One of the amazing things about London is that you can live with undiscovered treasures under your nose, until someone gives you a tip off….or digs up your backyard. Especially if your backyard was formerly a Palace.
Tudor treasures have been re-emerging from the river and the earth at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. In 2009, some mysterious stumps of water-worn wood turned out to be remnants of the dockyard of Greenwich Palace, birthplace of Henry VIII and his daughters - Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. When the Pepys Building, originally built in 1874 as a sports centre for naval officers, was transformed into Visitors Centre in 2017, two underground rooms were identified as cellars of the Friary where Henry wed the first of seven unlucky wives, Catherine of Aragon. It’s possible to peer down at the ‘bee holes’ made to store the Friary’s hives during winter hibernation.
So, after a good friend received a tip-off about the spectacle of The Painted Hall, we find ourselves standing on the multi-layered historical ground of Old Royal Naval College on a hot September afternoon. Intrigued by the stories uncovered by our tour guides, I dug a bit further into this complex excavation of tangled royal dynasties, religious rivalries, nationalistic naval pomp and naughty seamen.
View of the Old Royal Naval College from Greenwich Park in May 2023
The first mention of Gronewic / Greenwich pops up in an Anglo-Saxon Charter in 918. Bronze Age barrows, Roman coins and centuries of royal hoof-prints have been ploughed into the soil of Greenwich Park. The grounds served as a juicy gift to keep royal family members sweet. On receiving 200 acres to ‘empark’ in 1433, Humphrey of Gloucester, Henry V’s brother and Henry VI’s regent, embarked on building a riverside Palace and Greenwich Castle aka Duke Humphrey’s Tower, now Greenwich Observatory. He enclosed his park in the wall which still lines the Roman road across Blackheath.
Thanks to a giant hike in taxes, Henry VII gave the Palace of Placentia a makeover in 1498. His son, Henry VIII would blow some of his parsimonious Dad’s inheritance fund on blinging up the Palace to the size and scale of Hampton Court, hosting jousting ceremonies where knights embarked on the Tudor equivalent of speed dating, rescuing damsels play-acting distress. His son Edward died there and it was a favourite haunt of Queen Mary I. After her father founded the first Royal Navy and built dockyards upriver in Deptford and Woolwich, Elizabeth I strategised the Spanish Armada campaign from the Palace’s riverside vantage point in 1588.
Looking across the monumental courtyards towards the Queen’s House at the foot of Greenwich Park, we hear how James I, unifier of England and Scotland, and great-nephew of Henry VIII, resolved a spat with his wife Anne of Denmark, whom he’d offended by throwing a public wobbly when she mistakenly shot one of his hunting hounds, by offering her Greenwich Park and commissioning Inigo Jones to build the Queen’s House. Lively Anne with her fine European-style court and patronage of the arts was not well matched to her dour Scots husband with his roving eye. They lived increasingly separate lives and her death in 1619 derailed the building project. Inigo later completed it for her son Charles I’s wife Queen Henrietta.
Father Time rules long beyond the rulership of Kings. During the Civil War (1642-51), monarchs went out of fashion, Charles I lost his head and the Tudor Palace descended into disrepair, serving as a biscuit factory and a prison of war camp. Charles II decided to pull the whole thing down and build himself a fashionable Versailles-style pad, but ran out of cash and enthusiasm after one wing. Grandma Henrietta, emerging from Civil War exile, did however finally get to enjoy living at the Queen’s ‘House of Delight.’
It's all a matter of perspective in Wren's architecture
View of the Grand Square and the faceless statue of George II
Charles II’s brother James II had a brief go at restoring Catholicism - or at least tolerance of it - and reestablishing the divine right of monarchs, but Parliament were having none of it and arranged a coup that ensured the throne passed to his Protestant daughter Mary and her hubby, his Dutch nephew William of Orange. James II fled to France and unsuccessfully attempted to reinstate his leadership with the support of the Irish and the Jacobites, ending his days in exile. The couple were crowned William III and Mary II in 1689 and it was decreed that only Protestant monarchs could rule Britannia henceforth, with significantly reduced powers.
With an interest in maritime matters, Mary II, moved by the plight of wounded naval veterans, decided to build a Royal Hospital for Seamen. Venerated architect Sir Christopher Wren was so moved by the cause that he took on the grand design for free in 1696. In a financially prudent act of architectural recycling, he preserved and built a mirror image of Charles II’s wing and created courtyards which perfectly framed the view of the Queen’s House. Intended not just as a charitable institution but an epic British naval status symbol, the Royal Hospital took 50 years to complete, so Mary did not live to see it as she died of smallpox aged 32 in 1694.
William, who spent most of his time in fisticuffs with French King Louis XIV, died from pneumonia soon after Mary in 1702. They left no heirs, and to ensure a Protestant monarch, the death of their successor, Mary's sister Anne in 1714 resulted in the choice of a Hanoverian relative, George I. The fact the new monarch alighted with his son at Greenwich without speaking a word of English and had a more distant heritage than nearer Catholic relatives caused more than a few raised eyebrows and rebellions. Nonetheless, a new dynasty was born and a statue of George II stands in the Grand Square, now faceless as the result of weather, over-enthusiastic cleaning and naval shooting practice.
Enter Baroque Painter James Thornhill, commissioned in 1707 to create an extraordinary piece of political propaganda depicting the Protestant monarchs William and Mary and their Hanoverian ‘heirs’ as a through line of English global supremacy. Whereas today’s headlines flash across screens in seconds, Thornhill took 19 years to create the 40,000 sq feet of painted walls and ceilings known as The Painted Hall. He received the princely sum of £6,685 – about £1.4 million in today’s money, going on to paint the domes of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1715 and receive a knighthood in 1720.
