Weymouth has a glorious setting, occupying the low lying coastal plain below the ancient trackway known as the Ridgeway, which crosses the top of the chalk hills from White Horse Hill in the east, to Abbotsbury Hill in the west. It has a sheltered, sandy beach and is reputed to be one of the sunniest places in Britain. Either side of the town is “The Jurassic Coast”, recognised as a World Heritage site. From east Devon to the Purbeck Hills, it presents a continuous geological record of past environments and earth’s ancient history between 251 and 66 million years ago.
I was a child when I first visited Weymouth and have been many times since. Recently, I stayed with a lovely couple, who provide excellent bed and breakfast accommodation. Their house, “Crestcombe” is close to the beach at Preston. Weymouth beach has a long history of attracting holidaymakers. It is a long sweep of sand which faces south-east, catching the morning sun and looking out to the green topped white cliffs of South Dorset, to Osmington and beyond. It is said that the first bathing machine (a device which was wheeled into the water to avoid the swimmer being seen in an undressed state) was used here in 1763. This continued for over one hundred years. Until the 1914-1918 war, undressing in public was frowned upon and even children were clothed head to foot on the beach. King George III decided to try sea bathing and its health giving properties and to try out the new bathing machine invention. He enjoyed the experience so much that he had fourteen lengthy holidays in Weymouth between 1789 and 1805. A guide to Weymouth in 1797 extols the qualities of sea bathing. ‘Perfect repose of body, and serenity of mind, are equally suited to the use of this great remedy’.
The royal patronage created a need for accommodation to be provided for the affluent visitors. A building frenzy commenced, but fortunately, the architects were far-sighted and we are able to enjoy the long, grand Georgian terraces and one of England’s finest classic esplanades. The Esplanade was largely completed by 1855 and consisted originally of fashionable private houses, which were converted mostly into hotels for a new generation of tourists when the railway arrived in 1857.
King George III is commemorated in Weymouth by an imposing statue on a massive Portland stone plinth, guarded by a golden lion and white unicorn. On White Horse Hill, between Sutton Poyntz and Osmington, an enormous figure of King George III riding his favourite grey charger, was cut in the turf in 1808.
The Victorians arriving at the railway station, which is unusually very close to the beach, were greeted by The Jubilee Clock, which was erected in 1888, a year after Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It has become a popular symbol of Weymouth.
On the promenade can be seen other traditional Victorian seaside features – beautifully designed cast-iron shelters and public gardens, the Alexandra and Greenhill Gardens. Traditional beach entertainment, apart from the sheer joy of playing on warm, soft, clean sand, is still provided by the Punch and Judy man, swing-boats, beach fun-fair and Weymouth’s renowned sand sculptures.
Since Victorian times, Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour have been recognised as providing some of the best natural sailing waters in the country. It is not surprising that this location has been chosen as the venue for the London 2012 Olympic Games sailing events and also the Paralympics Sailing Competitions. The on-shore facilities at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy and the adjoining marina, are world class and were completed by the end of November 2008 and amazingly, within the £15 million budget.
Weymouth Harbour is still used commercially and fishing is a vital industry, but leisure boating now predominates. Weymouth Marina is one of the most sheltered marinas on the south coast of England, with thousands of moorings. The fast Condor hydrofoil ferries provide a quick service to the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey.
During the Second World War, thousands of allied troops left Weymouth and Portland for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. In 1947, an eternal lamp was erected on top of a column situated opposite the Royal Hotel, in memory of the American servicemen killed in battle.
The harbour is picturesque, particularly along Nothe Parade, which leads past the lifeboat station to Nothe Gardens and Nothe Fort. Nothe Fort was built over twelve years from 1860, on the steep sided rock promontory, to defend the newly created Portland Harbour and its approaches. It contains seventy rooms on three levels. Heavy guns were mounted above and within its ramparts. It is now open to the public and attracts over 60,000 visitors every year.