Friday, 17 July 2020

Weymouth, Portland and a cow

This is the latest in a series of posts about my journey around England in a camper van in 1990. Read an introduction to this drawing journey around England here.

[Bracketed sections like this have been added in 2020.] 

Having parked overnight on the site of an old silage clamp, I realise, browsing over the map eating my Weetabix, that I'm only a mile or two up the road from Stinsford, which is where Thomas Hardy is buried. Morton didn't go here but I see no reason why that should put me off.

As I listen to the 6am news on the radio, I pass all the signs marking the route to Hardy’s Cottage, his birthplace [owned by the National Trust], which won't be open for hours, and make straight for the churchyard. He is – mostly – buried in Westminster Abbey: only his heart remains here. The grave is hard to miss, coffin shaped and beneath a yew tree, but there is more than one Thomas Hardy here, along with a Poet Laureate, Cecil Day Lewis. Even death has its attractions. This is a churchyard to be seen dead in.

I stop off at Dorchester to collect some mail, stock up with a few tins of food and UHT milk, which doesn't go off too quickly in the fridge-free van. I pass down through “Hardye Arcade”, a dreary little line of shops, on my way to the post office. Poor old Hardy. What makes me even more aware of what part of the country I'm heading for is the way that I am called “m’dear” by the woman who sells me a newspaper.

There is a regal air to Weymouth's seafront, a gently bending terrace of Georgian buildings along the esplanade rubbing shoulders with gift shops and restaurants. The scene is overlooked by a slightly frivolous statue of George III, like a brightly painted outsize Airfix model in his full regalia. This the king who bravely tried out the modern bathing machine of 1789. His ghost still haunts the town in a sense, his name popping up wherever you go, like continually following footsteps in the sand. It’s surprising he doesn't appear more in the gift shops in one form or other, as in him, for once, there is something that sets Weymouth apart from other seaside towns. Instead they sell the typical racks of pink fluffy animals, personalised teacups, and plastic novelties in willie or knocker shapes. [Alan Bennett’s play, The Madness of George III, which led to the film of a similar name, was published in 1991, the year after my van trip.]

The sea front is taken over by a cavalcade of motorcycles that cruise down and back, serious bikers in serious leather jackets on their way to nowhere in particular. Anita Lee, “daughter of the famous Gypsy Lee”, is in her caravan by the beach waiting for custom, but she would have done well to have listened to the weather forecast; it has started raining and she could have stayed at home. She is visible through the door of her van killing time by leafing through the pages of the Sun. 

Down one of the little streets behind, Mr Sanny is on his synthesiser, entertaining a pub full of lunchtime drinkers with Abide With Me as a heated argument breaks out between two drinkers. The loudest shout of all is a “You keep out of this!” although whether it is aimed at Mr Sanny, who stoically continues, it is hard to say.

Weymouth feels as if it is on an edge, utterly English, but ferries leave its terminal for Cherbourg and the Channel Islands and there is a little Frenchness about its river harbour. There is a gentle pomposity to the town, which I just can't help liking.


Portland is not the beautiful place I had somehow expected it to be. Dangling from the umbilical cord of Chesil Beach, it is almost, but not quite, an island. It his an industrial landscape, ugly to approach and not at all remote as I had imagined. There is the naval base and quarries that have supplied materials for buildings around the world, but quite what Portland has received in return is hard to spot. The houses are low and terraced in a treeless terrain. Footpaths riddle the stone-walled fields, purposefully signposted at the outset but ending on more than one occasion in sheer cliffs left by quarrying. It is as if fields have dropped down out of sight one by one.

James Hobbs, Portland, 1990

The quarry cranes are motionless today, in suspended animation, interspersed with rubble and numbered blocks of stone. The exposed country roads are dusty, wrapping around rubbish in the gutters like larva to fossilise it. It is so dry it makes me thirsty just to be here.

At Portland Bill I open a tin of beans and listen to the FA Cup Final on the radio. There is the spectacle of the meeting of the tides to watch, the collision of waters known as the Race that results in fierce currents that the fishing boats of Weymouth have to battle their way through. This is how Weymouth and Portland seem - two pieces of a jig-saw that do not fit but are hammered together until they do so. It is an odd marriage of industry and holidays, cosy south coast warmth and exposed barren nudity.

Hounded back through Weymouth by supermarket trolley pushing youths in fancy dress demanding money for the ITV Telethon charity appeal, I find myself looking to camp at the bottom of a hill with the chalk figure of George III riding a horse cut into it. There is a farmhouse, which, considering it is at the bottom of a lane lined with thatched cottages, is a disappointing bungalow on a corner. The woman who answers the door directs me to a field down a track where I can park for the night. She gives the van a funny sort of look over my shoulder that I'm accustomed to now. A dull, homey smell comes from the doorway.

The field is ringed with a high fence, perhaps a relic of the farmer's failed plans to diversify into taking campers, now long past by the state of the crumbling toilet block that remains in the middle. I do not have the place entirely to myself; I am sharing with a cow, its calf and scattered assortments of farm machinery abandoned to the weeds. I spend the evening in the pub up the road making half a pint of bitter, which took 60 of the 83 pence in my pocket, stretch across the night.

The offending cow

Later, I lock myself into the field with the cow and calf by tying the gate shut with the binder twine left for the purpose. It is six in the morning when I am awoken with a jump as the van lurches from side to side. My friend the cow has discovered that it is the ideal height for relieving an irritating itch on her back.

James Hobbs, 1990