There are, in the world, far more impressive beaches than the one at Weymouth, a seaside town in the county of Dorset in the south of England—beaches with whiter sand, clearer, warmer water, and much more reliably blue skies.
The sand at Weymouth is a dunnish yellow; the water, even on the warmest of days, can be charitably described as bracing; and the skies above the rolling hills and white chalk cliffs that embrace the curve of Weymouth Bay are so changeable as to suggest that watercolour painting itself was invented to capture their unpredictability.
With regard to the weather, taking a holiday in Weymouth is a bit like playing the slot machines that can be found in the amusement arcades that line the seafront: you understand that the machines are rigged to ensure the arcade owner’s ultimate profit, but you still hope you might strike it lucky along the way.
In addition to the inclemency of the weather there is the unsuitability of narrow, 17th-century streets for modern vehicular traffic, and the very English absence, on the menu of a restaurant called the Lobster Pot, not only of lobsters but of almost anything that ever actually lived in the sea.
But although the town may not compare, as a beach destination, with one of those Caribbean resorts where workers rise at dawn each morning to rake the sand clear of seaweed before the guests emerge to enjoy the flawless, paradisiacal environs for which they have contracted, Weymouth nonetheless has its own charms—particularly for those who prefer finding traces of history written upon the place they are visiting, rather than expecting its complete erasure.
Weymouth has candy-striped beachside huts selling buckets and spades and fish-and-chips, and retirees sitting in deck chairs on the promenade with blankets over their knees while younger, bolder visitors walk by shirtless and sunburned; but it also has an uninterrupted sweep of white-painted Georgian town houses along the seafront, with bowed windows optimistically facing the shimmering sea exactly as so many did more than 200 years ago. The town is part New Jersey shore, part Masterpiece Theatre.
One early instance of Weymouth’s accidental notoriety is that in 1348 it served as the point of entry in Britain for the black death, the plague that killed a third of Europe’s population. “The black death started at the Black Dog,” we were told by the man behind the counter at the town’s car-rental shop when we visited not long ago; he was referring to the Black Dog public house, reputed to be Weymouth’s oldest tavern. Persuasive alliteration aside, there’s no evidence that the black death did begin at the Black Dog; the fact that the building dates only to the 16th century argues against it. But a visit to the bar, with its low-beamed ceiling and its pervasive scent of beer, is enough to conjure images of sailors and serving wenches merrily exchanging lesser infections throughout the centuries.
In a more recent instance of Weymouth stumbling into the history books, its port served as the launching spot for more than 500,000 troops and nearly 150,000 vehicles during the D-day landings of 1944, and a few by now very elderly veterans still show up each year for the anniversary. Weymouth’s role in D-day, along with the part the town played in defending against the Spanish Armada and the Napoleonic fleets, is showcased at Nothe Fort, a harbor defense that was built between 1860 and 1872 and is now a naval museum with an enticing collection of old-fashioned military dioramas, cannons, and anti-aircraft weaponry from World War II. The volunteer staff at the Nothe Fort is so eager for their exhibits to be viewed with the proper attention that, when we arrived only 45 minutes before the museum’s closing time, the gatekeepers were reluctant to let us in. “There are seventy-two rooms here,” they informed us reprovingly. It reminded us of the time a shopkeeper in Weymouth told us that she’d stopped stocking a certain item because it kept selling out too quickly.
Weymouth’s proudest Forrest Gump moment, however, came in 1789, when it received the first of several visits from King George III. The king was recovering from the initial episode of what would turn out to be a sporadic but debilitating madness, now thought to have been caused by Variegate Porphyria, a rare genetic disease that affects the skin and central nervous system. His doctors advised him that the seaside might be health-promoting. The town, by all accounts, went nuts over the royal arrival. The novelist Fanny Burney, who was a member of the royal household at the time, wrote a letter to her father from Weymouth in which she noted, “The loyalty of all this place is excessive; they have dressed out every street with labels of ‘God save the King’: all the shops have it over the doors; all the children wear it in their caps, all the labourers in their hats, and all the sailors in their voices, for they never approach the house without shouting it aloud, nor see the King, or his shadow, without beginning to huzza, and going on to three cheers.”
The main purpose of the king’s visit was to engage in the newly fashionable health treatment of sea bathing, or dipping, as it was known. Bathers were rolled into the sea in wheeled bathing machines that looked like a cross between an enclosed sedan chair and a small caravan, from which they would descend a flight of wooden steps into the cold water, where a phalanx of helpers called dippers would give hands-on assistance for a full immersion. The king’s bathing machine was an octagonal hut with a peaked roof built atop a four-wheeled cart and decorated with the royal crest. The monarch’s specially appointed dippers wore GOD SAVE THE KING on sashes swathed around their waists, and on the occasion of the king’s first immersion, a band concealed in another bathing machine piped up with a stirring rendition of the national anthem at the moment of his head’s submerging. Years ago, the king’s bathing machine was the prize exhibit at the Weymouth Museum; these days, museum and machine can be found at a place called Brewers Quay, an old brewery that once perfumed the air over the harbour with beery yeast but has since been repurposed into an unpleasantly commercial shopping arcade with the pandering interactive Timewalk through Weymouth’s history, a tour conducted by a cartoon character of a brewery cat.
