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The History of Lyme Regis

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The history of Lyme Regis can be traced back to a gift of land made in 774AD by Cynewulf, King of Wessex, to the Abbott of Sherborne . The land was at the mouth of the River Lynn and was used by the monks to pan salt from the waters. Lyme formed art of the Diocese of Sherborne until 1075 when the Bishop’s seat moved to Old Sarum. Although this is the earliest known written reference; many believe that the town actually predates this story. According to some writers, the town is essentially the same town as the Romans called Lym Supra Mare; which took its name (as does Lyme Regis) from the River Lym. The remains of a Roman Villa have been found at the nearby village of Harcombe. The habitation of this area dates back even beyond the Romans, however, as the Iron Age forts of nearby Pilsdon Pen, Lambert’s Castle, Blackberry Castle and Coney Castle will testify.

Lyme is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, but little is known of the town around that time. The land appears to have been inhabited by some rather different creatures long before the humans came. Many dinosaur fossils have been found in the area, representing a large number of different species. The world’s largest fossil of a moth was found at Lyme Regis. Palaeontologist Mary Anning (1799-1847) found many of the more notable and famous specimens; she is buried at St Michael’s Church in Lyme Regis and her birthplace is now the site of a museum dedicated to her.

Lyme was granted a royal charter in the late 13th century by King Edward I ; which added Regis to the town’s name. This charter was later to be confirmed by Queen Elizabeth I , in the 16th century. In 1644, the town was caught up in the Civil War ; when Cromwell ’s supporters held out for some eight weeks when besieged by the King’s men. Later that century, in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis for the start of the Monmouth Rebellion .

One of Lyme Regis’s best known features is The Cobb, a man made harbour wall that is an important feature in at least one famous novel, Jane Austen ’s ‘Persuasion’. It was also used in the film version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman . Indeed the image of Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons together on The Cobb is probably the iconic image of the film in most people’s minds. The earliest mention of The Cobb dates back to a document from 1328, which mentions damage to The Cobb from a storm. The structure was made from oak piles which had been driven into the seabed. Boulders were then placed in between the oak piles by floating them out between barrels. The original structure was damaged and even destroyed on several occasions prior to the reconstruction using Portland Stone in 1820. The Cobb was a vital part of the successful growth of the town. The harbour created allowed Lyme to develop as both a port of some significance and a major shipbuilding centre. The shipbuilding industry continued to grow over the following centuries to the extent that between 1780 and 1850, some 100 ships were launched from its shipyards; including the impressive HMS Snap, a 12-gun Royal Navy brig.

The town’s greatest period of prosperity came from its growth as a port and shipyard; occurring between about 1500 and 1800. In 1780 the port was still bigger than Liverpool. At around this time, however, ship sizes began to increase. Lyme Regis was unable to cope with this and its prosperity began to wane.

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