DORSET: HOUSE WITH HISTORY
Stay in a grand Dorset seaside house with a literary heritage
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