West Bay, Dorset

After a warm, dry, sunny and unseasonable first 2 weeks of September this year, of course as we went away for a few days recently Autumn arrived with a passion. Torrential, heavy downpours of rain accompanied by strong almost gale force winds hit as soon as we had set up the caravan. I suppose I should be grateful that it held off until I had set everything outside. What else can you do on such an afternoon? Well it has to be the seaside of course. West Bay is just down the road from where Aunty and I were staying, and it was on her list of places to visit, being one of the main backdrops to the hit drama series Broadchurch. The end of September is really the closing end of the tourist season here in the UK, but we are both hardy and intrepid individuals, and so a little rain and wind wasn’t going to stop us.

East Beach

West Bay has also been known as Bridport Harbour, giving a hint to it’s development and use. There has been a harbour in the area for some time, with records indicating that in 1388 a local merchant, John Huderesfeld, started building a new harbour and levied a toll on goods loaded and unloaded. By 1395 trade had grown tough to warrant the need for a full time customs officer. However, 50 years later winter storms and the outbreak of the Black Death severely damaged trade and the harbour structure. A new harbour was built in 1444 under the patronage of the Bishop of Sarum, and trade was reestablished. 

The main purpose of Bridport down the centuries was to provide the trading route for Bridport which grew as an important centre for the production of rope, twine, netting and sailcloth, originally from flax and hemp. The earliest documentary evidence of the industry, referenced in numerous publications, is a record of payment for a large quantity of sails and cordage in 1211, which was followed by an order from King John for Bridport rope and cloth to supply the navy in 1213. The large size and prestigious nature of this order suggests that a well-known rope and sailcloth industry was already established in the area before the early 13th century.

Waiting for the boat to come in.

Trade through the harbour continued only as long as the Bridport textile industry. For eight centuries Bridport’s industrial community has earned the town an international reputation for the quality of its products. By the 18th century the industry employed a high proportion of the local population, often providing work for men, women and children from the same family. Bridport Harbour was still used by commercial shipping in the 1890s, although its relevance to the flax and hemp trade was by then in decline. Since then its relevance to trade has declined, and is now only a shadow of its formal self. The vast majority of the boat now moored are leisure craft, though the are still a few small fishing boats and trawlers using it as a base.

West Bay sits in the centre of the Jurassic Coast, World Heritage Site, one of the most visited and studied coastlines in the world. The rocks exposed along the 95 miles of coastline date from the the beginning of the Triassic all the way through the Jurassic and up to the end of the Cretaceous, spanning the entire Mesozoic era with amazingly well preserved fossils. I’ve been promised the opportunity to visit a few fossil shops while we are here. The cliffs on East Beach provide a spectacular backdrop to the shingle beach which forms the most westerly end of Chesil Beach. This is a fascinating barrier beach which continues east for 18 miles towards the Isle of Portland. A barrier beach is defined as a sand ridge that rises slightly above the surface of the sea and runs roughly parallel to the shore, from which it is separated by a lagoon. This kind of feature is formed by longshore drift. 

The beaches here on the South Coast of England are a very different character to those we visited in this blog in Wales, where the sand is often replaced by expanses of pebbles. But they are no less interesting for that and present a different opportunity for exploration.

28 September 2019

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