It’s a quarter of a century in 2005 since 1980 when John Fowles’ novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ became a film starring Meryl Streep, putting the Cobb at Lyme Regis onto cinema screens around the world.
I was eight in 1969 when I first remember going to Lyme Regis. It was a wet day in August, (there seem to have been a lot of wet days in my memory), an uncle and aunt took me out for the day. Wrapped up against the wind and the rain we walked the Cobb and visited the aquarium and sat in the car park and ate Cornish pasties. Lyme Regis was always a place apart when I was young. It was only an evening’s drive from our house, but to me it was a different world.
Visits to Lyme were confined to day trips until 1971, our first family holiday. We rented a caravan for the week, it cost us £15. I don’t remember really doing very much during that holiday. There were lots of walks down around the harbour; watching the solitary trawler coming in each evening (was she called ‘Barbarella’, or is that a fanciful piece of imagination?); and I read a book called ‘The Otterbury Incident’. Thirty years later I tried to interest my son in the same book, he looked at it with disdain, it hadn’t the sophistication of our contemporary writers.
I was almost a teenager in September 1973 when we moved upmarket and rented a chalet close to the bowling green for a week. It was £20, a big hike from the £15 paid for a caravan. It had full en suite facilities and was much closer to the town. I remember the precise location because we had a dog that was unruly in its behaviour, which was fine at home, but it escaped from our clutches and did a few circuits of the snooker table-like surface of the bowling green before being recaptured. Memories of that week remain vivid. James Bond’s ‘Live and Let Die’ was on at the cinema – I still think of Lyme Regis when I see the scene with the double decker bus going under the low bridge. The pocket money ran to a couple of trips out on the mackerel boats, trolling for whatever one could catch with hand lines. Was it 25p for a 45 minute trip in those days? Most of the holiday was spent doing simple things. I fished with a friend in the harbour, using limpets on lines to catch crabs that we threw back into the water and casting spinners into deeper water in the hope of something bigger. I was allowed to go to the amusement arcade each day, but only as long as my pennies lasted. There was a horse racing game in the arcade on which you could bet pennies; it was mechanical and not very sophisticated, even a young boy could work out how often particular horses won and prolong his stay in the arcade until mid-morning. There was even a moment that I have never had a chance to repeat anywhere of playing a few ends of bowls at the green. The man in charge closely inspected our shoes to ensure that our rubber soled basketball boots would have no detrimental effect upon his turf.
Lyme Regis was a special place for me, but it would never have impressed school friends who went off to much more exotic destinations. It held a place in my heart because it went with days when memories and impressions and life itself was much more vivid. It remained somewhere I wouldn’t have mentioned much, if it were not for one cinematic scene a quarter of a century ago.
Meryl Streep, cloaked in black, at the end of the Cobb, lent an aura of sophistication to a place I would otherwise have described as a quaint seaside town. In one shot, I was able to rewrite my memories. No longer would I sit in silence when others described their holiday memories, now it was “We used to go to Lyme Regis. You know the place? “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”?.
It’s 25 years since Meryl stood at the end of the wall and gave my memories a sophisticated air. I have lived in Ireland for 22 of those years, the last six of them in Dublin, where there are literary figures at the turn of every corner – Joyce and Beckett and Yeats and Heaney, a list that goes on and on. ‘Are you fond of literature?’ ‘Oh yes’, I say, ‘we used to holiday in Lyme Regis’.