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Friday, 31 January 2014

BATTERED! The search for ultimate chippie 1

Lyme r
Fish and chips are ubiquitous; good fish and chips, like a good cream tea certainly aren't. Luckily for the world, but unluckily for my waist, I'm  undertaking a mission to discover the best Dorset has to offer. My first pick is not a million miles from my front door. The Coombe Street Fish Bar in Lyme Regis has been serving up the fried stuff for as long as I've been associated with Lyme and most of those portions seem to have been dished up by the owner, Vic. I began to wonder if he actually had legs as for years, I never saw more than his top half across the counter. Summer and winter, rain or shine, he was there  the steamy windows a glowing beacon for the hungry and chipless. 
While the owner displays true dedication, customer should display patience as every order is fresh cooked. The result being that the chips are all crunchy and the batter is all crispy. The portions are giant while  each chip is lovingly carved from real spuds rather the delivered frozen from the battery chip farm. You can choose to eat in on shabby chic Formica tables or make the world your stage and polish them off sitting on bustling seafront.

Thursday, 30 January 2014


There can’t be many outbreaks of disease which are gleefully given a plaque and a place in a town’s guide book. This, though, is the case at Weymouth. It was here that the disease, which just happened to be called the Black Death, first entered Britain. It spread rapidly, carrying away up to half of the country's inhabitants and causing political repercussions which were to last for centuries.
Melcombe Regis, as the area on the far side of the harbour is known, formed a bustling community carrying out a thriving trade with the continent. Then, in the middle of the 14th century the following short paragraph heralded the coming catyclism...
Combined with the insanitary conditions that people lived in, the plague quickly took hold. Soon Geoffrey the Baker in the Chronicon Angliae was writing:
“ Dorsetshire, where, as in other counties, it made the country quite void of inhabitants so that there were almost none left alive.”
A contemporary described it thus:

Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death.”
Within a short time 45% of the population was dead and whole communities decimated. At a loss to explain what was happening the population looked for scapegoats most conveniently the Jews who suffered terrible persecution. At the same time membership of the Brotherhood of the Flagellants reached an all-time high as many people felt the plague was a direct result of sin.
The pestilence had gradually spread across Europe from China carried by the fleas of the black rat.The Black or Bubonic plague was so named from the buboes or hard painful swellings that affected the victims in the groin, neck and armpits. When they appeared, death was virtually certain, usually within days. As effective medicines were non-existent it was usually a case of hanging a cross around the victim's neck and praying hard.

If the patients didn't die from plague doctors made sure they died of fright

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Dorset Museums 1- Bovington Tank museum

Humanising the inhumane.
Watching Jeremy Paxman's recent WW1 documentary brought to mind my recent trip to the Dorset Tank Museum.
I'm not a macho type and lost every playground fight, but even I found it riveting.
There are tanks of every shape, size and colour, housed in several purpose built hangars. If you can put aside the use to which they were put they possess a brutal, sculptural quality.

Amongst its many exhibits, the museum possesses examples of the very first tank. In 1916 when these top secret weapons first appeared on the Somme, militarised warfare entered a new chapter. War will always remain barbaric and crude despite advances in technology and if the tank terrified the Hun they were equally terrifying to the unfortunate crews operating  inside them.
Inside these lumbering beasts a three man crew shared their cramped, claustrophobic conditions with the enormous engine in a terrifying maelstrom of noise and fumes. (Half of all deaths in tanks in the WWI were, in fact, from carbon monoxide poisoning).

WW1 Tank crews mask
Often it is the smaller items in a museum which paint the biggest picture...The item above, looking more medieval  than 20thC, provided crews with questionable  protection from  the razor-sharp metal splinters that sliced through the confined space after a hit. Needless to say, the Tommies generally preferred to take their chance rather than to actually wear them.
The museum also has an atmospheric reconstruction of a wartime trench as well as a special exhibit about the conflict in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Dorset Cookery with a twist

Whilst cycling the sleepy lanes near Sturminster Newton I chanced upon the village of Manston. Being a sucker for churches I soon found myself standing in the churchyard intrigued by the rather grand mausoleum that stood there. On further investigation I found like most things in Dorset it had an interesting tale to tell.
For here in 1882 began a revolution. A revolution in the British way of death.
The story starts in 1876 with the death of the of the lord of the manor's first wife  She was adamant that her resting place would not be the flood-prone family vault. 