The Painted Hall was originally created as a dining hall for naval pensioners, but instead became a visitor attraction and stage for state ceremony such as Nelson’s laying in of state before his funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1806. When the Naval College in Portsmouth acquired the buildings in 1873 the hall became a banqueting suite for officers, whose smoking and general shenanigans were not great for the paintings. After being taken over by Greenwich Foundation in 1997, a restoration project was undertaken and completed in 2019.
Ceiling of The Painted Hall
Today, tourists flock to walk - and lie - awestruck by panoramas of the royal family surrounded by a glitterati of 200 mythological and famed personages. English scientists peer through telescopes at the nude Greek moon Goddess Diana, whilst Neptune, God of the Sea, lends a hand alongside St George to bring the Hanoverian Georges safely to Britain. Symbols of naval might, pomp and power abound - the zodiac and the four known continents circle the English royal centre of the universe and Louis XIV is crushed under William’s foot. George II’s children are personified as the arts, looking to an ongoing dynasty. A watery blue toga wends its way old Father Thames, protecting his modesty as he consorts with the younger River Isis, whilst Father Winter’s face is modelled on the oldest resident of The Royal Hospital, John Worley - a troublesome drunk, whose punishment was to sit still whilst his portrait was painted.
Viewing the Ceiling!
Until 1869, The Royal Hospital accommodated up to 2,700 ‘Greenwich Geese,’ a characterful cast of seamen, many of whom, despite the savage surgeons whose knife-sharpening grooves are embedded on the window ledges of Skittle Alley, lived to a ripe old age as a result of being well fed and watered and enjoying their pick of 88 pubs around the site. Aged 12-99, they were an international crew which included black and mixed heritage sailors from Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas during the time of the slave trade, such as Briton Hammon, author of one of the first published accounts of slavery and his time in the Navy, The Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man (1760). John Simmonds, a Jamaican veteran, was treated at the hospital for yellow fever in 1824 and awarded the Trafalgar Medal for serving during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1846. He went on to forge a new life, marrying and working as a hawker with his English wife Anne in Mansfield. Much of the wealth of Greenwich was built on the backs of slavery, and many black people were enslaved at affluent houses including Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) who having been born on a slave-ship in the Atlantic, escaped enslavement in Greenwich to become a shopkeeper, writer, playwright, abolitionist and the first person of African descent to vote in a British election.
Many stories and, some say, ghosts stalk the halls and grounds of the Old Royal Naval College, with many stories yet to emerge. As our guide comments, ‘old meets new’ across the river as Wren’s domes face the glassy tiara of Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers shimmering atop the trees of Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs, called so because Edward III kept his greyhounds there. The dazzling reflections of The Painted Hall in modern-day mirrors affirm that what we see in history reflects our own story back to us.
Access and tours of the Old Royal Naval College and Painted Hall costs £15 from the Visitors Centre - which includes annual membership.
Ran away to Seaford on this sizzling September Sunday, having been thoroughly sauteed in the London frying pan this week. From the peaceful shingly beach, iced with the time-carved chalkface of Seaford Head, the crests and troughs of the dramatic coastal path come to rest in Cuckmere Haven, where the river Cuckmere meanders across meadows and the sparkling Seven Sisters sculpt the skyline. Stopped for tea and art at InDivisible, an Artwave Diverse Exhibition of LGTBQ+ and minority artists and watched the sun dip down between Newhaven cliffs... just perfect...
View from Abbotsbury Hill
High, high up, a very long time ago - around 500BC - the Celtic Durotriges built a fort on top of what is now Abbotsbury Hill, 215 metres above sea level. We don’t know what they called it, but we can be sure it wasn’t Abbotsbury Castle, as Abbots and Christians weren’t even a twinkle in the Universe’s eye back then. What we do know is that they made an excellent choice, commanding sweeping panoramic views of the coastline until the Romans chased them out in 43AD.
So here I am trying to pick out the path in a field full of cowpats, having jumped off the bus at the Abbotsbury Hill stop. There are no signposts so I head off in the direction of a brick outpost and a beacon, apparently last used by the Tudors to send warnings of the impending Spanish Armada. Soon I’m channelling my inner Braveheart, striding the blustery ridgeway that crowns this extraordinary landscape. The entire coastline unfurls in all directions, dappled with variegated sunlight as the clouds roam over the rolling hills.
Celtic Cate on the Iron Age Fort
St Catherine’s Chapel perched lonely on a hill, acts as a drishti, drawing and focussing the eye as I descend from the ridgeway through bright neon-green fields bristling with the night’s rain into the traditional stone village of Abbotsbury. According to a Survey of Dorsetshire written by Thomas Gerard (1592–1634), shortly after Christianity arrived in Britain in 597 AD, St Peter appeared to a ‘holie Priest’ Bertufus and consecrated a Church named Abodesbury, on the site of a former Roman water mill.
Descending to Abbotsbury
Addesburi was later given to an abbot by King Edmund (920-946) and then by King Cnut (r 1016-1035) to his bodyguard Orc who built a Benedictine Abbey in 1044 which grew in size and prominence until Henry VIII dissolved it in 1539. It was acquired by the Strangeways family, who still own much of the land, and used stone from the Abbey to build the village and a Manor House, later destroyed when they backed the wrong horse in the Civil War.
Traditional Tea House, Abbotsbury
So it was Benedictine monks who built St Catherine’s Chapel as a pilgrimage site and secluded spot for Lent meditation sometime in the late 14th century. The top-to-toe stone chapel is empty inside, but prayers and drawings on the ledges indicate it is still a place of contemplation, looking out over the gleaming shoreline of Chesil Beach and the ruined Abbey below.
