JANE AUSTEN’S ENGLAND (D)


Here is the fourth, in a series of essays about places in England associated with the life of Jane Austen. It is about a collection of places visited personally, with Jane Austen clearly in mind, but not a comprehensive gazeteer.

D. COASTAL SCENES

(i) Sea Drinking and Sea Bathing

Sea bathing, as part of a holiday, either at home or abroad, is a familiar experience for all of us. Consequently, it is difficult for modern minds to imagine a time when it was a new and rather wild idea, hedged around with all kinds of restrictions, both social and practical. What should one wear in the sea? How was one to undress, and change into a bathing dress? Should one learn to swim?

The idea of drinking fresh natural mineral waters for health, developed in the late 17C, and became very popular in the 18C, at fashionable places like Spa (Belgium) Baden-Baden (Germany) and Bath or Cheltenham (Britain). This enthusiasm for “taking the waters” was extended to drinking sea-water, particularly when, in 1753, “Dr. Charles Russell published ‘The Uses of Sea Water’, which recommended the use of sea water for healing various diseases, and William Buchan wrote his 1769 book, ‘Domestic Medicine’ advocating the practice.

Sea bathing and sea water were advocated with winter considered to be the best time to follow the practice.” (Ref A)


The contemporary print of sea bathers (2) shows a “bathing machine”, which was a wheeled hut or changing room, and locker for depositing ordinary clothes. It could be drawn up or down the beach, by a horse, as the tide moved. The presence of these machines suggests a well-organised local hire company, profiting from the custom provided by bathers. The commercial sailing craft, one sailing the French tricolour, so close to the bathers, constitutes a risk, but this may well be artistic licence, to make the scene more interesting. This print dates from the time that Jane Austen left her childhood home in the village of Steventon.

(ii) The Austen family holidays

As Maggie Lane explains, “When, in the closing months of the eighteenth century, Mr and Mrs Austen made their decision to retire to Bath, an intrinsic part of the plan was that they should escape from the heat of the city every summer by taking a seaside holiday. It was, indeed, this element that consoled Jane for all the rest.

‘The prospect of spending future summers by the sea or in Wales is very delightful’, she wrote in anticipation.

The family never did venture into Wales, but for the next few years, until they were living on the coast themselves at Southampton, they spent several weeks every summer in one of the newly fashionable West Country resorts.” (Ref B)


Doctors recommended the coast ‘from Weymouth to Sidmouth (3), from Sidmouth to Exmouth (3), and so on to Dawlish (1) and Teignmouth.’ “The Austens were to visit most of these resorts in the early years of the nineteenth century. As had been the case with the inland spas, the quest for health was the ostensible motive for visiting them, though the quest for pleasure and fresh experience was not far behind.” (Ref B)



(iii) Medicalisation of Seaside Holidays

Modern readers are, of course, accustomed to take their holidays by the sea in July and August, while entering the water in the middle of the day. It comes as a surprise to learn that these historically early sea bathers expected to visit the seaside in winter time, and go bathing in the early morning.

As Maggie Lane explains, “Sea-bathing was considered to be particularly efficacious if undertaken in cold weather and early in the morning, when the pores were supposed to be closed. Accordingly, the first seaside holidays were often taken at unseasonable times of the year.

Fanny Burney described such a visit to Brighton in November 1782.
‘We rose at six o’clock in the morn and by the pale blink o’ the moon went to the seaside where we had bespoken the bathing-woman to be ready for us, and into the ocean we plunged. It was cold but pleasant. I have bathed so often as to lose my dread of the operation ‘


Even more horrific was the case of Jane’s own cousin, Eliza, who spent January and February 1791 at Margate for the sake of her sickly little son. A doctor had assured her that ‘one month’s bathing at this time of year was more efficacious than six at any other…’ The sea has strengthened him wonderfully and I think has likewise been of great service to myself.” (Ref B)

(iv) Dawlish

It is something of a surprise to learn that Mr and Mrs Austen had been actively considering retirement to the coastal town of Dawlish in Devon, referred to by Jane as, “the Dawlish scheme”. This would have been far more to Jane’s taste than the hateful removal to Bath. It is remarkable that “the Dawlish scheme” was still under discussion as late as November 1800, and yet when Jane and her sister returned from their visits to relatives, one month later, the irrevocable decision to remove to Bath had been made by their parents.

