Friday, January 8, 2021

Lyme Regis, Dorset

Summer days, 1 

As the sleet came down in late December, I found myself looking through my files of photographs and came across a number taken near the English coast when the sun was out and the sky was blue. In one way it was good to look at images of summer days at a rather bleak moment, though in these times of confinement it’s not easy to imagine being able to jump in the car and decide, spontaneously, to head to the coat and visit somewhere like Lyme Regis. Looking at the photograph above, though, also reminded me how the houses in so many coastal places have a recognisable ‘seaside look’. What does it mean to say this, and how is it expressed, architecturally? It’s a combination of things, not all present in the picture, not all constant, for seaside houses as much as the homes in an inland town are built for different people with different needs, priorities, and budgets. But a few features of these Lyme houses can point the way to an answer. 

One thing is colour. A lot of seaside houses are finished in stucco or other render that’s painted, either white or in pastel shades. Here there are pale pink, green, and blue houses, along with the ubiquitous white. There might be several reasons for this. A lot of seaside houses were built in the 18th and, especially, 19th centuries as stays beside the sea became fashionable, first for the leisured classes, then for poorer people. Sometimes these houses were built quickly, and stucco was a way of hiding rough masonry beneath a civilised surface. This sort of finish was anyway popular in the late-Georgian and Regency periods, when many such houses were built. Lyme developed as a spa in the 18th century and was still popular when Jane Austen visited in 1804. A lot of Lyme still has a late-Georgian or Regency feel to it and these houses reflect that. As well as walls with a pale finish they have another typical seaside feature: bow windows. These curvaceous windows were very much a Regency fashion – there are lots of them in the Prince Regent’s favourite town, Brighton. They’re used at the seaside because they let in lots of light and offer good views. I think there’s also a ventilation benefit. If you want some air, but there’s a stiff breeze blowing, some part of a bow window may well be out of the line of the wind, so you can get some ventilation without having all your papers blown off the table – most advantageous to writers, as I have found.*  

So far, so practical. But it may simply be that the reason for these features, along with such elements as the fancy ironwork around the porches and the elegant fanlights with their nicely curving dripstones, is that they look good, and look good in a celebratory way. They’re meant, I think, to make you smile, to lift the spirits. This is informal beauty, too. The houses make a virtue of being asymmetrical – it doesn’t matter that they’re not the matching, carefully proportioned Georgian boxes or terraces that you might see in the ‘best’ streets in London or Bath. Again asymmetry was popular in the Regency period more general, but add all these features together and I don’t think it’s fanciful to see this as relaxed, kick-your-shoes off architecture, where sitting outside on the pavement in front of your house is acceptable, and where you won’t be scorned if you’re engaged in the idle enjoyment of summer days. 

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* Of course, you might be a ship-owner and have more than a passing interest in the vessels in the bay; a good view is useful for you too.

1 comment:

Hels said...

The easily recognised seaside-look was gorgeous, along the southern coast or even in other countries. White stucco, with or without contrasting colours on the doors etc, still look fresh and coastal today. And the bow windows, as you say, are as popular today as they were to late Georgian builders.

Making a virtue of being asymmetrical was an interesting decision, especially in casual, beachy sites. I will have to think about it :)

Have a happy, healthy 2021!