St Catherine's Chapel, Abbotsbury with the Coastline of Chesil Beach
Who, however, was St Catherine? I knew that Catherine Wheels were named after her and that her name meant pure, but pull any piece of historical string and a story will unravel. It turns out Catherine is likely a derivative of the Pagan Goddess Hecate - Αἰκατερίνη (Aikaterínē) Ἑκατερίνη Hekaterínē/ hekatos - which has been translated as one who works from afar or both - worshipped in various forms by Bronze Age Anatolian Carians and Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The Goddess of Moon, Magic, the Underworld and all things Mysterious, she presided over crossroads, often shown with the triple-bodied ability to look in all directions, accompanied by baying hounds. The Greeks honoured her with Deipnon, a meal held at the dark end of the lunar month when alms were given to the poor. A far feistier Goddess then, than the later Christian spin of Catherine as καθαρόc/ katharós - “pure.”
St Catherine's Chapel, Abbotsbury
Turning the wheel through some centuries, we find Catherine of Alexandria (287-305AD) a feisty Egyptian mystic-scholar, daughter of Sabinella and Constus, Governor of Alexander, who, inspired by a vision of the Virgin and Christ Child, was a fervent converter of souls by age 14. When she turned up at the palace of Emperor Maxentius (who ruled Italy and North Africa 306-312) to denounce idol worship and protest the persecution of Christians, she was made to debate with fifty leading Pagan orators and won, so was tortured - without yielding. 200 people visited her in prison, converted to Christianity and were subsequently martyred including the Emperor’s wife Valeria Maximillia. When, after twelve days, she emerged defiantly radiant and turned down the Emperor’s marriage proposal, he condemned her to death-by-wheel. After the wheel shattered - either at her touch or by angelic intervention - he ordered her beheading. Undefeated, even in death, she commanded the executioner’s blow and milk not blood flowed from her neck.
Catherine’s body was said to have been flown by angels to the heights of Mount Sinai, where Emperor Justinian I established St Catherine’s Monastery in 548-565, believed to house her relics which includes St Helena’s Chapel, at the site of the burning bush determined by his Empress-Mother Helena and the Well of Moses where Moses met his wife. It houses one of the oldest known libraries and one of the longest-serving monasteries. One part was converted into a mosque and it remains a pilgrimage site for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Icon of St Catherine, St Catherine's Monastery,
Via Wikipedia Public Domain
St Catherine has inspired numerous buildings, miracle plays, biographies and paintings worldwide. As a skilled orator, she was the patron saint of lawyers, scholars, intellectuals and philosophers and St Catherine’s College in Cambridge bears her name. Her Catherine’s Wheel, immortalised in fireworks, made her the chosen guardian of potters, spinners and wheelmakers. She was also the patron saint of virgins, particularly those in search of husbands, and women came to pray at the Abbotsbury Chapel placing their hands and knees in niches. A traditional prayer being:
A husband, St Catherine,
A handsome one, St Catherine,
A rich one, St Catherine,
A nice one, St Catherine,
And soon, St Catherine.
St Catherine's Chapel, Abbotsbury
Another turn of the wheel and we find St Catherine appearing in visions to two feisty females - St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) and Joan d’Arc (1412-1431) whom she guided to find a sword hidden in the chapel Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierboi. Born Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa, this second St Catherine fasted and cut her hair off to resist arranged marriage, entered the Dominican mantellates of unmarried women and experienced a mystical marriage with Christ aged 21. She dedicated herself to helping the poor and assisting at the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, rising to influence Pope Gregory XI’s move from Avignon to Rome, and negotiating peace with Florence in 1378. She died whilst on hunger strike protesting the Great Schism of the West, leaving her prayers and a treatise.
St Catherine’s Saints Day is celebrated on 24th/25th November, close to Hecate’s Night 16th-17th November. Malta holds the World Record for the largest Catherine Wheel created in 2011 as part of the annual week-long festival where statues of St Catherine are paraded. In France, French Canada and French New Orleans, Catherinettes - unmarried women over 25 - wear hats and dress in green for wisdom and yellow for faith, and it’s an important day for Parisian fashion houses. In Estonia, on Kadripäev, women are relieved of their duties and go from door to door on the night before kadrisants, singing and offering blessings in return for alms. This custom was known as katterning in the English Middle Ages and katterners gathered together to bake and share cattern cake - bread spiced with caraway seeds - recipe here or here.
Cattern’ and Clemen’ be here, here, here, *
Give us your apples and give us your beer,
One for Peter, Two for Paul,
Three for him who made us all ;
Clemen’ was a good man,
Cattern’ was his mother;
Give us your best, And not your worst,
And God will give your soul good rest.
* St Clements Feast Day was 23rd November
Catterning Song recorded by Rev. W. D. PARISH, Vicar of Selmeston, Sussex in 1875
Image: Giovanni di Paolo, St. Catherine of Siena, c. 1475, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, via Wikipedia
A further historical layer was added when the day also became associated with a legend that Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife, whilst imprisoned in Ampthill 1531-33, introduced lacemaking to Bedfordshire. So St Catherine also became the patron saint of lacemakers and a figure of Queen Catherine was paraded at Catherine's Day fairs which continued until the turn of the 20th century. It was also called Candle-Day as the darker winter season meant that lacemaking had to be done by candlelight. A song from a 1905 event shows how the Saint and Queen had become merged.
Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), miniature by Lucas Horenbout, Wikipedia, Public Doman
Queen Katherine loved to deck with lace
The royal robes she wore;
But though she loved to wear her lace,
She loved the lace-folk more.
So now for good Queen Katherine’s sake
Put bones and sticks away,
And keep the yearly festival
And sing on ‘Kattern Day
Songs to St Catherine can still be found across Europe - a recording of a French chant to St Catherine sung by 70-year-old lacemaker Virginie Granouillet, from Roche-en-Régnier (Haute-Loire) accompanied by bobbins can be heard here.
So there we have it, a tale of not just one but three Catherines, with mystical roots to threefold Hecate. Interestingly, due to the ‘fantastical elements’ of her story, the Papacy removed St Catherine’s Saints Day from the official calendar in 1967 - (as if other Christian myths were not also fantastical!?) - but it seems unlikely that this will deny this feisty saint her festivities - I feel inspired to hold my own singing Catherine Party in her honour this year.