So her husband devised a novel solution, cremation. 
Strange as it may seem, no cremations had taken place in Britain since Roman times and were in fact illegal in Victorian Britain.
Because of this, it took her husband six years to overcome all the obstacles and 
most importantly, to build a crematorium in the grounds of Manston Manor. During this period the body of his first wife and third wife (who also happened to be his first wife’s sister!) were placed in lead lined coffins in the specially built mausoleum  mentioned above, an elegant classical structure belying its mid Victorian date.
When all was at last ready the cremations were-

“...carried out without the slightest unpleasantness to those who stood within two feet of the white flame and promptly resolved the bodies to harmless elements”
Captain Hanham's letter to the Times Oct 30 1882

In a typical Victorian fashion Hanham was moved to describe in detail the exact appearance and composition of the ashes,

...“fragments of the (bone) looked like frosted silver and broke at the touch”

He was obviously a convert as in 1883 he too was cremated in a new improved crematorium. 
All three urns were then placed in the elegant mausoleum under the trees.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Dorset Deco DT3 6PR

When I was a child grubbing in the sands of Weymouth, my eye would often stray toward an incongruous-looking building floating in the far distance. It intrigued me because it seemed so defiantly out of place in its surroundings. A long and low piece of stark geometry contrasting starkly with the green hillscape. Time passed, and it wasn't until a couple of years ago I finally investigated.
It was on one of those good-to-be-alive days when you felt that God was not only an Englishman but a Dorset man as well. 
The sea twinkled and fluffy white clouds chased across a dazzling, turquoise blue sky. I let out a whoop of excitement... as there before me stood the most perfect piece of maritime deco
The Riviera Hotel was built 1937 but the outbreak of war meant it was soon requisitioned as a hospital for American troops. With war's end it became a hotel once more though by the late fifties, its short heyday past, it became a holiday camp. From there on it was all downhill. 
Cast concrete and steel don't weather well especially by the sea and when I saw it it had become like a beautiful old lady, attractive from a distance.. but not bearing close scrutiny.
It was heartbreaking. 
The hotel's situation rivals any on the real Riviera overlooking as it does the sweep of Weymouth Bay. The main building takes the form of a low, two story crescent relieved in the middle by a square central tower, its facade a series of arcades giving every room the same magnificent view across the bay. The architect, L.Stewart Smith's deft use of proportion means that though plain, the Riviera is never boring (modernists note!). 
Recently I heard the Rivera has been awarded a new lease of life by an Arab consortium. It has been revamped, repaired and generally given the kiss of life. Sadly, though, its deco credentials have been virtually ignored and its rooms revamped in bland international style. If only they had looked to Burgh Island in Devon, another Deco masterpiece also in a unique setting.
Still until someone decides to turn the sea into a car park they can never steal its view.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Hills and Views 1 Eggardon Hillfort SY546942

A short break in between deluges meant it was time to blow away a few cobwebs. Armed with only rucksack, coffee and Snickers we scaled the heights then touched the heavens.
Situated near to Bridport, Eggardon Hill is one of the highest inland points in Dorset and its spectacular 360 degree views makes you feel lord of all you see.
The hill fort is the less well known cousin of Maiden Castle,  Dorchester, though its elevation makes it the more spectacular. Its crumpled green ramparts rise and fall in green vertiginous folds and like Maiden Castle once defies the might of Rome. The route linking the chalk hills is an ancient one and is lined with barrows of the Iron Age folk who once made these fortifications their home.  Nowadays, invaders are mostly of the waggy variety as it a favourite haunt of dog walkers. It's also a great location for kite flyers and a this time of year time relatively dry.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Find God with Cliff

Just a short stroll from the pretty village of Worth Matravers in the Purbecks is the spectacularly sited Chapel of St Aldhelm. It is well worth a visit in any season clinging as it does to the clifftop high above the boiling surf. The chapel has stood in this exposed position for maybe a thousand years, its true function now lost in antiquity. Very probably it  combined a religious function with that of a beacon for ships. A brazier was most likely situated at the apex of the roof where the Victorians erected a cross. Inside you'll find a plain, vaulted room which springs from a central column still decorated with ancient graffiti.
Neglected and falling into disrepair, it was restored a hundred and fifty years ago. 
In past centuries at Whitsuntide local girls danced in the ribbon bedecked interior and then  dropped pins into the several ancient cavities in the central column to bring themselves luck.
From its  vantage point there are spectacular views either way along the Purbecks,  a view which it shares with the Coastwatch look-out station close by. Worth dropping into if they’re not too busy.

A pleasant Sunday walk of about 5.5miles. Pub at Worth Matravers- The Square and Compass where you can worship the
local beer and then partake of communion

Taken from