monmouth Street, with a triangular green on the right and, up ahead, the tower of St. Michael’s, the Lyme parish church.

As you come up to Church Street, full (unless you’re very early in the morning) with traffic pouring into Lyme, bend your way more steeply upward to the left, into the church’s gate and the path that climbs along its left side. The churchyard slopes up to a cliff top. The breaking into view of the sky up ahead, then the shining bay, is thrilling at any time of day, but most at sunrise. The cliffs and summits stretch away — Black Ven, Stonebarrow, Langdon, the famous Golden Cap, and others dimming to a glimpse, on some days, of the Isle of Portland (really a peninsula) on the horizon.
From the churchyard’s sharp corner, descend one or other of the zigzag paths to the point below, with jetty, informational signs about the geology and wildlife, and danger signs about proceeding on along the beach unless the tide is well out. These cliffs are in retreat, continually exposing the fossils for which Lyme is famous. The lane behind you (Long Entry) once connected to Charmouth but fell away in the 1920s. To the right you may see long trains of combers (breaking waves) rolling in through what is evidently shallow water; low tide exposes a rock platform called Broad Ledge. The town once extended out there! Immediately below you is fascinating detail in the mixture of seaweed, ripple-marked sand, rock pavements, and scattered boulders on which maybe cormorants perch.

Go back along the sea front through a sort of extended castle, built in the 1990s to defend the town against the sea. Several sets of steps lead down to the sea and, on the other side, climb twistily to the Marine Theatre, Guildhall, and the cramped but fascinating museum.

Just after crossing the narrow mouth of the Lim (in whose walls the local flock of pigeons nests) you come to the town’s focal point, where the valley meets the sea. The space is now used for nothing more than a parking circle, with clock in the middle; historically it was the site of the Assembly Rooms, and before that of the custom house where goods from the harbour entered the town, which is the reason why the place is called Cobb Gate. The famous Cobb itself, visible ahead, is the high breakwater protecting the harbour, more than half a mile to the west.

Go on along the Marine Parade, by either of its levels: the upper footpath (known in earlier times as The Walk) or the lower roadway, called the Cart Road because of its former function. One of the features you may notice is Lucy’s Ledge: this island of seaweedy rocks emerges as the tide goes down.

You could go all the way to the harbour, and walk out along the Cobb itself. Then you could return up the steep Cobb Road; but less arduous is to go a little way back along the front and up into the gardens. The hillside is by nature an extension of the unstable and jungly Undercliff; the few dwellings that were rashly placed there fell victim to landslips. Only in the last three centuries did a skin of buildings grow along the foot of the slope, starting at the Cobb Gate end, and now including ice cream shops, cottages of various periods, the Bay Hotel, and the Shelters, monumentally rebuilt in 2011. The slope itself is covered by extensive gardens, which were reconstructed in 2006 as part of the ongoing coastal protection scheme.

There are many routes up the hillside, but here’s a suggestion: keep to the leftmost, going first up steep steps through a small set of terraces that form the Jane Austen Garden. From the top of that you emerge into a wide grassy hillside, which often serves as a grandstand for crowds watching events around the harbour or out on the bay. This is the Lister Garden, and is crossed by various sloping paths. Keep up the left side, so that you arrive between a celebrity-chef restaurant and a miniature golf course. Then turn right along a gravel path, called the Woodland Walk. It is surprising to think that — though you now seem outside the town — this path leads almost to the front door from which you started.

The path skirts along the top of Lister Garden, under a belt of woods. The woods project in a small headland, and the path as it passes through this is raised on a boardwalk. From here open some of the most striking views of Lyme: down over the harbour through an opening in the trees, and then ahead to the town and the bay. On the other side of the wooded headland you emerge into Langmoor Garden, more densely set with flowerbeds, bushy plantings, and many small lawns among them. The gravel path crosses the top of this garden to merge with one of its paths. You round a corner under the high hedge of the Alexandra Hotel, and emerge through a gateway into the town. And there, a few yards down, is Sherborne House.

This highly varied tour takes in most, though not all, of the attractions of Lyme.