The Austen family left Bath in 1802, for a summer holiday in Dawlish, famous for its red sandstone cliffs (1). By the mid nineteenth century, Dawlish had become much more accessible, because the Great Western Railway had built a line along the south Devon coast, and Dawlish station opened in 1846. The view of the red cliffs, and the blue sea, became an archetypal image for summer holidays to the West of England (7). It became known later as “The Cornish Riviera Express”. This means that the small Devon village, that Jane Austen knew, has changed over the intervening 200 years by development. Small hotels, guest houses, and later retirement homes and holiday cottages have created a population explosion.


In Jane Austen’s time, Dawlish Warren was no more than a village, near the small town of Dawlish. Now it has its own station and has grown in size by the addition of a great number of holiday lets. The word “warren” is Norman-French, and meant originally an enclosure, in which rabbits were allowed to run freely, until they were caught for the table. There are still rabbits at Dawlish Warren, but they now live on a National Nature Reserve (8). Jane Austen, as a country girl, would surely have approved of this.


Before leaving Dawlish, there is one building there which may have appealed to Jane’s sense of humour, and that is Luscombe Castle (9). This is now what we would call a “folly”, a fake medieval building, built to add charm to an otherwise ordinary estate. It was typical of wealthy tastes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Maggie Lane, (Ref B) devotes her Introduction to discussing the idea of “improvements” and attempts, by landowners, to create “picturesque” elements in their estates.


The wealthy banker, Charles Hoare, commissioned the architect, John Nash, to design and build a “Gothic style” mansion for him, on his Devon estate at Dawlish. Luscombe Castle was built between 1800 and 1801, just in time for the visit by Jane Austen, and her parents, to the town of Dawlish, in the summer of 1802.

This fashionable pre-occupation with the “picturesque”, and particularly the “Gothic”, is easily mocked, and Jane’s, Northanger Abbey, written between 1798 and 1799 satirised the “Gothic novel” in particular, through the naive eyes of young Catherine Morland. Although Jane’s subject was the Gothic novel, it was inevitably bound up with the Gothic in architecture, both the genuine, and also the fake. Did Jane smile to herself, when she saw Luscombe Castle in 1802, on her visit to Dawlish?


We may all be thankful that Luscombe Castle, despite its pretentions to medieval antiquity, has survived to the present day, and is now a venerable example of a style no longer quite so fashionable. It is, however, a beautiful building, and was listed as Grade 1 in 1987, so it is preserved from significant alteration or demolition. During WW2 it was requisitioned as a girls’ school, but was returned to the Hoare family in 1948. A full account of the house and its extensive gardens is given in Reference D.


(v) Lyme Regis, Dorset

Perhaps Jane Austen’s favourite West Country seaside town was Lyme Regis (11) in Dorset, in the opinion of Maggie Lane (Ref B). This lay further to the east of the Devon resorts (see map, 5), and we know that Jane was there, with her parents, in the summer and autumn of 1803.

Maggie explains, “Her affectionate and durable feelings for Lyme were to find expression, some thirteen years later, in the pages of Persuasion, and particularly in the passage in which she allows herself, uncharacteristically, to stray away from her characters,” to describe the topography and landscapes of Lyme. “There is nothing else like this in the whole of Jane Austen’s writing: nothing so indulgent, so irrelevant to the characters, so free of irony or reservation, so detailed and descriptive — so didactic, even. It is proof of the remarkable effect which Lyme in particular, and the sea in general, wrought upon her.” (page 95, Ref B)


Maggie Lane quotes the relevant passage from Persuasion, a little of which is given here. “…the principal street almost hurrying into the water, the walk to the Cobb, (11) skirting round the pleasant little bay, the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs (12) stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger’s eye will seek…who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.


