Lyme Regis is a town that has submitted to its geography rather than forced the land to submit to it. The hills into town are so steep that coaches cannot travel down them- passengers are left at the Queens Arms at Charmouth or the crossroads at Uplyme and brought down in carts. The narrow road leads down to the shore, and then quickly turns its back on the sea and heads uphill again, as if it wants merely to glimpse the waves before fleeing. The bottom, where the tiny River Lym pours into the sea, forms the square in the center of town. The Three Cups - the main inn - is there, across from the Customs House and from the Assembly Rooms that, while modest, boast three glass chandeliers and a fine bay window overlooking the shore. Houses spread out from the center, along the coast and up the river, and shops and the Shambles market stalls march up Broad Street. It is not planned, like Bath or Cheltenham or Brighton, but wriggles this way and that, as if trying to escape the hills and sea, and failing.
But that is not all there is to Lyme. It is as if there are two villages side by side, connected by a small sandy beach, where the bathing machines are lined up, awaiting an influx of visitors. The other Lyme, at the west end of the beach, doesnt shun, but embraces the sea. It is dominated by the Cobb, a long gray stone wall that curves like a finger out into the water and shelters the shore, creating a tranquil harbor for the fishing boats and the trading ships that come from all over. The Cobb is several feet high, and wide enough for three to walk along arm in arm, which many visitors do, for it gives a fine view back to the town and the dramatic shoreline beyond of rolling hills and cliffs in green, gray, and brown.
Bath and Brighton are beautiful despite their surroundings, the even buildings with their smooth stone creating an artifice that pleases the eye. Lyme is beautiful because of its surroundings, and despite its indifferent houses. It appealed to me immediately.
My sisters were also pleased with Lyme, for different reasons. For Margaret it was simple: She was the belle of Lymes balls. At eighteen she was fresh and lively, and as pretty as a Philpot was ever going to be. She had lovely ringlets of dark hair and long arms she liked to hold aloft so that people could admire their graceful lines. If her face was a little long, her mouth a little thin, and the tendons in her neck a little prominent, that did not matter when she was eighteen. It would matter later. At least she didnt have my hatchet jaw or Louises unfortunate height. There were few to match her in Lyme that summer, and the gentlemen gave her more attention than at Weymouth or Brighton, where she had more competitors. Margaret was happy to live from ball to ball, filling the days in between with cards and tea at the Assembly Rooms, bathing in the sea, and strolling up and down the Cobb with the new friends she had made.
Louise did not care about balls and cards, but early on she discovered an area near the cliffs to the west of town with surprising flora and wild, secluded paths shaped by fallen rock and covered with ivy and moss. This pleased both her botanical interest and her retiring nature.
As for myself, I found my Lyme pursuit on a walk one morning along Monmouth Beach, to the west of the Cobb. We had joined our Weymouth friends the Durhams to search out a peculiar stone ledge along the beach called the Snakes Graveyard, which was only uncovered at low tide. It was farther than wed thought, and the stony beach was difficult to walk on in thin pumps. I had to keep my eyes cast down so as not to trip on the rocks. As I stepped between two stones, I noticed an odd pebble decorated with a striped pattern. I bent over and picked it up - the first of thousands of times I would do so in my life. It was spiral-shaped, with ridges at even intervals around the spine, and it looked like a snake curled in on itself, the tip of the tail in the center. Its regular pattern was so pleasing to the eye that I felt I must keep it, though I had no idea what it was. I only knew that it could not be a pebble.
Excerpted from Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Copyright © 2010 by Tracy Chevalier. Excerpted by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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