The wheel of my time in Dorset has turned - and I return now to London, invigorated by the strength of my ancestors and inspired by the example of iconic women who turned the tide. Who knows where the wheel of fate will spin me next?
Hecate - Ancient Roman antiquities in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden
Image via Sailko
Today’s the breezy, sunny day I’ve dedicated to walking the South West Coast Path from Weymouth to Durdle Door. Having walked parts of the South Downs Way along the Seven Sisters back in 2019, I’m seeking the blissful absorption that happens when the mind is washed clean of everything but focusing on the next step. Some sort of magical perspective-restoring, cobweb-blowing, home-coming process occurs when I’m enfolded in panoramic landscapes. Tracing the strata of the magnificent coastline catalyses a therapeutic reformation and reorganisation of mental timelines. This is what I came for.
The warm-up involves following the arc of Weymouth Bay past quieter stretches of beach overlooked by colourful beach huts and Victorian gardens towards the Spanish-inspired now-abandoned Riviera Hotel, the last building before the cliffs assert their dominance.
Weymouth beach huts
After that, there is no more flat, the path climbs up at Bowleaze Coveway, followed by a helter-skelter scramble past the empty ghost trains and arcades of Fantasy Island Fun Park lodged like a thorn in the foot of a pretty bay.
Looking back to Weymouth
The outline of Weymouth Bay will remain visible throughout my journey, but it’s already shrinking as I follow the coastal path up and over the cliffs, tracking the edges of campsites, passing under leafy archways and dipping into woody dells. There’s a relaxed, friendly atmosphere amongst walkers and stone posts that pop up every quarter of a mile with encouraging progress markers.
Permissive Path… you can do what you like as long as you don't fall off!
The first stretch is the longest in time and distance before reaching Osmington Mills and The Smugglers Inn, a thatched traditional pub, dating to the thirteenth century, renowned for smuggling by the seventeenth century. As I arrive, suitably raucous pirate-like laughter wafts up over the garden sound system.
The next stop, Ringstead, seems just round the corner by comparison - it’s easy walking rewarded by a kiosk, where families stop for beans on toast and small children clamber over picnic benches.
The Smugglers Inn
The final stage of the walk becomes an exhilarating ride along the spines of dinosaurs. White Nothe (nothe means nose in Old English) is the first chalk cliff I’ve reached - a steep ascent, but the best is yet to come. It's topped by a WWII outpost and a row of lifeguard cottages, at one time inhabited by 44 people including captain, crew and families, still functioning off-grid today. It’s possible to zig-zag down from White Nothe to Ringstead along the Smugglers Path thrillingly described by
J Meade Falkner in Moonfleet - “I do not believe that there were half a dozen men in England who would have ventured up that path. The ledge was little more than a foot wide, and ever so little a lean of the body would dash me on the rocks below.”
Back on top of the cliffs, there’s no high drama yet - the climb to White Nothe is rewarded by a serenely quiet walk along its flat-topped nose. The tide soon turns - narrow paths track the undulations of West and Middle Bottom - this dinosaur has one hell of a big Jurassic bottom! Whilst ascents require plenty of huff and puff, the descents seem more perilous - the tracks are scattered with ready-to-roll pebbles and misformed steps - a quick slip could bring on a one-way trip to the sea-smashed beach. There are, however, plenty of pausing places to take a breath, water and photos of spectacular views. I share a moment of enchanted stillness with a group of walkers clustered by a needle-looking-monument, absorbed in the sonorous seascape of crickets plucking their harps, the wind rustling the grass and the waves washing the shore.
Yes that's the path, right there going up and over that cliff !!!!??
Up, up, up to the summit of Bats Head which yields knee-jellifying views of a tiny little bat door carved out in a vast sheet of chalk, flanked by a chunk of chalk peering out over swirls of seaweed and variegated aqua-teal shades of sea. A family of rocky promontories further out in rippling jade waters, the Calf, Cow, Blind Cow and Bull, trot after each other in what would have been a through line of rock to the Man O’War rocks in Lulworth Cove.
An increased presence of bodies dotting a distant beach nestled in a crooked cliff arm reveals that I have now arrived at the very far end of Durdle Door Beach. There are however still two dino-humps to navigate including the Swyre’s Head. Whilst only three miles or so, this part of the walk certainly feels as if it has taken the longest and I certainly would not want to do this in wind and rain.
Still two peaks to go yet…
Coming face-to-face with the renowned archway, crisscrossed with arteries of time, it's absolutely the most exhilarating way to arrive, feeling like a wild, windswept thing of nature. It's no small reward to sit amongst the truly international audience gathered to view this great spectacle, a variety of languages peppering the breeze. I take a bracing, invigorating dip in the sparkling waters, cleansing and releasing the toil of the journey. Memories surface of swimming through the archway with my Dad at Whitsun in 1988 - yes, we came out blue - but the absence of anyone attempting this and the prospect of being turned into surging froth at the giant Durdle foot is not encouraging. So I'm happy just bobbing about in the aqua waters, gazing up at this feat of nature whilst literally chilling - it takes the walk to Lulworth Cove and a hot cup of tea to fully warm back up.
Durdle Door Beach
The rugged nature of Durdle Door precludes anyone from building anything near it - fortuitously protecting this geological marvel. It also means that to access the essential 3 T’s of Travellers - Toilet, Tea and something Tasty - requires ascending the rickety steps up from the beach, pausing to take a turn at the viewing platform of Man’ O’War bay before climbing the steep hill to a field of food vans and the campsite. From there it’s a leisurely walk on a luxuriously wide, smooth path with shallow steps to Lulworth, where a welcome selection of shops, cafes and restaurants are scattered like pebbles to one side of the Cove.
Looking down to Lulworth Cove
One final section of the dinosaur spine takes me past Stair Hole - two mini archways sea-sculpted out of dramatically compacted rock. The path ends on a rocky outlook overlooking the cove, and a daring group of young people have edged along a narrow ledge to perch on the precarious end of the dino-tail. I find a slightly less hair-raising, knee-wobbling spot to rest and enjoy the dizzifying views.