The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country (13), and still more its sweet retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the cheerful village of Up Lyme, and above all, Pinny (14), with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited: these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood.’


In the opinion of Maggie Lane, “It was evidently the ‘romantic’ and ‘wonderful’ stretches of the untamed coastline that appealed to her; once a fishing village had become so fashionable, crowded and built-up that it was just another social centre she regarded it with as much distaste as she did Bath. Weymouth, a few miles from Lyme, came into this category; as we have seen, it had been one of the first resorts to become popular, and it was still patronised by royalty (15) in Jane Austen’s time.” (Ref B)


Having amply demonstrated that Jane Austen placed Lyme Regis above all other West Country coastal towns, Maggie Lane goes on to suggest a romantic reason for this enthusiasm, “It may have been that, for a period that was all too brief, she saw the landscape of the West Country through the eyes of someone in love. She is believed to have met a young man, who gained and returned her affection, and who was, even in her sister Cassandra’s fastidious opinion, worthy of exciting it. They arranged to meet again, but shortly afterwards he died.” (Pages 98-99, Ref B


Despite modern package holiday flights to Mediterranean coasts, Lyme Regis is still a popular holiday resort, and a pleasant little town. The beaches and cliffs towards Charmouth are full of fossils, and it is a Mecca for collectors. Following the success of the film, “Jurassic Park”, the whole Dorset region has been skillfully marketed as “The Jurassic Coast”. Jane Austen enthusiasts still go there to savour its charm, together with walks into the surrounding countryside for picnics, just like their forbears did in the Regency Period.

SERIES TO BE CONTINUED

REFERENCES

A. “Sea bathing”, (Wikipedia article)

B. “Jane Austen’s England”, by Maggie Lane, Robert Hale Ltd, 1986

C. “Colourful Britain” by A N Court, Jarrold, Norwich

D. “Luscombe Castle” (Wikipedia article)

ILLUSTRATIONS

1. Cliffs of Old Red Sandstone, Dawlish Warren, Devon (Google images)

2. “Bathing Place in Cardigan Bay, near Aberystwyth”, a print from c. 1800 (Ref A)

3. Two popular resorts on the Devon coast, Sidmouth, top and Exmouth, below (Google images)

4. Oddicombe Beach, near Torquay, Devon (Ref C)

5. The South and West Coast of England noting places associated with Jane Austen (Author)

6. Sea bathing at Brighton, during the Regency Period (Google images)

7. Great Western Railway poster encouraging tourist travel to the West Country (Google images)

8. A beautiful 1930s railway poster, from long before the Warren became a Nature Reserve (Google images)

9. Luscombe Castle, in 1815, as illustrated by a contemporary print (Ref B)

10. Luscombe Castle, near Dawlish, Devon (Ref D)

11. “The Cobb” or sea wall at Lyme Regis, in calm weather – a photograph by Adrian Oakes

12. The vertical cliffs and rocky beach to the east of Lyme Bay (Lee Pilkington Photography)

13. The “sweeps of country” seen from Charmouth village in Dorset today (Wikipedia article)

14. The view to Pinny Piddock, Dorset (Google images)

15. A modern re-creation of King George III in Weymouth, Dorset (Google images)

16. The Marine Parade in modern Lyme, note the Ammonite-shaped lamp-posts (Google images)

SERIES SUMMARY

CODE

MAIN SUBJECT

OTHER THEMES

A Hampshire Childhood Introduction-Reminders of the Past
B Kent Country Houses “Improvements”, and Garden Design
C City Elegance History of Bath, Neo-Classical Architecture
D Coastal Scenes Sea Drinking and Sea Bathing
E The Bristol Avon
F The Warwickshire Avon and the Cotswolds Adlestrop
G Return to Hampshire Portsmouth Point
H Winchester Days Medicine in the Early Nineteenth Century
I Locations “Sense and Sensibility” The Regency Period
J Locations –”Pride and Prejudice” The Picturesque
K Locations – “Mansfield Park” and “Emma” The Ha-Ha Boundary, “Lovers’ Vows” play
L Locations-“Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” The Gothic Novel, Irish History
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