A Walk On The Sands

A Weymouth Weekend: 18-19 June 1994,

by Chris Gostick

(from The Powys Society Newsletter No 23, November 1994)


I first visited Weymouth in 1963, 8 month or so after JCP’s death and, just like all the Powyses, immediately fell in love with it. Largely as a result, Weymouth Sands was also the first Powys novel that I read and, despite all literary criticism to the contrary, it remains my undisputed favourite. I know this is an unfashionable view, but Weymouth itself is a pretty unfashionable town, which is a large part of its essential charm. I was therefore thrilled with John Batten’s suggestion of a Weymouth Weekend, and disappointed when the original date had to be postponed. But this delay turned out to our advantage, as we were eventually blessed with two hot and sunny days, ideal for a traditional seaside weekend.

So, on a sunny afternoon in June, three dozen or so members of the Society met by the famously ornate Victorian clock tower at the centre of The Esplanade. This was a good deal more than I had anticipated and I arrived somewhat apprehensively for, although a member of the Society for the past five years or more, I have been very much a sleeping member and this was my first public Powysian event. I needn’t have worried. People couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming and it quickly felt as though we had all known each other for years. And what a mixed group we were, distinguished only by the piles of books we all seemed to be clutching. Modesty requires that the eldest among us remain anonymous, but Kit Freiesleben deserves special praise, not only for being the youngest but for celebrating his first birthday that weekend. The rest of us were somewhere in between. We had our celebrities too: Isobel Powys Marks turned out to see us off and welcome us home on both days, whilst Stephen Powys Marks, his sister Antonia Young and her husband Nigel and Theodora Scutt accompanied us throughout, together with other senior members of the Society.

John Batten, our tireless Secretary, had organised everything meticulously, and we were all provided with maps and other relevant hand-outs. Weymouth may be unfashionable, but it is certainly not unpopular and the town, sands and esplanade were packed with enthusiastic holiday-makers enjoying the first really hot weekend of the summer. They were all somewhat surprised (but far too polite to comment) as we clustered around the clock tower for the first reading from JCP’s diary about the background to and early writing of Weymouth Sands, by Morine Krissdottir. Herbert Williams then read of the meeting between Perdita Wane and the Jobber in Chapter Two, so setting the scene and introducing two of the most important characters.

We then moved off along The Esplanade to the famous line of tall Victorian houses which is Brunswick Terrace. This marks the end of the long curve of sandy beach and the beginning of‘the shelving bank of pebbles’, where ‘the water grew so quickly deep, that the fishermen draw in their nets’. Alas, there are no fishing boats on Weymouth beach these days, nor any sign of the red post that made such an impression on the young Llewelyn. But Penn House itself is still there, next to last of the long terrace and now a bed and breakfast hotel, where a select group of us were lucky enough to be spending the night. The interior has inevitably changed from the dim Victorian gloom remembered so vividly by both JCP and Llewelyn from when their grandmother, Amelia Powys, lived there in the 1880s. But the magnificent view across Weymouth Bay, from White Nothe in the east to Portland in the west, hasn’t changed at all, and one can well imagine the ecstasy of the fifteen-year-old JCP, faced by this same view from this very window ‘morning after morning, as I saw the sun glinting on the sea’.

Our group was beginning to straggle by now as we all found something to feed our own recollections of the books, but John soon had us mustered again opposite the tall, imposing building that formed the model for High House (turret and all), and the home of that famous clown Jerry Cobbold: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Cobbold have the top with all the attics. ’Tis a fine view from the top ... clear acrost the bay’, as one of the customs officers on Weymouth Pier confided to Perdita Wane as she landed from the Channel Island ferry.

But we were already moving on, this time to the grounds of St John’s Church at the rear of Brunswick Terrace, with the bronze statue of a grim Queen Victoria at the gate, where a church fête was in full swing. Then we retraced our steps along The Esplanade to join the thickest of the holiday crowd on the sand, like Magnus Muir, increasingly aware of the unmistakable, triumphant cackle of Mr Punch in the distance. Professor Guy Higgans’ famous Punch and Judy Show, together with the troop of patient donkeys, is still very much a part of Weymouth Sands. The show may not have changed much, and the children were clearly entranced, But there was not the faintest sign of a Punch and Judy girl, no Marret Jones or her flirtatious younger sister. By way of compensation, Guy Higgans, who continues to give regular shows throughout the summer, entertained us with some scandalous tales of old Weymouth, Punch and Judy, the pre-war music halls - and a good deal more besides.

Lawrence Freiesleben then made us all laugh by reading the story of the confrontation between the cockney policeman and that eccentric prophet Sylvanus Cobbold, worshipper of sun, sea and sky, who was so impudently ‘hobstructing of ’is Majesty’s Hesplanade!’ with his preaching. But time pressed again and we dashed off to cross the harbour by the Nothe Ferry - fewer boats than in JCP’s recollections - but we were all soon safely across in the bright sunshine and into Weymouth proper at last.

Then a wonderful wander past the cottages lining the sides of the old harbour. Impossible to discover exactly which was Jobber Skald’s lodging at Cove House, but almost any could have been the one. Now many are expensive fish restaurants, a far cry from the simple meat and pudding diet served up by Cassy Trot. Then for a quick diversion to the old Devenish Brewery, model for Dog Cattistock’s, before crowding up the steep steps of Trinity Church to hear Susie Dye read the story of how ‘Mr Cattistock’s wedding has - has been — indefinitely postponed - owing to - owing to -’. Sippy Ballard, of course, did not know the awful reason himself and so was never able to finish his sentence. But this did not matter, as his words were ‘totally swallowed up in the clamour and hullabaloo raised by the grosser elements of the crowd’.