Dipping didn’t relieve the king of his madness, though it must have delivered a considerable shock to the royal system. The king made his visits to Weymouth in September, by which time the local climate is decidedly autumnal. To the modern-day visitor accustomed to the concept that the beach is somewhere you go to laze and tan, Weymouth beach, even at the height of summer, presents a perplexing comedy in which the 18th-century notion that the seaside is healthful but not necessarily comfortable apparently persists. Experienced beachgoers come equipped with windbreaks (waist-high canvas walls on wooden stakes that are nailed into the ground, behind which people sit, shielded from the winds), while some even pitch small tents on the sand for complete, zip-up shelter. Children frolic for hours at the water’s edge, certainly; but many of them these days wear black wet suits that cover them from elbow to knee, and little rubber shoes, which can be bought on the seafront at gift stores, alongside the saucy postcards and souvenir candy.
Although Weymouth couldn’t cure the king, the king certainly transformed Weymouth. Until the middle of the 18th century, there hadn’t really been a beach at Weymouth—in those days, the strand of sand that is now the pride of the resort served as a garbage dump for the older town that is still huddled around the harbour. By the late 18th century, the sand had been cleared and bathing machines installed, and the king’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester, had built himself a mansion on what was then the outskirts of the town. Gloucester Lodge, which in later years became a hotel and is now an apartment building with a bar and restaurant in its basement, signalled an epistemological shift in Weymouth: it was the first house to turn a welcoming face toward the curve of the bay, rather than turning its shoulder to the dangerous water, as the town’s older buildings had done for centuries. (One Tudor building near the harbour displays scars of violence from the seas: in 1645, during the civil war, it suffered an assault from a ship’s cannon, and a cannonball is still embedded in its gable. That building, originally a merchant’s house, has served for decades now as a very useful public toilet.)
The king made Gloucester Lodge his Weymouth residence, where he would receive updates on affairs of state and goings-on across the channel, into which he was diligently being dipped. (It was presumably from Gloucester Lodge that King George wrote to Lord Grenville, his foreign secretary, in September 1792, about the latest news from France: “The idea of trying the Queen and adding her death to their many other crimes is most shocking, and must alienate the minds of all who have the least sentiments of humanity.”) The citizens of Weymouth, rather than beheading their monarch, were finding out just how lucrative a monarch could be with his head still on: the king himself visited Weymouth for only 16 years, but his royal endorsement resulted in a boom that lasted a half-century or more. In 1800, the Esplanade was built, the stately seafront terrace whose architectural consistency is interrupted only by the gaudy Victorian addition of the Royal Hotel, completed in 1897. Although Weymouth was always less raffish than Brighton, the resort favoured by the prince regent, George III’s son, it became an elegant resort for the rich, and the likes of Frank Churchill, the rapscallion charmer in Jane Austen’s novel Emma, thought it fashionable enough to patronize. In 1810, the 50th anniversary of the king’s coronation, the burghers of Weymouth erected a now gaudily painted statue of the king gazing out to sea, wearing an ermine cloak and flanked by a lion and a unicorn. He’s still there, less a historical figure to locals than a signpost—the town bus stops at “the statue,” which is never confused with another statue, the one of Queen Victoria at the Esplanade’s other end—even though the horn on the unicorn was snapped off long ago.
Weymouth’s 18th-century grandeur has dwindled significantly, and these days the houses along the Esplanade are mostly moderately priced guesthouses, many of them lavishly decked with red, white, and blue flags, as if King George might show up at any moment, and decorated with elaborate floral displays. Their interiors tend to show a disregard for authenticity consistent with Weymouth’s current incarnation as a decidedly downmarket family destination.
Weymouth is a bit like that—the tacky and the elegant thrown haphazardly together by the accidents of history, the former showing no reverence for the latter. Weymouth’s kitsch is not contrived: there’s nothing knowingly ironic about its trampolines and helter-skelter slide and Punch and Judy stand, or about the sculptures of Neptune and galloping white-foam sea horses that a self-taught artist named Fred Darrington started modeling out of sand in a cordoned-off area of the beach in the 1920’s, and are these days created by Darrington’s grandson Mark Anderson. There’s no pretentious gentrification, which means that although there are now restaurants that aspire to decent cuisine, and even reach it; Perry’s, a seafood restaurant on the harbourside, actually sells seafood.
In 1808, an image of the king on horseback, measuring 280 feet by 323 feet, was carved into a chalk hillside in Osmington, just outside Weymouth. People were told that the mad king, rather than being delighted at the tribute, was so offended that he’d been depicted riding out of town, rather than into it, that he never returned to Weymouth. The hard fact that he had, in any case, stopped visiting the town after 1805 perhaps puts this historical datum into the “black death started at the Black Dog” category. But that’s the thing about accidental history—the ring of truth has a pleasing enough sound to be going on with.