Dazed and happy, I enjoy gift shopping and tea on the rugged beach before climbing aboard the bus. What took 3.5 hours to walk plus two ten-minute pit stops, takes just 25 minutes to travel inland to Weymouth, on top of a very windy open-topped bus, waving to King George III trotting over the Osmington Hills on his White Horse. It's been a truly exhilarating Jurassic Day Trip.
Inspired by Mary Anning, I'm off to hunt fossils. Following the advice of a friendly fossil shopkeeper in Lyme Regis, I pitch up at Seatown, near the village of Chideock near Bridport at high tide (11 am) to see what the sea has brought in. The tiny hamlet clings to the mouth of the river Winniford, formed of the Anchor Inn, a cluster of cottages, a campsite and spa shop and a few food vans. Seatown’s seclusion makes it a favourite for smugglers, fossil hunters and dog walkers. The shingly beach gives way steeply to the magnetic pull of the waves and you can easily get knocked off your feet just paddling. The cliffs here, formed of siltstone, sandstone and clay, are definitely on the move - there was a huge landslide here just a couple of weeks ago - sections are fenced off and it's not safe to sit at their base.
I’m searching for some treasure to take back to my fossil-loving nephew, aged 9 and it is not long before I am covered in the soft clay from the cliffs that yield me a handful of belemnite and ammonite remnants. There is a friendly atmosphere amongst hunters of all ages - a proud grandad shows me a perfect pyrite ammonite he has found with his grandson. There are people who are well-prepared, carrying chisels and hammers and others just doing their best with their hands like me and lots of excited chat about who’s found what.
Clay cliffs - fossil hunting in Seatown
To warm myself up for tomorrow’s coastal walk to Durdle Door, I take the coastal path up and over the cliffs to West Bay. Seatown rapidly disappears behind me, as a picnic blanket of villages and fields rolls out to the cloud-dappled horizon. Friendly walkers share greetings as we bob up and down over the peaks and troughs of the cliffs.
Seatown disappearing from view
West Bay is a popular mini-complex of seaside homes, cafes and shops circling the River Brit’s return to the shingly shore topped with a lion’s mane of golden cliffs. Striated sediments of sandstone and limestone, known as Bridport Sand Formation, built up on the seabed over 860,000 years in the Early Jurassic Period. Originally blue-grey, pyrite within the rock oxidises in sunlight to form the leonine golden glow. Just after I returned to London, there was a huge landslide at these cliffs - fortunately no one was hurt - but it's a reminder that the earth's story is far from set in stone.
After a snack break next to a beady-eyed seagull, I roam on and over the lion's back to catch the bus home from Burton Bradstock, a traditional thatched village decked in summer flowers marking the start of Chesil Beach, an 18-mile rugged stretch of shingle beach, backed by Fleet Lagoon. As sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, storms whirled piles of eroded shingle into a formation ranging from large shingle at Portland to fine shingle at West Bay. Apparently, smugglers used the size of the stones to navigate by. It seems to go on forever as the bus wends its way back to Weymouth.
Tomorrow I'll be following the coastal path all the way to Durdle Door….
Views from the South West Coastal Path
Rose-clad cottage, Burton Bradstock
Looking out across the cliffs she mined for fossil treasures, Mary Anning’s statue marks the summit of a 222-year quest for recognition. Having read Tracey Chevalier’s novel Extraordinary Creatures earlier this year, my understanding of her story is now far deeper than the sketch I understood as a child.
Struck by lightning as a baby in 1800, Mary was the first to identify an ichthyosaur in 1811 after finding the skull with her brother Joseph and then excavating the full skeleton. Daughter of a cabinet maker, Richard Anning, whose wife Molly ran his fossil shop after he died in 1810, Mary learned to read and write at Dissenter Chapel and took an early interest in scientific articles, making many sketches. She scoured the cliffs and beaches around Lyme Regis, narrowly escaping a landslide which killed her dog Tray. Her groundbreaking discoveries include finding the first ichthyosaur (1811), Plesiosaur, (1823) Pterosaur (1828), Squaloraja (1829) recognising coprolites/ bezoar stones as fossilised faeces and describing the ink sacs of belemnites (ancient squid) to her fossil hunting companion Elizabeth Philpot in 1826.
To keep her family out of poverty, Mary sold her finds to wealthy Victorian scientists, who then received academic accolades and profits by exhibiting, selling and writing about them. As a working-class woman, she was forbidden entry to the Geological Society of London and rarely credited for her early discoveries and drawings. In a letter to a friend she wrote “the world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”
Fossil display at Lyme Regis Fossil Shop
Nonetheless, Mary's fame grew and she was sought out at her fossil shop by leading geologists, scientists and visitors such as King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony who purchased an ichthyosaur in 1844. She was finally credited in books and papers by William Buckland in 1829 and Louis Agassiz in 1834 and Henry de la Beche and Colonel Birch ran fundraisers to help support her work. After Mary’s tragically early death aged 48 from breast cancer, the Geological Society, who’d helped secure her pension, donated a stained glass window of her to St Michael’s Church. The Society published their first ever eulogy for a woman, written by Henry de la Beche in 1850 and finally admitted women in 1904. Mary was named as one of the top ten women in British History to have most influenced science by the Royal Society in 2005 and is now acknowledged as a pioneering Palaeontologist.
The Lyme Regis Museum, commissioned in 1902 by Thomas Philpot, a relative of Mary’s friend and fossil hunter Elizabeth Philpot now stands on the site of her former home and fossil shop. The Lyme Fossil Shop stands just opposite, with a literally jaw-dropping array of international and local treasures - this model 45ft Carcharodon Megalodon shark’s jaw is full of real teeth that gnashed 25 million years ago.