Crossing the harbour bridge, we slowly retraced our steps through the town to The Esplanade, past the magnificent statue of George III, and so back to our starting point at the clock tower, and the end of a wonderful afternoon walk. Inevitably, it had taken longer than planned, and we were not a very disciplined group, giving John endless trouble, stopping to gaze, chatter and reflect at every available opportunity. But it was all hugely enjoyable and quite the nicest way of spending a sunny summer afternoon.

That evening eighteen or so of us gathered in a high flat at the far end of The Esplanade, close to what is now Lodmoor Park, kindly loaned to the Society by Gordon Cunliffe. Lodmoor is, sadly, reclaimed these days from its original wild marshland, but the view across the wide bay is still as magnificent as ever. Sipping wine kindly provided by Eve and John Batten, and transfixed by the view, Morine Krissdóttir read us yet more extracts from JCP’s unpublished diaries, interspersed with comment and discussion. Stephen Powys Marks then shared a whole range of unpublished letters and other documents, such as scrap-books and photograph albums from the family of Mary Cowper Powys, wife of the Revd C. F. Powys, including a diary entry relating to her first confinement and the birth of JCP on 8 October 1872.

Then it was time for the rest of us to join in, and virtually everyone had brought something interesting or amusing from their collections. Not that there was any need for anything extra; there was already far too much to enjoy and it was soon time to drain our glasses, tidy up and make our way back to Penn House for the night. In the distance the Portland light flashed with, closer at hand, the sound of waves breaking endlessly against the long curving beach. No wonder the Powys family took this place with them wherever they went.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny again, and some of us even managed a brisk walk before breakfast. Then, at ten o’clock, we re-assembled at Sandsfoot Castle, a tiny ruin now, lost amid the cliffs to the south of the town, where Captain Poxwell hoarded his collection of seashells. There was less walking and more travelling on this second day, but John quickly organised us into the minimum number of cars and then we were off again, this time to Wyke church. Morning service was in progress, so we tip-toed past to the enclosed graveyard at the rear, ‘crowded thick with the bones of wrecked men’, and the sombre memorials to the countless people who died when their vessels foundered on the Chesil Beach.

We then moved off across Fleet Bridge to Portland proper, to a bleak spot in the heart of the limestone quarries, where we walked for a mile or so along a disused railway track and up on to a high flat plateau with a strange, tall rocky outcrop, overlooking Portland harbour and the Dorset coast beyond. Despite much research, this was apparently the nearest John Batten could get to identifying Nicodemus Knob, where Perdita and the Jobber spent part of their long day together. ‘But it’s facing the wrong way!’ we all roared at once, for it was certainly not looking out over ‘the whole expanse of the West Bay, stretching off towards Cornwall and the Atlantic’, as described in the book. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is now a gloomy place, with the dark, forbidding bulk of Portland Prison to the south.

So we quickly retraced our steps and drove to the fine viewpoint of Cheyne Weares on the south-east corner of the island, where Lawrence Freiesleben and Leslie Harrison read from the sections involving the Sea Serpent’s Head Inn, where the Jobber climbed up on top of the Slug to hold the swinging signboard steady against the rising gale, so that in the sheets of lightning young Sue Gadget could see whether the serpent’s eyes really were opening, as local legend said they should. Despite the bright sunshine, it all came vividly to life.

We then drove to the very tip of the island and scrambled out onto the Bill itself, with its flat platform of solid rock ‘like some dancing floor for sea nymphs so smooth was it’. with the great open fissure in the rock that plunges down into the turbulent sea below. Here Eve Batten read wonderfully the long account of Adam Skald tightly embracing Perdita over this very spot, as in his head he imagined coming back here to throw himself into the abyss the very next day, after he had fulfilled his feverish plan to batter Dog Cattistock to death with the heavy rock he had long carried in his pocket for this purpose. Horrible.

Finally, we drove to the Cove House Inn, magnificently situated above the long curve of Chesil Beach and, despite being in the wrong place, slightly too near to the start of the beach, rather than by the village of Weston, a perfect model for the Serpent’s Head, with its great rooms and cellars of rough-hewn Portland stone. Many fine pictures of shipwrecks decorated these walls, and this was a fitting place to end our odyssey, with a pint or two of local ale and vast plates of crab and prawns for lunch. For all of us, however, Weymouth will never be quite the same again, for we now feel so much more a part of its story.

Weymouth Sands, of course, is about much more than a sleepy Dorset seaside town. Written in JCP’s last months in America, its spirit of place, the meeting between land and water, between the visible and the invisible, the known and the unknowable, provides a focus for his own personal life as he contemplates his permanent return from the New World to the Old, as well as a fulcrum on which his imagination can pivot. The sand, the sea, the harbour, the fort, the cliffs and surrounding downs, provide the vivid, familiar backdrop against which his gigantic creativity works. By appreciating the accuracy of his recreation of the town of his childhood, we also begin to recognise that its description relates increasingly to the town of his imagination, with its unrequited passions and ambiguous relationships, which in turn mirror the passions and linkages of his own life. And it is this process of constantly re-reflected duality that marks the magnitude of JCP’s achievement, and by which the novel achieves its greatness.

It was a wonderful weekend. Both perfectly relaxing and yet intellectually stimulating. Like all the best learning, it happened without you realising how it was done. Special thanks must go to John and Eve Batten for providing such effective and seemingly effortless logistical support, and to all who did the readings and set new standards in interpretation. For myself, I can’t wait for the next one! We can possibly do Dorchester and Maiden Castle in a weekend, but I shall be booking a week for Glastonbury - and probably a whole summer for wild Wales. Whichever it is, don’t miss it. See you there!