January in Sidmouth: a view from the shore

January in Sidmouth: a view from the shore

The sky is unmoved today.

It’s neither tempestuous nor sunny. It’s not oppressive but it doesn’t quite feel clear either. The clouds seem undecided, on the fence.

They break here and there for shafts of sunlight and out on the southern horizon squalls play with shipping.

There is little wind, certainly not enough to disturb the Channel as it laps into this bay. But enough to make my eyes water as I walk along the coast path towards the town.

It’s a good entrance, a good hill. From up here the town looks almost absurdly quaint, an impression which only turns out to be truer the further I venture.

Local exploration

I’ve been roaming recently. Never far.

The thing is, when you go far, you miss the near. You miss what’s right under your nose and if you do that often enough you could spend an entire lifetime ignoring the near.

So I’ve been roaming.

Which is exactly how I find myself standing on the coast path, overlooking one of the most regal seaside towns Britain has to offer.

It’s an altogether different scene from the thatched cottages and low houses of Dittisham further west and an entirely different atmosphere from the seaside town I was born in a hundred miles east – Lymington.

I meander downwards and reach a garden yearning to be subtropical. It’s January and the tree ferns appear to be wearing jumpers. That’s the funny thing about Devon and Cornwall, they’re only subtropical in the summer.

The gardens have caught me by surprise, jutting out on the cliff edge and seductive in their dual-personality of formal and subtropical. There are probably more benches here than in Hyde Park, many under the cover of classic English canopies and so charming they almost seem better than the view.

It’s quiet too, with only the birds chattering merrily away. There are no people here – it’s far enough from the shops and cafes to be classed as a Trip, not to mention that it’s the middle of January and 2pm.

It reminds me, very faintly, of Port Meirion. Something about it’s aged elegance and twisting paths.

I feel, just for a fleeting moment, that there is something else here. An eeriness.

I continue on down the hill and it’s refreshing that this is not a busy working town. It lacks the continuous traffic, the genericism of so many English towns.

It might be because 40% of its population is over 65, or that it has no industry to speak of but cafes and shops that sell objects of the blue and white variety so endemic to seaside towns – but whatever the reason, there’s a pervasive sense of calm.

I glance up a drive to check for cars and literally stop in my tracks. Giant clifftop buildings are not my usual bag, unless particularly isolated or particularly creepy, but this is something else entirely.

It’s monstrous in a way that just doesn’t get built anymore. But it’s beautiful in an ugly way, – so certain, so of its time. Vaguely reminiscent of The¬†Shining. I can imagine its decor, kitsch and horribly opulent, although I don’t know whether that’s true.

(Later, I look at the photographs on their website and still can’t decide. That’s the problem with hotels, they’re often much more interesting on the outside than the inside. Too often a hotel room is a hotel room is a hotel room.)

As I reach the promenade a coach pulls up and a hundred-odd tourists are deposited on the exposed concrete. A January coach tour.

Paint peels along the railings and the faded glory of the Regency architecture along the front reminds me of Brighton. It’s kept its gentle charm though and nowhere can I really find the signs of impoverished modernity.

Even the narrow winding high street shirks shops often abundant on the Death of the High Street commentaries. Instead it’s filled with semi-maritime clothing shops that always seem to end in ‘& Co’ or at the very lease should.

It’s the sort of place where you’d be hard pushed to find a kebab shop. Which is sort of astounding when you think about it.

Like most seaside towns, it’s pleasantly rusty. It’s the mark of a true salt atmosphere, the unstoppable spread of rust marks down paint work. You could spruce it up, paint over them, but they’d always come back and, to be honest, I welcome them.

The town is sat at the mouth of a river and flanked by vast red sandstone cliffs on either side. I always find cliffs interesting. Places where you can place your hand against rock approaching – relatively speaking – its 300 millionth birthday.

There’s no reason to come here other than for the town itself. There is no passing through, no quick stop off on longer trips. It doesn’t receive glancing traffic like Lyme Regis to the east. It is alone and perhaps so pleasant because of it.

It’s only when I’m stood against the railings and looking out to sea that it suddenly clicks. This is Lyme Bay.

This realisation feels much stranger than it ought to. But seeing the sea from the land is such an entirely different experience than being out there, beyond the horizon.

I’ve floundered in Lyme Bay before, with no land in sight. I’ve sat through fog, I’ve bemusedly been present when the boat has followed the wind around in a circle and eventually turned the engine on to make any kind of progress.

Lyme Bay is, essentially, the Bermuda Triangle of the Channel. It’s vast and holds little in the way of tenable ports. Its weather has a mind of its own and is almost entirely unpredictable. It’s a strange place where you feel comforted by the land and yet morbidly exposed.

Because of this, the goal is usually to deal with the minor stress of Portland and head directly across to Dartmouth.

When sailing, I always thought of land in terms of safe harbours, safe anchorages. The towns that offered neither of these failed to register with me at all for the most part.

And so to see Lyme Bay from its midpoint town is almost disorientating. And this is an exaggeration, but it’s like only ever having looked at a building from the outside and finally going in and looking out the window to discover a whole new reality.

The macro, the micro and everything in between.

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