Charles Dickens, telling Mary’s story in his literary magazine All the Year Round (1865) wrote: “Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, towards promoting the cause of science. The inscription under her memorial window commemorates “her usefulness in furthering the science of geology” (it was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped to make it one), “and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”
Above - The Cobb, Lyme Regis - Below - views over the harbour, Lyme Regis
Here at Lyme amidst the sea spray and roaring waves on this wild rainy day, walks another wronged woman - Sarah, deserted by a French naval officer, famously portrayed walking the Cobb by Meryl Streep in the film of John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. There are plenty of cheeky seagulls and a handful of visitors carefully edging their way along the protective Portland Stone arm shielding Lyme’s harbour. Some feat of gravity prevents us from being swept off the sea-smoothed wall into a grey, whirling watery grave - or falling down the rocky Granny’s Teeth’ steps as Louise Musgrove did in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion. The dramatic view over the boats to the town of Lyme, nestled amongst the cliffs, with its cluster of cute cafes and quirky gift shops is more than worth a few knee wobbles!
So it’s a wonderful vindication to find Mary standing there, clasping her ammonite - she literally brings out the sunshine. Her beautiful statue, unveiled on the date of her 222nd birthday on 21st May 2022, is the result of a campaign by the Mary Anning Rocks Group launched in 2018 by Anya Pearson and her daughter fossil hunter Evie Swire, who then aged 11 could not understand why there was not a statue to her heroine. Down on the beach, amidst relics of ancient history on the mud flats, I find a toy crocodile which I donate to a nearby little girl and her mother - the new generation of women digging for treasure as Mary did, to carry forth into the future.
Spot the Crocodile!
On a wild, wet Dorset Wednesday I jump aboard a Jurassic Coaster to pick up the trail of my literary ancestor Thomas Hardy. It feels only right to pick up a copy of Tess of the d’Urbevilles (published 1890) to accompany my rides around Hardy country.
My tenacious Dad, formerly Herts County Advisor for Geography, spent many summer holidays patiently reading us the earth’s story from lines etched in cliffs and many years tenaciously excavating our family history. Before I head off, he untangles the Dorset branches of our family tree over an OS Map. It turns out that Thomas Hardy (1849-1928), famed author of 14 novels and prolific poet, is my first cousin five times removed/ five generations ago - in 1883 his aunt Jane Hardy married Edmund Groves my five times great paternal grandfather.
Hardy's Statue, Dorchester
So here I am battling rain to find Hardy’s statue and Max Gate, the beautiful home he built on the edge of Dorchester a few miles from the cottage built by his great-grandfather in Higher Bockhamptom where he grew up with his grandparents, parents, two sisters and brother. The remote position of the ancestral home enabled Grandad Thomas 1 to do a bit of smuggling and inspired his grandson to immortalise it in his poem Domicilium, written aged 16.
‘Behind, the scene is wilder. Heath and furze
Are everything that seems to grow and thrive
Upon the uneven ground.’
Views of Hardy Land from the South West Coastal Path
Hardy’s words roved and wove themselves into the landscape of Dorset, which he reimagined as Wessex. In Tess he describes the valley of Blackmoor as a place where ‘the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale,’ and the atmosphere is ‘languorous and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine.’ Noting that ‘the forests have departed, but some old customs of their shade continue,’ he mourns the changes that agriculture and human intervention inflicted on the landscape. I can only imagine the grief he would feel today.
Presumed dead at birth, delicate health set Hardy on a different path from his stonemason forefathers. With a gift for drawing, he trained and worked as an architect from 1856-72, working in London from 1862 and returning to Dorset in 1867 to pursue his first love of writing. His first novel The Poor Man and the Lady was considered inappropriate for hierarchal Victorian society but his publisher encouraged him to continue writing and Desperate Remedies was published in 1871. He went on to write fourteen novels, dedicating himself to his first love of poetry after the scandal caused by Jude the Obscure in 1895. His challenge to Victorian society and his sympathy for his female characters such as Tess marked him as a man out of step with his times.
Doorway to Max Gate
Hardy’s world hummed with music, song and story. His grandmother, Mary, who outlived her husband, was a great storyteller and collector of folklore, enchanting young Thomas with tales of the Napoleonic War which inspired his epic poem The Dynasts. His grandfather, Thomas 1, was a keen musician, playing bass viol/ cello with his son, Thomas 2, on violin in a West Gallery Quire in Stinsford Church. Hardy/ Thomas 3 also learned violin and treasured both the written songbooks used by his father and grandfather and the rich oral tradition of folk music he inherited. His writing marks and mourns the replacement of the West Gallery Players by organ and surpliced choir.
Thomas Webster (1800-1886) - The Village Choir, 1847 - inspired by "Christmas Day," a vignette from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820) by American author Washington Irving (1783-1859).
Tess and her family, like Hardy’s, inhabit a world where music is intimately woven into all aspects of life - accompanying religious ritual, powering agricultural labour and soothing grief - ‘that innate love of melody, which she had inherited from her ballad-singing mother, gave the simplest music a power over her which could welling drag her heart out of her bosom at times.’ Music plays an almost supernatural role in enchanted matchmaking - Tess’s ‘fluty voice’ catches her lover’s ear as he contemplates the world as a ‘phantasmal orchestra’ where all the objects in the room seem to be ‘quivering with the same melody.’ Clare’s harp playing likewise magnetises her, becoming one with the midsummer garden, ‘the floating pollen seemed to be his notes made visible.’
The music of love captivated Hardy when he met Emma Gifford in 1870 after being sent to help restore her brother’s church. He described himself returning from Cornwall ‘with magic in my eye’ and she was the muse for his third novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) Their families disapproved but after four years of courtship and the success of his fourth novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, ensured his financial security, the couple married, living in various places, including a time just up the road in Tooting (1878-1881). But the landscape of Dorset was Hardy’s first and enduring love and he built his home on land bought from the Duchy of Cornwall, the site of a Roman-British cemetery and a Celtic stone circle, whose stones are still in the garden. Set back from the hum of the main road, to catch sight of it through green branches, is to find it as Hardy intended, nestled in a tree-clad world of its own.
