Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Lyme Regis, Dorset
Finding myself in Lyme Regis recently, I decided to try to find Belmont, a house that was familiar to me as the home first of Eleanor Coade, manufacturer of Coade Stone (a successful artificial material used widely for casting architectural ornaments and statues) and later of the novelist John Fowles, author of such major works as The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman. I found the house easily enough, but when I got there I found that the Landmark Trust, who have owned the building for the past few years, had the builders in, making it difficult to photograph it and preventing access.
Looking at the entrance front, Belmont is a detached house built some time before 1784 with a symmetrical classical front. What is outstanding about this front is the decoration. The blocks and keystones around the door and windows, the horizontal band running across at first floor level, and the frieze are all made of Eleanor Coade's artificial stone. The heads of Neptune and Amphitrite in the keystones and the decorative horizontal band are quite delicately detailed; the blocks around the windows are mostly formed to give a rough surface effect usually known as vermiculation. A few of these (the impost blocks) bear reliefs of sea creatures, reminding us that this is a house near the sea – a maritime villa in the language of the 18th century. Around the back are later additions, including an observatory tower, presumably giving the inhabitants stunning views from this already elevated site (the house is not called Belmont for nothing) over the sea.
As part of their restoration, the Landmark Trust have received permission to demolish the later additions at the back of the house, returning the building to its 18th-century form and preserving the observatory as a free-standing tower. There will be a permanent exhibition about the history of the house and its owners in the stables, while the main building will be conserved and let for holidays like the rest of the Landmark Trust's impressive collection of historic properties. Belmont will therefore get back some of its integrity as a Georgian villa, while losing a slice of its history. This plan has proved controversial, but there's a decision here that has to be made by many people working on old buildings. The media talk airily of bring a building 'back to its former glory', but this phrase begs the question, 'Which former glory?' The gem of a villa lived in by Mrs Coade? The rambling 19th century house of residents such as Dr Bangay, who lived in the house in the 1880s and 1890s? Or the much loved home of John Fowles? And how can one best address the issues of how the building will be used while repairing and conserving the fabric?
The changes to the house, planned after much research, have gone through the planning process but the campaign for funding is still ongoing. The Landmark Trust website contains information on the history of the house and the Trust's appeal for funds; an article here outlines some of the controversy surrounding the project; another article describes proposals to incorporate a centre for young writers into the building, though it's not clear how this squares with the Trust's stated aim for holiday accommodation and a museum. Meanwhile, as discussions continue and passers-by like me stand at the gate and squint at the ornate front of Belmont, the fundraising continues.