DORSET: HOUSE WITH HIS­TORY

Stay in a grand Dorset sea­side house with a lit­er­ary her­itage

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - So­phie Camp­bell

So this is celebrity. Ev­ery time I look out of the win­dow, there is a lit­tle knot of peo­ple peering through the black iron gates. This morn­ing spec­ta­tors parted like the Red Sea as we drove in. This evening a woman is stand­ing out­side with her spaniel, gaz­ing.

Not at me, you un­der­stand, but at the house. Bel­mont, a dusky-pink Ge­or­gian sum­mer re­treat with an ex­tra­or­di­nary his­tory of own­er­ship, is set high above the pretty lit­tle town of Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast in England’s south­west. Just for this week­end, af­ter two years of restoration and an­other six in the plan­ning, its new owner, the Land­mark Trust, has opened it to the pub­lic. Af­ter that, you can stay in it, but not un­til 2017, as next year is al­ready full.

The rea­son for all the fuss is three­fold. First, the last pri­vate owner was John Fowles, who fi­nalised the proofs for The French Lieu­tenant’s Woman here, in a writ­ing room over­look­ing Lyme Regis’s fa­mous har­bour-within-a-har­bour, the Cobb. It was Meryl Streep stand­ing on the Cobb in a black hood and im­prob­a­bly bad weather con­di­tions that be­came the defin­ing im­age of the 1980s film of the book. It put Lyme Regis, hith­erto tucked away, firmly on the map. A cen­tury be­fore Fowles, there was Richard Ban­gay, a Vic­to­rian so­cial­ist and pop­u­lar lo­cal GP, who was a pas­sion­ate as­tronomer and built him­self a three- storey ob­ser­va­tory in the gar­den. It’s still there, re­stored, re­painted, with a snug at the top and, above that, the iron wheels and tracks he used to swing the dome and te­le­scope across the skies.

Be­fore Dr Ban­gay there was Eleanor Coade, a sin­gle woman and 18th-cen­tury en­trepreneur who ran a fac­tory in Lam­beth, South Lon­don, mak­ing a type of ar­ti­fi­cial stone so suc­cess­ful that she worked with some of the great­est ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers of the time. Her moulded urns, friezes, gods and god­desses, coats of arms and heraldic beasts were pale and el­e­gant, fit­ting the clas­si­cal as­pi­ra­tions of the Ge­or­gian age, and they lasted longer than stone. They en­liven stately homes and con­cert halls, the­atres and li­braries, pri­vate houses and es­tates across Bri­tain, as well as abroad. She was a na­tive of nearby Devon and her un­cle gave her the deeds to Bel­mont in the 1790s. She used it as a hol­i­day house and, ever canny, dec­o­rated it in­side and out with ex­am­ples of her work.

The Land­mark Trust de­cided to re­store the house to its Re­gency ap­pear­ance, re­mov­ing any later ad­di­tions — this hasn’t been pop­u­lar with Sarah, Fowles’s widow, ac­cord­ing to press re­ports — and re­pair­ing two cen­turies of depre­da­tions to the build­ing’s fab­ric. Be­hind a sym­met­ri­cal fa­cade are two floors, each with four cor­ner rooms of dif­fer­ent sizes, and the house is gen­er­ously pro­por­tioned with very high ceil­ings and tall sash win­dows.

Every­thing looks weirdly fa­mil­iar for any­one who knows Lon­don well. The crowned Nep­tune above the front door re­sem­bles a re­clin­ing Fa­ther Thames out­side Ham House near Rich­mond; the rus­ti­cated stones

Bel­mont in Lyme Regis, top left; a gue­stroom, top right; the re­stored liv­ing room, above

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