Hardy and Emma lived at Max Gate from 1885, remaining there until their deaths. Whilst being an incredibly private man and confessing to Virginia Woolf that he found visits difficult, he entertained and influenced many illustrious guests including WBYeats, Rudyard Kipling, James Barrie. Poet Siegfried Sassoon carried a copy of Hardy’s poems in the trenches and they formed an enduring friendship after meeting shortly before Armistice in 1918. Hardy marked the declaration of peace in the poem ‘And There Was a Great Calm:’
Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, 'Why?'
In his poem, At Max Gate, published in Common Chords (1950,) Sassoon describes ‘the seer whose words the world had known.’
'Old Mr Hardy, upright in his chair,
Courteous to visiting acquaintance chatted
With unaloof alertness while he patted
The sheep dog whose society he preferred.'
Hardy's House at Max Gate
Whilst Emma was initially highly involved in Hardy’s life and writing, particularly influencing Tess, the two grew increasingly estranged and she retreated to attic rooms. The couple were childless and after her death in 1912, apparently a day after a huge argument, Hardy discovered and burned her diaries detailing her true feelings about their marriage. He was filled with remorse and wrote some of his most powerful poems in the wake of her death in 1912. Hardy was known for his infatuations with younger women - in 1904 he met Florence Dugdale, 39 years his junior, who was then invited by Emma to help with his literary work in 1905. They began an affair and married after Emma’s death in 1914. Poignantly both Emma and Thomas died of heart failure. As the authorities insisted he be honoured at Poets Corner, his second wife Florence decided that Hardy’s heart would be buried next to Emma at Stinsford Church, and his ashes were taken to Westminster Abbey.
It’s a strange twist of fate that religious authorities should dictate his final resting place, given that Hardy inhabited a restless, often melancholic state of questioning and challenging Victorian beliefs. Both Clare and Tess likewise find themselves alienated and rejected by dogma, searching for transcendent music and spending their final night together at Stonehenge. Hardy’s ambivalence towards religion is found in the portrayal of Clare’s Father, who ‘despite his narrowness, was far less starched and ironed than they (his sons) and had to the full the gift of charity.’ His cynicism is more pointedly expressed in Tess’s predator Alec d’Urbeville, whose passionate philandering makes an easy transition to passionate preaching- ‘animalism had become fanaticism.’ No wonder Hardy caused outrage in Victorian society which both rejected and acclaimed him.
Hardy had an attuned empathy and often a preference for the company of animals - his Pet Cemetery sits amidst a crop of beautiful trees to the side of Max Gate. In Tess, he condemns the human destruction of nature and seeks to restore it by placing his characters within a sentient singing, sounding, natural world. On one of her long walks in search of work, Tess finds a group of wounded pheasants left to die by a shooting party of men who are ‘quite civil persons save during certain weeks of autumn and winter, when..they ran amuck and made it their purpose to destroy life - in this case harmless feathered creatures, brought into being by artificial means solely to gratify these propensities - at once so unmannerly and so unchivalrous towards their weaker fellows in Nature’s teeming family.’
Pet Cemetery at Max Gate
Breaking the necks of the pheasants to end their agony, Tess takes their pain as a spur to overcome her own, chiding herself ’to suppose myself the most miserable being on earth in the presence of such misery as this.’ The stark image of broken birds mirrors the continued assault on her freedom of flight, hunted, constrained, broken-hearted and finally hung by a rigidly patriarchal society. Hardy's works display an unusually finely tuned sympathy and respect for women - ‘let the truth be told - women do as a rule live through such humiliations, and regain their spirits, and again look about them with an interested eye.’
My next adventure is to follow the trail of a pioneering woman, who died seven years after Hardy was born, palaeontologist Mary Anning.
Looking over Weymouth Bay from Bowleaze Cove
Many things, like me, have washed in and out of Weymouth. Dinosaurs, rats carrying the Black Death, the Spanish Armada and American troops during WWII. It’s been the site of some immense spats… it took a parliamentary act by Elizabeth I (1571) and a bridge (1590) to unify two squabbling settlements on either side of the river Wey, Melcombe Regis and Weymouth, into one borough. Cannonballs lodged in the side of houses testify that the town was once again torn in two during the English Civil War. Military choppers circling the bay are a reminder of the military training bases here - 1:7 of Dorset residents are involved in the armed forces and Nothe Fort, used for coastal defence since 1869 and now a museum, still looms over the bay.
In 1789 Weymouth snagged a big celebrity catch - when King George III (1738-1820) chose the town as his seaside spa to recuperate, the whole town turned out and his fiddlers accompanied him into the sea to play God Save the King. Overnight, Weymouth became the go-to seaside resort. Georgians and Victorians adorned the beautiful circle of the bay with a jewelled necklace of seaside residences. George III’s love of Weymouth was chalked into Osmington Hill in 1808 - he rides his White Horse there forevermore and his Royal Hotel and Gloucester Lodge (built for his brother the Duke of Gloucester) still preside over the Esplanade.
White Horse, Osmington Hill viewed from an open-topped Jurassic Coaster Bus
Having served through two World Wars as both military and tourist destinations, the growth of holidaying abroad, the closure of channel routes and major military/naval bases has left Weymouth suspended in time. Like sediments of rock formation, 1950s, 60s and 70s seaside tropes have been concreted onto the fading facades of its Georgian-Victorian Golden Era. Colourful chocolate box period houses peek over the edge of the harbour, whilst neon fairground screams ride the breeze with the seagulls.
