Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Literary Tour: Day 4

Day 4: Chesil Beach, Dorset (John Meade Falkner)

From Lymington we travel west along the Dorset coast, through Christchurch, Bournemouth, Poole to Weymouth. If, like me, you like to know where you are, you can follow our route on this map. We are close to Thomas Hardy country, just north of Weymouth in and around Dorchester, but that isn't our destination. I confess, I just don't like Thomas Hardy. I find his novels depressing. From Weymouth we head a few miles further along the coast, following the line of Chesil Beach. I've been doing a little research and discovered that Chesil is a fairly unusual geological phenomenon known as a tombolo - a bar of pebble beach nearly twenty miles long acting as a barrier between the sea and a salt water lagoon behind, known as the Fleet. In the eighteenth century Chesil and the Fleet provided an ideal setting for smugglers aiming to avoid excise duty by bringing contraband wine and brandy from France. We have come here on the trail of one of my all time favourite books: Moonfleet, John Meade Falkner's classic story of Dorset smugglers. For older boys (or girls, come to that) it is a must read ... and if you haven't read it yourself, you have missed a pearl. It has all the adventure of Treasure Island, but also an element of self-sacrificing heroism. Every time I read the ending, I sob.

We often spend family holidays in Weymouth, so I easily recognised Chesil Beach as the setting for Moonfleet. I imagined that the village of Moonfleet itself was entirely fictional. It wasn't. While there is no village called Moonfleet, it was based on the village of Chickerell just inland from the East Fleet, and there is a real Moonfleet Church, clearly the one described in the book. Finding this on Google sent a shiver up my spine!

When we go into the little Church we read this sign on the wall:

The Old Church, Fleet
* Dedicated to the Holy Trinity and belonged to the Priory of Christ Church, Twynham, until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.
* This Chancel is all that remains of the old Church which was inundated in the great storm of 1824 when the Nave was wrecked.
* Memorial Brasses are in memory of Margaret Mohun, died 1603, mother of seventeen children, and Maximilian Mohun, died 1612. The family vault is under the Chancel floor.
* During the old smuggling days this vault is said to have been used by smugglers for the storage of wines, spirits and other contraband. A secret underground passage runs from this vault, which is supposed to have communicated with the Fleet Water.
* In 1824 a great tidal wave washed over the ridge of the Chesil Beach and over the Fleet Water and passed onwards, the water reaching a depth of about thirty feet at this point.
* This Church is no longer used for services as another one was built in 1829 about half a mile inland.
* Visitors are asked to respect this old building and to give a small donation towards Church expenses and repairs.
If you know Moonfleet you will know why seeing this makes me shiver. If not, then you need to read the book and find out. Here is the author's description of the Mohune vault, discovered by the main character John Trenchard from the underground passage:
Walls and roof were stone, and at one end was a staircase closed by a great flat stone at top - that same stone which I had often seen, with a ring in it, in the floor of the church above. All round the sides were stone shelves, with divisions between them like great bookcases, but instead of books there were the coffins of the Mohunes. Yet these lay only at the sides, and in the middle of the room was something very different, for here were stacked scores of casks, kegs, and runlets, from a storage butt that might hold thirty gallons down to a breaker that held only one. They were marked all of them in white paint on the end with figures and letters, that doubtless set forth the quality to those that understood.
From here on John's adventure in the vault goes bad ... and then worse ...

Chesil Beach was not only a haunt of smugglers, whose real stories were often as strange as fiction (if you want to know more, take a look at this website); it has also over the centuries been the graveyard of many ships. The picture here shows the wreck of the Madelaine Tristan, one of the last of the sailing ships, smashed on Chesil in 1930. Moonfleet reaches its finale with the story of a shipwreck:
There was a deafening noise as we came near the shore, the shrieking of the wind in the rigging, the crash of the combing seas, and over all the awful grinding roar of the under-tow sucking down the pebbles ...
The book ends with a description of Moonfleet Manor, and blow me down if there isn't a real life Moonfleet Manor. Another shiver! Is it the real Manor? Surely it has to be! Now a hotel, this is where we are spending the night regardless of expense. How could we resist?
The Manor House is a stately home again, with trim lawns and terraced balustrades, where we can sit and see the thin blue smoke hang above the village on summer evenings ... we never leave this our happy Moonfleet, being well content to see the dawn tipping the long cliff-line with gold, and the night walking in dew across the meadows; to watch the spring clothe the beech boughs with green, or the figs ripen on the southern wall: while behind all, is spread as a curtain the eternal sea, ever the same and ever changing.