Weymouth is still serving up a traditional English seaside menu of pubs, arcades, plastic seaside kitsch and carbs - sandwiches with crisps, sticky buns, cream teas, pasties, fish n chips - but at the higher prices demanded by the cost of living crisis. This could make for an expensive coronary. Whilst diversity of people and cuisine is limited, rainbow signs state that everyone is welcome and, I come across a little veggie/vegan gem, The Secret Garden tucked in a nook of the narrow, quaint streets. I feel like a fish out of cosmopolitan water, whilst strangely connected by a shared history of family holidays decades ago.
Even though it’s high holiday season, Weymouth’s halo of soft golden sand is spaciously populated. The Jurassic cliffs shimmer in the distance and white sails bob like rabbit tails on the big blue sea. Folks are friendly and open to chatting in shops and cafes. A super friendly fella at the Kings Statue central bus stop and all the bus drivers seem genuinely delighted to help everyone find their way, like the bus conductors of yesteryear. I’m in awe of their ability to navigate the peaks and troughs of the coastal roads. The Jurassic Coaster buses will take you in all directions for only £2 single - appreciative passengers say a warm ‘thank you driver’ at the end of each journey.
Weymouth Bay looking towards the Jurassic Coast
Boasting not just a sheltered bay and harbour but also a large nature reserve managed by the RSPB, the abundant natural beauty and architecture of Weymouth has enduring appeal. Whilst former sources of prosperity have dried up, causing widespread socio-economic inequalities between the ‘yachts and the yacht-nots,’ Weymouth deserves another renaissance - the chance to reinvent itself from within the community.
Fairground Reflections at Weymouth Beach
Centring on a rocky pinnacle looking East and West, Weymouth is the ideal jumping-off place to explore the coastline and follow in the footsteps of giants and dinosaurs along well-trodden paths including South Western Coastal Path and Hardy Way. That’s where I’m headed next.
Sunset over Weymouth Harbour
“Jude continued his walk homeward alone, pondering so deeply that he forgot to feel timid. He suddenly grew older. It had been the yearning of his heart to find something to anchor on, to cling to—for some place which he could call admirable." - Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
Walking, for me, is a magical movement medicine, a way to ponder, wander and reinvigorate inspiration. During Covid, I learned to be content walking within the circumference of where my feet could take me from my door. The time had come to widen the circle and wander a part of the world I have always loved, the Dorset Coast. To walk these cliffs is to track the motions of Gaia over centuries and to follow in the footsteps of giants - dinosaurs, pioneering palaeontologists, kings on horseback, feisty saints and literary geniuses. Come wander with me… we start with the story of the cliffs themselves….
Jurassic Coast, Dorset
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, about 252 million years ago, (Ma) the great mothership continent Pangaea, surrounded by one ocean Panthalassa, started a vast process of breaking into what would become the continents we know today. Scientists call this period between 250-66Ma the Mesozoic (Middle) Era, formed of three phases - the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous (TJ&C).
In this area we now call the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, these three phases (TJ&C) are captured in a rocky freeze frame. As the earth's crust expanded and contracted, layers of sinking sediments formed rock basins including the Wessex Basin. The hot, arid atmosphere of the Triassic era formed baking desert sediments - basal ‘red beds’ from the core of Pangaea. The high concentration of iron oxide formed the crimson-coloured cliffs, we now see on beaches including Sidmouth. Dinosaurs stalked the earth from the middle of the Triassic period until a mysterious Mass Extinction event wiped them from the face of the earth 66 Ma.
Diagram via Wikipedia/ USGS
During the Jurassic Era, rising sea levels transformed deserts into tropical seas, lagoons and swamps. The sea was full of great marine reptiles, including the ichthyosaurus and plesiosaurus first found by Lyme Regis fossil hunter Mary Anning (1799-1847) and the skies were full of great flying birds and pterosaurs. Land-dwelling dinosaurs roamed further inland. As Pangea cracked, the Wessex Basin deepened, filling with marine clays, sandstone and limestone. As sea levels dropped in the Late Jurassic a forest rose, sank and was submerged in watery landscapes. The resulting soft grey cliffs of the beaches around Charmouth and Lyme Regis are filled with Jurassic fossils - ammonites, belemnites (an early squid ancestor). These soft rocks are also prone to landslides - Mary narrowly escaped one alive.
Mary Anning's Statue Lyme Regis
During the Early Cretaceous, low sea levels formed mudstones in coastal areas. In the Upper Cretaceous, movement and collisions of tectonic plates (continents) of the earth's crust tipped the sedimentary layered rocks to the east. The top layers of rock that were pushed upwards in the west were eroded. In the Late Cretaceous, sea levels rose again, submerging the area in a sea full of algae whose calcium carbonate shells formed a layer of white chalk sediments. These are now seen in spectacular chalk cliffs and rock formations.
Chalk Cliffs on the South West Coastal Path to Durdle Door
During the Late Cretaceous, the African and European tectonic plates collided creating a massive folding and buckling of rock which we now know as the Alps and sending shockwaves across the planet. Lulworth Cove was sculpted by a river of glacial meltwater loosened by the collision, which cut a gap in the strong Portland limestone, allowing the sea to rush in and hollow the bay out of the softer stone behind it. Looking over the bay, you can see the outer formations of Portland Rock, followed by layers of Purbeck Beds, Wealdon Beds and Greensand rocks. The sea is constantly eroding the chalk cliffs, causing rock falls.
Diagram Credit: K. Cantner, AGI.
Similarly at Durdle Door, (Durdle meaning thirl/ drill/ pierce and door from dure in Old English) the tipping of rocks forced the strong Portland stone to stand almost vertically, and over time the sea hollowed out the arch from softer stone behind it. These geological strata, mapping timelines of 185 million years of history, were exposed as natural erosion carved out the coastline we see today, which is still very much on the move.
This massive geological story forms the bedrock of the Jurassic Story, written into the lines of the cliffs, compressed in the millions of creatures buried in the rocks and the paths along which I am to wander in my Fantastic Jurassic adventure.
Durdle Door and Man O'War Bay from the South West Coastal Path